We want our children to learn English. We want good education, but we cannot afford school education in cities. So please start a school for us. T his was the aspiration of parents from the tribal community in Anaikatti, a village near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, situated in the foothills of the Nilgiris. They were eager, like other parents, to give their children, what they felt was, the best education. They perceived education—especially English education—as a passport to a better life. Vidya Vanam was born in 2007 to fulfil this need.

If education of the Adivasi children is to be placed on a par with the rest, as is their right as a citizen of our democratic country, it becomes necessary that the integration be on equal terms. The community must be an active participant in the designing and learning process, to create a curriculum that is different yet equal. What should this alternative method be? How should the curriculum be framed? These were the questions that came first to my mind when I decided to start Vidya Vanam. But, before I framed a curriculum, I needed to understand how children—all children from any corner of the earth—learn.

As I observed the children of the community, I found that their learning began with a sense of wonder, surprise, pleasure, even rapture in seeing and watching things around them—a caterpillar climbing a twig, an earthworm suddenly disappearing into ground, ants in line carrying their eggs into the nest, following a bulbul to its nest and seeing three beautiful blue eggs. Learning begins with wonderment—with the wow factor—not knowing what something is but wanting to know. This curiosity propels the beginnings of learning through the five senses. Experiences are recorded in memory, and trigger further experimentation and observation. Curiosity is the engine of achievement.

The young are not self-conscious. They are able to lose themselves completely in whatever absorbs them. The schools mediate this transition from the world of a solitary being to becoming a part of the larger community. How is this transition to be effected without losing the sense of wonder? This is the challenge of modern education.

Educationist John Dewey believed that schooling should be rooted in the child’s experiences. The school should connect to the child’s everyday life and interests at home, as well as offer new interests and experiences. Students must be engaged in meaningful and relevant activities that allow them to apply the concepts they are endeavouring to learn. Hands-on projects are the key to creating authentic learning experiences. Dewey maintained that there was a strong connection between education and social action in a democracy. In his 1899 book, School and Society , he wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” Dewey’s words inspired and also endorsed my approach to creating a curriculum based on the life and experiences of the people of Anaikatti.

My association with Anaikatti began in 2003 when I volunteered to help with the balwadis set up in the remote villages around there. This gave me the opportunity to interact with the local people and to understand their needs. Living in the city, we are isolated from the realities of the lives of many people who are the majority in our country. We are unaware of their day-to-day problems.

The history of the tribals over the last seventy years has been one of forcible displacement and constant conflict with the state and other communities. They have been on the receiving end of dominant views. What is left of their way of living, which was linked closely with nature, has been smothered by the destruction of forests in the name of development and technological advancement. In such an environment, how can we expect education to have any importance in their lives? Nevertheless, over the years, they have felt a need to improve their lives but they are struggling with education policies that have little connection to their everyday living.

Though education has recently witnessed a rapid transformation, particularly in the areas of access, pedagogy and community participation in tribal areas, the literacy rate of the Schedule Tribes continues to be below the national average. Tribal children live in remote places, and therefore, their access to quality education is limited. Other factors that inhibit the development of the tribal community are teacher absenteeism, lack of accountability and infrastructure, and a negative attitude towards the tribal children, all of which increase the number of ‘dropouts’. Under these circumstances, integration of the Adivasi children into the mainstream has been a traumatic experience.

The standard system does not work in a country as diverse and large as ours with geo-physical, ecological and socio-cultural differences. Tribals have their own culture and socio-economic and governance systems. Sensitivity to tribal culture and life, recognition of their cognitive strengths and appreciation of their personality is necessary for a holistic education. Reorganizing the curriculum, content and the teaching-learning methods to include the tribal knowledge base and environment will increase the participation of this community in education. Along with the standard curriculum support, materials that are contextualized in local dialects and include tribal folklore will help bring these children into the mainstream. This wealth of learning material can be developed by identifying and documenting information from tribal communities. Bringing this knowledge into the classroom gives a tremendous sense of empowerment to the tribal children.

The poor performance of tribal students is usually connected with their inability to cope with educational standards. People presume that they are intellectually inadequate to cope. Empirical evidence, however, suggests that tribal children possess the same cognitive abilities as children anywhere in the world. Their low achievements are due to school-related problems. Most tribal children are first-generation learners who do not have much support in the home environment. A better designed education programme will help overcome these obstacles. Another problem is lack of sensitivity. Teachers are not aware of the children’s cultural and behavioural strengths. They approach tribal children with preconceived notions of their capacity to learn. They are unaware of and uninterested in the knowledge base that the child already possesses.

Therefore, a different approach to education, not the one-size-fits-all model, is the only intelligent way to create learning opportunities for all communities. The role of education in the process of development and social progress cannot be ignored. Lack of education stifles the progress of these marginalized people. Unfortunately, what we now offer students in current schools is second-hand knowledge, which is merely verbal. But this verbal communication lacks meaning if the student is unable to link it to an existing experience. So what follows is a mechanical reaction. Challenging the status quo will create dissent and controversy especially in a field like education. At the same time, it is not healthy for democracy if the status quo goes unchallenged.

What are the different schools of thought regarding education? The traditional system, relies on demarcation of subjects. The progressive school of thought exalts the learner’s interest and is guided by that impulse. However, Dewey felt that while neither was sufficient by itself, both these strands were essential. A sound educational experience involves continuity and interaction between the learner and what is learned. The reaction to the traditional methodology—which entailed discipline and regimentation and ignored the learner’s interests—swung to the other extreme and led to a chaotic curriculum, excessive individualism and spontaneity, which is a deceptive index of freedom. Neither the new nor the old is adequate, as they fail to apply the principle of experience that is the bedrock of knowledge. With all this in mind, I decided to evolve a methodology for Vidya Vanam that would be based on experiential learning, integrating today’s educational requirements with the community’s unique needs and inculcating appreciation and respect for their culture, knowledge base and environment.

The Vidya Vanam approach

The conviction was that we had to evolve a curriculum that made learning meaningful. It had to encompass the head, the heart and the hands. Building self-confidence and a self-learning ability became the primary focus in the early years of schooling. To develop thinking and communication skills is also essential. Learning is a continuous process, and the distinctions we make between subjects do not necessarily make sense to children.

One of the innovations in the teaching methodology is that classes two to seven do not have fixed classrooms. Instead students move among different ‘zones’. Vidya Vanam has four zones—languages (Tamil and English), mathematics, science, and social science. Each zone is equipped with images, artefacts, charts, models, and books to help the students absorb the information through visual stimuli and tune into the subject with ease. Also, the movement between the zones prevents them from becoming fidgety and restless, as it usually happens when they are confined in a single classroom.

Another pedagogical approach developed by Vidya Vanam is theme-based learning. This is an inter-disciplinary approach that helps children understand that knowledge is a seamless continuous flow from one discipline to another. The key to this understanding lies in the ‘WH’ words (‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’). With ‘what,’ the student identifies the subject of discussion and gives it a name. Once the subject is identified, the words ‘why’ and ‘how’ offer an entrance to the realm of science; ‘where’ and ‘when’ address the social sciences area of time and space. The range of knowledge covered in these question words gives a sense of continuity, a meaningful and seamless link to the learning process. In every subject, we select and study a theme, including an artistic angle. The same theme moves through every class with extra information and extended competency. There are no prescribed textbooks. So the teachers have access to varied resource material to develop their lessons. For example, the theme might be ‘soil.’ In science, the children study characteristics of soil, what it contains (nutrients, microbes); the factors that affect soil formation. In mathematics, they look at ratio-proportion, volume, weight, area and measurement. In social science, the topics include ecosystems, vegetation and wildlife, landforms, topography, archaeology, excavations. In languages, they read and write essays, poems, stories around the theme, write slogans and debate issues. In arts, they learn pottery, murals and modelling. Given this approach, all activities including sports, music, dance, theatre, arts and crafts become a part of the curriculum, and not extra-curricular. The learning process is activity-based and the environment, a mixed age group one. The teacher is a facilitator of learning who develops teaching material. The learning process is not one-way, with the teacher giving and the student receiving. Self-learning and peer learning are encouraged and the children have the freedom to ask questions.

With a large majority of the children being from the Irula tribe, the school has instituted the practice of a multi-lingual classroom. For these children, the state language is as unfamiliar as English. A multi-lingual environment helps the child move comfortably from the tribal language to Tamil to English. This is also helped by the fact that many of the teachers in senior school come from other states or from foreign countries and do not know Tamil. All communication with these teachers is in English. The ensuing ‘struggle with communication’ is seen as part of the learning process and getting sensitized to each other’s cultures. The teacher learns as much as the children do.

The school is not just an academic centre; it is integrated into the ecosystem of the local community. The local people are a mix of the Irula tribe, Scheduled Castes and other backward communities. Apart from involving members of the local community as teaching and non-teaching staff, there are other opportunities for the school and the people to work together. A self-help group (SHG) has been established with some women from the Irula tribe. As the tribe has the right to collect certain forest produce, these women gather honey and wild gooseberry from the forest. The school helps them generate and market a wide variety of products made from locally available materials. The SHG members also source products for the school’s kitchen from wholesale dealers and sell them to the kitchen and the teachers. All these activities not only ensure their financial independence but also boost their self-esteem and confidence.

The school is thus not merely an institution where children study. It has evolved into a node where community members, especially women, come together and participate productively in its functioning. By functioning as a knowledge base and an occupational support platform, the school maintains its symbiotic relationship with the local community. This approach, where the community’s participation in the school’s activities is the result of a natural interaction, also fosters a sense of ownership about the school and its activities.

A transformational model

Education is an organic and human system; it is about people and the conditions under which they thrive. But people do have a choice, and sometimes they don’t want to learn. Every student who drops out has a reason, which is rooted in her biography. She might find school boring or irrelevant; she might find that it is at odds with her life outside school. Schools should, therefore, represent present life, and the teacher is a part of the community that helps the student in this understanding. The curriculum must reflect the development of humans in our society and use methods that focuses on the child’s interests. The information that is given to the child will be transformed into new images and symbols in the child’s mind to fit with newer experiences. This development is natural. To repress this process by imposing adult views on the child weakens his intellectual curiosity. Education must cultivate the intelligence to think without formula, and it is this intelligence that will find answers to questions.

With this philosophy in mind, Vidya Vanam has refrained from defining a finished pedagogical concept and a top-down approach. The daily routine, including classroom processes, is an integration of Montessori and constructivist principles with a grassroots engagement with the community it serves. The bottom-up approach and the vision to integrate the school into the larger ecosystem is in striking contrast to the public education system. In the ten years of its existence, Vidya Vanam’s model is not just an educational pedagogy but a transformational model that has percolated through the children into the community at large.

Life is a vast realm in which we function as human beings. If we prepare ourselves only for a job, we miss the whole point of living. We will then know only a small corner of life. Life is not just the math and science that we study; it encompasses emotions. Envy, jealousy and passion are patterns that emerge in the fabric of life. Caught in this matrix that we call life, we remain fearful. Is it possible to provide an environment of freedom that allows questioning, enquiry and an understanding of life? All this is not possible when we are afraid. The function of education is to remove this fear and thereby, bring back the magic of childhood. Education is the process of living and not merely preparation for future living.