Shivraj Singh (10) and his seven-year -old brother Akal Singh live with their farmer parents in Sileptibarwal village, 16 kilometres from the nearest town, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
They study in the same village primary school - Shivraj in class five and Akal in class two.
But while Shivraj carries a heavy bag of books on his back, Akal walks into his classroom every morning carrying nothing. Not even a book of alphabets.
"When I was in class II, we had to take books to school and study from them. We had text books for Hindi, English and Mathematics plus the exercise books for writing and practice lessons on every subject." recalls Shivraj.
"But Akal has no books. And yet, knows all his lessons. He can read, write and do sums which I could only learn in class four. He doesn't have to learn-by-heart and then remember the lessons. School is fun and games for him."
"My brother just sits with a group of classmates and studies from pictures printed on colourful cards," he quips.
Like every student in his classroom, Akal every day enters the classroom and heads straight for the students attendance record chart pasted on the wall. His fingers run down the list till he finds his name and then without any help locates the dates marking his own attendance. Thereafter he heads for another chart where he works out progress in English lessons.
Akal is one of the thousands of children in Madhya Pradesh who has been introduced to the concept of Activity Based Learning (ABL), an initiative of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan supported by UNICEF.
The initiative launched in 4000 primary schools for classes one and two across 50 districts in the state allows children to study according to their own pace in a child-friendly teaching and learning environment.
The curriculum is divided into about 20 milestones in each of the subject areas - Languages, Environmental Studies, Mathematics and English. Each milestone represents a collection of activities which develops learning competencies that a child should acquire.
This includes identifying the pictures of birds and animals, learning the alphabets, reading Hindi and English texts, counting the numbers as well as drawing and solving mathematical problems.
On a common chart, the milestones are arranged in the form of a ladder and the child knows exactly which milestone he completed in the last lesson. This is a child-friendly way to evaluate and reinforce learning.
"In the conventional method, teaching was always teacher centric. Learning depended solely on the pace of the teacher. If the student remained absent for two days, s/he missed lessons which were never taught again," explains P S Umasree Education and Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF-Madhya Pradesh.
"In the ABL system, the child learns at his own pace. If a student has missed two days, s/he can come back and start from where they had left. Peers can work on a different milestone according to their abilities. The teacher is only a facilitator," adds Umasree.
From the milestone chart, Akal works out that he has crossed the 11th milestone. He heads for the trays that contain the cards for learning and selects learning material for the next milestone which contains simple words of the English language.
He sits in the corner of the classroom and is soon joined by peers who are at the same milestone. They put their heads together and read word by word. Where they find the lesson to be difficult, the teacher steps in to help.
This method helps children learn from each other and break down social barriers which may exist in the classrooms when the children are placed in rows with little peer interaction.
"These young children are learning the practical way. They sit with peers and figure out that 4+5 = 9. They read words taking one alphabet at a time," explains Kailash Taylor, teacher at the ABL primary school in Morcha Khedi in the adjoining village.
"Previously, we told them what the word was and they learnt it by-heart and recalled the same when asked. Most of the time, the student taught in the conventional method forgot his previous lesson. These children don't because they work on each lesson and solve them practically. The results are extremely encouraging," adds Taylor.
These kinds of innovations are key in helping India reach its commitments under the landmark Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 to 'ensure good quality elementary education' for all children.