Nine-year-old Subhashri scribbles on with her nose glued to the blackboard. It’s her blackboard, her own corner in a classroom filled with three dozen other kids. When her teacher calls out for her, she comes skipping. Does she like coming to school? Subhashri nods, herbutton eyes on the floor. Why? Because there are no exams, she says and twirls.
Subhashri has several other reasons to like school. She does not have to lug a bag, she need not take any schoolwork home, and her classroom is a benchless, cheery room criss-crossed with wires hanging pictures coloured by her and her classmates. And the fact that her teacher she sits on the floor with the kids.
As for the subjects, Subhashri is allowed to go through her Class 3 Tamil levels faster than her arithmetic. She can take more than a year to master her standard's sums, if that's how her skills are. She learns the basics on spindle-boxes and abacus rather than on paper. And once a week, she works on her English pronunciation with the help of an animated DVD played on the school television.
It’s a world removed from what most kids in India call ‘school’. Yet, Subhashri’s school, the Haji Mansoor Oriental, is not special. It’s a government-aided school run mostly under tin sheds. Most of Subhashri’s classmates are orphans, or have single parents.
It’s a poor kids’ school in Viluppuram, headquarters of the eponymous district that’s one of the poorest in Tamil Nadu. It is also one of the 37,486 schools in the state that have shifted to ‘activity-based learning’ (ABL), a child-friendly teaching method adopted in Classes 1-4 at all government-run and government-funded schools in 2007. The reasons Subhashri likes school are all thanks to ABL, down to the strung-up pictures.
The scheme’s success has made the state the laboratory of the nation. This year, more than 50,000 state schools outside Tamil Nadu are taking forward the ‘experiment’. While Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Puducherry are piloting similar schemes at select schools in Classes 1 and 2, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland are preparing to introduce it next year. Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand are looking at a toe-in the year after. The scheme has earned voluminous praise from the World Bank, Unesco and Unicef.
“It’s a fantastic concept that I hope others would learn from,” says Union education minister Kapil Sibal. The learning, in fact, has crossed national borders. Last month China sent a 19-member team to study the system and suggest changes to its own 'participatory' curriculum launched earlier this decade.
The ABC of ABL
A large part of the credit goes to M.P. Vijayakumar, a feted bureaucrat who retired last year as director of the state’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). He picked up the basic concept from the Rishi Valley School, that had in turn gleaned it from Neel Bagh, a school that had been merged with Rishi Valley in the mid-80s.
Vijayakumar fine-tuned the experience-experiment-and-learn model with inputs from Montessori schools and Madhya Pradesh’s Eklavya project, and launched ABL first at 13 corporation schools in 2003. From there he gradually scaled it up to all state schools — that teach eight out of every 10 schoolgoing kids in Tamil Nadu — in June 2007.
Ask how Tamil Nadu did it when Karnataka and Kerala had failed at similar experiments in the previous decade, and the answers diverge. Vijayakumar, 61, now honorary adviser to SSA, says, “Here, administrative will matched political will.”
Vimala Ramachandran, founder of the Delhi-based Education Research Unit, says it was the gradual scaling up that helped build the resources and train the teachers.
Subir Shukla, an educationist who's preparing the first comprehensive evaluation of ABL based on a 1,832-school survey, says, “Tamil Nadu is a society where sincerity means following orders; so implementation tends to be better.” In his report, to be submitted by mid-December, Shukla is going to propose ways of changing the “mechanical way in which the teachers use the material, going against the flexibility the system promises”.
The ticks and crosses
The first order, however, did not go down well with the 80,000-odd teachers who had to re-train. All the seven primary school teachers’ unions opposed the scheme, asking why they had to shift from the ‘chalk-and-talk’ method that had run for 150 years. S. Kannappan, joint director of SSA, says, “Vijayakumar and I met more than 50,000 teachers to convince them.” Usha Mohan, Subhashri’s teacher, is one of those. She says, “ABL kids are much more confident and fearless of failure than the others. There’s no bullying, as kids from Classes 1-4 sit together to learn the same subject.” But she is still not happy with her increased workload and the fact that she has to sit on the floor.
Parents brought with them other worldly worries. Many equated the lack of exams (there's self-evaluation instead) and homework to lack of discipline. Mani Mekhalai, principal of Rani Meyyammai School in Chennai, says, “One father wanted to take his daughter out when we implemented ABL. We invited him to the school. He came and stood at the gate for a couple of days and never came back. The daughter is still with us.”
Like the parents, the unions have piped down. They are now demanding that in this ‘experiment’, the teacher-student ratio be changed from the current 1:40 to 1:10. The solution, however, might lie in the demographic trends. With the lowest fertility rate in India, Tamil Nadu has a shrinking population. It’s a population that’s on the petri dish of the nation.