Shikshayatan School

Shikshayatan - An abode for learning
Aruna Raghavan
December 25, 2002


On August 15, 1994, we began a small school, Shikshayatan, about 10 kilometers from Tiruvarur, in Tamil Nadu. Our dream was taking shape: to take the best methods to the poorest sections and prove that did make a difference. For twelve years before we began the school, Raghavan and I worked at various schools, high schools, middle schools, primary schools, garnering experience and trying to formulate a method by which teaching would be an expression of caring for the taught and learning would be a constant quest of amazing discoveries. However, it was only after our daughter was born and we began life all over again, that we were able to articulate.

In the course of reading on education, three sentences by the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondichery, changed our lives.

"... they [parents] will send him [ the child] to school and hand over to the teachers the responsibility of his education...." Therefore, we decided we would teach our own child at home calling for outside help where our own knowledge and experience was limited.

"To learn in order to know, to study in order to have the knowledge of the secrets of Nature and of Life, to educate oneself in order to increase one's consciousness, to discipline oneself in order to be master of oneself..."

So began our own education fully realizing that we had many qualifications but little knowledge of what should matter most in life: freedom, harmony, Truth...

"...there is an inner reality - within themselves, within the earth, within the universe - and that they, the earth and the universe exist only as a function of this truth...."

The three sentences were an eye-opener. The first question we asked ourselves was: are we equipped to teach our own child? The answer was: we are not, but we must equip, we shall learn. To find what education is, how and why we must educate a child and ourselves, consumed all our energy.

Shikshayatan grew out of a dream. A dream that was born when Raghavan joined the NSS, worked in slums in Mumbai, and set a track of teaching math and science most effectively. Even today, he feels the greatest task force is college students whose time can be tapped to take India where she has to go. In the years of teaching and learning, we learned what we would like our school to be. It would be a place where children grow as free individuals; grow without hearing the words ‘you can't' ‘you shouldn't'; grow in an atmosphere where one is appreciated and cared for; grow without the stress of having to prove oneself every step of the way; allowed to be playful; follow one's own inclination and learn of the world through that. Children love the world they live in. To them insects are as interesting as elephants, the penguin as fascinating as the moon. Their desire to know grows everyday and their curiosity of the world is deep. Our work, as we see it, is to ensure that they see this beauty in themselves; that their curiosity translates into love for the world.

Shikshayatan is an on going experiment at various levels. Children come from homes that barely meet their needs. We enroll toddlers. Almost half an academic year is spent mainly on taking care of their physical needs: nutritious food, having them creep, crawl, brachiate, hop, run so that the neurological pathways are stimulated. We have a doctor who comes to check on the children and advices on ways to improve their constitution; for we prefer that the child grows by eating well to taking tonics - which we do give in very severe cases. When we began, it took us much longer to put our children on their feet; now we do it faster and with better results. We began with 15 children; today we have 104 children. The first batch was a challenge: I had to learn Tamil and they had to learn to speak! There were days when silence would reign, on others, laughter. We now have teachers who have been trained in our methods.

We are more aware of the relationship between emotion and learning. Perfect emotion creates perfect association creates perfect memory creates the ability to create! So we take great care not to jangle the child's emotion. Besides, in every child we see expressed an eternal value: cheerfulness, joy, fearlessness, curiosity, caring, love for organization, orderliness, generosity, sense of humor.... And in every child, we find something that challenges his own growth. We train ourselves to nurture the best in the child and give the child a sense of security: that each child is important for the functioning of the school. No labels are attached to the child; that gives him the greatest freedom. We find that when we work so, each child learns to resolve the undesirable for himself.

If each child knows what is special about him, he is an equal anywhere. What he may not have is only a skill, which can be learned anytime. It is our goal to give every child this knowledge.

We are now setting the next stage of experiment. With those children who are independent of teachers [with reference to reading, math and writing compositions], we have them choose what they would like to work on. Initially we allow them to choose for one hour a day. As they learn to utilize the freedom and time effectively, we allow them to choose their own projects. They are allowed to form teams and the team could be from different classes or levels. They are also allowed ‘consultation time' with a teacher who might help if asked. The consultation time is about quarter of an hour. They may use the books in the library, the CDs, computers and encyclopedias to complete their project. The school has four multimedia systems that the children take turn in using. This kind of work we begin from age six up.

Such project work is considered a privilege and every child wants to participate. Our purpose is to teach children how to channel their own energies, see how they can evolve their creativity and finally, how harmoniously they can work. Of course the stages of planning are like the stock market - every one talks and things crash. But they are functioning in a ‘mini society' and learning to be effective.

When we decided to teach our daughter at home, our relationship with our daughter changed. An objective showering of love was called for and we set ourselves to learn that. We also wanted to look at the methods of teaching in detail. Teaching a child to read, through phonetics / letters of the language seemed prosaic and dull. We wanted something that would be as bright and fun as our daughter. And in a shop, hidden under a heap of books we found a box that contained flash cards. The cards were published by The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. We taught her to read using those cards. At first, it was slow, because we could not believe the speed with which she was learning. She ran through the thirty odd cards fast and we began making cards. Enough to say that by four and a half she was reading Reader's Digest and her favourite book was K.M.Munshi's Krishnaavatara part1. We read the book written by Dr Glenn Doman "Teach your baby to read", which should have accompanied the kit, when she was six and well into her third language!

Dr. Doman's system of using flash cards is honed to perfection and when worked exactly as suggested by him in his book, any child can read of his own and with complete understanding. What appealed to us is that it takes very little time to teach, it lends itself to the very young who wander away if we are not fast and interesting enough and - here is the icing - it is absolutely joyful. The children appear to be passive as they see the cards being flashed at them. In reality, each word is being absorbed and filed away for later use. Every picture, every word is a stimulus that zips around the brain, forming associations, connections and adding a new dimension to information that may already exist. The children are passive only at the time of the showing of the cards. They are otherwise so participative, that unless one really has something new to offer every time, the class can become bored and would try to get on without a teacher. It is most stimulating to teach any child using this method. The prep the teacher / parent have to make is phenomenal and I have seen teachers desperately sharing their work to keep up with their classes. This method calls for cooperation and sympathy among the adults for the adults and that gives me great satisfaction. For what better way to teach harmony than by percept?

We have come across those who ask why cards? Because cards are a means to the joys of reading. Imagine not being able to read Bharatiyaar or Attenborough's The Living Planet, or Capra or Carl Sagan. Imagine our children not giggling over Dahl's ‘The Vicar of Nibbleswick', or being delighted by Jane Austen. If using cards will lead them to this, then yes. Because this method creates an avid reader.

The question arises: what about art, crafts, music? They are essential to growth. If reading is mental stimulation, we want something that balances the emotion. And these are means to touch the child. Clay modeling, painting... besides they enhance the power of concentration and they know the joy of creation.

Often we are asked: what happens if we teach our child in this method, would he not find it boring in school? Do you not give your child ice cream although he is liable to catch a cold and stay at home? Besides, if a few hundred children of this kind go to school, why, schools would change; the system would change; our children would do better. We all agree that the system needs overhauling; yet we are reluctant to take the first step. There is no fear of the unknown here. Our children are much more capable than we think they are. Children in our school show an aptitude for entrepreneurship. Gone is the time when my best dream for the children was a good home and good food at home. Today I cannot confine them to my simplistic views. To tell a funny story: due to heavy rains, the water in the fields rose and inundated us. The whole place was damp. Since a number of our children have ‘primary complex' we decided to close school. An hour later, they came back very pleased with themselves. They had devised fishing rods and were trying to catch the carps that may have escaped a fish farm close by! Not only did they catch the fish, they took some home, sold the rest and saw a movie! They were seven years old! How can we confine them to our dreams?

Our children will create a world all their own. We can participate in that creation by teaching happily all that we know so that they begin where we leave off.

The experiment moves on

In '92, when we were still in Mumbai, we began Primrose Institute to train parents to teach their child at home. Sushila Narayanaswamy, my sister, is now conducting workshops besides having a nursery by the same name.

In '99, we helped start Primrose School, Pondicherry a unit of Mother's Service Society. The school in less than three years is "a great, good, successful effort that has won enough public approbation." There too, we are ready to have children working on their own.

Aurochild at Cuddalore, Balgram at Malavli in Maharashtra, Isai Ambalam at Auroville, Manthan Vidyashram in Chennai and Zenith Infant's Club at Tiruchi. These are some schools whose teachers we have trained; whose curriculum is based on ours and who have started with the materials we have created here.

Two years ago, we began writing for the New Sunday Express - the column "Alternative Schooling". The scenario is changing. We hope that from being Alternative, we become the norm!