I completed my early schooling from Darsagah Islami Chitarpur, then high school from the government school of Chitarpur village in Ramgarh district, Jharkhand.
I did my graduation from India’s premier institute, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, followed by enrolling as an early stage researcher (ESR) on Merri- Currie Fellow at IFW in Technical University Braunschweig, Germany. After returning from Germany, I joined CSIR – National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore as a researcher. I started the rural education initiative “Schoolasium’’ in 2014.
I decided to resign from my aerospace research job in 2016 to live a life dedicated to the service of humanity and give wings to his dreams of establishing a Schoolasium. Since then, I am working full time in rural education and developing a resource centre to support schools in Jharkhand, which has received multiple awards and government accolades since then.
2) Why ‘Schoolasium’? What is the significance or philosophy of the name?
Having great faith in our ideas of experiential, constructionist and activity based learning, we envisioned the Schoolasium (MEPS) as a laboratory school where children learn by doing and experimenting.
Our attempt to re-establish the holistic approach towards learning led us to coin this portmanteau term. It is inspired from the term gymnasium. As the word gymnasium derives from the ancient Greek word Gymnasion meaning a locality or a place for both physical and intellectual education, our Schoolasium has a similar philosophy – a place where both body and mind find complete and essential nourishment.
3) We live in a time where there is intense competition, pressure and coaching culture. How difficult was it to imagine such a different style of education and teaching-learning in this kind of atmosphere?
It is very true there is a big issue of acceptance when it comes to envisioning or proposing an alternate education system. One example is when Schoolasium started, we had a lot of admissions. People thought, okay, an engineer has set up something, it must be good. But when the year was over, nearly 40% of parents dropped out. The entire year, we did projects, we took the kids to jungles, we didn’t keep them only focussed on textbooks and we tried to implement as many community learning processes as possible. But the parents and teachers didn’t understand any of these. They thought no learning was happening. They thought kids should have everything memorized. They didn’t care about engaging with texts. As for coaching centres, this is a very big issue of the Indian education system. The NEP is also not able to address the fact that the Indian education system is exam-driven. This is one of the drawbacks of the NEP apart from its other positive aspects. But I believe that from kindergarten up to 9th at least, there is no need for pushing towards the competitive pressure of exams. We can ensure this if there is an awareness in society. This is lacking in our society – cognitive learning, scientific learning and the new methodologies of the 21st century. Today, repetitive knowledge and memorization can be covered by Google, Wikipedia and other sources. How will problem solving or design thinking emerge in children? There is a serious need to cultivate this. Along with awareness, there is a need for practical models.
We don’t want to claim to be proposing any new pedagogical approach, though we are taking a new approach as per our time and context. As we discussed, the 21st century pedagogy has to be oriented towards problem solving, design thinking and building up confidence. You need to be able to construct knowledge, present your ideas, write and speak about your thoughts etc. Our model is based on maker-oriented pedagogy under which we developed the Materials and Design (MaD) Learning Framework. Our model is important because we want to go beyond activity based learning, towards experiment based learning, where the result is not necessarily known beforehand. Every child goes through a process and tries to find answers through engagement with materials and design in science, maths, innovation, creativity and other design thinking processes.
Academic skill is another thing – a child should study, do and report. First, he has to study something; then he has to do it, and explore or construct knowledge and then document the finding in any form (like photos, audio-visual forms or writing a report). What data is being reported, that has to be documented. Problems should be discussed, learnt, and then reported. We are trying to do this in a low-cost model – whether it is the number system, trigonometry, algebra, electricity or photosynthesis. So the process is to go from the concrete (materials) to the abstract (thinking process). Every teacher can adopt this.
5) How many girl students are currently enrolled in Schoolasium? What are the major challenges they have faced in terms of their background?
In terms of enrollment, parents are having fewer children these days. At the most, 3-4 kids. Overall, it is a 40:60 ratio of girls to boys here. There are more challenges for girls. Teachers underestimate girls and think boys will be able to do something naturally, but in terms of the learning curve, there is no major difference. But it seems to me that girls have a great flair for experimentation. One of the challenges is for example, if there is some material for girls to go out, get them from the shop. That is a challenge. Especially in rural areas, they are not able to fulfil these needs. People also think – why do girls need to do this. Parents think it’s a bit odd that girls are doing engineering at this age. The third challenge is of presenting their projects. Also there are challenges of travelling to other schools and the overall the constraints put on them.
6) There are some experimental schools in cities which have tried to offer hands on learning or based on a Montessori framework for example. But they are often very expensive and out of reach, even more than the conventional schools. What is the financial model of your institution, in terms of access?
We have tried, as much as possible, to keep the costs low and ensure the materials are mostly recycled. Some things have to be bought afresh, like batteries etc. But we try to use old things, cardboards, straws, wedding cards, used plastic bottles, cloth hangers, scissors, scales, tape, gums, broom sticks, etc. Things that are found at home. In terms of cost-effectiveness, we try to propose a low-cost model to schools. If it’s a low-cost model, you can experiment more, even if things break or get destroyed, it’s not a big issue. So the materials themselves are not expensive. But the alternative elite schools have their own ways. Our model is to support regular schooling so that experiential learning can be nurtured.