How to get kids to love maths and science? Tell them a story

Stories are one of the most effective ways of teaching kids about the world. Now many schools are harnessing this activity by seamlessly weaving it with the syllabus to help kids learn better.
Students at Katha Khazana School at Kaljaji, New Delhi, in the middle of a storytelling session.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Students at Katha Khazana School at Kaljaji, New Delhi, in the middle of a storytelling session.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Apr 17, 2019 01:52 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKumKum Dasgupta

“What did Dados tell the firefly?” Nandita Sengupta asks a class of 10 pre-schoolers, emphasising each word to hold their attention. “I have seen lots [of fireflies] in my village,” says Sadiya, a wide-eyed, pony-tailed four-year-old, then animatedly narrates what Dados, a handsome green toad, told the delicate yellow firefly.

Encouraged by Sengupta, Sadiya’s classmates at the Katha Lab School (KLS) join in the storytelling session. At another table in the same classroom, five children are painting the animals they read about in the story.

KLS is not a traditional school. It’s a grand experiment by writer, social entrepreneur and educator Geeta Dharmarajan. It uses no textbooks and doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all syllabus. It doesn’t organise classes by age group, but rather according to the learning levels of the individual students.

The KLS system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a homegrown concept developed by Dharmarajan, which draws heavily from India’s traditional oral traditions and Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra, a 2,000-year-old treatise on the performing arts.

“Relevant, fun learning for all-round development is what KLS is about,” Dharmarajan says. “Children are amazing learners. They are curious and creative… any book can animate them. But when we fill their lives irrelevant information they become what adults want them to be: conformists and aye-sayers”.

The StoryPedagogy technique is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning (ASBL), which helps children to learn language, science and mathematics, and develop general awareness and critical thinking, through stories and activities.

KLS, which caters to migrant children who live in the slums of south Delhi’s Govindpuri area, uses ASBL in the secondary classes too. If the topic of the day is water, the class will learn about conservation and pollution in a science class, stories on the precious resource will be discussed in the literature class, and they will do a water audit of their community. Children find ASBL engaging, and easy to understand and remember.

“I was at private English-medium school in Assam before I came to Delhi. We had textbooks and teachers encouraged rote learning. I now find it easier to learn and remember because we explore one topic from different angles,” says Arjun, a Class 9 student.

Children learning about the environment through the active story-based technique, doodling images they heard about in the story.
Children learning about the environment through the active story-based technique, doodling images they heard about in the story.


If KLS uses storytelling as a teaching tool, Anuradha AR, a Bangalore-based theatre professional, is exploring a “collaborative arts approach” to do the same. “I use a mix of visual arts, theatre, music and storytelling to provide children with a variety of methods to comprehend and explore literature,” Anuradha says. “Visual art, music, theatre, and dance are symbol systems like text. The use of an integrated arts approach develops abilities needed for reading and writing.”

In her 90-minute sessions, students do a theatrical reading of a story (Kannada or English) and are encouraged to explore the text through a combination of art forms. This, she believes, gives them the means to assess the meaning of texts, discover background knowledge, see texts with new eyes and enhance oral language skills.

In India, storytelling is as old as the hills, but the modern education system has failed to integrate this rich heritage in syllabi and is resistant to the idea of students learning from their communities. Channakeshava Koffee, an artist from the faculty of Fine Arts at MS University, Vadodara, works with communities in the Western Ghats in Karnataka. He uses drawing, collage making, painting and mural making to make learning fun and absorbing.

Yet, he says, the children are losing out on community knowledge. “The Holi Kunita is a beautiful tradition… they narrate the Ramayana in Marathi through songs and dance, for almost 24 hours. Children get to learn about mythology and morals. But they are losing such elements of their education to migration and disinterest”.


Explaining why such arts-in-education projects are important, Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts director Arundhati Ghosh says: “Our education system does not take into account the diverse realities. Arts education enables students to ask questions about their lives, social injustices, and economic instabilities. It also fosters an understanding of the self and the other by the collective experience of making art”.

Fortunately, arts-in-education is becoming quite popular on the internet. NGO Pratham Book’s StoryWeaver is India’s first open source, digital repository of multilingual children’s stories. On StoryWeaver, users can read, translate, create, download, print and share stories. The platform, which was conceived to address the lack of affordable, high-quality children’s books in multiple languages, was launched in 2015 with 800 stories in 24 languages. Today, it has over 11,500 stories in 146 languages and over 1.2 million users.

“Storytelling has a significant role to play in nourishing language acquisition and literary sensibility,” says Krishna Kumar, former head of the National Council of Educational Research and Training. “Our primary schools could greatly benefit from it, especially in the early grades.”

(Last names of students withheld on request)

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