Activity-based Learning in Chennai

01 January 2009
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Amukta Mahapatra

As a young teacher in the 1970s Amukta Mahapatra trained at Neel Bagh, the rural village school in Bangalore founded by David Horsburgh, which in some respects surpassed Summerhill. (Neel Bagh is described in Real Education, by David Gribble, published by Lib Ed, pp 115 – 121.) She had studied Montessori, and helped the department of education develop a system called “activity-based learning.” This article originally appeared in a special issue of the e-bulletin of the Association Montessori Internationale and describes what must be the most wide-spread liberalisation of education anywhere in the world.

If you walk by any primary classroom in a government school in Chennai or Tamil Nadu, the expected scene of a teacher at the head of the class with rows of children in front of her would be hard to find. Instead, one sees children sitting any which way, working on some task or other, some working with rapt attention, some fetching materials, some watching others. A few may be talking, one may be looking out of the window. A child may look at you for a minute and get back to his or her work. The teacher is not obvious; perhaps she is in the midst of a group of children. A hum of activity may be heard.

Doesn’t all this sound familiar to the Montessori educator? Often, this is how a Montessori environment is described. And believe it or not, this is happening not in a privileged, private Montessori school, but in 37,000 schools run by the government of Tamil Nadu, involving 120,000 teachers and reaching about 5,000,000 children from classes one to four. Too many zeroes? Blink again, but the numbers are right. These children are mostly from the poorer families.

As you go into the classroom, to sit down quietly and observe with your notebook and pen, you may see some familiar and some unfamiliar situations and activities. Keep aside the quick judgments, the need to define and arrive at conclusions; allow time for the mind to compare and conclude. Observe and you may see some universal truths unfold in front of you.

What happened to make Activity-Based Learning create such a tsunami of rethinking and manage to actualize some of the ideas that had been mere rhetoric for so many years?

In the late ‘90s, the World Bank supported the District Primary Education Programme, taken up in seven districts in Tamil Nadu. A dramatic review of the system followed, but it had one drawback – the majority of the administrators and teachers did not change, and consequently the problem of almost 50%of children dropping out of primary school was not resolved. Many left school before they were ten years old.

As often happens, some individual histories ran parallel to larger events. M.P. Vijayakumar, an officer of the civil service administration, was the Additional Secretary of Education in 2000. Faced with many children leaving school to join the work force, he felt strongly that schools should be the solution rather than the problem and that change had to begin at the helm, at the level of the teacher-training institutions. In his search for trainers able to train the teacher educators, he was introduced to Amukta Mahapatra by the Centre for Montessori Training in Chennai and he invited her to do a trial programme. This was done as a series of workshops, from which a core group developed. The teachers learnt on the job, observing a multiple-age class, rehearsing and preparing their session before training teachers and in the process trained the education community. About 750 were trained from 2001 to 2002.

The expanding core group went on to train all the 200,000 elementary school teachers in the state. Meanwhile one had to crack the problem of learning materials, critical to make the child an independent learner and move away from continuous teacher-directed activity. One difficulty with making material available to the schools, especially in such large numbers, was the cost. A means to mass-produce responsibly was found and the costs became affordable.

Meanwhile the system used by the rural schools run by Rishi Valley School, an expensive Krishnamurti school near Bangalore, had been identified as suitable: it had a transparent curriculum and continuous assessment built into it. UNICEF was promoting this method as part of its quality package to government schools. After much hard work, with unbelievably quick results the pedagogy was in place within 12 months. The subjects were Tamil, Mathematics, Environmental Studies and English. The children worked at their own pace, individually or in small groups, with the teacher in a facilitating role. There were no textbooks, and only a couple of workbooks. There were low-level blackboards on which children could write or draw by themselves. Montessori mathematics materials were available. Parents were encouraged to observe the class.

In 2006 Mr M.P.Vijayakumar was State Project Director of SSA, an Education for All programme, and decided that ABL could be up-scaled to the whole state: what was successful in Chennai needed to reach all the primary school children in the state.

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