Silver linings

Anand Niketan: A school which prepares you for life

Schooling in India often strips students of the joy of learning. Children are pushed to be hyper-competitive. In a world where each school competes to market itself as the next assembly-line producer of academic toppers,  I discovered a school which was a breath of fresh air. Anand Niketan.

Anand Niketan is a school run by the Nai Talim Samiti. It is located in the same Sevagram ashram premises where Gandhiji started his experimental educational system called Nai Talim in 1937. A peep into few sections of the school that afternoon (since I happened to be teaching next door in Shanti Bhawan) compelled me to take an appointment from the Principal, Mrs Sushama Sharma, and spend a few hours with her understanding the nature of this educational endeavour.

The philosophy of Nai Talim states that akshar gyaan (bookish knowledge) cannot be separate from karma gyan (knowledge of work). In Mahatma Gandhi’s words:

The principal idea is to impart whole education of the body, mind and soul through handicraft that is taught to the children.

Gandhi brought Dr Edward William Aryanayakam and Mrs Asha Devi Aryanayakam from Tagore’s Shanti Niketan to Sevagram to develop and implement the curriculum based on the Nai Talim philosophy. The couple not only ran various levels of the course, but also developed a teachers’ training system. However for some reasons the school closed down in 1974. (There is lots to say about Nai Talim so I will follow this up in a separate post later.)

Anand Niketan was started in the same premises in 2005 after this long gap of three decades. The school runs classes from balwadi (nursery) to Std 10 and has a strength of almost 275 students. As I arrived to meet Ms Sushama Sharma on a Saturday morning, there were two things that struck me. First, the premises were sparse, but extremely spic and span. I couldn’t spot a single stray paper or wrapper around. Second, a number of children were out of the classrooms, several riding bicycles. I found this unusual, but I was to discover the real reason soon enough.

The school believes that education cannot merely be an intellectual exercise. Students need to be prepared for life, which means, there needs to be “development of the head, hands and heart”. The three pillars of Gandhi’s pedagogy were: emphasis on the lifelong nature of education, attempts to turn students into socially aware citizens, and focus on their holistic development. And so, the curriculum followed by Anand Niketan has been designed to find opportunities in real life to impart the same knowledge, which is traditionally given exclusively from textbooks. To give you a flavour of the teaching style, I think it will be best to bring you random vignettes from different areas of the school.

Cleanliness is my responsibility

As is often seen in India, people maintain cleanliness within their houses, but the cleanliness of their surroundings is often ignored. Students and teachers of Anand Niketan clean their school and surroundings, including the toilets, themselves. No separate cleaning staff are appointed, and rotation schedules are put up, designating areas to be cleaned.  This training to keep their environs clean begins right from nursery classes. It teaches them the importance of dignity of labour, erases the hierarchical disdain for people who are in the profession of cleaning, and makes them responsible citizens with the much needed civic sense.

The schedule for cleaning showing teams responsible for designated areas

Flexibility to learn as they want

I noticed that instead of desks and chairs, nursery classes had low platforms. First, this furniture was designed so that little children could easily lift their low desks into any format, enabling group learning. More importantly, each student was responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of his desk and shifting it to a designated space after the class ended.

Learning was fun. Teachers simply facilitated learning in the junior classes. I saw them chatter about different forms of leaves and then write about them, exploring their vocabulary and imagination. One child held a large leaf over his head and compared it to the hood of a cobra! Fascinatingly, children sat in whichever way they were comfortable with. There was no restraining discipline which forced children to sit uncomfortably for long durations.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the teaching methods used in the balwadi. Children were taught to explore their surroundings for smells, sights, sizes and weights. Their way of teaching them language was particularly interesting.

Learning from their environment

Each class has a space designated for gardening and cultivation. Every child is expected to contribute to growing plants and crops. I saw some senior girls head out with pitchforks to the garden. Teachers seize the opportunity to introduce them to concepts in mathematics (like sowing plants in parallel lines), biology (for example, the nitrogen cycle is demonstrated on leguminous plants), ecology, economics, environmental science and even sociology.

A student learning transplantation of saplings in practice

What is even more fantastic is that whatever the students grow, is served as a meal in the form of a khichdi every afternoon at around 3 pm. Both boys and girls are taught cooking in school. These activities are compulsory and have been deliberately included to introduce the concept of swavalamban (self-reliance). Early in life they are taught to erase the usual gender stereotypes inherent in society and learn to work in tandem. The cooking lessons are also an opportunity to learn about nutritional concepts. I saw several charts demonstrating the micronutrients in chutneys. Junior classes are taught recipes where use of fire is not needed. But later everyone learns to chop, clean, and cook.

I watched as the students washed their hands and brought their plates to the teacher who served them hot khichdi. They sat in neat rows, ate, got up for second helpings if they wanted. Then they went to the cleaning area, disposed off waste, washed their plates clean and kept them in their places. Each action has been carefully thought of, teaching children to be responsible at an early age.

Training in skills

Tai, cycle durust zhali!” (Tai, my cycle has now been repaired), called out two girls to their Principal, displaying no fear of authority. All students are taught to carry out repairs of their cycles and patch up the punctured tubes. The science teacher uses the opportunity to teach them concepts of motion and friction. I learnt that Saturday was the day when academics were less, while students were given the creative freedom to explore and learn skills which they wanted to. That explained all the bicycle riders I met. A boy with a bright green bicycle wanted his teacher to ride it, as it would give her a smooth ride. He had just learnt about shock absorbers.

Besides these, students have learnt to make glycerine soaps. Stitching and embroidery classes are compulsory for both girls and boys. The school has several sewing machines where students are taught the basics of tailoring. They have a well equipped computer lab, where students work. Their geography and science laboratories are also up to date. The library is accessible to all students who wish to explore the world of books.

At Kabir Bhawan, students learn to spin the charkha and make khadi threads (soot). This teaches them hand-eye coordination. Keeping Gandhi’s legacy alive, this opportunity is used to teach students history, the fabric heritage of India, the effects of industrialization, evolving trends in cotton agriculture, farmer suicides, and much  more.

Students learning spinning on the charkha

Learning the arts and sports

Kala Bhavan was built by shramdan of students in the 1950s where Shri Devi Prasad was the art teacher. This historic space is now again being used to promote training in the arts. At Kala Bhavan, I saw the kids being trained in music, Kathak and Odissi. Students seemed very adept at painting. They also learn to make creative articles with waste. Handicrafts created by students are sold during the Anand Mela organized every year.

Kabir Bhavan is another historic building which is a centre for training in spinning (soot katai). Students learn to spin on the ambar charkha, and peti charkha. The entire wall of Kabir Bhavan has been painted by children. All the activities they are taught are reflected in these paintings. This includes malkhamb, waste segregation, mushroom cultivation, all religion prayer, yoga and sports.

On the ground and elsewhere I saw children being trained in sports. Some girls who were practicing for a competition showed off their rope malkhamb skills to me.

Girls practising rope malkhamb

Making them aware social citizens

Students at Anand Niketan regularly participate in Bal Sabhas. These are intense discussions which keep them aware about the divides in the outside world. So whether it is Dabholkar’s death, or Anna Hazare’s protests, all these issues are debated and discussed threadbare. Students are conscious of what needs changing. This school is definitely not focused on producing book worms.

Most students at Anand Niketan come from low socioeconomic households. But there are other parents who are well off and have chosen Anand Niketan to ensure that their children receive value education. The fees are very nominal.The medium of instruction is Marathi, as the school believes that it is important to impart education in the local language. So, while English is taught as a separate subject, mathematics, science and social studies are taught bilingually with an emphasis on Marathi. However this decision was an impediment in getting recognition from the Maharashtra State Board which insisted on recognizing only English medium schools. The recognition from the state board came in rather late.

I asked Mrs Sushama Sharma how her students fare in the outside world which measures success by different parameters, which are unfair to her students. She was prompt in responding that unfairness cannot be fought by unfairness. “My students are aware of these discrepancies and have the strength to resist everything that is wrong,” she said. Academically, her students were at par with the others, though their methods were drastically different. I had to agree that with a vision as clear as hers, no opportunity is missed to let her students grow.

The one lasting image that I came back with, was the joy of learning, which was evident in each child’s face. I did not see stress anywhere. Instead, there was curiosity, and an eagerness to explore the world around them. We need more schools which can bring back the joy of learning to the lives of children. Schools like Anand Niketan need to be supported in their endeavour.

One Comment

  • Jay Chalam

    Such a novel approach to education. I find many similarities in the hands on approach in the schools in the United States. Letting the child to be curious helps them to be good critical thinkers
    Thanks for sharing this with us Anshu

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