Concept note: Creative Learning Environment planned for Parlekhemundi, Gajapati, Orissa
Nearly everyone with small children observes with astonishment how eagerly they learn. As parents we struggle to offer them freedom in their learning environment constrained only by the need to ensure their own safety. For most children, the result is that they must spend several hours a day in a “school,” which is usually an enclosed, rigidly structured area under adult supervision, with a fairly large number of “students” per adult “teacher.” The teacher is responsible for covering a syllabus and considered to be an adequate judge of pupils’ progress in learning. Often this presents a tremendous workload leaving little time for quality interaction with children.
Given a choice, many parents would like to offer their children a creative learning environment. I would like to describe what such an environment could look like. I have not been responsible for creating or managing such a learning environment in a public setting, but I have tried to apply the basic principles while interacting with children, especially my own. Much of the work consists in not regulating or interfering with children’s natural course of learning, but being there, receptive and responsive, creating spaces for free, sellf-guided exploration. Our guiding philosophy would be that the environment is as close as it can be to not being a school. In India today non-school going children generally fall into two extremes – those who are forced to work from an early age and have little time or space for creative playing or thinking, and those who belong to privileged families who can afford to keep a variety of books and other learning resources at home and have no doubt that the child is learning far more even in a conventional sense, than s/he would in any school. To make this kind of learning environment available to more children, without imitating the format of a school, it would help to have a library resource center where books, puzzles, etc are available, with a functional system to maintain the resources. Resource persons should also be available to respond to questions in a non-judgemental, non-patronising way.
Selection criteria for resource persons:
— should speak, read and write at least ONE: Oriya or Telugu. Saura speakers may also be eligible. A fraction of places may be reserved for people with other valuable skills who do not know Oriya, Telugu, or Saura but do know English or Hindi and meet other criteria.
— should be invovled in interesting and productive projects
— should demonstrate capability for original thinking and respect for children’s thoughts and explorations.
— should have a calm, pleasant personality and be patient, cheerful and encouraging with children.
— should be of diverse socio-economic backgrounds and ages and genders.
— should understand, appreciate, and contribute to nurturing freedom, creativity and social values of the creative learning environment.
In the age 6-10 environment, students will not be separated by grade level. Children below age 6 may come along with at least 1 parent / adult. Children may speak, read or write in any language, and may expect to have resource persons and materials compatible with their learning level, style, and medium.
Resource persons will not monitor attendance nor assign or grade children’s work. Children will however have access to various resources and opportunities to help them take stock of their thoughts and experiences. Resource persons may suggest and help to create settings in which children share these with parents, taking cues from the ways in which they naturally do so among themselves.
A library / resource center will make available a wide range of books, maps, toys, and a-v materials in Oriya, Telugu, Hindi and English. Students will be allowed to use these materials and may seek help from other children or adults in making sense of them.
Structured activities will be limited to 1.5-2 hours per day, for example, from 9:00 – 9:45, 1:00-2:00. These may primaily pertain to a given subject, but will be interdisciplinary in scope. For example, a resource person may involve the children in planting plants and monitoring their progress, measuring, tracking growth on a chart, describing in words, etc. Another activity might be a group drama involving constructing sets, song and dance. Others may be creating a newspaper, making food, spreading cow dung on the floor, etc.
In general children would be able to work alone or in groups, possibly with resource persons who would be involved in such activities as gardening, cooking, drying or other food processing, spinning, sewing, making mud pots, creating storybooks, making maps, observing grasshoppers, etc. There will also be time when the library is open, as well as time for lunch. Other recreational and creative resources such as games / balls / art supplies / musical instruments may also be made available at suitable times.
Students will not be required to wear a uniform, but comfortable khadi clothes will be made available at reasonable cost for those who wish. There will be no tie, belt, socks, etc. Clothes will typically get dirty during the school day.
“Teachable moments” will be driven by the kinds of questions the children pose, and the process of searching for the answer will be participatory and interactive. Resource persons should refrain from interfering with or judging children’s activities, avoid routine praise or blame, and offer help only when asked, except of course where safety is at issue. Without being patronising, they should keep aware of opportunities to involve the children in figuring out solutions. The large chalk-board style walls will naturally attract students and give them room to spread out while taking part in the learning exercise.
The role of the resource persons would be to engage in interesting activities, keeping in mind ways that children can get involved if they wish, to see that activities are available for all ages, and to encourage boys and girls to participate equally, being esp vigilant of situations where traditional stereotypes may prevent this. Where children get into conflicts, resource persons should redirect the energy by proactively offering interesting activities. While they may need to intervene in some cases, they will refrain from punishing or putting children down, but seek respectful ways of helping children move on and get along.
Parents will be partners in the learning environment. The school does not grade or judge children’s progress but resource persons and parents may discuss concerns from time to time. Emphasis will always remain on allowing the child to learn at his or her own pace, following his or her own interests. If there is a parent who wishes to share their special knoweldge of a particular subject, they will be encouraged to do so and interested children would naturally be drawn. Special events may be arranged e.g. setting up a telescope in the evening, etc.
Children’s decisions will be respected and encouraged wherever practical and possible. Where children and resource persons are unable to agree, the conflict will be resolved keeping mutual respect intact. Where possible changes will be made to prevent the conflict from arising again. Resource persons will seek out opportunities to involve children in discussion and conflict resolution. To the extent possible, resource persons will explain all decisions affecting students to them.
The theory and practice of the learning environment will evolve as it goes along and resource persons, parents, and community members would discuss this from time to time. I have prepared this note based on my reading of John Holt, Jean Liedloff, interactions with people who have gone through such learning, online discussions of unschooling / deschooling, and my observations of my daughter’s learning adventures. I myself have a tremendous amount to learn in this regard and am personally looking forward to participating in the creative learning environment.
IN practice, a sample day might go as follows:
Resource persons are engaged in various activities. Children arrive between 8:00 and 9:00 and play, talk to one other, draw on the chalkboards / art walls, join in some of the activities. At 10:00 they all sit together for a session – this could rotate through the week – yoga/exercise, music/dance, cooking/gardening, arts/crafts, life-science. A music class could include songs in different languages and related to different concepts. The session would be 30-45 minutes would accomodate all ages, and may have some practical component.
Again children are free to pursue various activities. At 12:00 they have lunch and the library would be open for 2-3 hours. The children could begin going home around 2:00 but may stay until 3:00, at which time resource persons would also go home.
SET UP COSTS: land, built structures, water/electricity facilities, furniture, supplies, vermi pit, composting area, biogas, hand pump, windmill, etc.
INITIAL STOCK for the library: Books, charts, maps, and puzzles suitable for children up to age 10 in Oriya, Telugu and English. Subscriptions to children’s magazines
Resource persons’ remuneration should be a living wage considering local living costs, with some transportation allowance or bus pass as appropriate. Fees should be affordable by the families whose children are eligible to attend, i.e. those working at JITM. All persons working directly or via subcontractor for JITM should be eligible to enroll their children. Depending on space availability it may be possible to allow children from the surrounding community to attend as well, and a fee structure would have to be determined that these communities could afford. If appropriate some of the elders from these communities would be resource persons in the learning environment.
Responsibilities of the resource persons:
• To create an environment free from prejudices of language, class, caste and gender.
• To see that resources and instructions offered are utilised by all the children fairly. This is a challenge since the dominant trends of society may privilege English over other languages, rich over poor, and more fundamentally rigid order and authority over self-directed learning. Therefore resource persons will need to resist these dominant social trends in order to instill values of equality, mutual respect, and the spirit of learning.
• To work on interesting activities in which children can get involved and learn about language and communication, science and nature, problem solving, themselves and the world around them. In some cases this may involve designing projects with children’s learning in mind, but in most cases, these should be normal activities which are simply opened up to children.
Practically speaking it would be good for people who are interested in creating this learning enviroment to have a 2-3 day workshop where we can invite people like Alok who have grown up in such an environment, and have discussions of the basic principles, using some of the work of John Holt, Paulo Friere, as well as organisations like Shikshantar, Mirambika, Jiddu Krishnamurty, etc. We should try to invite people who are likely to join as resource persons to this workshop, and have role playing exercises where we see how these ideas might play out in practice. In a sense every day with the children will be such a practical exercise, and it will also be necessary for the resource persons to have such ‘retreats’ from time to time.