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



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.


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.
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.
Menon,M. 2002. Of laziness and tennancy. The Hindu.
Niell, A.S. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Ramachandran, V. and Saijee, A. 2002. The New Segregation: Reflections on Gender and Equity in Primary Education. Economic and Political Weekly: 1600-1613.
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.


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’, 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,, 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.


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.


In my blog titled ‘Cultures that taught me’ ( (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’ ( (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.


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
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’ ( 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 ( 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 (

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 ( ‘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 ( Most of the alternate educational initiatives build themselves on these guiding principles put forth by David Kolb.


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.


"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).