Monday, March 20, 2006

MY ROLE AS A FACILITATOR

MY ROLE AS A FACILITATOR
February 22, 2006

I was having a lively discussion with my class 11 biology students on the rapidly spreading ‘avian flu’ when Srini suddenly walked into remind about the CASW session. We ran to the German room, profusely apologizing to Mr. Amarnathan who was seated on the cane chair waiting for the participants to walk in. Without wasting time, I immediately slipped into the role of a ‘facilitator’. The previous presentations and the structure of the program itself allowed me to step into the role rather confidently.

Key questions and reflections from Mr. Amarnathan’s presentation
How do we make language learning empirical and relevant to life in the process of developing listening and speaking skills and raise the state of language learning from more academic survival to a living experience?

The conflict of clarifying questions raised its ugly head again. It was more so because today I was the facilitator. There seems to be a lack of clarity in understanding what a clarifying question is?

I was surprised and stunned by the variety of strategies used. Mr Amarnathan had virtually used up all the strategies. Just to list a few:
-Movies were shown
-Newspaper-based activities
-Making learners proud of their culture
-Celebrities/maid, drivers, heroes and heroines proud of Kannada


To me these issues seemed beyond the strategies that are presented in the write up by Mr. Amarnathan. It seems to be more of a generational problem cutting across language barriers. Most mother tongues are endangered by growing spread of English usage at home. Though a few strategies were co-constructed at the end of the process, these were not any near to solving the problem itself.

Neela’s key questions were slightly different
The student’s progress is very good. Should I extend him in all four areas (viz: reading, writing, listening and speaking) or should I spend more lessons giving him guided practice towards making his written work flawless.

The suggestion given by the group was to extend the learner in all four areas. This was based on the fact that the level of comprehension was good ad so that should take him to another level of learning itself. The group also felt that the learner was definitely benefiting from one-to-one interaction and so should go all out to improve his all round skills. The participants felt that Neela’s feedback mechanisms were specific, encouraging and non-threatening. At the end of the process, there seemed to be a consensus in the group towards ‘formative assessment’ for the further learning of the child.



Raji’s key question
What strategies can I use to make my teaching more effective and to make the student a better learner?

Raji had analysed the strengths and difficulties of the learner well before articulating these key questions. She had a good understanding of the learning style of the learner. She was also constantly fighting time constraint while dealing the situation (1 SEN class per week and lack of home support).

Again at the end the participants came up with quite a few strategies that were already tried and exhausted out by Raji.

Some reflections
There is no doubt in my mind. We are moving forward. But I also feel we are stonewalled by I do not know what. There is a certain lack of complete satisfaction at the end of the process. We have analyzed student work. We have taken back suggestions for improvement. Wherever we could integrate the suggestions to classroom situations we have done it. But I am not seeing the same energy in myself that I saw when I first met the CASW process. It is not just the year-ending academic pressures. It is more than just academics. Are we bringing in student works that we know for sure have exhausted all strategic avenues? I am raising this question to my self because most of the times when the group co-constructs strategies, I have realized that these strategies have already been used up by the presenter.
Are we taking away something out of ‘clarifying questions’ by putting preconditions that there shall not be any evaluative questions? I am asking this question to myself because I have never been comfortable and have been able to understand the difference between evaluative and non-evaluative questions. If a question provides clarity to me, that is a clarifying question. But the present process does not seem to be so simple. The lack of clarity at times does not allow me to understand the process fully.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lalbagh Walk - Day 2

The second day was more exciting for me. We were to visit Lalbagh. More exciting for me was the prospect of meeting Mr. Vijay Thiruvadi. For the last 12 years plants have been my primary interest. But not many people share the interests. So to find another human being interested in plants and birds was by it self immensely exciting. When I heard Mr. Thiruvadi’s name for the first time, I expected a man in his mid forties. Please forgive me for the bias. But when I met him, I was pleasantly shocked, for he was a man in his early youth. His energy, verve, knowledge of plants, their history, the legends associated with each tree, everything about him communicated only youthful energy.

Ever since, I had begun my botanical research, I had this dream of seeing the ‘queen of flowering trees’, Amhertia nobilis. My high point of the walk was briefly cohabiting the space used by this very beautiful tree. It was a humbling experience to walk under the expansive canopy of the majestic silk cotton tree.

We also visited the Summer Palce of Tipu Sultan. A great monument preserved in a shoddy manner.

There was another high point to come. Our lunch at Mavalli Tiffin Restrooms (MTR). MTR still flaunts the very traditional look to it. The small home like rooms with desks for having food, fitted with old fashioned fans was a welcome break for the students who are used to the eatery chains of the modern world. The only aberration was a silently running AC. But excitation of the walk did not allow the learners to notice the AC. The food was delicious. Dosa doused in ghee, Holige, payasam, the irresistible ‘bisi-belebath’ followed by rasam rice and curd rice. I will remember this lunch for a long while. During the drive back home, I had a happy feeling that I knew my city better than before. I should thank Arun and Rupa for it.

Revisiting Bangalore

The tablet read:
“The great trigonometrical survey was situated 38 feet north of the baseline station”.
Observer: Capt. W.M. Campbell
R.E. 1875-1876
Lt.Col. W.S. Heaviside
R.E. 1887-88

To know that this location played an important and indispensable role in confirming that the Mt. Everest, one of the peaks of Himalayas, was the highest in the world itself was a humbling experience.

Welcome to the ‘Bangalore walks’. Arun and Rupa are facilitating many a souls revisit this beautiful erstwhile garden city, now an IT hub, and appreciate the rich and varied heritage of the city we live in – Bangalore.

The first four years of my life were spent in Bangalore. To me Bangalore has always been a loved location, for I carried the images of my beginning years rather vividly. I lived in a street called ‘Fruit Street’ near the present day Commercial Street. I still remember the narrow crowded alleys of this region. In a way, this walk as revitalised me to step out of Yelahanka and walk those narrow alleys. The feelings can go beyond simple mortal words of description.

But while standing in one of the towers built by Kempegowda, I could actually visualise him scanning the surroundings majestically. I could actually see the undulating geography clothed in shrubbery. We will never be able to say what Kempegowda’s notion of a city was. The reality is that this city has been cradled by multiple influences culminating in one of the most cosmopolitan city of the world.

Our next stop was in the Kadumalleswara temple. Just to be in a temple which was built by Venkoji, Chatrapathi Shivaji’s brother, a premise frequented by Kempegowda and his family is a great feeling. I did hear from one of my uncle that Lord Rama, along with Sita and Laxman also spent a few days in this location. Though there was no temple at that time, there was a linga that signified Lord Shiva.

We next walked down to visit the archaeological wonder ‘Dakshina Mukha Nandi Teertha”, the only Nandi to be sitting south facing. Through the open mouth of the Nandi water continuously falls on the Linga located a few feets below. The residents of Malleswara just managed to save this site from the clutches of greedy builders.
Following the spice route in Bangalore in the highly crowded Chikpet was in itself a wonderful experience. I was trying to find the meaning of Tharagupet. ‘Tharagu’ in Tamil means ‘brokering’. May be in olden days trade goods were exchanged and brokered around in this street. After a rather pleasant walk (despite a hot sun), we reached the Red Mount. A spacious place to eat decorated with traditional artistic creations. I was eating the Ragi Mudde after almost three years. All the food that was served had a traditional touch to it including the people. We said goodbye to Arun and Rupa at the Ulsoor Gate.

Mohua’s CASW Presentation

I have always looked forward to hearing from Mohua. One of those rare people who state their mind fearlessly. She spoke with her large world map in the background. Almost five foot by six foot in dimension. Dark coloured chart outlined with the five continents scripted in white. The idea was brilliant. To chart the routes of the explorers using pop-ups. A marriage between art, sea faring, geography, spices, culture, people……a great matrix for integration. I actually visualised myself being rolled around on those ancient ships in the high seas looking for new land, new people, new trade routes and new life altogether. She gave a crisp background to describe her scenario. With a sense of disappointment she put forward her key questions.

The key questions

What could have been done differently to get the children to apply principles of art and DT more effectively?Would assessing application of skills have led to more motivation on their part?

My Responses and Reflections
To me just the process of tracing the routes of different explorers would have presented the learners with wonderful learning opportunity. Learning would have definitely happened. The learners would have walked back with a greater understanding of world geography. They probably are better prepared now to understand the problems faced by explorers of that age.

I saw one problem immediately, with the lesson described by Mohua. It was a long-drawn exercise. Such exercises usually fizzle out due to scattering of focus. Activities always succeed, if they do not prolong beyond three 90 minute blocks (especially because we are dealing with age group 10-12 years.

Some of the suggestions that I had in mind were:
-Give credits/points to greater diversity and numbers of pop-ups per group.
-As a preview of the activity, a movie on any one of the explorers would have warmed up the class to the activity in a better frame.
-A visit to a monument or a museum where artefacts from the esplorers’ time is exhibited.
-Have conversations with the learners to trace their roots, and identify if any explorer had at some point visited their native places.
-Looking at plants brought in by explorers.


Mr Amarnathan beautifully tied the thread by summarising Mohua’s presentation and analysis of the group. To me it was a brief travel to the explorer’s time line.

MY FIRST CASW PRESENTATION

MY FIRST CASW PRESENTATION

“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma”.
Eartha Kitt

The legendary and versatile Eartha Kitt who distinguished herself in film, theater, cabaret, music and on television for more than 75 years since the mid 1920s had this to say about the way she viewed life and learning.
I have always tried to spark my learners to learn by creating curiosity. By that way I believe the learning process continues as long as the learner is alive. My brief interface with young people has also guided me with the fact that learning is maximum when the initiative is the learners’ rather than the teachers’. I am also guided by the global trend where the skills for survival and excellence have acquired greater importance than the theoretical/academic dimension of any subject. One of the key skills that all young people will have to master is to succinctly present their learning/ideas to a group of people. Oral and multi-media supported presentations will play an indispensable role in finding avenues of employment in future. My CASW presentation is of one such presentation that my learner made to his peers.

My Student Work – a back ground and context

Every year I initiate my Class 11 learners to Biology, with a series of thematic PowerPoint presentations. This year also, the first month was dominated with my presentations. At the end of the first month, I had given each student a topic in their curriculum and asked them to prepare a well-researched presentation for their peers. They were given more than a month’s time for this. The learners had the access to the library and Internet resources of the school. The Two-week presentation time is usually called the “seminar series”. It is a formal occasion. The criteria for assessment were spelt out.

The student work that I am presented to our CASW group was titled:”Evolution of Kingdom Animalia”. This was one of the many presentations. I chose this work for analysis as I felt that the topic was a difficult topic and the student has made one of the best PowerPoint presentations that I had ever witnessed. I was thoroughly convinced that the work is a good enough to be a benchmark for other learners to vie with.

The Key Questions


Having convinced myself about the quality of the presentation I raised the following key questions to the group:

-AM I RIGHT IN BEING CONVINCED SO?

-HOW WOULD I BE SURE THAT THIS PRESENTATION WOULD BE A BENCHMARK AT NATIONAL / INTERNATIONAL LEVEL?

-WILL I GENT A BETTER PERSPECTIVE?

My Presentation and Collaborative Analysis


My presentation for CASW session was programmed for about 12 minutes. This was followed by a five-minute session for clarifying questions. This was followed by five minutes for writing our thoughts on the key questions. This was a silent and reflective time. I was surprised to find myself raising some questions. Questions, which I had not asked before. I found myself writing the following sentences:

-I should see more such presentations across the school, different schools and around the world to gain better idea.
-A bit more elaboration of key terms in the student presentation would have made more sense to the audience.
-This presentation is not self-explanatory (but I also said to myself that a PowerPoint presentation is always a cue for the presenter than for the audience)
-Why did I not video graph the presentation?

After the five-minutes to jot down our thoughts, the group began its confabulation on the key questions. I found it very difficult not to look at the group while this discussion was happening. Meanwhile I had forced myself to turn away from the discussion and note down some points raised by the participants. I felt immensely happy inward from some positive comments made by the participants on the student work and my teaching-learning method:

-Methods excellent
-Guidelines clear
-Concept of benchmarks for presentations itself nice
-Learning outcomes well-laid
-Visually impressive and professionally done
-Looking at teacher’s presentation has big effect

Some questions and comments of critique brought forward by the group were the following:
-
Bibliography and author credit lacking for the usage of photographs. Ensure bibliography and copyright.
-Look at several benchmarks and evaluate.
-Do we have any national and international benchmark at all?
-Can we agree on one benchmark?
-Start locally and then try and widen the search.
-Video graph of the presentation would have added authenticity to the entire benchmarking concept itself.
-Recording a session even better benchmark.
-What are the yardsticks to make sure that there is no plagiarism?


Some Collaborative Strategies
-Setting a school benchmark should be the first step.
-We need different benchmark for A, B and C grade.
-Look at several benchmarks and evaluate.
-Finding a space to launch our student PowerPoint presentations on a website will encourage learners to come up with better quality.

My Reflections
This presentation had happened in August 2005. I was immensely happy, not only with the lay out of the presentation but also the verbal commentary of the learner accompanied with the presentation. Since that time, I had been living with a heady feeling that the presentation would match any such peer-reviewed work. Even on the day of my meeting with the CASW group, I walked in with the same pleasant feeling. At the end of the analysis, I still was living with a pleasant feeling, though with a little disappointment. Disappointment because my feeling of benchmark actually did not measure up to a benchmark. Pleasant feeling because, I am in the midst of a group of individuals, who have taken a lot of care to encourage me and point out some fundamental needs of the work that would make it a benchmark creation. This they did without breaking my confidence or taking away the credit of the phenomenal effort of my learner. I immensely value this guidance from the group.

Arriving at the key questions was not easy. I had a key question in my mind. When I met Ms. Kini to deliberate on the key question, a few words were added and deleted to give a slightly different meaning. By the time I met Ms. Kannan, the question had further evolved. Thus, till the time I made the presentation, the key question key evolving. I was very happy for the process. I then remembered my Principal at The School-KFI saying: “Ask the right questions and you will have the right answers”.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Our First CASW Session

The hot bondas placed at the centre of the table was staring at us. The venue was all pervasive with the strong fragrance of coffee. The venue was the computer lab in the basement. Nice and dark, appropriate for projections for PowerPoint presentations. Our Mentor Ms. Dharma Kannan had taken charge to guide us through our first Collaborative Analysis of Student Work (CASW) by becoming the facilitator of the session. She politely yet firmly laid down the structure of the session. There were to be two presentations that day. The first presenter, Srini was brimming with energy to put forth his selelcted topic for discussion. Anitha was the second presenter for the day. We as a group of teachers a week ago had decided to bring forth one student work and analyse the work by raising one or two key question that would help enhance the process of learning on the whole and benefit the learner or teacher by co-constructing strategies for improvement. Srini’s presentation was based on class 9D’s DOD trip to Bandipur. The objective was to sensitise students to local concerns in personal development and increase awareness towards civic amenities and hygiene. Based on the DOD experience, Srini felt that there was a dissipation of intensity post-DOD scenario. In this background, the key questions that Srini raised were:¨ How to sustain further interest to consolidate learning?¨ Do life skills need to be assessed?¨ What tools could be used to assess life skills?Based on Srini’s presentation, I felt that, he had done extensive background research and requisite preparation to make the learning activity effective.
My responses overall to the three aforementioned questions were:Some tools/ methods to sustain further interest is to bring the media into class room in the form of visuals, news paper reports, article reviews, case studies. One of the visuals that changed the way I look into resources was a photograph shot by a free lance journalist Kevin Carter in the drought and civil war-ridden Sudan. An extremely malnourished girl (3-5 years of age), barely alive, collapsing on the ground unable to drag herself to the nearest feeding centre for food. About six foot behind the girl is an eager vulture waiting for her death. Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer’s price for feature photography for the year 1994. But the trauma of the conditions also led to his suicide after three months of the photography assignment.For the photograph visit http://www.jeffooi.com/archives/2004/01/photogs_trauma.phpThis picture changed the way I viewed resources in general and food in particular. I feel it is necessary to shock our learners about the realities of our times. It might keep their intensity forever alive, bring in sensitivity that is utterly lacking at present in many of our learners. Meeting people who are affected on account of decisions of the government could be another method to keep their learning curve alive. Many a times, especially during outbound trips, physically tiring the learners does allow them to stay with the objectives of the program.It is rather difficult to assess learning in the sphere of life skills. I do feel that a lot of learning during outbound trips happen at a sub-conscious or unconscious realm. So as a facilitators in the learning space, we may not be able to see tangibles immediately. But something we as facilitators will have to consciously and consistently do is to provide/make opportunities where learners are exposed to the realities of contemporary world.The second presentation was by Anitha. She was experimenting in her class by bringing in student-teaching methods to include all learners in active learning. Her key questions were:Will this teaching methodology work for any topic?How can have students/participants fully attentive during student presentations?I must say that the student presentation was rather technical and needs a certain flair for the technology to keep them alive to the proceedings.To me the first key questions is very exciting and appropriate. The future of learning lies not with the teacher but with the learners. The more learners actively involve themselves in actual teaching and planning the greater the effectiveness of the program. So immaterial of whatever transient result was, Anitha should continue with her experimental forays. The larger larger and a very real challenge is to have all the learners focussed to the presentation of their peer. A few of my strategies have been:¨ Asking learners to jot down pointers during presentation.¨ Extending the pointers into a mind-map at the end of the presentation.¨ Awarding points for questions.¨ Answering questions not being the burden of the presenter alone but the entire class.¨ My own specific/pointed oral question on the presentation to learners where I choose in random people to answer.The process of CASW itself a great experience. The time-structured process did a lot of good to me and I had a feeling that, it is inclusive of all the participants. I felt so more when during Anitha’s presentation, I felt it too technical and did not know what to write. But as time progressed, I did have some valid things to write and say. Thus the time for thinking and writing and talking doe a lot of sense. I was also throughout fighting my innate urge to respond immediately to certain statements made by the presenters. The structure of the process made me to jot down the key points and thus focus on the idea more persuasively. I also saw many views and strategies to the same problem. While I felt awarding points to keep the attention of my learners was effective, I heard voices that said rewards, on a long run might not work. I actually say a constructive growth of diverse ideas and strategies. I am looking forward to the next session when I will be the presenter and will wear a different hat.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Beginning the Week with the Scorpion

The morning chill did not allow me to open the window. But the the ‘Ponga’ tree (in Tamil) was always very close to my heart, for many of the streams where I walked through had the ‘Ponga’ dotted along the banks. This Ponga that I am talking about is right behind my office at MAIS. While I was peering through the glass pane covered with the haze that was constantly formed out of the hot air exhaled by me, I could see a 10-12 cm long scorpion, slowly ascending one of the branches. The Scorpion stopped for a while (about two three minutes) and then began its predatory act. The branches were frequented by a line of red ants. The scorpion virtually positioned itself in such a way that the ants would have to ram straight on to the scorpion. Slowly the claws (‘chela’) of the scorpion held an ant. While the ant was struggling hard to escape, with a calmness that is characteristic only of hardened predators, the head of the ant was forced into the mouth of the scorpion and slowly the entire body vanished. One of the ants tried a bit too hard to escape the strong hold of the claw and it was instantaneously laid to peace by the venom from the tip of the tail (‘telson’). Emboldened and having tasted its prey, the scorpion repeated the ritual four times. But by the time the ants had learnt their lesson and began to take another route. The scorpion remained stationery for another five minutes or so, and then treaded on its own path.
I was lucky today. On any other Monday, I would have been busy meeting my Biology students. But today, the ‘Throw Ball Tournament’ allowed me to take an extra minute to peep through the window. And what a beginning for the week….

Saturday, December 03, 2005

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION - LEARNING FROM CULTURES: CONCLUDING PART

CONCLUSION

One of the greatest challenge in the future is going to be keeping alive initiatives that are joyful for the learner. This needs to be done with full realization that such initiatives might not fruition in any tangible measures in the modern and commercial driven context. Yet, such initiatives will holistically help the young minds evolve as better human beings.

Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) -one of the few, ‘joyful learning initiatives’ in the state of Madhya Pradesh, heralded and run by an independent non-governmental organisiation (NGO) Ekalavya, was abruptly stopped and relegated to a supplementary program.. This program covered about 1000 learners from 13 backward districts of Central Indian state of .Madhya Pradesh. The reason forwarded by the government was rather simple. The HSTP for the past 30 years have not been able to make Hoshangabad even an average performer in terms of learning outcomes as measured from indicators related to school education. One of the positive aspects of HSTP, according to Ekalavya was ‘enjoyment of children’, which according the experts from the government was not a tangible, measurable parameter (Menon, M. 2002). The HSTP incident is one of the many sad portrayals of ‘independent joyful learning initiatives’.

The modern portals of education are slowly but steadily wiping of such beautiful, harmonious and organic learning/teaching initiatives. Most of our problems are rooted to the systems of which we are a part. Unfortunately most of our systems lack such a exploratory and expressional space. We are bound by too many deadlines that are actually the lifelines of the system of which we are part. We are bound by a curricular framework, we are bound by a time limit set by a central authority, we are bound by the parent community who reach out learning only with exam-induced fears. More than all these bindings that seldom allows us to create a effective learning space, there is also a lack of motivation for the learning. Students who ‘learn for the purpose of learning’ are a highly endangered species. So are the learning spaces that provide rich and healthy experience.Like the biology of environment management, the realm of education also has its own conservationists who are desperately trying to bring back this endangered species back to a healthy numbers. But for this scenario to change our evaluation methods will have to change. The methods of evaluation and assessment from ‘top’ at this point of time are actually governing our curriculum. The curriculum unfortunately is not tuned to actual needs of the life. The day the needs determines the curriculum, learning will be a more purposeful endeavour.

References

Arrowsmith, W. 1967. "The future of teaching." In C. B. T. Lee (Ed.), Improving college teaching (pp. 57-71). Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
Facundo, B. Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation.
http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/dissent/documents/Facundo/Facundo.html
3. Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Howard Gardner, 1999, How cultures Educate, The Disciplined Mind, Simon and Schuster, U.S.
Koetzsch, R. 1997. The Parents’ Guide to Alternatives in Education. Shambala Press.
Krishnamurti. 1974. On Education. Pondicherry, India: All India Press.
Martin, R.A. 2000. Paths of Learning: An Introduction to Educational Alternatives.
http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/PoL.html
Menon,M. 2002. Of laziness and tennancy. The Hindu. http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/mag/2002/08/11/stories/2002081100140500.htm
Niell, A.S. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.S._Neill
Ramachandran, V. and Saijee, A. 2002. The New Segregation: Reflections on Gender and Equity in Primary Education. Economic and Political Weekly: 1600-1613.
http://www.epw.org.in/articles/2002/04/4393.pdf
Rampal, A. 2000, Texts in Context, EFA 2000 review. Development of Curricula. Textbooks, and Teaching and Learning Materials, Indian Educational Report, ed Govinda, OUP, New Delhi
World Bank, 2003. "A Review of Educational Progress and Reform in the District Primary Education Program (Phases I and II)", Human Development Sector, South Asia Region, The World Bank: Washington, DC. September 1.
http://www.cgdev.org/section/initiatives/_active/evalgap/draftsections/appendix1

EFFECTIVE DUCATION - LEARNING FROM CULTURES: PART 5

LINKAGES TO OUR LEARNING-TEACHING SPACES
When I reflect upon my practice as an educator, I do feel that I walked in with an inherent advantage. I am saying this with a confidence borne out from a thorough self-critique of my personal journey. As a research student, I grew up under a person who knew only the boundless nature of knowledge and who believed in holistic learning (Refer to my blog titled ‘Text or Context’
www.ppsemahesh.blogspot.com, November 24, 2005). As a wildlife researcher I observed another human being whose supreme force of survival was his power of observation (Refer to my blog titled “Cultures That Taught Me, www.ppsemahesh.blogspot.com, dated November 26, 2005). As an educator I walked into an institution envisioned by Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest thinker and philosopher of education in the twentieth century. As a result of this preparatory sojourn, I naturally approached education as learning process for myself along with my learners. So I was one among them. Dialogue and conversation were the first instruments to confront all issues borne out of conflicts between the learner and the teacher. The space of the learner was too precious and sensitive to be mis-used. Every positive attribute of the learner was acknowledged and celebrated. Aspects of learning essential for the development of the learner was identified and worked upon on a continuous basis. So, the learners were invariably the central characters of our journey. The setting of the Krishnamurti schools, with their expansive and green campuses also enhanced a sense of silence and reflection among the teachers as well as the learners.
I have basically walked into MAIS with the same spirit of openness and reflection. The simplicity of all my colleagues around me and their commitment towards enhancing the learning process – both for the learners and for themselves - has only strengthened the vision of my journey. In MAIS, a phenomenal amount of time and energy is spent towards enhancing the learning for the child. The core teaching philosophy of MAIS, as I understand is simple. ‘Reach out to the learner; enhance the understanding of academic and life issues through a non-coercive, non-intrusive and least infringing manner”. Though my vocabulary may be different, the meaning communicated is not any different from the various alternative schools that I have mention previously. To me MAIS is in the threshold of a wonderful opportunity, as it is a ‘transition school’. MAIS is a mainstream school with an alternate grounding. As a result I have had no problem reaching out in a holistic manner to my learners or to my colleagues.
Yet, I find that there are a few essentials that are lacking and hindering the teaching learning process. The small campus with an overwhelming presence of concrete does take away a sense of serenity from the surroundings. There is a ‘sense of rush’ induced by exam-related anxiety, which is fully understandable as we are also a ‘city school’. Though a free space for expression is available in the learning realm, I do not find my learners open enough for dialogue or conversation on life issues. But this does not worry me enormously for I believe if I keep the space open, my learners would definitely respond at some point of time.

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION - LEARNING FROM CULTURES: PART 4

THE PRESENT SCENARIO
With the indiscriminate of growth in schools and students who enroll for schooling at various levels, commercial interests drive the vision than any strong philosophical grounding. The 2001 Census revealed that 65.4 per cent people are literate. It also revealed a 11.8% increase in the literacy rate for the decade (Ramachandran, V., and Saijee, A. 2000) . According to the Indian Statistical Institute, about 36 million Children go to the 678,000 schools located in various parts of India. Yet there are about 60 million children out of school. Acccording to Ramachandran, V., and Saijee, A. (2000), a gradual decline in Class I enrolment has been recorded. This trend holds good for the enrolment in formal schools also. But, it was observed that the states, which witnessed slower growth in formal school enrolment, registered faster increase if the enrolment of formal and other modes were combined. This increase was predominantly contributed by the increasing number of private schools around the country. Even the world bank-funded programs such as the District Primary Education Program, which have actually improved the net literacy rate and the net enrolment rate, it fails to capture the social and gender gaps in education. An overwhelming message emanating from DPEP studies indicates towards acute shortage of teachers in government schools.
Thus, on one hand private educational institutions, most of them with strong commercial interests are in the increase. On the other hand more and more poor are left out in the process of learning and teaching. In this scenario, many of the key qualities that define or should define effective teaching-learning spaces will go amiss.
In this scenario the need for smaller, alternative schools becomes imperative. Also dogged role played by the alternative schools becomes invaluable and indispensably relevant. In their own small way, these schools and the cultures forwarded by these institutions are keeping alive the spontaneity, curiosity, and the innate exploratory abilities of a learner. My personal experience in one such school allowed me to view the innocent energies in full flow. There are problems faced by these schools also. But there is a space for conversation and dialogue that is always there for differences to be sorted out. As long as the space for conversation maintains status quo, there is hope in the future.

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION -LEARNING FROM CULTURES: PART 3

LEARNING FROM THE ALTERNATIVE INITIATIVES
In my blog titled ‘Cultures that taught me’ (
www.ppsemahesh.blogspot.com) (November 26, 2005), while defining effective learning spaces, I write:
“The cultures that taught me in the city and far off in the forest communicated a common thread. These cultures demanded one’s total attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days. These cultures demanded the senses to delve deep beneath the periphery. These cultures demanded silent expression and were predominantly silent. These cultures demanded my time in fullness. These cultures were about subtlety. I am in the midst of another culture. And my leaning continues……”
In another blog entry ‘Text or Context’ (
www.ppsemahesh.blogspot.com) (November 24, 2005), I say:
“The learning space was characterized by a space where the students could formulate their own questions. This space was about exploring and finding answers for their questions. This space was about voicing their findings in their own way and provide scientific interpretation. Most of the times the students were far off the likelihood answers. But sometimes the students did come close to the answers. For the students such small moments of triumph was enough to push themselves forward, while the teacher moves on with a smile that only the most observant could actually see. More than the time and space for expression, this space was beyond any parameters of motivation. The students who come here, come with a willingness to learn. That is all. The spirit to learn defines this space.”
In a detailed essay on alternative learning spaces Martin, R.A. (2000) has discussed about three key qualities.
These alternatives are flexible and warm learning communities where people come before procedures, rules and technologies
Philosophies rooted in life and learning, thus emphasizing the interdependencies between our world and ourselves
Alternative educational initiatives are rooted in diversity

Most of the above mentioned alternative learning spaces have the three key qualities listed by Robin Martin. At this point, it is important to dwell upon the two central articles, that has guided this essay. Gardner, H. (1999) and Rampal. A. (2000), though differ in the language and its ability to seep through into the reader’s mind, have communicated unequivocally, one BIG message that - ‘effective learning-teaching mechanism’. Both the authors invariably seem to zero-in on the following broad themes:
Emphasis on learning than on teaching
Learning not to be rooted in competition-driven processes
Cultivation and elaboration of multiple learning-teaching strategies
Decentralized processes in the sphere of education
Exploration the key to the growth of learning-teaching process
Exploring themes of interest
Emphasis on concept building and theorizing from exploration rather than memory-commitment-based strategies
Surrounding environment and cultural beliefs – a powerful teacher
Role of elders and peers as equally important as the role of ‘traditional teachers’ of the community
Teaching methods in response to the needs of the culture
Teaching based on continuous reflection
Involvement of non-governmental organizations in the development of curricula and textbook materials
Caring and respectful interactions
Student-friendly resource materials
The overwhelming emphasis on School Vision
The above mentioned attributes are inherent features of all alternate educational initiatives.

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION - LEARNING FROM CULTURES: PART 2

SOME ALTERNATIVE INITIATIVES
In the following paragraphs, I am describing in brief, a few alternative learning initiatives that have stood the test of time.
The Summerhill School founded by A. S. Neill is rooted in the total absence of coercion in the learning process. All the learners have been included in the larger learning process by including them and empowering them with equal voting rights in all decision making process that affect school. (Martin, R.A. 2000). For more details please refer to
www.summerhill.co.uk
There are learning initiatives that are rooted among communities that celebrate their culture and life in the light of the challenges and periods of oppression undergone by their members. This brand of education is termed ‘folk education’ (http://www.peopleseducation.org/). Paulo Frier - one of the most influential thinkers about education and learning in the twentieth century – was an artist in this method of education. He revelled in the realm of dialogue as the basis of learning than the curriculum. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently one of the most quoted educational texts (Freire, P. 1972) Near home, the movement of naxalism in the southern states of India, has successfully rallied around with this philosophy to mobilise its support among the downtrodded and often roughshodden tribal population. Some experts have termed this kind of an education as ‘people’s education’ also, which the governments or political powers tend not to like.

Near home, the Krishnamurti schools envision the creation of an education that is not rooted in a ‘system’ but is built around the attitudes and qualities of the teacher and child and their relationships. These schools go beyond the mere acquisition of intellect and memory skills to a realm of cultivating intelligence. The Krishnamurti Schools work with the conditionings of the learners and teachers equally (
www.theschoolkfi.org). According to Krishnamurti, “Right education is to help you to find out for yourself what you really, with all your heart, love to do. It does not matter what it is, whether it is to cook, or to be a gardener, but is something in which you have put your mind, your heart.” (Krishnamurti, J. 1974)
The Montesorri schools based on methodologies developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, dwell and delve in the natural development of the child, the healthy formation of the physical, mental and spiritual qualities that are the latent in the human being (
http://www.amshq.org.)

In the recent times the spiritually based Waldorf Schools or Steiner Schools (as called in Europe) emphasize the spiritual growth of the individual, the individual becoming free, responsible and active human beings, able to create a just and peaceful society (Koetzsch, R. 1997)

Maurice Gibbons evolved the “Walkabout Paradigm”: a paradigm of challenge and excellence (
http://www.selfdirectedlearning.com/maurice.html). ‘Walkabout’ is an Australian word. It is a legend among the aboriginals that every adolescent aborigine must spend about a year away from his community in the Australian out-backs and lives on the land. The fittest survives. He is accepted in the community only after the “walkabout” ritual.
As educators, today each one of us has a challenge of shaping the learning of our learner. There is a need to build a learning experience that is based on “challenge and excellence” and that is life-long beyond the four walls of our campuses. Challenge is an easily accepted word, though excellence is not. Especially in the recent times the latter word, excellence has become a taboo in educators world on account of extreme pressure it brings upon the learner.
Neither is the walkabout paradigm inappropriate. By challenging the adolescent to attain excellence in the face of survival, the community demands the demonstration of knowledge and skills that will help him survive and thus contribute to his society. It also challenges the learner to live in isolation, away from his traditional support systems, thus allowing invaluable time for reflection and to sort out his anxieties with himself.The challenge paradigm as well as the isolation involved in the paradigm is extremely contrasting from our traditional school system (in spite of being global schools). But the reality is that our learners do not have any chance to prove or demonstrate their knowledge and skills as they graduate from school/colleges to work places. Neither are our learners completely in tune with the sensibilities, knowledge, competencies and skills that are musts as they graduate in to their adult lives.
I have not commented upon other individual and like-minded group initiatives on education and learning. One common line communicated through all these alternative initiatives have been about ‘keeping the child/learner in the center’. All the above-mentioned learning initiatives arose in response to specific needs of the people, their culture and began in a small and localized manner. A few of the schools are beginning to gain a larger acceptance, yet these initiatives are oases in the midst of a fiercely competitive world. David Kolb speaks of four essentials that are a must for learning to occur: concrete experiences, reflective observing, abstract concept-making and active experimenting (
www.dkolb.org) Most of the alternate educational initiatives build themselves on these guiding principles put forth by David Kolb.

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION - LEARNING FROM CULTURES: PART 1

EFFECTIVE EDUCATION – LEARNING FROM CULTURES
by
B. Maheswaran

The following essay is primarily based on two articles :
Anita Rampal, 2000, Texts in Context, EFA 2000 review. Development of Curricula. Textbooks, and Teaching and Learning Materials, Indian Educational Report, ed Govinda, OUP, New Delhi
Howard Gardner, 1999, How cultures Educate, The Disciplined Mind, Simon and Schuster, U.S.


This essay is about my understanding of effective teacher-learning spaces. My primary understanding though is based on articles written by Rampal, A. (2000) and Gardner, H. (1999), I have incorporated other studies across the world. In the process, I have tried to draw the similarities between Rampal and Gardner’s writings. I have provided a few individual and group initiatives of alternative education by drawing their central guiding philosophies to attention. At the end of the process, I have linked these initiatives to my teaching practice in Mallya Aditi International School.

INTRODUCTION

"At present the universities are as uncongenial to teaching as the Mojave Desert to a clutch of Druid priests. If you want to restore Druid priesthood, you cannot do it by offering prizes for Druid-of-the Year. If you want Druids, you must grow forests."
(Arrowsmith, 1967)

One of my best introduction to the teaching-learning spaces happened in the late 1990s The scalding sun of April was scorching the ravenous scrub forests of this coastal region that the rest of the world calls Auroville. Auroville is a global village where people of all countries commune and do things that are close to their heart. For most people living here, nurturing and being in harmony the surrounding environment comes first. I first met Johnny in Auroville, when I visited the Fertile community to meet my friend Paul. I was welcomed by Johnny, a tall wiry man who seemed to be in his early sixties. Paul had gone visiting a neighbouring community. While I was killing my time going around the beautiful hamlet-like community, Johnny passed on a plate of Ragi biscuits that he had baked the previous day. I had never eaten such delicious biscuits before or after that instance. For most of his life, Johnny had been (and is still) involved in rejuvenating the culture of growing millets like ‘ragi’ and ‘varagu’. These millets are out of favour among the original inhabitants of this region, who were the traditional custodians of these crop varieties. In the recent times, a never-ending yearning for high productivity has resulted in farmers shifting from these traditional millets to hybrid rice varieties. But Johnny and his friends have for the last twenty-five to thirty years cultivated only millets, thus sending a message to the local community here. Johnny has mastered recipes with a traditional and modern mix that would entice any body to growing and using the traditional millets. Apart from the different varieties of biscuits, Johnny makes, ‘dosas’, ‘idlis’, ‘upma’s and many other healthy dishes out of these traditional millets.

One of the other best known initiative of Johnny was been developing an “Auroville diploma’ in 1992, that would award equal credits to croissant-making, bicycle maintenance or tree planting, as for other academic subjects such as science, mathematics or languages. This together would serve as the basis of an Auroville diploma which could slowly gain international respect. This initiative was a specific response to the needs of the Auroville community. Johnny’s response was specific to the resources borne by the surroundings. Every infrastructure of the community was made out of natural resources available around their living spaces. There were no concrete buildings, except a mix of concrete that went into the making of the windmill. Johnny still cycles around to Thindivanam in his cycle (which is about 35 km from Auroville).

I have never tried to delimit the scope of education, for it happens every moment, all the time and throughout one’s life. To me Johnny’s life is one of great education. People interacting with Johnny learn from him, his resources, from other members of the community, from the surroundings, from the implements he uses, from his demonstrations (which are truly scientific) and explanations on the basis of the choice of the materials and implements. Johnny learning community was not envisioned for a larger body of students.
Johnny’s is only one of the many independent initiatives that use the local context and culture to pursue effective learning-teaching (without even mentioning the word learning and teaching).

Saturday, November 26, 2005

CULTURES THAT TAUGHT ME

Basuvan was a short man, according to his own ‘Kattunayakar’ brethren. He was about four-and-a-half-feet in height, thin, wiry and would have never exceeded about 45 kilo grams on any day. His ancestors were experts in the art of tapping honey from those massive combs that dangled on the near sky-high trees of the beautiful undulating Malabar hills in the Western Ghats. Basuvan was according to his own people, closest to their ancestors when it came to cajoling honey out of the combs. Because most of these honey comb-bearing trees were in the midst of prime elephant and tiger forests, the people of this community were also experts in camouflage and stealth. And so was Basuvan too.When I met Basuvan for the first time, he was planting yam in his backyard (he lived in the forest). I was aimlessly wandering in Basuvan’s home ground searching for the ever-elusive Malabar grey hornbill. Basuvan was busy digging pits to plant the yam, when I casually asked him if he could join me in my search of the hornbills. He did not reply though he nodded in positive. In the five years that I spent with Basuvan, he had never spoken many a words.We began our search together. While I was straining my ears and eyes to locate the hornbill, Basuvan had a very simple technique. He was looking for the fig trees in the forest. For he knew - and his ancestors had definitely passed on the knowledge - that the hornbills will flock around any fig tree that has ripe fruits in it. And I did see hornbills in hundreds on the fig tree. I had a lot of pride in myself that I was ‘the expert’ in the forest armed with all the requisite background knowledge on the hornbills and their habitats. But without uttering a word, Basuvan showed me my place by using his indigenous knowledge of the habitat. Basuvan’s abilities for observation were enormous. By viewing a pugmark, he would comment about the age of the tiger, its gender, the mood of the animal, whether it was hungry or was just having a casual stroll. Every day we would be charged by elephants, and I cannot think of a day, when it was but Basuvan who plucked me out of danger.I did learn to survive and enjoy my prolonged stay in the forests. I learnt to move through endless herds of elephant by plastering myself with elephant dung. I learnt to mimic the calls of the leopard and the hornbills, the barbets, the jungle fowls and so on. I learnt to walk with minimal disturbance to other co-habitors of the forests. I learnt to sleep on the forest floor and yet be always ready to spring up and ascend the nearest tree to save myself from some of the charismatic animals of the forest. I actually realised that over a period of time, I actually had began to train the powers of my senses to better use in this beautiful journey with Basuvan. I realised that for the first time in life I actually was looking at plants beyond their mere ‘scientific names’. I was very happy and satisfied, for there was a new vigour within. I was more observant. I was seeing entities that ignored my attention, I was hearing sounds that were unheard before, I was smelling fragrance that missed my nostrils till then.I and Basuvan went on to work together for the next five years. I do feel that I owe my life and its learnings to Basuvan. Though, my work got internationally published, commended, and the Bharathiar University awarded a doctorate for my work, it actually belonged to the puny kattunayakan whom his people called Basuvan.The cultures that taught me in the city and far off in the forest communicated a common thread. These cultures demanded one’s total attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days. These cultures demanded the senses to delve deep beneath the periphery. These cultures demanded silent expression and were predominantly silent. These cultures demanded my time in fullness. These cultures were about subtlety. I am in the midst of another culture. And my leaning continues……

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Text or Context

TEXT or CONTEXT
As a student, I was very fortunate to learn and work with a highly versatile teacher at the Madras Christian College, Chennai. My teacher Dr. P. Dayanandan, for most of his professional life worked in the Michigan University, Ann Arbor. His prime interest was and still continues to be plant physiology. But his larger interest has been to find and provide a space where innumerable rural as well as urban students with less than enough economic means are able to empower themselves by opportunities of school and college education. There were a few more fortunate ones like who could actually see him work, work with him and so learn the different ways of learning science. Most students who walk into his lab, stay on to do research for five-six years. In the five-six years that they spend with him as research fellows, they seldom have been spoken to by their teacher about the science of movement of food materials from the leaves of rice to the grains – the reason for which they are with him. In a 12 hour working schedule the teacher ‘spoke’ about science for time period ranging from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Rest of the time was spent on ‘doing’.

The lab is equipped with one of the best microscopes in the country, which is worth about 40 lakh rupees. The research fellows’ job is rather simple. Students to take transverse sections of rice grains and grains of other grasses (rice grain is usually about 4-6 mm in length) at different stages of fruiting and stain the section with dyes that were specific for proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and other macromolecules. The macromolecule-specific dyes would help them analyse the movement of macromolecules into the grains. The pathways of the movement of food particles into the grain actually allowed us to examine the efficiency of the conducting systems in rice plants and thus ultimately make important correlation on nature’s choice of such conducting system.

The teacher never provides the students’ any protocols for research. The students just see him taking section. They would follow him, and slowly begin to taking good sections. Sitting in his rotating chair, While he would continue taking those thin, straight, sections, he would also talk to them about a variety of issues that were not directly related to the topic of research or for that matter sometimes even within the realms of science. He would talk about the issues of Dalits in India, he talked about issues of terrorism, he would take them on a virtual tour of a National Park he had visited bring forth every bit of his observations during the visit – though butterflies and birds were his favourites - he would talk about tree architecture, he would talk about the temples of Tanjore explaining the different kinds of ‘Vimanas”, he would talk about some ancient and beautiful churches within Chennai city, suddenly one weekend he would walk into the lab and announce that all students would be taking off for the weekend to South Tamil Nadu and do photography of the “Nayakar” paintings. But remember, he seldom talked about science. But every moment, every day of those five odd years was a great exposure and learning on science for the students. They learnt science by seeing their teacher do science. They learnt science by doing what their teacher did. He never asked the students to do anything. Freshers learnt a lot of science by interacting with the senior research fellows of the lab. Whenever the teacher spoke, he would pop up one or two question once in a while that set each of the students in their own exploratory paths. After each one of them found themselves a few steps forward on the question, they would all come together for dinner and voice out our own mini-learnings on the question. The teacher never said if the students’ were right or wrong. He would only once in a while indicate that there might be other effective answers for the question. That was good enough a signal relook the methods and strategies. But the key was that the students were never rushed for an answer. We had enough time to mull over the question and the methods we used to find the answers.

The learning space was characterized by a space where the students could formulate their own questions. This space was about exploring and finding answers for their questions. This space was about voicing their findings in their own way and provide scientific interpretation. Most of the times the students were far off the likelihood answers. But sometimes the students did come close to the answers. For the students such small moments of triumph was enough to push themselves forward, while the teacher moves on with a smile that only the most observant could actually see. More than the time and space for expression, this space was beyond any parameters of motivation. The students who come here, come with a willingness to learn. That is all. The spirit to learn defines this space.

The above method that I have described is probably one of the many cultures of learning and teaching that is highly endangered, for the modern portals of education are slowly but steadily wiping of such beautiful, harmonious and organic learning/teaching initiatives. Most of our problems are rooted to the systems of which we are a part. Unfortunately most of our systems lack such a exploratory and expressional space. We are bound by too many deadlines that are actually the lifelines of the system of which we are part. We are bound by a curricular framework, we are bound by a time limit set by a central authority, we are bound by the parent community who reach out learning only with exam-induced fears. More than all these bindings that seldom allows us to create a effective learning space, there is also a lack of motivation for the learning. ‘Student’ who ‘Learning for the purpose of learning’ are a highly endangered species. So is the learning spaces that provide rich and healthy experience.

Like the biology of environment management, the realm of education also has its own conservationist who are desperately trying to bring back this endangered species back to a healthy numbers. But for this scenario to change our evaluation methods will have to change. The methods of evaluation and assessment from ‘top’ at this point of time is actually governing our curriculum. The curriculum unfortunately is not tuned to actual needs of the life. The day the needs determines the curriculum, learning will be a more purposeful endeavour.