When one comes across a work of intricate art, like a beautifully carved wooden table, one is just taken aback at the depth, vision, aesthetics and design. How did the artist conceive of the design and actually translate vision into a solid piece of art? Like the Taj Mahal, it is not replicable, one feels. But sometimes a table that is plain, simple and well constructed creates the same feeling of awe. The simplicity is its beauty and that takes one’s breath away just the same. And when one finds that the simple design can be learnt, shared, worked on and replicated, that adds value. Such is the programme called Middle School Mixed Age Group or MS-MAG, for short. The name alone does not, however, convey the full nature of this learning programme.
In the beginning there were, as always, some questions. Is the same age classroom a given structure? What are the problems with it? Does the student learn what the teacher teaches? Do all students learn what the teacher teaches at the same time? What is the role of the teacher in an age where information is so easily, and sometimes freely, available? Is the word ‘teacher’ also a misnomer? Does the teacher really ‘teach’? Is it possible for a student to be a self-directed learner? For over five years we had been looking at various structures, processes and approaches that might address these questions. In staff meetings and, in some measure in discussions among students and staff, we initiated various elements of self-study, which is at the core of a mixed age learning environment.
Given below are the key elements of a document entitled Transitions in School Education — towards fostering individual autonomy and intelligent coexistence, written in the year 2000, by G. Gautama. This document explores whether school education can happen around a new curriculum, not of reality divided into specialized subjects, but around differently organized learning, learning around eternal issues, which contain the subjects. The main aims ofsuch a learning programme are:
To help students learn to live healthy and safe lives
Some of the ideas connected to this are: daily routine; anatomy and body posture — sitting, reading, writing without getting tired; learning to eat and live healthily; non-oppressive peer relationships, rules of safe and unsafe‘touch’, learning to be safe and creating safety for others around oneself; inshort, healthy living in different paradigms.
To create opportunities for and emphasising resourcefulness
Some of the ideas connected to this are: helping students see that there are always many solutions to a situation, that one can generate alternatives, listen to another opinion, learn to speak one’s mind (without worrying about being complete), teaching decision making skills, and other thinking skills through processes such as the ‘thinking hats’ as described by Edward de Bono.
To focus on learning skills for information access and action This involves learning how to look for information and knowing what to do with information when faced with alternative viewpoints; being open to different sources of information; practising listening, reading, expressing, and sharing insights; learning to listen to alternative perspectives; finding ways to learn with understanding and comprehension; learning from differentdisciplines — the sciences, arts and social sciences.
To work together
This involves expressing thoughts and feelings, asking questions forclarification, and learning about collaboration and mutual respect.
Finally, to be with others constructively
This demands that one is not invalidated by peer culture, and one learns that respect for the other is not a conditional matter. It also means finding ways of knowing how to intervene in an ongoing process effectively.
Why have a mixed age group?
A question frequently raised over the last year with reference to the mixed age group in the middle school has been: Is it not possible to replicate all the aims and processes of the MAG in a same age context? What is the significance, then, of the mixed age group? The mixed age format is a structure, and structures are statements of intention. The intention in this format is to move away from comparison and standardization and towards individuation and space to work and move at one’s pace. The structure of mixed age groups legitimizes differences. It accepts different paces and styles of learning. So, since the mixed age class accepts students learning from‘where they are’ and at a pace decided by them, there is room for slowing down, and for exploration, as also for rapid movement. In the same age group, there is an implicit assumption that everybody needs to learn the same thing in the same way at the same time. It does not recognize, by and large, differences in abilities in the transactions. As one child observed in a parent-student orientation meeting, even in the same age classroom, people are not of the same age. But the structure of the same age classroom disregards this fact, and sensitive teachers and friendlier programmes have struggled hard to dignify differences. This structure has thus proved to be self-limiting. The mixed age environment also creates a sense of emotional well-being, since there is an absence of peer pressure. Hence, it is possible to free the mind and actually learn and work happily. The student’s question sare legitimate, the slow pace is accepted, the struggle is a given reality and all students go through that in one way or the other. One can see the possibility of different people becoming masters in different areas, and learning from others where they see need for guidance. Finally, from the point of view of assessing and evaluating learning, it is possible to make realistic appraisals, to look at a child’s work and effort for what it is rather than against the yardstick of a mythical mean. The structure has clarity of intention, and hence it works.
Out of this thinking emerged the MS-MAG programme. We conceived of the programme, discussed it in the staff body and the committees of the school, and decided on a one year pilot programme. The idea was presented to the parents and students. Twenty-nine students, with the concurrence of their parents, volunteered. The textbooks used and syllabus were to be the same as in the parallel same age classes. At the end of the year a review would decide whether to extend the programme to the entire middle school or not.
We now share the salient aspects of the pilot programme.
The heart of the programme
We have termed the key processes at the heart of the MS-MAG as the following.
- circle time
- self study
- physical breaks
- diary entries
- behaviour norms and work culture
- invitation for initiatives
- classroom space
The basic arrangement of the class is a circle. The teacher is not the focus of the arrangement. The day in MS-MAG begins with ‘randomizing’, a verb coined by the MAG from the adjective, to describe a process by which a student is assigned a place next to any other student at random. (A mathematical exercise undertaken by the students one day revealed that it would be years before the same combination of neighbours occurred in the permutation.) This simple structure sets the tone for preparedness on a student’s part to work beside anybody. (‘Randomizing’ has been a practice we have been following in senior school trips to break fixed combinationsand allow for greater interaction.)
A brief circle time of ten to fifteen minutes provides a conversation space that sets the tone, psychologically, for the day. It might involve taking stock of what needs to be done for the day, planning for the day, acknowledging the inner noises that students come to school with, and proactive conversations initiated by students over issues that have interested them. There are also times when we share stories, read news articles, chant in a special way — one person leading, breaking off at different points, while others repeat twice. An important aspect of circle time is that it does not deal with problems; it is not a faultfinding space. It is a space held together by the adults and the students. Circle Time has proved to be a rich space for thinking and sharing together. For instance, we have discussed whether working under challenging circumstances is something that can actually be the making of a person. What is one’s learning style? What are one’s strengths and what comes in the way of learning? What would one do now if one had all the leisure one wanted?
The core of the academic learning is through a process of self study. In one format that is used, it involves the following three steps. A carefully chosen passage is given to the students to be read, for not more than 20 minutes at a stretch. A set of clear instructions is given along with the passage. The student works individually at first. Students then discuss their responses in small groups of three or four. Finally, the whole class gets together for discussionwith the teacher.
On the following page is an example of one possible learning session.
Preliminary remarks: You will now read the sheet given to you and follow the instructions. After reading the instruction sheet you may ask any questionsyou have.
- Take 20 minutes over the following exercise.
- Please read the passage, ‘Why is the Sky Blue?’
- As you read underline the words you find difficult to understand.
- Check the meaning of the words you underlined in the dictionary.
- Would you like to read the passage again? At the end of the first reading please say if you: are satisfied/ would like to read again/ have understood fully/ are unsure.
- Answer the following questions:
- What are some important ideas in this passage?
- Put them on a paper as a mind map.
- What is the most important idea here?
- Why do you think so?
- What is your feeling about this piece of writing?
- Does it connect to your life in any way?
- Would you like to change the beginning/ending?
- What do you feel like doing now? (This question is to help you understand yourself. You may or not be able to do what you feel like.)
- End when the bell rings.
- Now sit in small groups, age-wise, no more than five to a group. Take fifteen minutes for this part of the exercise.
- Share answers to the question 6c and 6d.
- Discuss what the author is trying to say.
- Is there any question you wish to share with the whole class?
- Say one sentence about the manner in which your small group discussion went
- End when the bell rings.
Gather together as an MAG class and discuss your questions with the teacher and also listen to her views.
WHY IS THE SKY BLUE?
I only have to look up and see that the sky is blue. But why is it blue? The interesting point is that it is easy to answer that question in a casual way. You ask a botanist, why are leaves green? He murmurs, ‘chlorophyll’. Finished. You see, all questions can be disposed of in that summary fashion, in one or two words. You can surely pass your examinations with that kind of answer, but that is not the real answer. The scientific challenge of nature is to think, not only to discover but to think, to think continually and to try to understand this mystery. Why is it blue?’ That is a very interesting problem, because two things are there. The sky is there and I am here. I see it is blue. It is the human brain and the human mind as well that are involved in this problem. Now suppose I say, “Don’t read any book about it, don’t ask your teacher. Let us sit down and try to think out this problem: why is the sky blue? Look at it as if it is a completely new scientific problem about which nobody has troubled himself before.” You sit down and think it out and you will find it a most exciting thing to ask yourself that question and see if you can discover the answer for yourself. Now I will put it to you in this way. The best way to answer a question is to ask another. At night, we all see the stars. On a fairly clear night you see the stars twinkling in the sky. Why are the stars not visible in day time? Please ask yourself this question. Well, the reason obviously is that the earth, as a modest lady, has hidden herself under a veil. The sky is a veil which she has thrown around us. We cannot see the stars during the day, because the veil hides the stars. And what is this veil? The veil obviously is the atmosphere of the earth. The same veil which at night is so transparent that we can see the faintest star and the Milky Way is covered up in day time. Obviously, it is the atmosphere which is the veil. And we see the sky as blue only because we have not got other thicker veils like these clouds. You see, for example, those clouds high in the blue sky. Obviously, therefore, for the sky to be really blue there must be nothing else, no clouds and perhaps no dust. The clearer the sky is, the bluer it is. So the sky is not always blue; it is sometimes blue and sometimes not blue at all. So that the mere looking at the sky enables us to understand the condition of the atmosphere…
[Sir C.V. Raman, Nobel Laureate in Physics]
The programme has allowed for flexibility and a sense of leisure for a student to learn at her/his pace within broad frameworks. In the words of one of the students: ‘In the same age class, we moved from period to period, here we seem to move from activity to activity.’ Learning has been enriched by a number of activities to allow for the different learning styles. Students worked in groups on five major projects: Wheels, Civilization, Herbs, Language andGeographical Phenomena.
The self-study process per se has, as an outcome, generated substantial written work, which has necessitated effective strategies for correction. This has meant creating thorough student records and teacher records to meticulously follow up with correction and feedback. Evaluation has involved some tests that are common to the entire group and some that are levelspecific.
Behaviour norms and work culture
When the students meet in the large group to report on their small group proceedings, the unambiguous brief, reiterated periodically till it has been internalized, is that ‘every response is equally valid, there are none to be put down.’ Student reporting has to necessarily include the process of the discussions as well as their content. The teacher concludes the discussion by clarifying concepts, offering perspectives, building connections and pointing to extensions. This procedure, worked at with consistency, has now established itself as a work culture in class. The students have learnt to see themselves and their peers as resources to learn from, in addition to their teachers. Dictionaries and other reference tools are provided as further resources. One of the most gratifying experiences for the teachers has been the frequency with which the dictionaries were used. Students quickly internalized that the only sensible thing to do when one did not know a word, was to get up and head for the dictionary. And soon there were many conversations around rootmeanings and origins of words.
There is a break for three to four minutes every hour to stretch the muscles and provide for better blood circulation. This is diligently adhered to by both teachers and students. Different students lead this routine on different days.
There are daily questions for diary entries. For example: Did I learn something useful? Did I learn something new? What do I look forward to in the next session? The students share their responses with each other andwith the teacher.
Invitation for initiatives
An MAG learning environment requires initial effort by the teachers to establish the work ethic. This involves adults and students listening to each other, sharing their thoughts, feelings and suggestions, and taking the communication seriously. Together with the students a review of each term is done and together we decide on how to take the programme forward, what elements to retain, and what to add. Some ideas and suggestions implementedhave been:
- Creating a resource centre of games and activities, which involves learning and fun
- Creating a class library
- Creation of individual time: students plan their individual time and decide to pursue subjects and work of their choice. The coordinators make sure that there is adequate attention given to all subjects.
- Students organizing and teaching classes.
- A three-minute speech and feedback session: each child prepares a topic, speaks on it for three minutes, while the others listen and give feedback on the presentation.
When students and teachers collaborate, the learning has meaning for students, and they believe in what they are doing. Evaluation too, can happentogether. No question need be taboo or irrelevant or irreverent.
The classroom is maintained by the teachers and students together: the chowkies neatly arranged; shoes in order; water bottles and bags in their places; dictionaries and atlases in racks; soft boards updated regularly. All students have classroom duties and some responsibilities, which they undertake on a fortnightly rotational basis.
Reviewing the MAG
The MAG coordinators regularly review the programme, keeping inmind the following two questions:
- How would a teacher know that justice was done to every student?
- How would a teacher know that the day was effective for the student?
The coordinators maintain a regular log of proceedings. An excerpt from a teacher’s log is given below:
MAG thoughts, reflections for the period June 26th to July 5th 2006:
I feel that the following things are going well. There is good work, no resistance; the self-study process seems to be valued by students People are able to take breaks quietly; physical breaks are happening regularly. There is no flagging of enthusiasm. Overall, they have respect for each other. Mingling across classes is happening; in some cases, groups have broken up. It is possible to work on one subject at length; at times for four or five periods Students take responsibility for the class on their own; straightening things, putting things right on the soft board Space for initiative is slowly being recognized. Y’s initiative led to some good processes; students listened respectfully to her; asked her good questions; she too learnt to communicate better. This has led to other students asking if they could make presentations too. I have seen students who finished some work, pick up some books My corrections are on time and almost immediate feedback is available to students. The students seem to enjoy and appreciate the looseness of their day as well as the structured academic work. However, I am experiencing some discomfort with the following: Sometimes, the level of noise and chaos is uncomfortable. As yet, I have been trying to keep my voice quiet, express my feelings without disapproval; asking students to take responsibility for something to begin. While looking through the books, I was dismayed to find that some students had actually not completed their work when they said they had. Some of the discussions in small groups have actually not worked at all. I found some interfaces with the same-age groups in school not so healthy; are there mixed messages coming to them? What is to be done with someone who is habitually irregular with books and work?
The teacher logs were shared on googledocs and the mentor for the teachers (G. Gautama) had access to the log entries. This allowed comments and suggestions to be exchanged. While the entries were not made daily and there were some misses, the number of entries was large enough to make for a meaningful exchange. Towards the end the log entries were put into a spreadsheet structure allowed by googledocs. The entries were under the headings: Happenings, Celebrations, Problems, and Questions. This makes a rich record of the year available in a form that can be easily shared.
There were fortnightly meetings with the parents in the first two terms and monthly in the third term to share experiences. The first meetings were to communicate the intentions of the programme in concrete terms. Later meetings were around themes such as communication with students, the process of self-study and what makes for understanding. The participation of parents in the meetings was wonderful as also that of students in a fewmeetings.
If we were to count the gains, there were many to celebrate throughout the programme. There were few, if any, behavioural problems. Every child made progress, and many progressed far more than anyone could have anticipated. There was also collaboration. Students did good academic work; many of them found their strengths and did not feel devalued. This, we feel, was mainly on account of the process and the structure. What has been the learning, the value of a pilot venture such as this? The programme has demonstrated a way to ‘unleash the learner’. The MS MAG is a way of ‘removing the lid’, so students do not feel stopped by their‘level’ or their ‘class’. It is replicable, it has been shown that it is the process that matters; the content is secondary. It is now the way of the school. The Rubicon has been crossed.
And now, it is time to give the programme an apt name: Individual and collaborative study in MAG - a process within a structure, both coexisting mutually.
The School, KFI subsequently introduced MAG in the whole of the middle school. Mahanadi, Amravati and Godavari are the new rivers that have started flowing since June 2007.
The elements of this exploration were the core principles used in the ACTIVE LEARNING METHODOLOGIES (MS ALM) programmes conducted for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan trainers by our teachers under the Outreach work of the school. Based on the inputs offered, the SSA tried out the ideas in 120 schools in Tamil Nadu in June and July 2007. Given the enthusiastic response of students and teachers, it has now been decided to implement MS ALM in all Upper Primary schools in the state for science and social studies.