Indian Innovations in Education

BaLA2

Perhaps epitomised as backward and bearing all the hallmarks of a country still developing, India, nonetheless, has become a hotbed for both inclusive and parsimonious innovations. Whether it is the cheapest car in world, or the Aravind Eye Care Hospital that provides free modernised surgery to the poor, or the low-rate phone calls offered by Bharti Airtel thanks to its ingenious business model, modern India is flourishing with the omnipresent jugaad spirit. Other examples of enabling valuable products and services to become affordable to those deprived are shown at the Honey Bee Network’s vast database. Among the noteworthy initiatives that target lower income households is the Mitticool natural refrigerator, which is made exclusively from clay and does not require an external energy source. Another is the Washing and Exercise Machine invented by a 14-year-old girl, which is a “semi-automated, mechanical, and pedal-operated washing machine”.

All-encompassing innovations also are visible in the education sector, where the focus often rests on the ridiculously cheap Aakash tablet, designed to bridge the digital divide and improve the teaching process by including a different approach towards education. Efforts to improve the learning outcomes of the economically disadvantaged include the government’s Mid-day Meal programme, which gives children more incentive to attend and become engaged in schools. However, in spite of these welcome and rather notable improvements, a third of the population remains illiterate and improving the learning outcomes that translate to a meaningful employment remains the government’s and educators’ biggest challenge.

Thus, why do efforts to improve learning outcomes for low-income students often fall short? A possible reason may be that these students are provided with an education that is distinctly different from both their everyday life and interests. Consider that rural children undergo an education in city-based professions and that education centres specialising in, for instance, rural development or agriculture are located in urban environments. This mismatch causes both rural and urban children to regard their knowledge as not very useful because they cannot use it in their current environment, although most are likely to abandon their education before they reach that stage. The newly founded Gramodaya schools in villages and other rural areas is meant to address this educational divergence. They will offer rural students an education in rural development and in vocational-based professions that will enable them to use practical knowledge and sustainable techniques long since overlooked. The Gramodayas are intended to be community-based learning centres where peer-to-peer learning is central.

Another reason is that well-intentioned teachers with capability lack the equipment needed for quality teaching, not just in terms of resources but also pedagogical knowledge. Deprived areas typically will not adapt teaching innovations or aids unless they are dirt-cheap and come with a guide. Nevertheless, several thrifty innovations provide excellent alternatives to purchasing expensive learning resources. One of these involves making better use of the school building, whether by painting, creating interesting patterns, and so on. Building as Learning Aid (BaLA), by the architectural research and design firm Vinyãs, is an excellent way to turn school buildings into learning resources; as an example, painting angles on the floor underneath doors enables a child to learn basic geometry better. BaLA promotes an experiential form of learning in a child-friendly environment that involves and evolves all their senses, it allows children to learn at varied paces, and establishes an inclusive school environment in which peer learning can occur. Another similar programme is the (Learning is Fun & Experiential) LIFE Lab, which supplies low-cost, hands-on science models to disadvantaged schools that encourages an experiential learning in science; it hopes to boost the creativity, confidence, and interest in children. Take the “balloon car”, for instance, which teaches the three Newtonian Laws; the simple materials required are a balloon, a straw, an ice cream stick, and four bottle caps, but it requires a healthy dose of ingenuity as well.

Of course, both these very promising programmes have not yet been adopted widely; however, making these innovations visible to teachers and students around the country that, in turn, improve the students’ learning experience is equally important. The Education Innovation Bank at IIM Ahmadabad identifies the teaching innovations of select teachers so that they inspire others who seek practical advice in teaching poorly funded schools; in essence, it is a network where teachers can share ideas with each other.

Ultimately, these chosen examples illustrate the ability with which good quality education can be accessible to disadvantaged school students by using cheap, existing resources in innovative ways. Though they may not be enough by themselves alone, they do show the enthusiasm with which innovators embrace their mission to augment the learning outcomes of these children, with little cost to the schools.

What top performing school system do not need? (Part I)

Success-GirlWith the sixth PISA assessment due to be conducted at the end of this year and its subsequent evaluations dissected and discussed, comparisons will of school systems will be drawn. Which one is the best? Which nation trumps others? How can governments improve? Do they need to spend more money? And so the list continues. However, certain illusions for a country to better their scores, such as the throwing more money, still persist and reduce the ability for actual improvement.

Money does not buy success

The modern world no longer is segregated on the lines of rich and poor but it can be divided among those good and bad education. More precisely, the way in which the money is spent is far more important than the amount it is spent. The global economy is shifting increasingly towards being based on knowledge – though one might argue that research always has driven economies – and countries need to invest heavily in progressing the quality of education as well as academic and non-academic skills if they are to succeed in such an economy. For instance, Slovakian students aged 6-15 perform at the same level as their counterparts in the US in the PISA tests. However, Slovakia invests approximately $53,000 on each student between the ages of 6-15 and the US spends $115,000 for the same.

Smaller class size equals better standards

Parroted by teachers, parents, policy-makers, and the like, the size of the classroom has no impact on the learning outcome of students. Interestingly, smaller class sizes, thought as the key to a more personalised education, have led to increased expenditures per students, as highlighted in the aforementioned example, yet they see no increase in academic performance.

Instead, the attitude of the system towards individual schools and students is the greatest factor in performance. A school system that favours employing better teachers and teaching practices – such as not segregating students based on ability – performs better than those systems that not focus on attracting talented teaching personnel. High professional status and teaching salaries is not a universal marker but certainly holds true in wealthier nations. This investment priority in teachers, their continued professional development, and maintaining a good balance between working and leisure time, opposed to smaller classrooms, also encourages high expectations; high-performing school systems do not allow students to fail, repeat a year, make them transfer schools, or separate them into classes based on ability.

Part II discusses the myth of poor performance by disadvantaged students, the artificial need for more subjects to be included in the curriculum to reflect the changes in the modern world, and the false belief that you need foreknowledge to succeed instead of hard work.

The Case for Less Technology in Schools

Wireless+generation+XL

The advances made possible by the digital revolution in the latter part of the 20th Century need no superlatives; nearly ubiquitous as the very air we breathe, technology has and will continue to enable greater advances in all aspects of our lives, education included. It is propagated and worshipped everywhere, increasingly in classrooms, where Smartboards and other digital teaching aids are considered hallmarks of the school and advertised to the public as such. Being tech-literate is pretty much a requisite in the modern age and computer programming skills being pushed onto children from a very young age can only benefit them later on, or so goes the premise. Nonetheless, primary schools, in particular, could do without these expensive and perhaps pointless devices.

No, this does not advocate out-dated school and classroom designs but offers instead an alternative to needless inclusion of technology where none or little is required: less is better and this could not be truer for a child’s imagination – in primary school, it is still developing and needs to be stimulated naturally. Think of it as reading a book, the words and the entwined narrative both form the images and the visual representation of the ideas behind contained within. Thus, for each individual, how that narrative translates into mental imagery is unique. Now consider the very same book presented as a series of images or even a video. What happens here? The mind does not need to process the words and translate them into vivid imagery because that imagery already exists on a screen. However, somebody else’s imagination allows your brain to experience rather than perform any creative cognitive task.

Development of the visual cortex

Similarly, a child faced with such imagery, presented through iPads and other technological tools, loses that ability to think creatively because the nascent visual cortex needs natural development; and not suppressed due to artificial stimuli. Take television watching, for instance, an activity that requires very little processing of imagery and is instead a very passive mental and physical activity. Yes, technology enables students to both learn new material and produce professional-looking presentations – a noble yet flawed intention – but the novelty of handing them laptops, as schools are doing increasingly, is counter-productive. Within a few months, children tend to use these for surfing the Internet and other meaningless online activities; nevertheless, we encourage this in the hopes that technology will make the children wiser.

Development of gross-motor skills

Technology can become an excellent tool in the hands of an excellent teacher, making teaching truly memorable for the students. However, having a 4-year-old child manipulate virtual objects using a sleek application on an iPad instead of physical ones really hampers the growth of the ability to use their hands, which allow them to understand the natural world, to feel the texture, the softness, and other physical qualities of physical objects. The screen takes away the mental capacity to process these sensations and the virtual representations of the real world contained within are no substitute for real learning. Blocks, play-dough, art, and other building materials such as sand and water provide children with an incredible amount of creative freedom, precisely because of their open-ended, problem-solving nature.

Promotion of Rote-learning

While the plethora of learning applications on tablet and PCs never ceases to amaze, it is somebody else’s design and it finishes somewhere. Math-based applications and games allow a child to learn the right answer to 3×4, for instance, from tapping repeatedly on the presented choices until the correct option reads out ‘Success!’ but will never enable understanding of the causal ideas behind why the multiplication works that way. It promotes simple right and wrong, and once the child understands this, seeking the right option becomes second nature and searching for why becomes relegated to the dustbin of history.

Shortened Attention Spans

Combined with the promotion of rote learning due to ‘failure’, technology decreases the ability of a child to concentrate for an extended period on a particular activity. Screens facilitate distraction from reality and decrease a child’s ability to relate emotionally and socially not just to other children but also adults. Due to their own time-constraints, parents, too, enable this behaviour by giving them technology instead of interacting and building a good bond with their child. No wonder children are growing up with attention deficiency disorders, and then are medicated for it!

Just pen and paper, thank you

As children grow up and enter middle school, more technology is pushed onto them. After all, the child must be tech-savvy in today’s fast-paced world. “Pedagogical conservatism”, or a relaxed classroom milieu, without the daily use of technology, enables better learning. Just look at Finland’s highly envied schools, which use less education technology than the rest of the developed nations and whose students are among the highest worldwide achievers in maths, reading, and science. The old adage, “less is more”, certainly seems to work without the widespread use of education technology, proving that simplicity works better over sophistication.

Education technology is immensely beneficial if used sparingly and for certain purposes, such as for those children with learning disabilities or for complex science simulations. Tasking a teenager with producing a certain graph on Excel after (s)he masters drawing it on paper is understandably more beneficial than the reverse. The ability to focus on a task for more than half an hour without disruption is valuable in the workplace and the distractions, in the form of technology, are manifest from prolonged exposure to it from a young age.

Examples from China in modernising education

Chinese classroom

More often than not, we laud the advanced nations of the West for the traditionally long-standing quality of their education and often ignore huge strides and equally important advances made by the Oriental nations of China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. They, too, boast of developed and diverse economies, with the quality of their education praised around the world. Successful economies not based on energy exports have one thing in common: they have excellent primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems. With this in mind, let us examine China’s route to modernising their education systems, which has translated to huge economic success.

Alongside the overarching reforms of the late-1970s, Chinese reform of the education system saw a deep introspection on quality- against examination-oriented education. This has followed the philosophy of “Orientation towards Modernisation, Orientation towards the Future, and Orientation towards the World”, implemented because of their self-imposed isolation after the Second World War. The debate over the faults and merits of the optimal education system finally resulted in a 2001 Action Plan for Invigorating Education for the 21st Century, which subsequently resulted in the pioneering Basic Education Curriculum Reform; this completely overhauled education pedagogy, philosophy, and content for the primary and secondary levels. Although implemented to various degrees of success, the results are astounding: the city of Shanghai became the top performer in both the PISA 2009 and 2012 assessments. Dr. Catherine Yan Wang of the National Institute of Education Sciences in China outlines some of the strategies that have proven very effective.

1. Evidence- and participation-based policy-making

The plan of the Basic Education Curriculum involved six key steps: survey conduction, outlining, consultation, experimentation, implementation, and expansion. Communities, local authorities, parents, researchers, and teachers – the main stakeholders – were surveyed first; second, document drafting and outlining was undertaken by top researchers, pedagogues, and school administrators; third, schools, teachers, and municipal governments were consulted in an attempt to relate the feasibility of the proposed project. Once satisfied, the policy was trialled in four Chinese provinces and revised according to the response. Finally, the outline was implemented in those four provinces and later expanded nationwide.

2. Backing for teaching

Supplementing this reform was the foundation of a Teaching Research System that supports innovation in classroom teaching methods; moreover, Teaching Research Institutes have been established at every level, whether it is provincial, municipal, or county. Those working in these institutes are among the very best within their profession and their work primarily revolves around the assisting of other teachers’ work by organising school-based research projects aimed at developing pedagogy; visiting schools regularly to review teaching methods; helping to arrange lessons; developing innovative materials for teaching; and demonstrating the most efficient practices. These institutes are integrated with teacher training colleges, which have bolstered the continuous professional development of teachers.

3. Global Learning

The aforementioned philosophy of the Chinese 2001 Action Plan has resulted in an outward-looking policy: the nation, the government agencies, research institutions, as well as schools, seek the experiences of other nations for inspiration in improving their own teaching. It started in the 1980s, when government officials visited institutions overseas to understand different teaching processes; subsequently, this has affected their thinking as well as their approach to work: major government reports now constitute a section on a comparative worldwide study to set a benchmark for China to attain and include suggestions that stem from the best available methods. For their part, schools have set up student and teacher exchange programmes with their overseas counterparts to facilitate their learning of the best practices.

4. Experimentation

The traditional and perhaps foreign view of Chinese education, perpetuated by numerous kung-fu movies, is that of a strict master with an Oriental moustache in charge of his wards, rigid in his approach and intolerant of ill discipline. However, modern Chinese education is very inclusive of new approaches and ideas, with many successful experiments being translated into national policies. Foremost among the experimental schools, the Shiyi School discarded the old rigid learning style in fixed classrooms on a few dozen subjects and instead developed over a thousand courses relating to prevalent 21st Century issues.

5. Equalising unity and diversity, the Chinese way

Since the 2001 Action Plan, Chinese education has centred on the three-level curriculum structure, with the ethos “Common basics, diversified opinions” that includes national-, local-, and school-based curricula. Here, the composition allows the national curriculum to work out at 80%, with the local and school curricula accounting for the rest, which allows students to master essential knowledge and skills successfully and allows room for schools to experiment and research innovative methods.


Equipping individuals for change in the 21st Century starts with an education that enables them to absorb and adapt to these changes. Dr. Wang believes that a country as large and diverse as China needs flexibility in its approach towards education. By having an overall goal of where the country needs to be and the skills fundamental to its central economic aims, Chinese schools are encouraged to innovate and develop the best teaching methods, on par with more developed nations. The following idiom best describes this approach: “Bearing a global perspective (the big picture) in mind, and start from a (small) concrete action”.

Read more here

Are Schools and Universities reluctant to Embrace Innovation?

Roundtable

Education reform is always on the agenda of governments; each successive government, regardless of its political leaning, tries its best to dabble in an area that will always attract attention, whether positive or negative. The education minister will point to the unwillingness of schools to innovate and adapt to the new regulations of the times, citing the reluctance teachers, teachers’ unions, and university vice-chancellors to innovate. Not surprisingly, those actively involved in the profession will point the other way, saying that the ‘innovation’ often is no more than imposed changes without prior consultation and no insurance of a successful transition. Due to the many debacles that ensue from policies implemented terribly, changes still are applied without attentiveness towards their application, with no test-runs, no experimentation, and no evaluation.

For a pedagogue or your everyday teacher, it is evident that top-down policy implementation is flawed deeply and few innovative changes arise from such heavy-handed methods. Innovative methods in teaching and education in general arise from the grassroots level – where the learning and teaching essentially occurs. Therefore, the crux of the issue rests in the successful implementation; or the process, in other words, by which these well-intentioned policies typically fail or can succeed occasionally. After a series of unsuccessful policy changes, a lack of trust from ministers and policy makers and teachers surfaces; this sets off a pattern where teachers do not believe that their actual practice is being considered seriously as evidence, thus hampering any good policies from being developed.

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that too many schools now operate as businesses, complete with business jargon that confuses the parent but satisfies the share- and the stakeholders. However, common knowledge suggests that a business failing to innovate and to adapt itself in the face of changing winds is doomed to fail. Adding more layers of complexity and giving those layers decision-making capabilities, akin to a large company dependent on the middle management of its subdivisions to give an accurate report of on-ground events, makes education systems of all levels more difficult to reform and does not make life any easier for the higher ups.

For greater accountability, decentralisation of education systems leads to the tightening of bureaucratic screws, a favourite tool among education ministers and policy makers. Yes, the education system needs to be accountable and adequately supervised, but too much and you stifle the flair and innovation with which teachers impart lessons; and let us not to forget that the material also can vary from any strict guidelines set. Perhaps the teacher cares enough to enlighten his or her class with additional learning material that will benefit their knowledge. However, screw tightening does not lead to long-term change, as top-down reforming of education is difficult to achieve due the complexity involved.

So then, what works? A first step would be to re-establish trust between all levels. This is difficult to achieve but essential; top-level ministers can show good faith by presenting evidence and a calculated expectation of changes to those actually teaching. The teachers’ and principals’ professionalism is another: they make change happen when they feel actively involved and when they have a say in the matter. Roundtable discussions are important to have in establishing how a policy will affect the teachers and students; for that matter, even parents support such inclusion to assuage their fears of any long-term ill effects of a new policy on their child. This does not imply that ministers and policy makers lose their capacity to affect change; rather, they have to find new ways of ensuring that the decisions affecting next generation is considered carefully. Rationally convincing teachers and school leaders for change will appeal to their professionalism, and will appeal towards convincing parents and community leaders that those in power actually have their heads screwed on right.

Quantity over Quality

If the 2012 PISA student assessment conducted three years ago was any indicator of the dire state of the education quality in India, then it seems that we have taken NO lessons from it and most probably will repeat our dismal performance in this year’s version, showing little to no improvement. Why, you ask? Because we are concerned more with overall statistics and boasting of large numbers of children enrolled in education across the primary and secondary levels rather than improving the quality of the education they receive. Yes, the Right to Education Act (2009) was an important bureaucratic procedure to ensure both compulsory school attendances of children between the ages 6 and 14 and the public’s perception of a responsible [sic] government but it has had a terrible effect on the overall quality of education.

This is reflected by the pitiable levels of learning outcomes and their stagnation visible in those children, if the latest (2014) edition of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is anything to go by. It highlights the stagnation, even regression, in visible learning outcomes over the past four years! Additionally, it emphasises two key aspects: firstly, an expansion of the learning gap between private and government schools, coupled with increasing private school enrolment; secondly, throwing more money aimed at increasing the levels of learning outcomes, instead of encouraging innovative solutions, will not resolve the issue. Much akin to most problems in life, throwing money at a problem does not make it but instead the issue will return later to bite you when you least expect it – education is no different and, in fact, already is creating a demographic catastrophe of unemployable young adults.

To state what may be known to some already, private school students typically hail from comparatively wealthier families when contrasted to their government school counterparts, their parents are reasonably well educated with the majority holding one or more tertiary education degrees, and – most importantly – they receive better support at home that leads to better learning outcomes. However, and perhaps quite surprisingly, when the household and parental support parameters are adjusted in the ASER 2014 report, government schools in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Punjab perform significantly better compared to private schools.

Perhaps a detailed description of the disheartening state of education can be elucidated in numbers: only a fourth of children in Year 3 can read a Year 2 text fluently. This number rises to half in Year 5 and three-quarters in Year 7, meaning that 25% of children still cannot fluently read a passage from a Year 2 text even in Year 7! If you wanted some consolation, then consider that these percentages have improved slightly from previous years; however, certain states – Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra – have seen a marked decline in reading levels over the past half decade.

A good understanding of mathematics, vital for innovation and the knowledge economy, is much vaunted by Indian society – consider the obsession with accounting, banking, and engineering careers – but the reality is that basic mathematical skills are poor among young children. Just think, only a quarter of Year 5 students, assessed in 2014, cannot perform simple division successfully; and this number has decreased by a small margin. These sorts of trends make for painful reading after a while, such as the inability of approximately 44% of Year 8 students to perform a three- by one-digit division. Consider that this number has reduced from almost 70% five years ago. Similar, disheartening decline or stagnation is seen in English literacy levels – only a quarter of Year 5 students can read simple sentences in English; and, in five years, the percentage of Year 8 children able to read such sentences has declined from approximately 60% to 47%.

The numbers can be analysed endlessly but ultimately, they reflect a poor trend. The government is pouring all its energy into boosting the economy but it seems not to understand that a solid economy needs a solid foundation, which is quality education. Large sections of Indian youth remain unskilled and under-educated for today’s workplace and further declines are on the horizon unless those implementing policy changes cut down on bureaucratic controls and allow teachers the freedom to innovate and teach. As the world transitions to a knowledge- and skill-based economy, excellence comes in many forms; pioneering new forms of education are just one of them.

 


Figures quoted from the 2014 ASER publication; link to the full report:

http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202014/fullaser2014mainreport.pdf

In addition, the link to the key National Findings:

http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202014/nationalfindings.pdf

In Defence of the Rote Method

Much progress has been made in the field of pedagogy within the last few decades – the establishing of new learning techniques, improvement of a few old ones, experimentation inside the classroom, and many more. Nevertheless, one of our favourite punching bags has been the oldest form of education, predating the printing press and withstanding the test of time: rote learning. In the days when sages and scholars passed down knowledge and wisdom to their pupils, the only way to learn and further your knowledge was through memorising the teachings of your Guru or Master: you trusted them implicitly, as is the case with your teachers and professors today. The alternative being that you sought knowledge of the world yourself and most people do not have the perseverance required for a completely self-taught education.

In Mathematics

 

However, the rote method still stands the test of time because certain concepts and ideas cannot be learnt in another way. Considered central in the enhanced learning of mathematical concepts, rote learning has been criticised by everyone who is not and was not any good at it. For instance, mathematical theorems, the foundation for so many further applications in science and technology, cannot be imbibed experientially. Yes, you can prove them time and time again but this will not change their fundamental nature. Multiplication tables are another: once a child understands this elementary function, it does not stand to reason that he, or she, will perform multiplication for the most basic of numerical values. Memorising certain, well-understood concepts permits them both to be applied readily and to further thinking onto more complex concepts, saving time and the mental effort involved in performing an elementary task.

In Biology & Medicine

 

Similarly, doctors are held in high regard because of their vast knowledge accumulated by rote learning and supplemented by actual practice. If they cannot recall the diagnosis for a certain ailment or prescribe its treatment, then would not be very good in their roles. The knowledge of biological organisms never changes; a human heart, along with other organs, always is located in the same spot and dissecting a cadaver will reveal it as such. These discoveries and formulations will remain as clear as night and day so learning them experientially will not shed any further light on them.

In Religion & Music

 

In earlier times, the study of religion and faith was another area where rote memorisation was central to converting, promoting, and gaining more followers. True, the advent of the printing press has made memorisation redundant but crossovers into music and chanting require memorisation. Vedic chanting, for instance, requires a dedicated method of rote memorisation to conserve the intonation and the accuracy of the text. This is precisely how scripture was transmitted prior to codification.

For children, this learning technique enables them to imbibe as much textual material during their formative years, preparing them for future dissection of the material. True, overburdening the child with rote memorisation of pointless information stifles the ability to think freely and this method should complement the overall learning process rather than be central to the learning process. The instruction of music combines the two rather well: learning by ear and interpreting the notation. We have all seen and appreciated performances where an exhaustive amount of notes are played without musical notes.


As is the case with other topics, such as law, rote memorisation is a fundamental form of learning that has no equivalent. However, combining this with other forms of education – active, associative, experiential, and meaningful – enhances the learning experience. So do not knock it down; understand the flaws, appreciate the benefits, and implement along with other pedagogic techniques, which results in a holistic education.

Waldorf (Steiner) Pedagogy

steiner2

Image: Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany

Springing from Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of intellectually comprehensible and objective spirituality, felt via inner development, this pedagogic approach differentiates child development in three distinct stages. Steiner’s philosophy, best known today as Anthroposophy, emphasises the widening of the mental abilities responsible for inspiration, intuition, and perceptive imagination by developing a form of thinking that is distinct from sensory experience; this enables clear and rational expression of the results of studying the spiritual experience, similar to the manner in which scientific investigations are conducted (Steiner, 2013).

Developing free, moral, and publicly integrated students having high social competence – a combination of behavioural, cognitive, emotional, and social skills – is this pedagogy’s fundamental aim, with the schools being mostly self-governing in the structuring and teaching of the curricula and the stress on qualitative assessments. Known as the leader in alternative, independent education movements worldwide, over a thousand Waldorf/Steiner schools can be found in both the most impoverished as well as the wealthiest areas of the world, intended for individually developing the body, spirit, and soul of children from all abilities, interests, and social classes.

The Three Development Stages

Rather than studying each academic discipline independently, the approach correlates and integrates all artistic, intellectual, and practical activities within the curricula, along with a strong emphasis on developing the imagination, which is central to anthroposophy. Ultimately, students undergoing a Waldorf education can expect a holistic growth, preferably with a balance between their “behavioural, cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual” characteristics that comprises both analytical and creative thought. The following stages each focus on seven-year development:

  1. Kindergartens and preschools emphasise hands-on, practical activities in addition to environments that encourage creative play, which is based on empathy and emulation of the surroundings, and presents a child with a “good” view of the world.
  2. Elementary, or primary, schools focus on bringing out the students’ artistic and social abilities that foster both an analytical and social understanding, to prepare them for formal schooling. Through activities and presentations – such as artistic work and storytelling – students learn the academic content that evokes their feelings and imagination, thereby forming a meaningful association with the content. The curriculum combines languages, visual arts, drama, music, and crafts with many commonly taught school subjects; this presents a child with a “beautiful” view of the world. Additionally, there are no standardised textbooks (Ullrich, 2008).
  3. Secondary education aims to foster an empathy and critique of the world via a formalised learning of the arts, humanities, mathematics, science, and world languages: the student understands the subject matter through independent judgement and thought. The teaching focuses on enabling a good understanding of the conceptual matter, which the student then implements to form conclusions using independent judgement and thought. This presents a child with a “true” view of the world. Skill progression is essential to phase, where refinement occurs of fine art and music techniques, for instance.

Understanding the phases

In the pre-primary phase, the focus on developing the oral skills through movement games, poems, songs, and stories brings forth the child’s inherent creativity; when combined with simple multi-functional aids, such as Waldorf dolls, this strengthens their creative and imaginative faculties. The instruction of conceptual and intellectually straining matter at this age is considered detrimental to the child’s growth, since they learn the most – unwittingly through imitation – in captivating surroundings (Ginsburg, 1982).

However, perhaps the most debated aspect over the Waldorf education system concerns early literacy, traditional education models stress that formalised literacy occurs prior to the age of 6 or 7, contrary to the Waldorf belief that education should begin the child and not the teaching of subject matter (Elkind, 2006). This engages the child’s creative spirit in imagining the things as opposed to the words; they are not born knowing the difference between the colours, surface textures, temperature, or the plethora of physical sensations, which are learnt only through a direct interaction with things and not through words. The pedagogue, Friedrich Fröbel, summed, “Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words”.

Other Aspects

A few key differences are present within the Waldorf system, with eurythmy being primary:

  • Unique to this pedagogic approach, eurythmy is a movement-infused art with associated  spoken text or music containing dance and role-playing elements.
  • Although seen in other systems as well, cooking, farming, and outdoor education are established within the Waldorf/Steiner curriculum.
  • Free play and non-competitive games at a young age foster cooperation but at the secondary level, competition is stressed; critics may disagree with the notion of non-competitiveness and the values it promotes but this actually promotes harmony and team play at a young age.
  • Instruction in two foreign languages starts at the elementary level.

Finally, numerous studies, including those by the renowned PISA, have shown that Waldorf/Steiner students have greater scientific reasoning and are more capable in not only the sciences but also display greater creative thinking faculties, especially in the arts, when compared with other school systems. This is reflected in their far-above-average ability in the PISA school assessments. Moreover, a large proportion of students tend to become doctors, engineers, scientists, scholars, and teachers (Jiménez, 2012). So illustrious is the education methodology that prominent educational practitioners and systems worldwide have infused many aspects of this pedagogic approach, thus giving rise to numerous Waldorf-inspired schools. For parents wanting a holistic development of their children and hoping to provide them with a unique education, they need not look any further.

Trier-germany-waldorfschule

Image: Waldorf School, Trier, Germany

References

The author encourages the reader to visit the following website to glean further information regarding the Waldorf/Steiner schools in India, as well as information regarding the curriculum and the schooling format. http://www.anthroposophicalsocietyindia.org/waldorf-education/

“Anthroposophy”: Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] – Available at: http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9007798 [Accessed 08/12/14].

  • Elkind, D. (2006). Much Too Early – Education Next. [online] Education Next. Available at: http://educationnext.org/much-too-early/ [Accessed 08/12/14].
  • Ginsburg, I. (1982). Jean Piaget and Rudolf Steiner: Stages of Child Development and Implications for Pedagogy. Teachers College Record, 84(2), pp.327-37.
  • Jiménez, F. (2012). Wissenschaftler loben Waldorfschulen. Die Welt. [online] Available at: http://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/wissen/article109490665/Wissenschaftler-loben-Waldorfschulen.html [Accessed 8 Dec. 2014].
  • Steiner, Rudolf (1995). The Spirit of the Waldorf School. Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press.
  • Steiner, Rudolf (2013). The Essential Rudolf Steiner. Lanham: Start Publishing LLC.
  • Ullrich, Heiner (2008). Rudolf Steiner. London: Continuum International Pub. Group. p. 77.

The Legacy of Friedrich Fröbel

Frobel (Inside)Image: Fröbel toys (froebel-museum.de)

A large majority of us know the concept of the ‘kindergarten’ but may have mistaken it for merely another preschool. Today, most pre-primary schools incorporate the ideas of the kindergarten , or ‘a garden for children’ which dispels with the misconception of play being a wasteful activity and encourages a young child to learn about his, or her, environment through engagement with it. This nearly 200-year-old pedagogic approach was developed in a time, the early- to mid-19th Century Europe, when young children were no more than adults predestined become industrious cogs in the economy and society. Their instruction included no time for play and self-exploration and they were coerced to endure endless lectures and squander time on the rote memorisation of these lectures, a point with which we can all relate and sympathise.

Among the first to realise the deficiencies of such an education system, Friedrich Fröbel, a self-taught German pedagogue, sought to create a novel model of education centred on the unique capabilities and needs of a child. During that epoch, a majority of children under the age of seven worked in the mines or in factories, allocated no free time; Fröbel’s enduring work now enables them engage in ‘free work’, or the importance of purposeful activity and games in childhood. He drew inspiration from his progressive contemporary, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who observed that encouraging a child’s inherent curiosity and exploratory temperament resulted in innovative individuals having a desire to learn and become independent in both thought and action.

After teaching at Pestalozzi’s Frankfurt school, and through his own experience of self-learning, Fröbel deemed that, as humans, we are highly creative individuals and that play is essential to our development, especially during our formative years. Play employs all of our imagination and physical movements to express our interests, thereby educating us as a whole; Fröbel sums it as, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”.

Fröbel’s kindergartens include three distinct features: toys, or gifts, for sedentary creative play, termed as occupations; dances and games for healthy movement-oriented activity; as well as the examination and nurturing of plants in a garden, which stimulates a consciousness of Nature. In the gardens, children participate in all aspects of the growth, harvesting, and preparation of nutritious, seasonal produce. This also provides them with various basic mathematical concepts that are applicable to real life scenarios; moreover, the curriculum conveys the important relationship between food, health, and the environment through these activities.

Fröbel Gifts

Fröbel’s work at the University of Berlin’s Mineralogical Museum enabled him to both develop simple-to-understand “gifts” and his belief that certain, fixed laws govern the development of a child, similar to how others govern in science and in society. The use of materials and the activities associated with them is central to this pedagogic approach, particularly the significance of playing with blocks, which embody the construction of the universe. Proper implementation of these gifts results in the child transitioning from an understanding of the material to the abstract, or from experimentation to theory. In essence, the blocks develop the child’s spatial understanding, from which he or she will transition onto two-dimensional flat tiles and then linear sticks; logic-based tasks centred on a combination of these enable a child to relate space and volume.

The Fröbel gifts are given in a linked, sequential order, each increasing in complexity to match the maturation of the child and to expose him, or her, to new ideas:

  1. A soft, squashable ball that fits a young child’s hand, which also can be attached to a string, thus facilitating multimode movement when a parent sings to their child. Fröbel proposed to give this gift to very young children, through the act of dropping, hiding and revealing, holding, rolling, and swinging the ball, the child acquires an understanding of objects and develops spatial relationships, comprehends the concept of movement, speed and time, develops a perception of colour and contrast, and of weights and gravity.
  2. A wooden cube and sphere – the child discovers the differences between the two shapes; first, familiarity with the sphere leads to its recognition. Second, the sphere is identical in appearance from any perceived angle. Third, it moves, leading the child to associate with it. Fourth, it produces a sound upon rolling on a hard surface. Then, this contrasts with the cube, which appears different from each direction; furthermore, spinning of the cube in a different manner exposes the child to a myriad of shapes.
  3. The now-familiar cube is divided further into eight, one-inch (2.5cm) identical cubes, fitting in a child’s hand. The child discovers the separation, rearrangement, and reassembly of this first building gift.
  4. The fourth gift is another related to building but, to the child, it appears similar to the first. However, when the child pulls it apart, each of the eight component blocks is twice as long but half the width of the previous gift. This creates new opportunities for constructive play.
  5. The third building gift comprises additional component cubes with the original block, with some divided into halves and others into quarters, further simulating the child’s creative abilities

In our results-oriented society, the importance of play often is forgotten as we want our children to grow up into adults as quickly as possible, imprinted with school curriculum and forced into a rigid form so that they may become an economic cog – the very notions Fröbel sought to dispel in his day. We forget that this rubber-stamping, rote-memorisation form of education creates no innovators and in a economic-driven world where innovators and entrepreneurs are valued for the jobs they create, perhaps Fröbel’s pedagogy, with its emphasis learning from play, can orient our children in a positive direction. After all, why let your child become another brick in the wall!


References

  • Fröbel, Friedrich (1900). The Student’s Froebel: Adapted from “Die Erziehung der Menschheit”. William H. Herford. Volumes I & II London: Isbister, 1900–01. I: Theory of education. Vol. II: Practice of Education
  • Norman, Brosterman (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Wollons, Roberta. L. (ed). Kindergartens and cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000

 

Maria Montessori, the chief architect of the montessori theory of education

The Montessori Theory of Education

Montessori_Preschool_Classroom

With the vast array of today’s schools offering a specialised education, how do parents choose which model of education is the most suitable for your child? Typically, it is either the one they had or the one they wished they had. This first instalment of our series looks at one of the most popular pedagogic approaches from a pre-primary level. Developed by the Italian pedagogue Maria Montessori and her son, Mario, from the early- to mid-20th Century, Montessori education has similarities to developmental psychology, the branch of psychology aimed at expanding and researching how humans transform throughout their lives. However, it is based primarily on constructivism, the idea that humans develop both understanding and significance by correlating their daily experiences with their individual thoughts; in simpler terms, relating theory to practice. The method rests on two fundamental tenants: relating children and adolescents with their surroundings, thereby developing their psychological self-construction, and exploiting the knowledge that children have an intuitive, a priori path of psychological growth.

What is the Montessori theory of education?

As a form of experiential learning, the Montessori approach implements several features fundamental to each phase of human development and the manner in which the articulation of these human tendencies is assisted by tailoring education. The features are abstraction, activity, communication, exactness, exploration, environmental manipulation, order, orientation, repetition, self-perfection, and purposeful activity (or work). Special emphasis on the surroundings enables children to become autonomous in relation to their individual psychological development. Such an environment includes: an arrangement aiding activity and movement; a clean environment that also promotes beauty and harmony; building surroundings that are consistent with the child’s needs; restricted use of special Montessori materials that only assist the child’s development (nothing superfluous); establishing an order; and the inclusion of nature both in- and outside the classroom.

Central to the Montessori approach is the realisation of four unique human development phases: the first begins from birth to the age of six, the second from the age of six to twelve, the third from 12 to 18, and the fourth from 18 to 24. Each of these phases contain dissimilar attributes, styles of learning, and necessities and, thus, require a dissimilar pedagogic approach to each phase. The most crucial, of course, is the first phase, where a child undergoes stark physio-psychological growth. The child uses his, or her, senses to explore and learn about the immediate surroundings, which helps in constructing identity, the concept of self, and the ability to function independently. The following three concepts further elucidate this.

The Absorbent Mind, Sensitive Periods, and Normalisation

In the first phase, a young child’s ability to incorporate their environment’s sensory influence seamlessly, such as culture, language, and other stimuli, is unique to this phase and subsequently weakens. Furthermore, there are distinct stages in which the child is receptive towards a certain stimulus over another.

Maria Montessori termed these as “sensitive periods” and her pedagogic approach advises changes within the classroom environment, making available certain feasible activities and materials, to react to these periods, which are illustrated by the following diagram.

Montessori-DiagramFrom the age of three to six, “normalisation” develops due to child’s ability to focus engage in tasks for an extended period and display empathy for others, which supplies the developmental requirements of the child.

Educational Practices in Preschools

At the “primary” level, a characteristic Montessori classroom has 20 to 30 children between the ages of 2½ to 6 under a trained teacher and an assistant and contains either isolated or small clusters of child-sized chairs and tables. Shelves of child-height contain class materials, enabling the child to pick and perform a task he or she desires after the teacher presents the options in the beginning. Typically, the materials spur the physical skills of the child, with activities such as pouring and spooning, and develop materials for art, language, math, music, and sensory development, among others.

With this brief description of the Montessori pedagogic approach, parents can make significantly more informed decisions regarding the education of their child. This form of experiential learning has found worldwide renown, with the children becoming curious and naturally adapting to formal primary schooling.


References

  • Grazzini, Camillo (Jan–Feb 1988). “The Four Planes of Development: A Constructive Rhythm of Life”. Montessori Today 1(1): 7–8.
  • Montessori, Maria (1967). The Absorbent Mind. New York: Delta.
  • Montessori, Maria (1994). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford, England: ABC-Clio. pp. 7–16
  • Montessori, Mario (1966). The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education. Amsterdam: Association Montessori Internationale.