Friday, September 9, 2016

Amitabh Bachchan and the Forgotten Mothers (Genderally Speaking, September 2016)

Bollywood's first man, Amitabh Bachchan, wrote a letter to his granddaughters Aaradhya Bachchan and Navya Nanda on teachers’ day this year. The letter, laced by care and concern in every sentence, was an exhortation to the young girls to never be bothered about log kya kahenge (what people will say). It talks about how unfair the world is, which will, at every juncture, tell girls what and how to do. Amitabh read out the letter himself and posted the video on Youtube. Needless to say, social media went beserk in soft sentiments and the hashtag #ABLetter trended across various platforms.

While most people applauded Amitabh for sharing such a pertinent message, a few others criticized him for doing a publicity stunt of something he could have shared privately with his grandchildren. Some also observed that this was a marketing master stroke from the thespian for his upcoming film 'Pink' which deals with women's rights. In any case, Amitabh had carefully justified in the video itself why he chose to publish the letter online: because it is relevant to every granddaughter of this country.

But from a gender perspective, the real issue isn't the motive behind the letter; it is the introductory content of the letter: "You both carry a very valuable legacy on your tender shoulders – Aaradhya, the legacy of your pardadaji, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan…and Navya, the legacy of your pardadaji, Shri HP Nanda."

To consider only paternal legacy as any legacy at all is a grave mistake. It is crystal clear that Amitabh restricts his (or his father Harivanshrai Bachchan's) legacy to Aaradhya, his son's daughter. Additionally, Aaradhya's immensely strong maternal legacy is not spoken about. Even on the paternal side, Navya has Ritu Kapoor (the eldest daughter of Raj Kapoor) and Aaradhya has Jaya Bhaduri for grandmothers. What happened to their legacies? If things were to go in this pattern, the girls will cease to carry the Bachchan and Nanda legacy too, one day; if they choose to get married! The letter loses its validity right there.

True, it is the norm of our country to take the father's name. Patriarchy is all about that and it is the exact system which puts girls/women in an unfair social situation, and ironically what Amitabh talks against in the latter part of his letter. Taking the husband’s name after marriage was once an unquestioned norm; but there are lots of women who refuse to do it today, thanks to a lot of questions that were raised, a lot of battles that were fought.

A man of Amitabh Bachchan’s stature should be silent about this line of empowerment, if not be a spokesperson for it.  Reaffirming such patriarchal norms (even if inadvertently), while the whole country is listening, cannot be pardoned. Because until the day sons and daughters are both considered as legitimate bearers of the family name, every girl will face the stigma that he, and all of us, vociferously talk against.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Learning To Teach The Finnish Way (Teacher Plus, August 2016)

Every year, on Christmas Eve, Joulupukki (Yule Goat) leaves his residence situated in the mountains of Korvatunturi and comes knocking on the front doors of Finnish homes asking the same old question, "Are there any well-behaved children here?" One look at the super star status Finland enjoys in the global education scenario would tell you that the answer to Joulupukki’s question is always a yes.

For the layperson, Finland is a Nordic country tucked away in one of the coldest regions of the world. But any educator worth one’s salt would know that the country is one to rank consistently in the top spots in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study done by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) among 15 year old school pupils. As a nation, it provides one of the warmest learning environments possible, for its children.

Finland considers its children as the national treasure. This is exactly why their education is mostly done through state schools. All requirements of students, whether it is food, learning materials or daily commute, it is all taken care of by the state. Even the very few private schools in Finland get funded by the state and should adhere to the policies and processes laid out by the government. No child is made to commute more than five kilometres; every locality has a school. Smita Deorah, Co-founder & CEO of Leadership Boulevard, an organisation with a mission to provide affordable and high quality education to students in rural India, says, “As per the last OECD report, Finland spends as much as USD 10,547 per student, almost 7% of their GDP. Even in the years when they went through a GDP drop, their spending on education stayed; that's how seriously they invest in their future.” This is a crucial reason behind the Finnish success story. 
Chrysalis School Leaders Delegation
As an education research and innovation organization which focuses on delivering quality holistic education in Indian schools, Chrysalis works on various projects with major companies. One of such collaborations was with Nokia, a few years ago. The company, which has its headquarters in Finland, was able to put the Chrysalis team in touch with some key people in the Finnish education system. The country was already well known globally as a consistent PISA test topper. In 2012, thus began a glorious process of learning how to teach and teaching how to learn.

In each edition of this delegation, a team of 15 to 20 participants go on a razor sharp education expedition which involves rigorous immersion visits to various schools in Finland. According to Chitra Ravi, Founder and CEO of Chrysalis, the delegates are senior leaders from private and public school systems, from across India, who come to gain firsthand experience of education delivery in the Finnish school system and also to gain exposure to progressive ideas and innovative models.

Uma Maheshwari, Correspondent of Naahar Public School in Villupuram, admits that, while going on this journey, she was as curious as a kindergarten kid about what the Finnish were doing so differently, for their children to perform so well. “We slog it out in our schools, yet are so far behind. It was quite obvious that there would be a lot to learn.”

Child Centric Versus Teaching Centric

E. Prasad Rao, Chairman of Paramita and Iris World Schools, was a participant of the delegation in 2013. He says that the immediate contrast between the Indian and Finnish education systems is that the former is teaching centric while the latter is child centric. In Finland, everything is done with keeping the child in mind; even teachers’ training is aligned with that. “Unfortunately, our system is more class-bound with focus only on the knowledge domain. We only want to impart as many lessons as possible to our children,” he laments.

He was impressed by the flexibility the students and teachers had with respect to the curriculum. In one of the schools, when the delegates joined the class, the geography teacher instantly started teaching about India. “The children made the appropriate connection too and asked so many sensible questions to us,” says Rao. The Finnish system allows students to choose the subjects they want to study; it is their right to learn what they like.

Ganesh Subramanian, Director of Chrysalis adds that they have a concept of ‘less is more.’ “They do not want to burden the students with academics. If children enjoy and understand what they are doing, any learning outcome can be achieved.” Saveetha Veeraiyan, the Owner and Director of The Pupil - Saveetha Eco Schools, who went to Finland last year, says that although the Finnish teach less, what they teach, they teach in great depth such that there is maximum understanding. Compulsory education begins only at the age of seven and students get exposed to foreign languages only from Class III. Geetha Jayachandran, Principal of Yuva Bharathi Public School in Coimbatore and a delegate last year, says this is a significant policy: “In formative years, mother tongue plays an important role. It should not conflict with another language.”
Life Is More Important Than Lessons

In theory, all of us agree that education should make children better human beings and equip them to live life well. But the sad reality of the Indian education system is that we only train children to compete and earn degrees.

URC Devarajan, Secretary of URC Palaniammal Matric Higher Secondary School in Erode, attended the first edition of the Finland delegation and was impressed by the kind of life training Finnish children get in schools. “Even children in kindergarten are encouraged to go play outside in temperatures as low as -15 degree Celsius. They are clear that preparing the kids to deal with their lives ahead is the most important objective of education.” They also have indoor sports arenas – dedicated spaces which children can use when they cannot step out due to unfavourable weather. Yoga, gymnastics, swimming – a lot happens there under expert supervision of trainers.

It is also mandatory for them to take life management classes in skills such as stitching, cooking, carpentry and plumbing. There are laboratories devoted for these lessons and it is part of their curriculum. They are made to iron clothes; they go on hiking trips and learn how to make a tent.

Also, after every 45 minute class, there is a 15minute recess time. This elucidates the approach they have to learning; they do not have the false notion that children learn only when in class or when ‘being taught’. Geetha says: “Down to the bell that goes before and after the class being a melodious one, and not the usual ‘ding dong,’ each and every detail is given attention.” There are also small performance spaces at various spots in all schools. If any child feels like demonstrating a talent, he just needs to go up there and do it. There are no restrictions whatsoever. Undoubtedly, they grow up to be uninhibited personalities.
Productivity Versus Paper Degrees

Vocational training is given utmost significance in Finnish schools. They start these sessions when they are in Class V. After Class IX, they get to choose between a high school and a vocational school. Smita Deorah says, “as much as 50% students who clear Class IX go for vocational schools which are just as funded as high schools.”

Take the case of Tamilnadu. Close to 8 lakh students complete +2 every year in this southern state of India. Among them, only around 3.5 lakh go to college. The rest of them, having had no vocational training until then, drop out and get into jobs that involve no special skill. Devarajan argues that this is the reason why it should be made compulsory for Indian students to attend a skill development course before one turns 15. As a first step, he has initiated student visits to agricultural farms and handloom factories from his school. He is hopeful: “We are slowly trying to bring in an attitude change in students to go for vocational training.”

Say No To Ranking

The Finnish system does not believe in ranking children. Although exams are conducted regularly to analyse a child’s learning curve, the grades are used only for individual improvement, and not for comparison with others. Uma Maheshwari says that their children are exceptionally expressive and creative because they learn in an atmosphere of zero pressure. One is competing with no one else but oneself. India has a long way to go in this department; most of our schools still publish regular rank lists causing the parents and children to keep on comparing.
Better Teachers, Better Learning

The two countries are at two poles if you take into account the rigour that goes into the making of a teacher. As Smita Deorah puts it, “You need to have really good grades in high school, get selected into the top universities and then make it through a rigorous program before you get to enter a classroom. Making it to any of these is as tough as getting into IIT or IIM in India.” So it shouldn’t surprise us that the professional competency of Finnish teachers is way beyond our horizons. They mould the future of Finland, its children, so they get paid commensurately as well. In our country, teacher salaries are getting better by the day, in the government/aided sector. But this development adds to management corruption in dishing out teaching jobs for money in millions, and not as much to getting the right people for this significant role. Whereas in private sector, most schools pay the teachers poorly, in turn attracting a talent pool which is alarmingly low in quality.

Improving the staff rooms in her school was one of the first things Uma Maheshwari did after coming back from the delegation. “Taking care of the teachers is one of the most effective ways to improve learning,” she says. A space where teachers can relax and access quick references, without having to go to the library, is a must in her opinion. “I sacrificed a lab to achieve this,” she quips.

Devarajan adds that reducing the intervention of management in the academic activities and giving autonomy to the Principal and teachers is one of the key changes he effected in his school, post this delegation. Uma is trying to get in more guest speakers to reduce student monotony of listening to the same people throughout the year.
Inclusion And Collaboration - The Keywords

Yet another commendable aspect of the Finnish system is that they have an inclusive approach. Children with special needs study along with others, and each school has at least two trained teachers to cater to them. There are also exclusive spaces in all schools to facilitate their learning.

Finnish educators also have the liberty to divide the classes into groups according to their knowledge assimilation. As Prasad Rao puts it, “children who need more time to learn a particular lesson can have it and the groups come back together when their knowledge levels are aligned.” Mind you, teachers do this strategically by using different methods to teach children with different response levels; there is no risk of alienating ‘poor performers.’
When there are more brains working on a task, the goal is achieved more quickly. There isn’t a single employer in the world who doesn’t seek team spirit as a characteristic in their prospective employees. Forget the workplace, even to live life in general; team work is essential because family and relationships also demand that. Saveetha Veeraiyan put a full stop to the system of ‘home work’ at her schools after she came back from Finland. Instead, students get together as groups and complete their tasks while in school just as they do in Finland. “There is more pride of ownership and the learning is much deeper; a total win-win situation,” she says. Teachers are also specifically instructed to motivate groups, rather than individuals, in class.

Geetha Jayachandran borrowed the concept of collaboration from Finland and now makes her teachers use it effectively. Teachers who teach various subjects come together and undertake a theme based project which will make them explore an interdisciplinary approach. It helps the teachers to understand, and thus be prepared with, the knowledge level a student comes with, from a lower class.
Freedom Is Responsibility

The one stark difference between our system and theirs, as every delegate who participated in this program points out, is the freedom quotient which manifests in numerous ways. Finnish students enjoy absolute freedom and the teachers are present only to facilitate their learning process. Consider this: it is common there for children to sit in the class with their legs put up on the desk. For us, it is unthinkable because our notion of respect and discipline is deeply rooted in its physical expression.  But we have to note that no one has to impose discipline in a Finnish classroom. Saveetha says, “They don’t have to be asked to be silent. They are attentive and never make their teachers raise their voices.”

Finnish schools also allow children to use mobile phones while in school. But the students, who have been integrated well in the free atmosphere, use it responsibly only to learn more about the new things they heard in class. Uma strongly believes that our system has a long way to go before we give that kind of freedom to our students; otherwise they are sure to misuse it.
Technology For Education, Used Right

One of the key highlights of all education improvement plans in India is better use of technology. Whether it is in the context of infrastructure or the mode of teaching/learning, we place a lot of emphasis on it. Prasad Rao points out how Finnish use technology only appropriately. “They do not place technology in the forefront like we do. They use it in an activity based manner, to the context.” Of course, as far as access to technology is concerned, we are always trying to catch up whereas they are already on the top of the game. With choice, comes freedom.

Keep Improving

In Devarajan’s opinion, the delegation should be followed up with more rigorous work in the schools. Chrysalis can take the lead in conducting follow up workshops to help the leaders incorporate their learning from Finland in their respective schools.

Saveetha says: “Some more interaction on the evaluation aspect - ours is a totally marks based whereas they look at the overall personality of child – would have been beneficial.” Smita opines that the schedule was jam packed with immersion visits such that there wasn’t enough time to reflect with the other delegates.

The program has had five editions so far with only Indians participating in it. But with the overwhelming enquiry levels from countries like Singapore and Sri Lanka, the sixth delegation will have a few international participants this year. The Chrysalis team, always looking at making the delegation more diverse in representation cannot be happier. Moving the delegation visits from being centred in Helsinki in the initial years, to schools in Jyväskylä last year, is also a step in the direction of diversity.

Ask Chitra if they have expansion plans to take the delegation to other countries like Shanghai, which have performed well in the recent PISA scores, she is quick to reply. “Of course, but our dream is much bigger. We see ourselves bringing the delegation inwards and making the world see and learn from what the Indian education system has to offer. That time will come soon.” 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Multi-layered Learning - Pallikoodam (Teacher Plus, August 2010)

Pallikoodam was founded as ‘Corpus Christi’ in 1968 by Mary Roy. Mary Roy is well known in Kerala civil society as the fiery lady who challenged and helped absolve the Travancore Succession Act of 1916 by which Christian women in Kerala were denied ‘Equal Rights of Inheritance’.

Mary Roy talks about what inspired her to start Corpus Christi on the school website: “My son was a happy seven year old at Lushington School, Ooty. Unfortunately, he began to identify himself as being British. He talked about 'those Indian children'. I realized it was time for him to go to an Indian school. The first day he came home carrying a bag with 16 notebooks and 10 textbooks and wept! This was my first glimpse of what was wrong with education in India.”

Mrs. Roy started operating with seven students at a hall leased by the Rotary Club of Kottayam. When the numbers grew, they shifted to the current location at Vadavathoor which was completely barren at that time. Today, the lush green campus is a sight to behold. The multi-layered architecture designed by the prodigious Laurie Baker is cost-effective, environment friendly and immensely beautiful. Umpteen varieties of trees, all neatly labeled with their common names (in English and Malayalam) and botanical names, grace the campus. In the words of June Jose, Vice Principal, they have all been planted by Mrs. Roy herself or by a bird! Unlike most concrete jungle school campuses, the only two colours in the landscape of Pallikoodam are brown and green – that of earth and nature. The splash of colours from children’s creativity, of course, does grace the walls.

New name, old values

Mrs. Roy asserted her allegiance to her roots by changing the English name ‘Corpus Christi’ to Pallikoodam (Malayalam for ‘school’) in 2000. She also wanted to do away with the Christian tag that the former name had. The same year, the school introduced Malayalam medium in nursery, Std. I and II.

Malayalis have great adaptability. But the dangerous aspect of this nature is that we quickly give up on our roots and end up giving a step-motherly treatment to our own inheritance. With Pallikoodam, Mrs. Roy wanted to break away from our colonial influence and revive Malayali culture in school education,” says June. That is precisely why students here greet their teachers with a ‘Namaskaram’ rather than a ‘Good Morning Teacher’. They also refer to the older teachers as ‘Kochamma’ and the younger ones as ‘Chechi’ – ‘Miss’ and ‘Ma’am’ are banned!

That does not mean their growth is restricted by the shackles of regionalism. Rooted strongly to their mother tongue and native culture, they just grow up to become stronger trees with widespread branches. The school is proud of its alumni which has many global citizens as members. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, Mrs. Roy’s daughter and one of the first students of the school, is just one among them. 

Until recently, the school struggled to overcome the “expensive” tag. With no association with any organization – religious or otherwise – the only income for the management comes from students’ fees. One look at a campus with expanding land area and first class facilities makes it clear where the money is spent – in developing students’ learning environment. “We have had cases of children whose families went through financial crisis much after they joined. We immediately put them on scholarship. Money has never been and will never be a constraint for education here,” clarifies June.

On a different learning path

Although it is an ICSE affiliated school, Pallikoodam puts to use the council policy that only the board examinations in Std. X and Std. XII need be strictly adhered to. The process of preparing the students with skills necessary for those examinations is entirely up to the schools. While most schools take the easy way out by simply reading out from text books, Pallikoodam does it differently. “We follow the council syllabus only from Std. IX. Until then, teachers take a call on what needs to be taught. We refer multiple textbooks and resources to prepare course material and worksheets. Students study only from their lecture notes and these worksheets; there are no textbooks for them,” says Shylaja Ranjit, a senior teacher who teaches physics.

An informal group teaching mode is adopted until Std. IV. Children in each class are divided into groups. Activities related to different subjects are allotted to each group and thus multiple subject classes go on simultaneously. Even if a child is slower than the rest in the group, he/she can continue working on his/her subject while the others move on to the next one. This method calls for a greater amount of preparation on the part of teachers than the conventional lecture method.

The practice of ‘free writing’ is encouraged as well. English is introduced in Std. III through the phonetic method, emphasizing the spoken rather than the written word. After learning English sounds, they are made to spell words on their own. Given the anomaly in English spellings, they often make mistakes. The teachers, however, do not mark the mistakes in red or correct them. With the extensive reading they are made to do from then on, they eventually get a grip on correct spellings naturally. 

There are no annual examinations until Std. VII. Assessment is a continuous process and tests are conducted regularly to analyze students’ understanding of the subject. Children get only grades for these tests, not marks. However, in Std. VIII, the first two terms end with tests-with-marks as a preparation for their first annual examination. Even then, there is no system of declaring ‘ranks’. “The ISC topper may be from Pallikoodam, but it is not news that is shared or celebrated publicly,” says Shylaja. The school just does not recognize that the score in an exam is an indicator of anything at all.

There is no detention until Std. IX either as the school firmly believes that there is no problem child. “All children, by themselves, are brilliant. If there is a problem, it is elsewhere. It is our duty to identify that and give remedial help. There is no need to make a child lose an entire academic year,” explains June. With less than 450 students (including nursery and plus two), the average number of students per class is 35. There are no divisions. This gives ample room for teachers to understand each student – their strengths and weaknesses.

Leela Gopikrishnan, whose kids went to Pallikoodam, says, “There was an instance when my son had just scored well in an exam and I was asked to meet his class teacher. Instead of a compliment, she shared her concern over his carelessness. I was pretty impressed with the observations she had made before she told me this. Despite being his mother, I hadn’t noticed them!” Pallikoodam has a policy of not allowing students to live with any relative, but parents. If neither parent is in town, residential schooling is compulsory.

Parents are also strictly instructed not to arrange private tuitions for their children. The school understands that burdening kids with knowledge twice over is not a good idea. Also, there is every chance that children with help from outside the school won’t pay enough attention in school classes. An exception is made only for students who take up entrance coaching classes in Std. XI and XII.

Despite the economic meltdown and the pink slip aftermath, most Malayali parents still prefer that their children take up engineering and medicine. Schools also take pride in manufacturing engineer and doctor material and many of them, especially in the private sector, cooperate by providing entrance coaching after school hours. Pallikoodam begs to differ. June says, “We emphasize to every parent who comes here for admission that if you want your child to be a doctor or engineer only, this is not the right place.” From Std. VIII, students start receiving group and individual career counselling from experts who conduct tests to explore their aptitude.

The school believes in giving children all possible opportunities and helping them make the right choice. Swimming, drama, yoga, cooking, sewing and physical education are part of the curriculum and therefore non-negotiable. In addition, they can choose a minimum of two extracurricular activities from the options provided by the school, which includes kathakali, bharatanatyam, karate and music. If students are interested in something else, they are also encouraged to find and bring tutors to the school. Interaction with stalwart artists happens regularly so that students have high standards of reference when it comes to achievement.

The equal importance given to extracurricular activities, says Shylaja, is what makes Pallikoodam different – so much so that they cannot be called extracurricular any more, they are very much a part of the curriculum! When most schools relax extracurricular involvement of Std. X and Std. XII students, Pallikoodam makes it work as a stress buster for them to face the board examination calmly. 

The school also focuses on helping children grow as team players. Most of the graded activities are group efforts throwing the concept of individual competition out of the window. Every class does a theme assembly once a year which is an out and out group effort: participation from every student in the class is mandatory. This is also an opportunity for the class teacher to gauge the interests of her students. Regular assemblies happen every week in which teachers are not involved in any other way than attending them. There is no system of assembling and dispersing in lines as well. Discipline, the school believes, is something that must be silently inculcated as a way of life.

Establishing discipline differently wasn’t easy for Mrs. Roy when she started out. There were vehement protests from conservative parents of the small town Kottayam when she introduced swimming classes for boys and girls together. She showed the same grit that she had put to use at the Kerala High Court and had it her way. Leela remembers how Mrs. Roy had once brought a Jazz musician from Mumbai to ‘jazz up’ the interactions of boys and girls when she felt they were inhibited. As unconventional as it sounds, the underlying principle is just that children nurtured in an uninhibited environment become more responsible social beings.

This is exactly what reflects in Bala Bhu Bhadratha, an environmental organization started by the students of Pallikoodam. Their major project is solid waste management and implementation of Municipal Wastes Management and Handling Rules, 2000, in Kottayam. As a part of this project, they give composting units for bio degradable waste to every student’s family. The Citizen’s Action Forum is another group that functions from the school that takes up any issue related to Kottayam.

This school’s success illustrates how we need to be the change that we want to see. Many of us smiled in agreement when Aamir Khan preached jovially in the film, 3 Idiots, about the loopholes in our education system. And then, we moved on with the same old carrot and stick policy. Maybe there is a better way!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Changing Times For Tiny Tots (Teacher Plus, July Issue)

With inputs from Deepti Bharthur

Surely, education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties; with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and its joys.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

The image of a proud little boy or girl taking off for school, excited to distraction is maybe something that only plays out on a Sarva Shiksha Abhyan advertisement. The Tabula Rasa approach to education doesn’t do for today’s generation of parents who will do anything to make sure their children get what they see as a much-needed edge to succeed in life.

With the spread of the corporate franchise preschools in urban India over the past decade, the notion of preprimary education in India has been fundamentally revamped. A fully developed curriculum, lesson plans, organised activity are all factored into the system, gearing towards preparing the child with a sound cognitive base for school.

‘Learning Readiness’ is the first of the three laws of learning developed by the renowned American educational psychologist Edward Thorndike. It is a simplistic concept that ‘individuals learn best when they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn, and they do not learn well if they see no reason for learning.’ Although this concept can be applied to human learning at any stage, it is particularly significant for the 0-7 age group because any experience during this impressionable age has a long-term effect. Manju Shetty, an education consultant at Chennai says that if we initiate learning before children are ready, they may learn and perform. But by the time they come to class four when fractions are introduced, they will be saturated and lethargic. In other words, they become “schooled” in performing certain operations but do not truly “learn” in the deeper sense of the term.

The late Prof. N. Sankaran Nayar, eminent educationist and psychologist who contributed to the first authoritative nursery syllabus in Kerala back in 1963, says in his book The Concept and Practice of Preschool Education that readiness has two components – maturation and experience. While the former refers to the physical aspect (the child’s hand becoming strong enough to use a pencil), the latter refers to a background of related experiences. It is in providing the child with more experiences that preprimary education can contribute in ‘readying’ them for formal learning at primary school. Maturation on the other hand must progress at its own pace and cannot be forced.

Preprimary education has two phases in today’s Indian context – playschool and nursery (also known as kindergarten). Two years of kindergarten (German, means children’s garden) has been in vogue for some time now and it has almost become the first phase of compulsory education these days. While the notion of preschool has been around for over three decades in the country its apparent importance has increased in the recent years. Understandably, there is some confusion between the terms “preschool” and “playschool” because one refers to a phase of education while the other refers to the approach taken within education.

The huge increase in advertising for preschools and nurseries only leads to further confusion: are these spaces where children get together to play and be cared for in the absence of parents, or are they spaces where they are “readied” for formal school? Where the early preschools, slightly upgraded day care centres, were all about comfort and care, the newer ones focus on social and intellectual development - and therefore evince a greater interest in “method”.

Mr. J. Joseph, Managing Director of Sydney Montessori Schools based in Kerala, says, “I wanted to change the system of leaving children to under qualified people. Ayahs with minimal educational qualification are not equipped with the resources to provide a child during this important phase.” Joseph started Sydney with one student in a small town called Kottayam. The main challenge he faced was parents’ hesitation to pay fees of over a thousand rupees per month, especially since an older institution in the neighbourhood, run by nuns, was charging only a quarter of it. “We don’t mind spending lakhs on making our children engineers and doctors, but what is the point if we have ignored the most important phase of their lives?” he asks.

But word of mouth spread faster than he expected and within no time, Sydney became famous for the difference it was making. It now has six branches in three districts in Central Kerala. However, Joseph himself clarifies that although the school focuses on all round development of the child, character formation and finding their true potential, it does not completely follow the Montessori system as the name suggests. “There isn’t the right kind of environment for that in Kerala. It will be useful only if the child can carry on with it during primary education and upwards,” he says.

It is known that Montessori schools differ in their interpretation and practical application across the world because of the ambiguity in Maria Montessori’s work in describing the method itself; she focused more on the effects of the method. Take Anuradha Rao’s case, for instance. With the experience of running the Naval Wives Welfare Association playschool in Visakhapatanam, she started one at her house in Hyderabad after her husband’s retirement. She wanted to take it to the next level and attended a Montessori training program at Basheerbagh. “The classes went fine, but during a two week teaching practice session at a school, I saw multiple instances where the inner urges of children were being disregarded. The original Montessori style is about letting the child be. I couldn’t agree and so I quit.”

The Waldorf method developed by the Australian philosopher Rudolph Steiner has also gained niche popularity in Indian schools recently. Based on a more humanistic pedagogy, the Waldorf style is different from mainstream teaching methods. Manju, who also has 13 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher at Shloka Waldorf School in Hyderabad says, “We use the playway method. Our play materials and even the classroom ambience is the same in all countries. But we follow what is called the rhythm of the child – which starts with their heartbeat,” she says.

At Euro Kids, a leading preschool chain in India, a combination of playway method and Montessori style is put to use. Asha Swaminathan, Academic Coordinator for the Kerala Territory, says: “Our philosophy is based on this idiom - I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. So instead of just saying A for Apple, we bring an apple to the class, make them smell, touch, peel, cut and eat. All senses are at work that way.”

However, preschool institutions are not all about fun and play. Teachers often encounter challenges while working with children from dysfunctional, unhappy homes or with a history of abuse. Manju speaks of a senior kindergarten student in her charge who was grappling with an incident of attempted molestation at a park. “Fortunately, nothing happened. But the child became so clamped. I requested the parents to give her one more year in kindergarten. They are so grateful for that one year now. She has forgotten it (the episode) completely.”

Joseph remembers having a four year old who was so tactfully sexually abused by her uncle that she developed a sexual interest. The parents had not communicated this, but her behaviour with older boys upped the teachers’ antennae. The parents, however, later confessed that they sent her to Sydney just so that she could get over it.

Parents are a problem!

Anuradha, who runs a non formal playschool (just three hours everyday), says she has had parents who were worried about their children not knowing the alphabet and numbers 1-20 while other kids did.

Manju confesses that the biggest challenge in her career has been dealing with parents, not children. “They should understand that children are like our five fingers, all are different but each one is indispensable. There is no point in comparing them.” But she herself says that ‘the parents who trouble you a lot are the genuine ones.’ That is precisely why Waldorf gives parents the opportunity to participate in the class for a day and watch their kid learn.

Euro Kids arranges a parent orientation program at the outset itself to avoid such ‘a conflict of interest.’ “We make it clear to parents what we will be doing and what the expectations from them are. They are equal contributors in their child’s development,” says Asha.

Joseph and his wife Jasmine have had a tough time dealing with indifferent parents. The attitude is that ‘we pay you and you are supposed to do this.’ There have been cases when the kids are bathed and sent home and they return the next morning without even brushing. Some parents even touch teachers the wrong way while handing over the child. Some come drunk to school to drop children. And most of them are completely averse to feedback as well.

But there are also parents like Jyothi Rao, whose daughter has gone to Anuradha’s school as well as Euro Kids in Kukatpally, Hyderabad. She can list the learning of her child in each place with the changes in her behaviour; such is the level of involvement!

An important factor to keep in mind here is that the nursery school is not a substitute but an extension of the home. Neither home nor school can take care of all needs and they cannot function in isolation as well. A coordinated approach working at an individual plane (parent visiting school and teacher visiting home) and a collective plane (parent teacher meetings to discuss common problems) is required. Of course, basic manners are not negotiable.

Teachers don’t just teach...

In many of these institutions, teachers have the freedom and responsibility to choose the school activities based on children’s interest and pace. They ‘prepare an environment’, as Maria Montessori puts it, where children do not have to be forced with either the carrot or the stick to learn.

Equating teaching with discipline gets a strict negative nod. Regimentation is a serious hazard to mental and emotional health of children at this age; what they need is a free permissive atmosphere where free activity is not only tolerated but encouraged. As Swami Vivekananda ardently advocates, teachers should help them manifest the perfection they already have in them.

The Waldorf system calls their teachers ‘facilitators.’ “We talk very little unlike in other schools. If a child asks why the sky is blue, we don’t give a readymade answer. We ask back, ah, why is it blue? This will make him observe and experience by himself that the sky changes colour as the day progresses,” Manju explains. At Sydney, teachers are given special training to understand that it is a re-rooting process for children, their first exposure to a world outside home, which calls for a lot of care. One teacher is assigned to each kid during the time of joining and it is her duty to see that the child is comfortable being away from parents and home.

Euro Kids employs a ‘reporting and inspection system’ to deal with the problem of widespread franchisees. Each school has to call the territory Academic Coordinator every day and give a report. Additionally, monthly inspections are arranged. Coordinators across the country meet once in four months to discuss feedback from teachers across the board and to amend the curriculum accordingly.

Getting the right applicants is a challenge faced by all these schools. Most schools consider good English communication skills and graduation a must and mothers are preferred. But an attitude problem among educated people in teaching at preprimary level is the biggest deterrent. ‘I did not do my post graduation to teach at a nursery’ is a statement that is often heard. What many teachers do not realize is that this is the place where he or she can make maximum difference to a child’s life.

Of course, the attitude problem has a lot to do with the poor salary scale of playschool and kindergarten teachers. At Sydney, every teacher gets a basic salary of Rs.5000 plus performance based bonus. Joseph says he knows many schools that are run with teachers who have just passed plus two and have undergone nursery teaching training and are paid as low as Rs.1000. Sister Nirmal, Principal of St. Lukes Nursery School, Gandhinagar says that all three teachers in her school have only completed these courses.

While enhanced pay scales will go a long way in attracting a better talent pool, a genuine interest in teaching young children is important for those who wish to make a career in it. Asha once had a post graduate who had come for the post of Counsellor, but the vacancy was for teaching. “She was averse to the idea, but I requested her to be with us for a month and see how things go. She loves her job today.” If that’s not enough, she vouches for it herself – “I have 100% job satisfaction.”

The early years of a child’s life must be handled with care and consideration - in terms of providing the right physical and emotional environment, and in terms of having the right kind of people around the child. While a warm and nurturing home may be the best place for a child to take early lessons for life, the space provided by a preschool can offer a valuable addition to those lessons—through peer interaction and play, which is after all, a child’s work.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Conversation With Nasreen Munni Kabir (Channel 6, April Issue)

Even while living in London, you have kept your umbilical cord with India uncut by choosing to work with Indian cinema. Was it a conscious effort?
Most immigrants settled abroad, whether from India or any other country, are connected to their homeland through food, religious practice and language — it isn’t surprising that such a connection is there and unchanging. We might live 500 years abroad but we’re not white. We will always be asked: “Where are you from — originally?”
Like many others, I grew up watching films, and Indian films too. I wanted to work in cinema so combining the idea of home with a leaning to study and become a practitioner in films was exciting.

While filming, what is your perspective – of an NRI/outsider or someone closer home who is trying hard to give a piece of home to a whole lot of them?
Believe me when I started in 1978, Hindi films were not considered “cool” at all. The whole story changed in the early 1990s; I think through the popularity of film music and the arrival of the Khans — young people began to think of Indian cinema as something they were proud of. Before that, many middle class families looked down on Hindi films.
Once you know a subject well, you become an insider; at least you hope to be be considered as such. Outsiders usually study a subject in greater detail because they don’t take anything for granted as an insider might. I have been working on Hindi cinema for 32 years, starting in the late 1970s — organised huge Indian film festivals in Paris, programmed (and still do) Indian films on British TV, made over 80 documentaries and written nine books on the subject — so I hope the question of insider/outsider doesn’t arise anymore. The most important thing for me is having had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people working in Indian films.

Your affinity to a certain era of Hindi cinema is apparent. Does that mean you believe that the quality of today’s cinema has gone down so much so that it is not worth studying or documenting?
You can’t study every period if you study cinema seriously. You just don’t have the time to go so deeply. If you do everything, you’d be a generalist and I prefer specialising. I really like the 1950s, and actually if I know anyone’s work really well it is only Guru Dutt. I’ve spent over ten years researching his life. It involved talking to people who knew him and thinking about his work and his approach to cinema. I am still learning about the 1950s.
Every period has their history-makers. And some top names today will impact the future. It’s not only the past that endures the test of time; each generation has a place in history.I hope this generation of filmmakers are documented too. I don’t see any great evidence of that. There are hundreds of TV interviews with actors and directors of today, but I doubt if these interviews have lasting value or give great insight.

Technology has made it possible to capture historical developments inexpensively. Yet there is no serious chronicling of cinema that happens these days. Most people indulge in frivolous conversations. Why do you think this situation has come about?
TV is a big monster that needs feeding; and quickly. It is hungry 24/7. When you do things fast, how can they be deep and thought-through? There isn’t the time to reflect. We also favour a culture of the “here and now” and chat shows satisfy that need. Do audiences like serious interviews? I think so, but do the TV channels think so? The big hiccup is that chat shows aren’t archival material — how many times can you see the same episode of a gushing presenter talking to a star, who often says the same things? Just about once. Archival value means something else.

You have often expressed the opinion that, as an art, cinema is not judged on the same plane of, say, theatre. Yet it is the most sought after and influential medium we can think of, especially in India. Isn’t there an irony there?
Yes, there is irony in that. But most-after things aren’t often considered art. Soaps may get high TRPs, but are they art?
Cinema is the greatest art form of our times and is recognised as such in the West. It combines art, music, theatre, literature, photography, performance, choreography — and has developed its own language to tell stories. But often for an art form to be recognised as an art form, people need to write about it. And that process has already begun — since the past ten years, there are more and more books written about Indian cinema.

Things have changed since you started your career. On one side, celebrities have been overexposed through the media flood. And on the other, access to them has becomes difficult. What have been your recent experiences?
Yes, access is more difficult because celebrities just don’t have a minute to breathe. But they give me time when they can, because they seem to like my work. My documentaries and books have done well like the book on Lata Mangeshkar or the documentary on Shah Rukh Khan which was called The Inner/Outer World of SRK.
Personal relationships mattered more in earlier times and it’s true of all professions. If you blog or tweet it doesn’t mean you’re a friend. Tweets to me are like weather bulletins — how am I feeling right now? With emphasis on the “I.” Not the “we.”
But we live in hugely complex times and to be noticed in the crowded market-place, perhaps you have to be a narcissist. I think today even Superman would not revert to being ordinary Clark Kent.

A little bit about your upcoming project with A R Rahman?
It’s a book of conversations. We’ve just started. Too early to explain its shape. But A R Rahman is a solidly genuine person and working with him is knowing that great artists can firmly have the ground under their feet.