Digantar — The multi-level space
Fresh faces. All so different. In this world of people, no person is same. And sitting in the era of individualism, we need an education system catering to the same. The assembly line education that is happening in schools today, is no longer valid. Not even education. When we put two seeds of the same crop, they take their own time and path to come up and flourish. What if an education system did just that where the world looks at a child, not as a report card or a runner from one milestone to another — one chapter to another, but as an organic individual taking their own time to grow? To be. To live and to breathe.
That seems like a dream. Well, that is the reality which Digantar strives towards. Continuously. Children here are taught to be together. They sit as a groups, not grades. Yet, when it comes to learning, each child learns at their own pace. These leads to smaller groups, continuous holistic evaluation and chaos. But is that not what life.
Life at Digantar Vidyalay begins, with children slowly trickling into the school well before time. There are games, chats, and just hanging around. Then the bell rings and the cleaning starts. Everyone participates — children and teachers. The idea here is to understand the value of each work — the dignity of labour. Every person has a certain duty assigned to them and they do it gladly. And there is always that one child, who does not. They are not ridiculed or punished. They are asked to analyse their choice and given freedom to be, in their way. It is a beautiful sense when adults and children come together, as a family.
Next, they flow into their groups. Most groups are made grade wise, with some being mixes of multiple grades. But they have got their beautiful names for their groups — Sangeet, Sankalp, Aman, Sawan, Roshni and so on. The groups flow through the assembly. In the assembly, they sing different songs in Hindi as well as the local dialect. And then share different thoughts with everyone. Each group are facilitated by a single teacher, who stay with the children throughout the day. The teacher teaches all the subjects. This process changes a little towards the higher age group classes, where there is subject wise teaching, as specific expertise of the subject matter is emphasized.
What is the Multi-level approach?
All day long facilitation by teachers, creates a different kind of bond between the teacher and the student. The one of family. And family grouping is evident in the classroom. Whenever a new concept is taught, it is taught to all but other than that each group breaks down into smaller groups in the same classroom. Groups which are relatively closer in understanding a concept. For example, in the mathematics class, when a new concept of division is being taught, all children are looking at the teacher. But when the teaching is done, all get on their own assignments, according to their understanding. So now, out of the group of 25, 5 take up addition with borrowing, because that is where their understanding needs guidance. Another group might be practicing Subtraction, as that is what they have mastered yesterday and need to practice with more types of questions today. Another group might be actually starting division, as they have cleared their understanding in all the pre-requisite concepts.
Inspired from an educationist from the Krishnamurti era, David Horsburgh, the idea of ‘non-measurable’ learning is prominent here. The idea of understanding self-interests, efforts, relationships, rights and so much more are part of this non-measurable learning. These things are not part of most curriculums in the world. And it is also not an easy thing to put into a curriculum. The reasons for not doing so, comes in the name itself. Can human nature be measured? There have been different trials to measure such things. But the growth in such human assets is very implicit. The focus towards the development of the human side is very evident in Digantar School. The children here are very responsible in their duties; there is an innate sense of order in the chaos of the small groups in the classroom; and the sense of equality is in-built in the children through constant questioning. One day, as I standing in the morning in the middle of the school, a small child of 6 years asked me “Why are you standing here?” Her suggestion was to sit in their class. Or the eldest group of girls stating that there is equality in the school. When I pondered about the society, their answer was ‘there is discrimination based on everything outside.’ Are these realizations not a part of education?
The democratic practices
The beauty of the school also lies in its democratic processes — amongst the children and the adults. The long discussions and conversations around every minute thing that affects both parties beyond the walls of the school is regular. It results in equality and tolerance of opinion. Children can state what they feel is right and they are not coerced into believing otherwise. For example, if a single child in the entire class believes in discrimination based on gender or religion, they are allowed to have their opinion. But as they emerge more into discussions and open forums, they begin to get their head around the idea of ‘their’ freedom is as important as ‘mine’.
The more simple processes of bal panchayat, selected by the votes of the children, is also in place. One day, I was sitting in the morning assembly of the Sangeet group (7–8 std.), when a boy was called off from the assembly. I later on got to know from him that he was a part of the Bal Panchayat and he went to attend a discussion. The flow of such activities is so natural in Digantar. I wonder if such a behaviour of walking out of an assembly be allowed in another school? The group of children in the bal panchayat has numerous duties in the school. And they do it with responsibility. For example, the next day, early in the morning, as the assemblies would have started, I saw a girl writing down the day’s important news of the day on the notice board. The passing of information on all topics is a necessary right for all students. And she takes care of her responsibility with ownership.
The learning beyond academics
The school caters to learning beyond the notions of academics, by providing classes for learning carpentry and stitching. Creative forces do come into play and knowledge is created when one child makes a certain item out of wood or cloth and then, goes on to guide another. I was overjoyed to see quite young children working fearlessly with sharp tools. They were focussed in their work and there was pin-drop silence, based on their internal force of interest and not an external force. There is also a library with books on every genre, mostly in Hindi, to cater to the children’s urge to know. As the school is Hindi-medium and most of the children are affluent in the language, it adheres to the idea of learning using the known, rather than putting English on the pedestal.
Children are not judged here, but treated equally even regardless of learning and growth. That is also why there are no exams. A lot of people question such a process and ask how one assesses the child’s growth. Well, at Digantar, they do regular activities, assignments and discussions to constantly keep track of the growth of the child. This helps the teacher to understand where they are, in understanding the greater concept, and where they should move to, in the coming days. They also write a comprehensive report on every child in every six months. Given the school flows in a non-formal way, teacher often swap children or classes to address specific needs, in regular long-term intervals. The regular discussions amongst teachers, help them get a different perspective of their own class as well as keep track of what is going on, with someone else’s class.
Practices for effective teaching
There are some very good practices amongst the school teachers. They do regular home visits. I went with a teacher to a home and soon realized that there were multiple generations of people in the family, who are or had been students in the school. Such beautiful camaraderie amongst the teacher and all the members of the family is exemplary. Since each teacher caters to one class (the number of children can be maximum up to 30), it is mandatory to do at least one home visit per child per month. It keeps the parents on track with what is happening in the school, and the teachers at par with what is going on at home. Such interventions are also necessary, as it gives a holistic idea of the child’s physical and mental well-being. Also, the idea of not having any report card can be negated in the minds of the parents by constantly engaging with them. They also prepare for every day, by creating lesson plans the day before. The teachers do so by staying back after school. There are small open boxes outside the classrooms, where the teachers printed lesson plan is placed every morning. If anyone walks in, they can understand what is being addressed today, without disturbing the class.
Approaches beyond own schools
Such an interesting school does not just stop at just making interventions in its own school, it has created a set of very simple yet effective books using in Hindi — to cater to subjects such as Maths, Science, Social Science and Language. The idea in the books is to make the child observe, question, analyse, understand and internalize the learning. There are separate booklets as guidance for the teachers — to make them aware of how to approach a child and their learning. These books are not only used in this school but also availed by different schools from all over India. The books are sold, along with comprehensive training and support, to make sure that the books are used effectively.
They also have a Program in ‘Foundations of Education’ to engage teachers in understanding education, from a holistic lens. The program runs throughout the year, with teachers being engaged in educational theories and practices through 5 workshops, planned in small packets throughout the year. The program is a highly coveted one and takes in around 30 teachers, from all over the country. Even the in-house recruitment of teachers for their own school is preceded by similar training for four months. As in the words of Supervisor Hemant ji, when he was doing the training years ago, his nephew was a young child studying in a primary school. Hemant ji would end up doing so much more homework than his nephew, even staying up late in the night. The recruitment process always considers more people than required positions beyond the interview stage. Because the chances of a number of people leaving during the training program is quite high. That is because the training questions things well beyond normal education system and seeps into the belief and value systems. This helps in ascertaining that the students are catered by the absolute best of teachers. Would we like polish ourselves that hard before going in to assist in the growth of a child?
The beauty of the school, lies in its survival with such different ideology, for more than three decades. It has worked with government curriculums at state and national levels, with government schools as well as private institutions, through guidance in curriculum, pedagogical practices and teacher trainings. At the end of the day, the co-founder of the school, Reena ji, epitomises her commitment to the future of the school by stating, ‘How do you leave children behind?’
In the end…
It gives hope in this ever dwindling sad pile of academic theorizing of subjects and even life. But here a teacher prepares oneself, one’s understanding and steps into the realm of co-learning with a child, connect with the child as a friend, with the parents as a stakeholder in the child’s growth, provides space for the child to grow at own pace and express themselves in different ways, provides democratic processes to children in order to co-create an equal space with adults, creates books and training methodologies with similar intent to shake the teacher in others. My hope is that such a beautiful place as Digantar, continues to make long strides into the lives and potentials of more children.