A morning at Shishuvan

By Swati Gupta
Researcher, Adhyayan

On MY FIRST DAY AT ADHYAYAN I heard the now familiar words “This is a journey from supposition to evidence based judgement. Your first job is to collect evidence.” And the next day I was out on my first school visit. Did I subdue supposition to its proper place in Adhyayan’s rubbish bin before I left the office? Of course not. I have spent a long time in Indian schools and colleges and only a day at Adhyayan. Everything I was likely to see was informed by my earlier experiences and expectations. Three decades of conditioning takes more than 24 hours to discard!
My task was to take part in a quick non participant classroom observation in the middle school section of a nearby school. So before I had even reached the gate, I had already made up my mind about what it would look like, ‘a classroom filled with students sitting in rows (probably benches arranged in straight lines, one behind the other), most of the students would be writing in their notebooks and some just chit-chatting. The teacher would be standing at the front, mostly writing on the board or going around the classroom to help them understand what is being taught. And I am guessing that students will be mostly speaking in English since it’s a reasonably good private school. Clearly, for me as I approach the school gate, these assumptions seem more like expectations than suppositions. What I didn’t know was that I was about to have my eyes opened and presumptions questioned.
As I walked through the school gates, I saw in front of me a quadrangle enclosed on three sides by the school’s buildings. The pale yellow painted walls were covered with dust from the playground. The playground had a basketball basket at one end, a football goal and a few cars parked. ‘Same old, same old!’ hence my expectations were further reaffirmed. As I walk through the corridors and peep into the classroom, the displays were informative, innovative and interactive, especially in the primary section. So far, I don’t sense any elitism, instead the school seems to have an innovative approach to teaching and learning. As a result, I still hold on to my assumptions which are based on experiences from other ‘regular’ private school in India catering, to the middle class.
So far, I have evidence to confirm that (i) this is a ‘regular’ private school (ii) its buildings aren’t exciting, but (iii) its displays are vibrant. As I walk further through the corridors of the middle school section, I come across a classroom in which there is a bunch of about 30-35 students sitting on desks. Some are even sitting on top of a bench, a few on window ledges, with some standing casually by the wall. And they were engrossed in a discussion. From the disorderliness of the room and student’s enthusiastic involvement, I was sure that they must just be talking for pleasure, maybe about a class picnic or perhaps some gripping gossip. I couldn’t resist finding out and decide to walk in.
My first shock was that there was a teacher standing at the left hand front corner of the class. I was confused. A teacher with students sprawled over the desks and benches, yet everyone so engaged in the discussion. Isn’t that unusual? For one, my conventional sense told me that this teacher cannot control the class because a teacher’s presence can be felt by merely looking at student’s faces, even without actually seeing the teacher. Students are sitting at the window!!!! They are sitting on top of the bench!!!! The teacher clearly can’t manage the class!
In the next few minutes, as I start listening to the discussion, the first thing I heard was- “Viola, but I think Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Arvind Kejriwal are bringing in a political revolution in the country”. Still in the grip of my prejudice, I ask myself, isn’t it disrespectful to refer to teachers by their name? But given the confusion I was feeling due to this un-conventional setting, I decide to suspend my judement and try to adopt a critical, open mind and look for evidence.
While observing the classroom setting and discussion, I was amazed by the awareness level of each and every student regarding the political situation in the country. They were critically discussing the growth of Aam Admi Party (AAP), Narendra Modi’s development model and its impact, and the difference between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi as leaders. I was convinced that student’s articulation of opinions and content was at par with any newsroom discussion which one sees nightly on television. What was different though was that these debators waited for each other to finish speaking. None spoke without raising their hand and above all everyone was keenly listening, with the teacher as the moderator and not an instructor. I began to notice discipline in what had initially appeared as a dis-orderly, unconventional classroom setting.
As I walk out of the classroom I start to gather my thoughts. My first question was, ‘is it fair to impose conventional disciplinary ideas and structures on students without questioning?’ The free-ness of thoughts that I observed among students in this classroom, beginning from the student-friendly seating arrangements, most certainly enhanced student engagement and learning.
To find further evidence, I walked into another such classroom with similar seating arrangement and student participation. There was a teacher sitting in the front. It was a Marathi class and I immediately thought that this is a perfect opportunity to test my evidence. Students were freely shooting questions at the teacher, asking translations of random words. Since I couldn’t make any connection in the words that I heard, I finally asked a student about what they were studying. He said that they are writing a composition in Marathi on any topic of their choice and the teacher doesn’t know the topic. He further added that this is his favourite teacher. I have to admit that even I was impressed with the ease and calm with which the teacher was answering student’s curious questions. While sitting there, even I liked the idea of not being given a particular topic to follow and the range of words that everyone asked was an amazing way of peer learning. There was no overt discipline, no syllabus apparantly being followed but even I was enjoying learning Marathi in that class.
As I was getting familiar with the unconventional ways of learning in this school, I was not surprised to see many parents in the primary classrooms. Without hesitation I walked in and saw them playing a game. It was a parent teacher meeting of a sort that I have never seen before. Teachers first did an energizer and ice breaking excerise with the parents. Then parents discussed the problems they face in helping their child with homework and adding solutions from each other’s experience. Thereafter, the teacher briefed the parents about what they will be teaching in the coming month and what kind of homework will be given to the child so that parents feel prepared and better equipped to help their child. One of the things that the teacher talked about was ‘germination’. She explained that the students will be studying about germination in school through various activities and she asked the parents to relate the ‘concept’ to their child’s day to day experiences outside school.
The journey I began with suppositions and expectations was being challenged by everything I had just experienced. When I start recollecting my thoughts and the evidence I collected, more fundamental questions come to my mind. Are students seen as active stakeholders by the school or are they considered as ‘customers/recipients’? Are we really interested in teaching our students how to take decisions and responsibility or are we satisfied to see them as merely following instructions? Does the school consider it important to develop skills like leadership, decision making and critical thinking among its students and teachers? Answers to these questions are often reflected in the way schools live their values, mission and goals on a daily basis, during various interactions with management, principal, teaching staff, non- teaching staff, children or parents. I have not yet found answers to these questions but I continue to ‘explore’ rather than simply ‘confirm’ my evidence based judgement during my subsequent interactions with schools.
As the school principal said, “let the confusion prevail in our school! The ‘Obey me’ ideology is against the DNA of our school.” The follow up question in mind is, ‘do questioning age old structures necessarily translate into chaos or unstructured-ness?’ Perhaps, it is time that we start investing in rethinking and may be restructuring our ways of working with children, especially regarding discipline. This will equip students to finish their school journey with tools like decision making, innovative thinking, problem solving and team work, which actually enables them to see opportunities and co-create solutions.
For me, this was the first time I had been forced to consider what I meant by ‘discipline’ and my individual shift from existing prescriptive premise has begun. It is not about getting the rows straight or achieving pin drop silence in classrooms but finding ways to enable minds to think, innovate, collaboratively decide disciplinary rules and take its ownership. In my opinion, what I experienced in these classrooms was teachers really trying to really empower children.
*The author claims full responsibility of the views presented here.