Background of Nachiket
Nachiket is one of the many educational centers of the Krishnamurti Foundation. Its chief function is to strive to bring about the kind of education Krishnamurti has talked about during his lifetime. Nachiket is a small educational community, near Uttarkashi in the Garwhal Himalayas, looking after 30 children coming from nearby villages and districts. They are mostly first-generation learners hailing from an agricultural background. To bring up these children without compromising on their natural sense of being, playing and learning, without thwarting their self confidence that comes from skills like ploughing, milking, identifying medicinal herbs or simply running up a steep hill effortlessly, has been one of the central challenges. The key concern has been to give them formal knowledge, develop a scientific temperament and to raise issues that might challenge some fundamental belief systems like caste and gender bias, without tampering with the rustic charm of the children or complicating their simple outlook on life.
The learning structures at Nachiket are by necessity informal, and we outline here some of their broad features.
Vertical Family Groups
A teacher is entirely responsible for the upbringing of a group of children ranging in age from 4 to 16 years, the composition of which may or may not vary from year to year. He handles all the subjects, but is always free to seek support from his colleagues to help him out with areas that he is less conversant with. Generalists as the teachers are, they have to be supported by specialists periodically. The older student’s role is of a learner as well as a tutor, and her assistance plays a key role.
Every teacher has not more than eight students, and though it may look rather a luxurious situation, in fact as the teacher is training different age groups in all the subjects, a great deal of preparation and planning, actual engagement and follow-up is involved. Each child’s daily plan is worked out to cater to the individual learner’s immediate and long term needs, current interests and difficulties in learning. Every child plays an active role in deciding his day’s routine and so there may be three to four parallel streams going on at the same time in a group. The teacher becomes an active facilitator but is also the final authority in any major decision.
A good amount of self-study material is necessary, to provide not only information but also sufficient challenge to the quick and highly energetic children. We use self-study material that has enough variety, that offers scope for diverse activities, and is interactive. The teacher ensures that there are adequate contact sessions with every child each day. Some children seem to need more such sessions than others.
A vertical group allows for a more relaxed atmosphere in terms of peer preoccupation, exam preparation and other such age specific situations. There seems to be a better emotional balance as well. It also seems to address the special needs of this region, for children get to work with one adult, who is like a parent, for a considerable period of time, which gives them a sense of security and lends a non-institutional atmosphere to learning. Since it replicates a family situation to some extent, they seem to be at ease with school learning.
Since the teacher depends heavily on self-study material, developing study skills becomes a necessity. So the children are trained to understand instructions and understand how a text is developed–how concepts are built paragraph by paragraph in a text, how certain questions are raised to lead the reader into a concept. The teacher also enables the child to appreciate the process of learning itself. So in the context of teaching a concept the teacher takes the opportunity to go into the nature of learning, the role of memory, the steps in problem solving and so on, so that the techniques of academic learning are discovered by the child. This supports him in self-tutoring. Often, when the teacher is actually teaching, at appropriate points he may make the child aware what he is attempting at the moment. It is a lot of fun when the teacher and the student go over a specific learning process happening at that moment. The learning then is about learning itself. This helps build self-study skills even as the student becomes conscious of the underlying process.
The small number in the vertical group facilitates a continuous form of evaluation. The child is evaluated for quickness of grasp; his motivation level is assessed, waxing and waning of interest is followed closely. All this helps the teacher act, alter the activity or engage with the child to lift the interest level. Quick short tests are built into the daily learning so that the child learns to appreciate that testing is part and parcel of learning. It is not just something that one takes at ‘the end of a topic’.
A monthly track record review is done in the form of an interview. Both the teachers and students seem to enjoy this comfortable yet serious conversation where the student has to field questions from a panel of teachers. The questions are from the academic topics she covered that month, as well as on current issues not so much for information but to draw out her response to an event. She also brings her monthly assignments, art work, poems, essays, etc. to share with the teachers. It is also a time for the student to share her difficulties, observations or even a joke. The students are also tested on their very personal hobbies like kite flying or tree climbing. The educational principle is to take the child and her world seriously, acknowledge her interests and usher them formally into the school curriculum. The children participate in a long assembly thrice a week intended for sharing: they may teach a concept they’ve learnt, demonstrate an experiment, display their art work, perform skits of their making, or show a snake skin they picked from the road, and so on. The teacher gives feedback periodically on communication skills, theater skills and confidence in facing a group. These also help the teacher assess the effectiveness of his teaching method and to do the necessary follow-up. When other students question the speaker, or simply want to clarify a doubt, the speaker is being tested in a natural context. Thus her learning acquires a social relevance.
To inculcate the culture of self-learning a set of mandatory topics are put up at the beginning of every month for each age group to work on, for which they are tested at the end of the month. The topics are drawn from a wide range of fields. This may involve reference work, self-training, sharing information, testing each other etc. Structures like this that promote selfschooling form an integral part of the programme.
To encourage taking responsibility for one’s learning, the children are asked to write a brief account of the day called ‘my learning today’. It gives the teacher an idea of what has impressed the child most that day, or of his particular difficulty.
An ongoing dialogue about the place of evaluation and its role in facilitating learning, about the fear of being assessed or the fear of not knowing something, constitutes the backdrop of evaluation. So even as grades are marked or feedback is given, it is preceded by a conversation with the student on the issue of exams, in order to help him perceive tests and exams in the right perspective.
Architecturally, the building design has been altered to ensure that the child experiences a sense of space. Exploring child -friendly study spaces has been one of our thrusts. Apart from the outdoors and floor spaces and chairs, window ledges have been designed as work spaces, with a sense of being both indoors and outdoors. Each child has a light work table of his own to carry around, and to settle down with for the class, in different spaces, including the outdoors. Indoors, he creates his own niche and there is free physical movement of the teachers and children. Care has been taken not to clutter the physical space with too much furniture.
We have been working at creating schedules that allow ample time and space for the child to explore his subjects. There is a relaxed atmosphere and children are quite often at a subject for a few hours together. Since the teacher is in contact with the child’s overall academics he is able to ensure that he is not overloaded with too many difficult concepts to cope with at the same time. The teacher is able to stagger the introduction of new concepts as required. Special times have been allotted for non-book learning either for one day or even a whole week. One of the remarks from a student after one such week was, “I saw I approached questions and problems in a text with fear, for then I am expected to understand what someone has thought out and put across. Whereas observing directly and trying to seek explanations I was more at ease and did not feel under pressure to perform.”
Subject spaces have been created and often more than one group is using it at the same time. This allows for a natural participation of the teachers with the other groups and quite often an organic situation of team teaching emerges. Spontaneous sharing between teachers of an effective method of teaching happens regularly. Children diffuse freely in and out of other groups if they find themselves drawn to what others are doing. The teacher allows space for this and it is not looked upon as a distraction. Similarly the entry of a bird into the classroom, or the larvae of paper wasps peeping out of their cells, will create its own commotion for which the teacher must be prepared. Here the teacher can seize themoment to talk about birds or wasps. Since, in principle, the teacher respects this chaoticelement in the child’s way of learning, thechildren are not found resisting if they arecalled back to do the scheduled work. Inother words, the schedules have a flexiblecontour that can realign itself toaccommodate children’s natural ways oflearning in the course of the day.
Children in this region have a natural quietness about them. Not to clutter their day with too many activities and events has been an important concern. So we have tried to space out the day, with enough sense of leisure while carrying out the tasks. A room for quiet sitting or listening to music and chants has been created for students, teachers and guests to avail of at any time during the day. The silent sitting after the morning assemblies is often a time when simple awareness exercises like breathing slowly, deeply or trying to keep the pupils of the eyes still are suggested, while retaining a sense of play or lightness about them. After the morning assemblies instead of going to their classes, they first go out alone to ‘make friends with nature’, after which they meet the group teacher. This helps retain and internalise the atmosphere created in the morning assembly. They are encouraged to sit quietly after intense lessons or take a walk through the woods before they get back to the next lesson.
On Thursdays there are special assemblies that involve a variety of activities that generate an interest in self-awareness. These playful sessions might throw up questions around living, and students seem to enjoy them and are articulate enough to keep the conversation going sometimes for two hours. One of the exercises was to design a model of the habit-making machine, after an interesting conversation on habits. Samples of the designs created by the children were put up on display. Another exercise was for a group to make a given figure with a rope, while blindfolded. Observers shared how a leader emerged, and what cooperation meant in this exercise. A great deal of naturecentered activities on listening and observing also take place. One of the interesting activities was to look in Krishnamurti’s writings for colour descriptions. One student remarked at the varieties of blue that he refers to. Another child was fascinated with how, without mentioning the name of a colour, Krishnamurti often brought about an effect of colour. Most of these sessions turned out to be very interesting simply because of the keen interest the children generally display.
Nachiket is an ever-evolving learning situation and the school, it seems, has to be created each day for the essential spirit not to slip away out of the structures, however creatively designed they may be.