Thursday, 3 November 2011

There is freedom of choice in school education too

Nobel prize winner William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897 to July 6, 1962) was your very ordinary, back-bencher who had little hope of ever graduating. And he is one of many geniuses who failed in the traditional educational set-up and still went on to become the kind of person other people were inspired by.
Most of our lives are governed by end results. In the cycle of getting a job and becoming a financial success, you tend to never discover what you might truly be good at. What follows is  a life of ‘making do’.
Luckily my straight-laced, competitive, public school education, was hijacked by a post college scholarship. I was learning things, not with the intention of getting a job at the end of it, but for the pure skill and fun of learning. A cross-cultural exchange program where you exchanged ideas with people from all walks of life, not only in India but from the UK as well.
Since then I have often wondered what would have happened to my life if I had spent a considerable period of time in alternate pursuits through alternate learning. Would it have made make me practical? Idealistic? Neither? How did the people from the ‘alternate school of thought’ use that education to survive in a not-so-alternate environment? Was it too utopian to remain a constant?
As the name obviously suggests, alternative education is a non-traditional education that includes a number of approaches to teaching and learning. The alternatives include charter schools, and independent schools. And they all emphasize the value of small classrooms and close relationships between students and teachers.
There are obvious advantages. A child gets more attention than he would in a class packed with 50 students. The fewer students foster stronger teacher-student relationships, there’s more exchange and listening than you would find in your average school, and perhaps most importantly, it manifests independent thought, because you don’t necessarily have a majority to follow.
Nivedita Soni, 26, Independent Professional, maintains it was hard to break away from the alternative-school-independent thought cycle without being angry at everything conventional at the start.
“As I met more and more people thanks to alternate programs I realised that I couldn’t be upset or angry with someone who thought it was better to pursue material needs in life because he had seen too much poverty”, she says. After shifting schools in class tenth when her school didn’t offer humanities, Nivedita felt she was game to try something different after finishing class twelfth. Despite protests from her Doctor Father, she opted out of regular college in pursuit of something more challenging and spent two years at Sholai school in Kodaikanal as part of the mature students programme.
Nivedita says, “I was a shy child but the school and the undivided attention of my teacher/guide helped me become more confident. I studied literature while play acing with my guide for the course, grew organic food, and learnt kabaad se jugaad. The third year, I decided to travel and absorb. In my third year I worked with Medha Patkar, worked with slum dwellers at Azad Nagar in Mumbai, and grew with each experience.
Srishti Lakhera, 26, Educational Researcher and Reformer, who has recently returned to India after studying at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington (an alternate school), says, “I was labelled as a stupid student throughout my school life. My self esteem was affected by mainstream education and the label it gave me. But exposure to alternate schools of thought helped me get my confidence back, not limit me by the grades I got, and helped me create a space where I could be myself.”
Actor Imran Khan is another person who benefitted through an alternate school education. In an unofficial site he admits that by the time he was in Class 4, he had a stammer and all kinds of nervous tics, and was almost close to flunking. His mother decided to enrol him in Blue Mountain School in Coonoor, and when the headmaster started his own school in Nilgiris, his mother moved him there. The school had only 25 students per class, no electricity or water, and the students lived in dorms they helped build.
Aparna Bhatt Jugran, a teacher in the United Kingdom, who has also worked in India is of a different opinion on the ‘alternative offer’. She says that in her experience as a teacher in both India and the UK she has found that while the Indian system may seem to lack space for a child who’s not text-book savvy, the freedom of choice given to a British kid means that although students may pass from one grade to another, they are compromising on the basic quality of education.
Almost the 20 odd people I spoke to who have been exposed to the alternate school of thought maintain one thing—the schools gave them a space to make mistakes without being bullied, humiliated, or made fun of. It gave them the confidence to speak up and speak out. Most come from well-to-do backgrounds and while a majority feel that the choice of taking the road less travelled was made easier by existing financial infrastructure, some maintain they would have taken the same route eventually, with or without the money.
Perhaps exposure, early on, to alternate education options might spare us those sullen, “Education ruined me” t-shirts.

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