Profile: Sadhana Village School

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § 1 Comment

From a village in Maharashtra, India, an early childhood learning center where children learn “sense literacy,” and teachers learn how to learn.
In Post 9, “The Big Question,” Seth suggested three views regarding the aim of western schooling. After spending some time at a remarkable school in India, I want to revisit the first of Seth’s views, the idea that the aim of  school should be to inculcate children with skills they will need to be functioning members of our mainstream economy and system of governance–in other words, the idea that schools should teach kids to “fit in.”

The appeal of this view may depend on your social and economic starting point. If I come from a wealthy or middle class family, statistics show I will be far more likely to have more life opportunities upon graduating from the existing school systems. So why would I, or anyone else who belongs to the upper echelons of the global population, want schools to re-form?

Yet a group of educators in India is pushing for just that. Last week, I spent a day at the Sadhana Village School, in a village in Maharashtra, India. Founded four years ago, the school is an educational experiment that challenges the idea of schools as perpetuators of the world as is. For instead of teaching kids to “fit in” to the modernizing world, these teachers are allowing children to develop their natural “sense literacy,” so that they may live fuller lives when their schooling ends.

There are currently ten teachers and about 100 learners aged three and a half to eight years old, who come from nearby villages. Unlike the typical US child who will end up an urban worker at a desk job, most of these children will return to their villages, where they will pick up a trade or continue with agriculture to maintain their livelihoods. Certainly math and critical analysis will be helpful, but the majority of the government-imposed curriculum will be irrelevant to their lives beyond the classroom. With this in mind, the Sadhana Village School is evolving to focus on creating a learning environment that adds meaning to both the present and future lives of the children. Given its dedicated teachers and resources, the opportunity cost of children participating in this experiment versus a local government school seems quite small.

The school has a fairly simple curriculum, with play and observation as the cornerstones. Ranjana, one of the school heads, told me that most adults think of play a minor afterthought. They also think that learning must be relegated solely to the classroom. But she explained that play is very serious. It is how the children reflect upon and explore the world. At Sadhana, the children have a free-play period of one and a half hours every day.

During this period, the teachers observe and document the behavior of the children. While the heads of the school are aware of educational theories and popular models on how children learn, they are not content to assume the accuracy or relevance of these theories, and insist of observing and learning for themselves.

In fact, Jinan, one of the founders, explained that the school is fundamentally a place for the rehabilitation of teachers. Children are natural learners, but their typical role model in the classroom is a model of teaching, not learning, conditioned by decades in a classroom. Jinan believes it is critical that teachers re-learn how to be natural learners themselves, if they are to provide positive examples for the children. He argues that we are trained to be “word literate,” but neglect “sense literacy,” which is the way that all species come to understand their world. When we lose this natural sense literacy (our ability to take in and understand the world through what we see, feel, hear, taste and touch), we are indoctrinated with the view that understanding must result only from a reasoning process through the medium of language.

During my visit I witnessed several teachers taking short videos or photos of the kids during their play, using digital cameras. The teachers later share and discuss with the rest of the staff, if they learn something novel.  This documentation is key to helping the teachers understand their students, but also meets the founders’ desires “to show educated people what children are capable of.”

I watched a number of videos, and saw groups of children creatively using a swing, boys tirelessly carrying and rolling car tires down a hill, a group of girls lifting and carrying another child on a platform, and numerous clips of young boys constructing small buildings with bricks and mud-mortar. While most adults typically see these activities as mere entertainment, the teachers have come to recognize in this play serious demonstration of precision, prolonged concentration, linear alignment, teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. In addition, many important facets of the children’s personalities and proclivities are revealed during play, which might not otherwise surface in the traditional classroom setting. The school also invites experts such as artists and carpenters to spend time at the school, so that the children learn through observation.

But learning by being and doing is easy to imagine for hunters and gatherers, or maybe even farmers. It is more difficult to envision if one’s survival may be supported by learning calculus, computer programming, or English grammar. Balancing the two types of learning is something with which the Sadhana School teachers continue to struggle. The time and freedom given to explore and play means that Sadhana students’ book knowledge lags behind their peers from other schools, who sit for hours in a classroom every day. One teacher explained that they receive pressure from parents who realize that their neighbors’ children “know” more. But the teachers try to explain the limitations of western schooling: as one teacher mused, instead of just having standards for information, why can’t school also have a value-based system of indicators, looking at whether an activity promotes leadership, conflict resolution, empathy, critical analysis, or team-work? (And we could ask the same question of ourselves, as we go through our adult days: what is driving us to do the things we do? Is our thirst for information greater than our desire to promote values at the core of Sadhana school, like leadership, empathy, etc.? We may be surprised at the different paths our days begin to take, if we change our “standards.”)

It is not clear to me what the costs and benefits of the Sadhana School experiment might be, in terms of skills sets for the next stages of the children’s lives. However, I do tend to agree with Jinan’s diagnosis that much of our time spent digesting information in the classroom is meaningless. These children certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. Many of my fondest memories from childhood come from time spent outside, building dams and rivers, and the creative outdoor play that was accessible in kindergarten, but quickly evaporated in elementary school.

I taught for a couple of years in a government school in rural Africa. It was clear that the majority of the UK derived standards and curricula added little value to the children’s village lives. I have no doubt that the rigid curriculum, “necessary” discipline, and low marks that I handed out as my students prepared for their Standard 10 national examinations did more harm than good. I fear that the one lesson that may have stuck was that they weren’t good at learning.

Thinking back on that attempt to give kids the skills to “fit in,” I resonate deeply with the value of the Sadhana School’s educational gamble. I have a hunch that the opportunity costs of such an experiment in urban areas in the US would also be worth a shot. Some of the most creative and inspiring people that I have met are not those who spent their childhood doing drills in a classroom, but who had been given the freedom to explore, and who seemed to still carry with them an acute sense literacy.

For more information about Sadhana Village School and its pedagogy, check out www.reimaginingschools.wordpress.com.

Christian Casillas | October 25, 2012

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§ One Response to Profile: Sadhana Village School

  • My aunt, experienced early childhood educator Anne Geffner, offered the following comment to Christian’s piece:

    I loved this article so much!!! As adults we tend to think we know stuff….. after all, we went to a university and read this and that… In a school setting it is easy to fall into being the boss, especially since most schools here are not set up to reflect freedom/exploration of play because of insurance policy restrictions. What happens is that the children become viewed as discipline problems – which creates in the adult the need to even be more of a boss.

    In my experience, I too got caught up in the latest theories, always looking for the ” answer,” the magic key that would solve how to manage so many unruly children. I do not even know the word for all the frustration i used to feel. But I do feel that in the U.S. early childhood education was ruined by Head Start, because somehow policy has evolved from a play-oriented educational model to one that now has to justify the educational progress. Now the teachers walk around with clip boards, filling out stupid questions about knowledge of numbers and letters. No one sits on the floor anymore with the children…

    What i loved best about Christian’s article was how the teachers in India were able to articulate what skills the play-based activities promoted. The article made me teary for what i knew was lost when I left teaching but, was powerless to do anything about. I saw schools go from wood planks, boxes and tires to static plastic climbing structures….

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