Do you remember how we learned the alphabet as children? We would keep tracing each letter again and again until we could write it all by ourselves. The Constructivist approach is different, in that it promotes an educational method based on the learners’ thinking.
For instance, to teach the letter ‘म’ (‘M’) the teacher first writes a large ‘म’ on the blackboard, pronounces it and asks the students to think of any words they know that start with this sound. Even very young children are able to immediately list several words, like magar, mani, mati and many more. The teacher then traces the shape of the letter ‘म’ on the child’s hand with her fingertips. For the next few days, children do finger tracings on each other’s hands, on the backs of others and wherever else they like. In this way, the child becomes thoroughly familiar with the shape, and the sound associated with a letter.
Then a huge ‘म’ is drawn on the ground and the children are asked to place beads or marbles precisely along the lines forming the letter. It is only after practicing in this manner that the children begin writing the letter themselves. With this preparation, they are able to do so rightaway, accurately and without hesitation.
This wonderful teaching method is being followed in all the Zilla Parishad schools in Maharashtra today. It was first put into practice in the Kumthe Beat in Satara District. Pratibha Bharade, Extension Officer, Kumthe Beat, is responsible for introducing this innovative method of making learners completely familiar with the shape and sound of a letter before they actually have to write it on paper.
She says, “The idea that the child’s brain is like a clean slate when she enters school is wrong. Children are constantly learning from their environment. Their observation and grasping capacity is immense. They are naturally curious and their brains develop the fastest when they are young.”
She added, “It is not really necessary to take children by the hand or to teach them by rote. The teacher should instead play the role of a guide. She must make the student aware that the teacher is there to help and give her the confidence to explore the world of learning. The learning that takes place through such a Constructivist approach urges the student to think for herself, to find answers to her questions and enhance her capabilities and development.”
This small beat or group of barely forty primary schools in hilly Satara District has brought about a change that has earned it nationwide attention. The special nature of this change is the taking root of a locally developed Constructivist approach to education in the context of Zila Parishad schools in Maharashtra, that focuses on learning through understanding, while rejecting rote learning.
Pratibha Bharade was appointed as Extension Officer in Satara district in 2003. She had always believed that it was important for children to become responsible and sensitive human beings. She was not impressed by an ‘education’ that amounted to a degree that gave no real skills to the learner. She was also vocal in her views against corporal punishment. Pratibha Bharade had often discussed on such concerns with teacher colleagues.
She saw that teachers were trying hard to keep the children interested in learning, but there wasn’t any noticeable change in the rate of retention and children went on quitting school before completing primary education. She eventually concluded that poverty and malnutrition were the main causes of this lack of interest. Many students through out the area were from families that were below the poverty line. Students were unable to concentrate on their school lessons on empty stomachs and went off to work as soon as they could, to contribute to their family income.
While working here, she also realised that one of the main reasons for the high rate of school dropouts in this district was poverty. Even before the Govt of Maharashtra passed a resolution in 2009 against detaining any student between Standards 1 to 7, Bharade ‘Madam’ had already – in 2004 – instructed schools on the Kumthe Beat not to detain any child in the primary section.
As Pratibha Bharade recalls, “That was when Dr Shaila Dabholkar, wife of the late Narendra Dabholkar, came to our rescue. As a doctor, she was well aware of the importance of a balanced diet, and she is knowledgeable about organic farming. We decided to concentrate on providing students with a nutritious diet. We began with efforts to improve the nutritional quality of their school midday meals. To ensure that the fruits and vegetables in this meal were fresh, and grown organically, we encouraged schools to develop kitchen gardens. Suddenly teachers and students together started to grow vegetables like tomato, carrot, cucumber, radish and also coriander and other leafy vegetables.”
“We named this project ‘Nature’s Budding Scientists’. This work also gave the schools areason to produce organically enriched soil. The children started eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day and this had an impact on their health,” she continued. “Many students came from farming backgrounds, and they began planting these vegetables and fruits at home too. They noticed the various stages of a plant’s life, and reported on the birds and the bees that it attracted. Pratibha Bharade observed that this joint venture between teachers and students created a deep sense of mutual trust and friendship. The students started confiding their problems – both to do with their studies and other matters – to the teachers.” She acknowledged the help of Dr Hamid Dabholkar and other medical practitioners of Satara, who helped with some of the difficulties faced by students, as well as teachers, in the area of mental health.
Along with these initiatives, work was on to find ways to impart quality education to children. Around 2011-12, Vidya Parishad of Pune (MSCERT) had begun work on reforming the school curriculum. Pratibha Bharade was invited to join the group working on language learning. Here she learned about about Constructivism as philosophical approach to education. This was initially developed in the United States by Seymour Papert a mathematician, computer scientist, and educator and his colleagues and had grown into a worldwide movement for educational change. She was deeply impressed by the concept, and she recognised that she had at last come across the conceptual framework that she had been looking for!
She began reading everything that she could find on the subject, and found that she kept coming across a certain idea: “A child makes sense of the world, and creates knowledge for herself.” Though excited by this revolutionary statement, she was also apprehensive about the notion of acquiring knowledge without the help of teachers. Then she heard of Bharat Vidyalaya, a private school at Wai near Satara that was said to have implemented Constructivist ideas. She decided to pay the school a visit.
With the permission of the school’s Director, Arun Kirloskar, Pratibha Bharade stayed there for three days in order to observe the teaching methods about which she had heard so much, at first hand. “Those three days were among the most unforgettable experiences of my life,” she says. “There was no form of corporal punishment, there were no teachers standing at blackboards, chalk in hand, but the children were studying, with deep interest! The school walls and floor were painted in bright colours. The students would sit on the ground in a circle. They used the coloured walls to write and draw. They learned by themselves, using coloured beads and spoons. Sometimes the teachers too would come to sit with them in the circle. There was no pressure on the children to learn, but they seemed to be having enjoyable experiences.”
Pratibha Bharade was deeply impressed by the Constructivist approach as practiced in Bharat Vidyalaya. Convinced that this was the approach that needed to be used in the state’s district schools, she organised two lectures for the teachers of Kumthe Beat in 2012 on Constructivism and the mental development of children. Through these lectures, teachers were introduced to the idea that children learn by themselves, and that the teachers are there to help them in this effort, not to spoon-feed them or force them to memorise their textbooks. They also learned how the child’s cognitive development may be affected by the behaviour of others in her environment.
From birth, it takes twelve years for the child’s brain to come to full development. The child’s brain has some 100 billion nerve cells at birth. These cells multiply when they experience something happy or positive, whereas traumatic experiences destroy them. So rather than beating or scolding a child during their growing years, it is important to make encouraging comments like, “You can do it, you are doing it well, you are a good child” and so on. The teachers were made aware of these ideas through workshops and lectures.
And it was time to implement these ideas. In 2012, after several rounds of discussions with the teachers concerned, it was decided that Std 1 classes would begin on 1 March instead of the usual date of 14 June. Though slightly apprehensive about this change at the beginning, the teachers geared themselves to teach on the basis of the Constructivist approach, for two months to begin with. In case the experiment failed, they would go back to the traditional methods from June. The physical school buildings also underwent a transformation. The walls were painted white, which made the classrooms look brighter. On them were painted the letters of the Marathi and English alphabets, some fun mathematical equations and cheerful drawings. The schools already had backyard gardens. Now the fronts was also beautified with flowering plants and by planting trees that would provide shade when they grew.
Children, especially first standard students, do not like to sit in one place for long. They like to explore their surroundings and to play. So it was decided to let the children play as much as they wanted and to try to teach as they played. The teachers planned traditional games that did not require much financial outlay, like ‘sagar gote’ (jacks), ‘kancha’ (marbles), hopscotch etc. As students began playing such games, they began liking school. The games developed their physical as well as mental faculties. They also acquired a sporting spirit, their eye-hand coordination improved, as did their rational thinking abilities. They were getting to know the school, as well as the teachers, with whom they were now friends.
During these first two months the teachers spent the time playing, singing, storytelling or simply chatting with the children. The teachers used to take them for walks around the school and introduce them to the trees and birds and small animals found nearby. The children started liking the school very much.
From June onwards, they slowly introduced them to the alphabet and numbers. Using props like sticks of chalk, plastic beads, and wooden ice cream sticks, they demonstrated simple mathematical operations like addition and subtraction. While they learned, the children enjoyed playing in the sand or counting the colourful beads. “None of them felt they were being made to study, or that they were made to do things that could not understand. If a child had any difficulty, her friends would quickly help her,” reminisces Pratibha Bharade about her first batch of Std 1 students who learned through the Kumthe Beat experiment with the Constructivist approach.
Various teaching processes have been worked out in the different subject areas. While teaching language, the child is first given a picture book to look at. Then the children discuss the pictures in the book with the teacher. Then they are introduced to the alphabet. Later they are given cards with words and pictures and the students match the pictures with the words. They also play games like word antakshari (making a new word with the last letter of the previous word); creating a five-sentence story based on a single word and word pyramids. By September, Std 1 students are able to read by themselves. The older children write stories and letters, some also create poems. They also learn to use a dictionary.
Maths, the subject that gives jitters to almost all students, is also taught in a playful manner in the Kumthe Beat schools. They begin by counting beads, stones and other objects in the classroom or even their own body parts. They may make a train according to the number that is called out. Here two children stand as a two digit number where one represents the tens’ place and the other the units’ place. To show the number 28, the student in the tens’ place holds up two fingers while the other one holds out eight fingers to show the units. Children count beads, they make small stories out of numbers, do vertical as well as horizontal addition, learn trade using toy currency notes, and play several such maths-centred games.
Thanks to Constructivism, the students in the Kumthe Beat schools speak English confidently. Hundreds of picture-and-word cards were prepared to enable this. A card with a picture of a dog also has the word “dog” written on it. In the first few days, the meaning of the word on the card is explained, but the children often guess the meaning by looking at the picture. Then they are given separate word and picture cards, which they are asked to match. English is also used for simple instructions and conversation. The experience of teachers is that children understand languages instinctively and can speak easily if they want to. My school, Myself, My friend, My family – are some of the topics on which they converse in English. They are also shown cartoons and listen to nursery rhymes and stories, downloaded by teachers, all of which help to increase their vocabulary.
Once their targets were achieved, there was no looking back for the Kumthe beat. All teachers strictly adhere to the principle that no child is “stupid”, and discouraging negative remarks are to be avoided. Even a child in Std 1 knows a lot already, and the teachers have to base their teaching patterns on that knowledge. The students are allowed to speak in their mother tongue and not forced to speak grammatically correct language. Often, children use words that are new to teachers. As a result, their speech is said to be more “natural” and their essays more conversational compared to the language used in conventional schools.
After the success of this experiment in Constructivism, many other government schools in Maharashtra decided to follow the Kumthe Beat model. Thousands of teachers and other officials have visited these schools for exposure and training. They return confident that they too can transform their schools and achieve significant progress for their students. In this way, it can be said that the Kumthe Beat has shown the way to achieve the objectives of ‘Pragat Shaikshanik Maharashtra’.
Blog: Snehal Bansode Sheludkar
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team