What is alternative education?

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A few weeks back, a university professor in course of a conversation asked what “alternative education” means. She hazarded a guess – that it is about educating those who are differently-able.

I figured she was hard at work making sense of the word “alternative” beginning with the typical process of ascribing “mainstream” or perhaps “normal” (in this context) to people with accepted and proven ability to learn, process information and get good scores in exams. Then, moving outwards, assumed “alternative” as a word for provisioning and servicing needs of those who are outside of this normal. I wasn’t surprised. In over two years as a teacher in an alternative school, this was very familiar. That is a whole lot of myth which goes along with it.

The word “alternative” in alternative education stands for non-conventional approach to learning, teaching and education on the whole. This stands as opposed to the ways in which school as an institution in the society has developed and perfected a form of processing children through standardized processes. For instance, transacting the curriculum decided at the beginning of an academic year in a timed manner through the year. In this, the teaching part proceeds at its own speed irrespective of the ability of the learner to understand the ideas which are relayed by the teacher. Also, the learner may not be able to related to the contents of the curriculum and the thought-process that it brings along. Yet, the instruction stands applied to all the learners in the classroom.

There are wide-ranging views on what alternative education means and how does one approach it. At Poorna, I find that the alternative component is about the practice of education – how the school and its teachers approach the process of education and translate it into daily processes in school as well as daily actions that the teachers take in their classrooms. Take for instance, the practice of morning assembly which is common in schools across the country. It is a daily practice across thousands of schools where kids sing hymns, religious prayers or may be a couple of nationalistic songs and the national anthem at the end of it. All through, the kids are expected to stand in queues, follow a certain order and present themselves according to a set form of behaviour. This institutionalizes the behaviour of observing queues, knowing the national anthem and instill a certain regimentation. At Poorna, this is not practiced. Even the fact that meeting every morning is a must, is also done away with. Assembly time is a simple affair meant for all the children in the school to gather together. No queues. No order. Everyone takes whatever space they’d like to. No organization according to classes and separate queues for boys and girls. It is just free flowing gathering. The national anthem is not sung everyday. Neither is there a set of songs/hymns to be sung from a prayer book. The children are free to perform a play or a skit (in which their teachers help them) or play some music, do a  book review perhaps or observe a two minutes silence and disperse. I have seen this way of meeting work great in terms of children gathering by themselves, deciding what to discuss and then drive the entire meeting on their own with equal participation from teachers.

The other very necessary part of alternative education is non-coercive learning as a necessary aspect of school’s approach to education. This can be difficult to realize in full spirit and I have seen schools as well as teachers practice this in varying degrees. The idea is not to force a lesson on a student if he is not ready for it or is not inclined to learn it. Neither the school as a system nor the teacher in the classroom force the child to learn anything that he is not up for. This is a fuzzy space where the teacher and the school has to determine boundaries for themselves and operate within that. From my experience teaching economics and sociology to the senior secondary students I know that this is hard to practice. I face a fair deal of resistance from students while discussing concepts in economics. This is where, it matters that the teacher knows that non-coercion is a necessary condition but that he must now improvise or work around the challenge of getting the students interested in the topic by some other way where the students have the space to not feel forced or compelled to read that topic. It is a slow and hard process as I realized.

In the past year, I volunteered to teach several different age groups of children. Here is another alternative idea – children are grouped according to their age. There is no concept of classes or standards in an alternative setup. Working with different age groups I see that a learner-centered and learner-driven approach helps tremendously in building confidence in children. This works very well until the 14-15 age group, as I see. After that the students take up senior school board exams and then move towards senior school certificate exam. This is where keeping the spirit of learner-driven approach becomes difficult because now there is a rigid curriculum in place and that it needs to be transacted within the time period determined by the board of education. This is where the teaching process in the classroom moves beyond the control of the teacher and the school. The control is taken over by the board of education which applies a set of standardized methods and processes that the school program must follow.

This post was meant to highlight only a couple of ways in which alternative education operates. A longer post must be written about the effects of such an approach on the learners. There is very pressing need in the society for such experiments in education which break away from the standardized format of imparting education. This is because it is a fairly acknowledged fact by now in India that the mainstream form of education as practiced in schools is straight-jacketing the children where they are processed in a manner that they become the feed-stock for the industry to make use. Such a negative view was taken by Marx and further developed by Althusser, which I think does seem to be an appropriate critique of school learning in India.

Meanwhile, last week during school assembly (which happens at the end of the day not in the morning and thrice a week only) saw a splendid flute recital accompanied by tabla by two kids. It is one of the finest live performance I have witnessed. This is also an instance where alternative approach to education helps in bringing out and working with what the child possesses, not what he ought to have as skills or qualities!

The kid playing tabla has had rather serious learning disabilities. But I was struck by his skills in music. It was a sight… pure joy to watch him play those notes on tabla. I now believe that they children are capable of achieving any thing that they set themselves upon. It is adults who come in the way with their own apprehensions and doubts. The kid playing flute was stirring the afternoon breeze! His name is as lyrical as his music – Malhar.

It was one of those days at school when I have come back changed, in a very fundamental way! A part of me turns a die-hard believer in human potential and in the pursuit of alternative approaches to education.

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One comment

  1. praveenasridhar · August 23, 2015

    ​Reads so well Sachin. Its touching too.

    The school is doing so good to you!

    Best Praveena Sridhar http://themetanarratives.wordpress.com | @praveenasridhar

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