Early childhood education in India is subject to two extreme but contrary deficiencies. On the one hand, millions of young children in lower income groups, especially rural and girl children, comprising nearly 40% of first grade entrants never complete primary school. Even among those who do, poorly qualified teachers, very high student-teacher ratios, inadequate teaching materials and out-moded teaching methods result in a low quality of education that often imparts little or no real learning. It is not uncommon for students completing six years of primary schooling in village public schools to lack even rudimentary reading and writing skills.
At the other end of the social and educational spectrum, children attending urban schools, especially middle and upper class children in private schools, are subjected to extreme competitive pressures from a very early age to acquire basic language skills and memorize vast amounts of information in order to qualify for admission into the best schools. Parents and teachers exert intense pressure on young children to acquire academic skills at an age when children should be given freedom and encouraged to learn as a natural outcome of their innate curiosity, playfulness and eagerness to experiment. Rising concern over compulsory learning at an early age is prompting many educators to advocate dramatic steps to counter the obsession with premature and forced teaching practices.
In Search of a 'Third Way'
Between these two extreme positions, lie a wide array of mostly mediocre practices. Rarely do we find the educational system fostering the natural process of spontaneous, self-motivated self-education in which children learn just as they play and as a form of play out of their innate curiosity and urge to acquire knowledge of the environment. Internationally, there have been many efforts to find a 'third way' that suffers neither from the sad neglect all too common in low quality public education or the compulsive pressures exerted even on very young children by competitive, career-conscious school systems.
A highly successful alternative approach has been evolved in the USA by the Institute for the Development of Human Potential, founded by the eminent educationist Dr. Glenn Doman. Doman's work is founded upon the conviction that learning is a natural instinctive urge in young children that is very often curbed or destroyed either by neglect and lack of exposure or by compulsory teaching. During more than three decades of work with both normal and brain damaged children, Doman has shown that exposing young children to interesting sources of information for very brief periods each day actually stimulates the development of the brain cells during early years and fosters a spontaneous curiosity and natural love of learning in children. Doman's methods have been practiced for more than 20 years at the Institute's school in Philadelphia and more recently in similar institutions established in South America, Western Europe and Japan. The same methods have been applied successfully by more than one million parents around the world.
Another alternative approach has been evolved and practiced for the past 45 years at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondicherry. Here too the emphasis has been on fostering a conducive atmosphere for the children's curiosity to emerge and express itself so that they acquire a natural inclination toward learning and self-development.
The Anugriha Charitable Trust was established in 1993 as a tax-exempt educational trust by Mr. and Mrs. M.R. Raghavan as a public charitable trust with the intention of evolving and demonstrating alternative educational methods in India. Mr. Raghavan is a chartered accountant and computer consultant who established and operated a consulting firm in Bombay before leaving the city to start a rural school in Tamil Nadu. Aruna Raghavan is an M.Phil in English, a former sub-editor of a reputed English magazine and former school teacher. The Raghavans have spent the last decade exploring and experimenting with new methods of early childhood education. In 1991 they established the Primrose Institute in Bombay where they conducted courses for parents on how to utilize alternative educational methods to foster a love of learning in their own children.
In 1992 the Raghavans left Bombay and invested their entire life savings to establish a primary school at Arasavanangkadu, a village of 1500 people situtated ten kilometers from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. The school commenced operations in mid-1994 admitting 15 children aged 3 to 3 1/2 years to the first class. All of the children were drawn from low income, scheduled caste families in which they are the first generation to receive any education.
Approach and Methods
The system of education provided at Shikshayatan is based on the following approach:
The most important aspect of the approach is attitude of the teacher, which should be that learning is a form of play which fosters the blossoming of the child's natural development. Learning should and can be made interesting, enjoyable, fun.
A large portion of the teaching materials are produced at the school by the teachers, who customize their teaching aids to suit the interests and knowledge levels of the students.
First attention is given to the health and nutrition of the children to ensure that they have the physical energy and natural attention span needed for learning. Nutritional and medical supplements are provided to under nourished children from low income families. Free exercising and play are encouraged to build strength and stamina.
Children learn spontaneously when their interest and curiosity are awakened. 'Teaching' is confined to brief periods according to the natural attention span of each child, which is normally 15-30 minutes daily during the first two years. It is never extended beyond the child's span of interest.
The student-teacher ratio is kept very low to enable the teacher to work with small groups of 4-5 children at a time while the others are absorbed in learning games or recreational play.
The act of teaching consists primarily of presenting sensory images, objects and information to the child in a pleasant and interesting manner and permitting the child to observe and inquire about the subject, without compelling the child to memorize. Coloured flash cards with large images are utilized as convenient, low cost teaching aids.
Rapid acquisition of basic reading and verbal skills in multiple languages occurs naturally by exposing the child to whole words as objects repetitively for very brief periods. In this manner at a young age even children of illiterate parents learn several languages as effortlessly as they normally learn to speak their native tongue.
Story telling is used to make learning fun and to communicate basic values of goodness, beauty, harmony, responsibility and right conduct.
Information on people and other living things, places, history, geography, and other cultures are presented to the child in the form of stories, pictorial information and explanations combined together to present facts in a living, integrated context rather than as a series of separate divorced subjects.
Rapid acquisition of basic math skills is achieved through the use of number line method which enables the child to physically experiment and act out different combinations of addition and subtraction.
Most of the children come to the school so underdeveloped and under-nourished that almost exclusive emphasis is placed during the first 3-6 months on providing nutritional supplements and free exercise to develop motor skills.
As the children gained health and strength, their attention span and curiosity have increased to the point where they happily explore new learning areas for periods from 15 to 30 minutes per day.
Despite the very brief time exposure, very average children are able to read simple Tamil and English stories by the end of 15 months.
During the same period, they also learned to recognize all the states of India, the geography of the country, the continents, peoples of the world and a wide range of plant and animal species.
In addition to teaching the children, the school also engaged two unemployed women from the village with teaching credentials and successfully trained them in these methods. The trainees have learned and now regularly apply these methods for teaching the children and they also actively participate in the design of lessons and production of the teaching materials.
Although there was initial skepticism and suspicion from the village community, including the families of the first year children, parents have become proud of their children and the village as a whole has come to embrace the school. Requests for admission are coming from villages in a ten mile radius.
These results can be compared with the learning of children from comparable backgrounds attending the local public school, most of whom are unable to read and understand even Tamil sentences at the end of six years of primary education.
Recent news of the school:
More information on the school can be obtained by writing to:
Mr. and Mrs. M.R. Raghavan
Anugriha Charitable Trust
Arasavangkadu, via Sembangudi P.O.
NQM District, Tamil Nadu
India 612 603