LILA: Thank you for joining us in this issue of Inter-Action, themed ‘Education’. You have set up a very interesting school for tribal communities on the border or Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The innovative methodology developed here seems to reflect educational ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. Can you tell us a little bit about the philosophical and historical foundations of your school, Vidya Vanam?
Prema Rangachary: I think I should give you a little background on how the school came to be to understand these ideas. In 2003, I started volunteering at the Balwadis (also known as Anganwadi) in the villages in and around Anaikatti near Coimbatore. Here I noticed that the teachers were occupied only in making mid-day meals, and the children would also come only for the meals and go back home. When I brought this up with the teachers, they said they had no idea or training about what they were supposed to do. I started meeting with them every weekend to discuss these problems, and gradually realised that they were also quite anxious about the children’s education. They pointed out that not every village had schools that were easily accessible. Often, students would drop out after fifth grade because by that age they became a little more independent and realised that there was no connection between what they were learning and what they were doing. The members of the tribal Irula community who lived in these villages were interested in sending their children to school but knew that what the government was offering was not what they wanted. But, at the same time, they wanted their children to learn English. This is how the idea of setting up an English-medium school in this area came about — from their own demand.
Meanwhile, I was also reading about the history of the Irulas, who lived in the foothills of the Nilgiris. They were hunters and food gatherers and their nomadic lifestyle disappeared with diminishing access to the forests. The consequent loss of independence shattered their self-confidence and they became suspicious of people in general. Also, there is a general feeling prevalent in society that children from tribal communities are not capable of coping with schooling.
LILA: How have you adapted these ideas to the changing socio-economic conditions of today?
The Irulas are very artistic. Song and dance is an integral part of their community – they have a song for every situation in their lives. They are also very talented craftspeople. So I thought these practices should be at the core of their learning process. Just as Gandhiji’s Nai Taleem methodology made the charkha a symbol of productive learning, something like basket weaving could become a productive skill for these children. Also, the learning of such an activity happens in an experiential way. Like how a potter’s child learns pottery by observing, and playing with mud and clay and not through a formal process. Similarly, we thought experiential learning should be the focus at Vidya Vanam as well.
But, in a school environment, the learning has to have an added value, which comes through interdisciplinary means. Take the example of the pot itself. If the child is learning how to work with clay, then we can talk about characteristics of soil like colour and texture and nutrients for science. Concepts like ratio and proportion, measurement, volume and weight can be taught in maths. Social sciences can cover a vast range of topics, like ecosystems, the kind of life forms clay supports, major landforms, conservation, atmosphere, topography, process of formation, archaeology and excavations. Languages can cover stories, essays, poems and debates around the theme. And in the arts, we can display sculptures, murals, and models made of clay. So if we look at any object from the perspective of these different disciplines, then knowledge and understanding flow seamlessly. This connection is what children must grasp to understand the whole of what they are doing.
To reinforce this point, we have what we call theme-based learning. Every term, we pick a theme around which all subjects are taught. For instance, if the theme is ‘air’, all teachers, whether they teach science, geography, history, or arts, will plan and discuss how they are going to use the theme to teach their respective subject. The same theme moves through every class with extra information and extended competency. The teachers are given specific guidelines for each subject to ensure that the necessary skill sets are taught.
As part of this methodology, we don’t have textbooks up to class VI. Instead, we have a bank of textbooks from various publishers and other reference books for the teacher to cull out material and prepare lessons. Textbook-based teaching stifles a teacher’s creativity. They tend to confine themselves to the exercises at the end of each chapter. This is not to say that every teacher is creative to the same level. What we are trying to avoid is total dependency on a single book.
LILA: The demand for English education is interesting in the context of debates on the indigenous communities in India, about the need for preservation and conservation of traditional languages and cultures. At the same time, it is believed that access to mainstream languages provides access to mainstream society and its resources. How do you approach the seeming dichotomy of these two demands? What is the kind of educational governance methodology that you have developed to balance them?
PR: First, the Irula language does not have a script. Tamil, which is the state language, is also new to them to some extent. We did not want to traumatise the children by introducing a totally alien language. Therefore we decided to create a non-immersive and multi-lingual environment.
The first step in this was to hire teachers from the area and community, who would create a sense of comfort for the children. The school had a policy that until class IV, the classroom would be tri-lingual; i.e. the child could speak in English, Tamil or the Irula language without fear of being punished. At the same time, the child would be encouraged and helped to convey what he/she wants to say in English or Tamil.
LILA: Wonderful! And what about their cultural practices and ideas? Are they accommodated in such an educational methodology as well?
PR: The Irula community is deeply connected to the environment it lives in. They have songs that document natural resources: one lists 25 varieties of greens and explains the names, where they grow (near a river) and their nature (a parasitic variety). When I first heard this song, I asked the students to find out how many are now available. They were able to source only 10 varieties. Similarly they have songs that record different kinds of trees, how to extract honey without disturbing the bees, how to cross streams in forests, etc. They have herbal cures for coughs, fevers and insect bites.
The children know all this, but when we ask them to present this knowledge in the classroom, they become participants. The classroom is no longer a place where they are passive receivers. Instead, they become contributors to the learning process. For instance, when our theme was Forest, we asked them to collect herbal plants from the wild and codified them according to the purpose they served.
Similarly we include their songs and drama as part of our cultural events. In Tamil Nadu, there is an epic poem called Silappatikaram. The heroine is supposed to have come to this area from Madurai and the Irulas believe that their ancestors took her story to the poet. Even though she is a deity in many of the temples here, the epic itself does not mention these tribals. We performed this play, according to the Irula version, using their own language and Tamil where necessary. The fact that we had a Shakespearean drama and this play on the same stage conveys an equal status, which helps develop their self-esteem.
LILA: As the first few batches have graduated from your school and have entered more mainstream educational institutions, what is the transition like for them? How do they cope?
PR: It’s a culture shock when they go to different schools, but they cope. Initially they do complain about the stress and the rules but we talk to them about it and, though they struggle, they get used to it.
LILA: What is your vision for the students as they graduate from Vidya Vanam? How do you see their future panning out?
PR: My only vision is that they should be able to do what they want to do. We have children who are interested in the arts, for instance, especially three who are now in the Xth grade. They are able to access the best of art and craft training through teachers from Santiniketan as well as resource people who conduct periodic workshops.
Given that the city is at a distance of about 30km, their lives often begin and end in these villages. Even going to a college in Coimbatore is not easy. So we focus on developing entrepreneurial skills. We have a vocational programme (Diploma in Basic Rural Technology) after class VIII. It has components like agriculture, animal husbandry, electrification, carpentry … so that they learn livelihood skills and can pursue higher diplomas in their fields if they choose to do so. For those who want to pursue professional courses or higher studies, we guide them through the process.
LILA: You have also set up a self-help group with women from these villages. What are the different kind of activities you are involved in, in terms of building a larger ecosystem beyond the school?
PR: This is a small place. The people here, whether they are flower-sellers or tailors, have a child studying here and are connected to the school in different ways. We have people from the local community as members of staff – whether teaching or non-teaching. The self-help group purchases all the things we need for our kitchen from wholesale markets and then they mark it up and sell it to the school. We also give them ideas to make products like different kinds of bags, jewellery, cushion covers, and embroidery work, which we help market.
LILA: What would you say are the merits of such a localised system of education, especially in a globalised world where many transactional connections are made across long distances without necessarily nurturing a sense of community? What kind of lessons for policy can we draw from this, especially for the education of marginalised sections of society?
PR: We are a little village on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, so we have students who are from Kerala as well. The extension of our ideas therefore is not limited to this village, and the way we function is acknowledged by many schools in this area. Initially many parents were apprehensive of the system we follow. They would say, “Our child is not learning anything. There are no report cards. You are not saying what score they’ve got. We are uneducated, how are we going to evaluate if the child has learnt anything?” They began to trust us when they saw the change in their children.
One size fits all will not work with marginalised communities; it does not work with children in general. At the same time, given the number of children studying across the country, it is difficult to have individual models of education where every child is nurtured and allowed to grow at their own pace. But, within these constraints, something can be done. I think it is time teachers and schools innovated and developed learning spaces, especially for marginalised communities. You have to provide equal learning opportunities to them. All facilities – whether quality of teachers, infrastructure, or environment – must be on par with private schools. Otherwise the students can perceive the difference and this impacts their learning process. Give them the same support, environment, learning opportunities, and infrastructure and, definitely, every child will flourish. We have seen this at Vidya Vanam.
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