In this era of overt commercialisation and apathy towards education, Jacob and Susan – a young couple from Kerala – are running an education initiative that could be an example for the entire country.
“The Learning Village”, run in Rural Bihar for the NGO Empower India Alliance (EIA), there is nothing is like traditional schools – no certificates, no teaching and rote learning.
Here kids are taught a model of education more holistic and in-tune with the lessons from Mother Nature. Of course, they do spend some time in the ‘one-size fits all’ curriculum, since that is needed in the material world.
“But educating young minds about love, compassion, empathy, humanity, equality and the diverse cultures is the need of the hour. That is what we have placed the onus on,” says Jacob.
The journey started out as a voluntary effort, rather than a pre-conceived plan, 18 months ago in 2016. The program began as a simple request from one of the students in the village.
But thanks to a fantastic reception from the community, with more and more children reaching out every day, the program took a life of its own before anyone realised it.
After the surprise success, a few months later, EIA sat down and began to consider where they wanted the initiative to go.
India has approximately 250 million children going to about 1 million schools. Just under one-quarter of the students in grade 5 could solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46 – 17 in rural India.
“The sub-standard quality of education in over 70% of our schools and colleges, especially in rural belts, have resulted in making many of our degrees virtually valueless”, says Jacob.
“For the vast majority (over 90%) of students who cannot attend elite schools, concepts like soft skills, social abilities, interpersonal skills, communication and personality development have become alien concepts. Even now, many schools focus on end-of-year exams, which continue to remain the main criterion for children to inch to the next grade,”
EIA felt this method of education not enough. Soon The Learning Village Program (LVP) was envisaged as a centre that would create safe spaces for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to broaden their horizons.
In LVP, kids can get educational and emotional support unshackled from the economic status of their families.
The new model is mainly about providing choices while keeping the creative, cognitive, social and emotional development of children as its focal interest.
The Approach / The Learning Village
The new model promoted a personalised model of after-school education, one that is adjusted to the needs of the village and each of the beneficiaries. The need of the hour is understanding that education can’t be based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula. Instead, it has to be a format tailored to the need of each child.
“We focused on building relationships rooted in the main cause: Why are we really teaching? How can we keep the child at the centre of what we do?” Jacob reflects.
Rather than the answers, LVP concentrates on the questions – since it believes that asking the right questions and letting the students figure out the answers is crucial. A basic feature of the program is the inclusion of the community in the decision-making process.
LVP’s interventions are simple and specific, with specific objectives and separate programs for younger children and older children.
The syllabus tilts more towards creativity and the development of motor skills with the younger ones, and personality and formal education components for older students.
How all of this is done
Tools employed for this include painting sessions, crafts, gardening, dance, drama workshops and yoga sessions. There is also career guidance sessions and disaster risk education for elder students.
All of this is taught through local volunteers, visits by outside volunteers, audio-visual aids and, most recently, video conferencing with children and like-minded people elsewhere.
With a firm belief that any change should come from within, LVP kept children as the centre of all interventions.
“We started a leadership program for students. Any and all programs in the centre was led by the ‘Little Leaders’. We have a student parliament for student affairs and coordination, and we have a computer centre to open the outside world to the children,” Jacob says.
Equally important are the home visits and community walks. The volunteering team travels from village to village, promoting peace, need for education and more importantly how to support children regardless of their abilities.
“Our search for a ‘quick fix’ is the fundamental problem behind the challenges faced by our education sector. We have made progress in bringing students to schools, but very little has been done to ensure they receive a quality education. In addition to outdated content and methods of teaching, there is a severe deficit of good teachers, especially in schools for the underprivileged,” Jacob says.
He does acknowledge ground realities though. “If we are to work on this, we should be ready to work for a long time. This is going to be a long-term project. So we always kept a low-cost model among the priorities,” explains Jacob.
Masarhi and Beyond
While the new model was gradually tested in Masarhi as a part-time pilot, gradually “Learning Village” came into its own. Today around 350 children make use of the LVP’s regular after-school support program.
Another 3500 children are reached through school-level interventions. Today, the team has programs working in Patna, Nalanda and Saharsa District of Bihar, all tailor-made to local requirements.
Many of the children in the program don’t even go to school every day since they work.
“They can’t afford to miss a day’s work. While there is much you can say about child labour, no child deserves to grow-up like this. The most realistic solution sometimes is to help these children get educated in their spare time. This way their children don’t have to work to survive. You have to make them interested, then keep them interested in education. These children need our support,” says Susan.
Today the LVP runs a holistic range of interventions including academic support, life skills and looking after the emotional health of the children. Now with plans to reach out to create its first urban centre in NCR Delhi, the program is in limited expansion mode.
“Through our program we are encouraging these children to open their minds, education is not just about being literate, it is about playing a crucial role in moulding our countries future”