Visiting an Isha Vidhya school can be a fascinating experience. Seeing rural children juxtaposed against a modern classroom, is what made it so fascinating for me. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be snobbish when I say this. But if you were told you’d be visiting a school located an hour away from a city – amidst kucha roads and thick greenery, what’s the image that would come to your mind? I bet you’re not picturing well-stocked science labs, a line of computers, lively artwork on the walls, inspiring slogans – that too all in English? Well, that’s exactly what defines Isha Vidhya’s school in the tribal village of Thanikandi, 30 kilometers outside of Coimbatore at the base of the Velliangiri foothills. So, now can you understand where my fascination stemmed from?
I was taken on a brief tour of the three story premises by their Communications Co-ordinator, Prabhu Loganathan. Prabhu is one of Isha Foundation’s many volunteers, who works full time at their school. From fully-functional classrooms, to equipment-filled Math and Science laboratories, to a well-stocked library and even a sparkling kitchen, this school is no different from the school I attended back in Bombay. Maybe except for the background and socio-economic status of their children and teachers.
In fact, Prabhu shared with me that extensive checks are put in place to ensure that only those from below the poverty line benefit. These range from checking ration cards to procuring family details directly as well as indirectly ( for example, by asking the village grocer, neighbours etc.) to surprise home visits.
But what I found most fascinating was how they have been successful in implementing the Montessori-style of teaching. As I learnt from Diana Price (another volunteer who devotes all her time and efforts to Isha Vidhya as their Academic Coordinator), they believe that education needs to be a natural and not forced process; which is why the teachers’ role here is not to “teach the children” but to “teach them how to learn.” It is for this same reason that they follow a no-tests, no-examination, no-(verbal/physical) punishment rule too.
With most children being first-generation learners, this makes a lot of sense. Think about it – these children come from families where education is not given importance. If it weren’t for Isha Vidhya, they wouldn’t be attending school at all. Since the organisation has overcome that hurdle, they’d naturally want the children to have takeaways and truly learn. A lot of learning thus happens through DVDs and music – things that the children will voluntarily pickup. The use of DVDs, music etc. is also done to make up for the limitations of the teacher.
Yes, in a very realistic approach, the organisation realizes that their setup does not attract the most qualified and skilled teachers. Most teachers are simple graduates from local schools and colleges – which in all likelihood were Tamil-medium and not English-medium. But the numerous hours of training that they undergo fine tunes their English skills too. And incase you’re wondering, as I was, if children understand the meaning of words and accent used in the DVDs etc.? They most certainly do. Words they are not familiar with are understood by the context they were used in. Infact, they are able to carry out a conversation with Diana, who speaks in an American accent, quite easily. Quite apt then that the organisation labels their English classes “Power English”!
Prabhu shared with me a really funny anecdote. In the initial years of the schools, their “no-homework” rule didn’t go down well with the parents. On seeing neighbours’ children do homework into the night, parents wanted to pull their children out of Isha Vidhya as they felt the school wasn’t studies-focused!
Another interesting anecdote was shared by Diana. When putting together the curriculum, her team realized that “Rain Rain Go Away” was not a suitable nursery rhyme. Given that these children come from rural backgrounds where farming is the predominant occupation, would they ever want rains to go away?
While I was totally inspired (and a tad bit jealous too, having gone through the regular tests-and-exams-focused system), I couldn’t resist asking the obvious – Do they take the regular board exams in grade 10/12? If yes, how do they manage to pass the same? That’s when Diana clarified that in Grade 9 and 10, the curriculum does change a bit to focus on the Board exams. But the switch is not difficult for the children because by now they are able to “truly learn” and hence do quite well.
I came away thinking how great it would be if more schools incorporated the Isha-Vidya style of teaching. Clearly not an exaggeration to say that these children are being given a “passport” to a better life, wouldn’t you agree?