“What curriculum does this school follow?” I asked.
“We don’t have a set curriculum.” He said.
“But….how do you know what to teach?” I enquired quizzically.
“The kids tell us what they want to learn.” the guide revealed as he laughed.
During my recent trip to India, I got invited to accompany some friends to a village in India. We were visiting a community-based cooperative of disadvantaged women who were locally trained to make a wide range of organic products from their homes. While on this trip, I chanced upon a school in that same village that provided schooling for local, national and international students. As we got a guided tour of the school, I felt transported to another world where education is an experience and not just a business.
The school itself is set on about 10 acres of farmland in a small village in south India, away from the hustle-bustle of the city life. The school has been ergonomically built with eco-friendly materials like mud, cow dung, straw, clay, and stone. They have worked with a variety of construction methods to limit the ecological footprint of the construction and functioning of the building. Cavity walls have been used to aid in the natural cooling of the classrooms. The classrooms are spacious and bare allowing for students to sit wherever they want to. As we walked around we noticed terracotta sculptures on the walls, cows grazing, students planting saplings with their bare hands, barefooted kids running around kicking ball, and students taking a field trip to the local market to learn about a product distribution system.
The most wonderful aspect of this school is that it does not conform to any set guidelines whatsoever. There are no grade levels and students are grouped into levels based on their ability and progress. Students also get to decide what they want to learn under the guidance of the teachers. Majority of the instruction is very hands-on. For example – Students set up a shop on the school grounds to learn about math concepts. They start with real-life scenarios and move to abstract scenarios as they progress through the concepts. A 6-7-year-old might start by drawing a map of the classroom and then graduates to drawing a map of the school, village, city, state, country and so on. Students also get to spend time on the farm, actively participating in agriculture and animal rearing. They also take a day off every week to spend time on a nearby mountain learning about the flora and fauna and sometimes just meditating. Students also help make lunches for the school from produce completely grown on the farm. Much importance is also given to arts, crafts, and physical education.
The atmosphere in the school was by far the happiest and most interactive that I have ever seen in my life as an educator. Students seemed genuinely happy to be in school and we could hear learning in all the loud chatter among the students. We also chanced upon a class with no teacher and yet students were busy working on a project by themselves.
The tour of the school brought to light the philosophy of what schools should be based on. This school had a solid philosophy in ensuring that learning is fun and interactive for students. Their mission was to bring ‘learning’ as close as possible to the ‘living’ and by the looks of it, I can truly say that they have been more than successful.
What we need today is more schools like this that creates learning experiences for the children and an atmosphere that encourages their natural curiosity. It might be an alternate way of educating a child but it’s time to put our thinking hats on and maybe take this model of instruction mainstream.
As we ended the tour I asked our guide, “What about tests, assessments?” We have none he said. I prodded him further, “What about the standardized tests, what tests do the students take to qualify for college?”
He explained, “Students decide which form of assessment they want to take when they feel ready for it. We never tell them what to do.”