Gandhiji’s Wisdom on Education

As we approach Gandhi Jayanti with the New Education Policy (NEP) now a reality, it is an appropriate time to re-visit Gandhiji’s philosophy of education as encapsulated in his Nai Talim (New Education)—Basic Education for All.

The fundamental premise of Nai Talim is that basic education is a holistic process, where all aspects of the individual—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—are given opportunity for development.  The curriculum seeks to impart learning through hands-on skill-based work that prepares young people for the real world, rather than creating islands where education has nothing to do with the surrounding community. The centrality of skills aims to reinforce the dignity of labor, the value of self-sufficiency, and strengthen local culture. In this approach to education, craft-skill serves as the center of the holistic development of the student. Other skills such as literacy and mathematics are learned in the context of their craft, and subjects are taught in an interdisciplinary way and never separated from their practical application in the world.

Some other perspectives that under-pinned Gandhiji’s thinking on education were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

A national education conference held at Wardha on 22–23 October 1937 wherein Gandhiji shared his vision of education led to the setting up of two model schools at Wardha and nearby Segaon.  A few years ago, I was in Wardha and sadly, it did not seem that the school was doing too well, or that it was at the forefront of educational innovation. It would seem that it is not easy to implement the philosophy of Nai Talim in a way that is relevant to today’s world.

They say the NEP has some influences from Nai Talim. How far these elements are implementable or how seriously they will be implemented is yet to be seen. My feeling is that it will take very creative re-interpretation of the philosophy of Nai Talim, if we want the spirit of it to infuse our education system. And as of now, I am not aware of any exciting experiments in this direction.  

I often find myself returning to these two quotes from Gandhiji after discussions and debates on education. To me, they are the touchstone by which any educational initiative must be evaluated:

“By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man–body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education.’

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.’

 

–Meena

A Preposterous and Perplexing Beast

Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS Source:https://en.wikipedia.org

In the sixteenth century, trade and merchant ships used to carry plants, spices and exotic animals from the colonial outposts of the ruling powers to Europe. In 1515, among the ship load of gifts despatched by the governor of Portugese India, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, to King Manuel I in Portugal, was a curious animal known by its Gujarati name of genda, and its Indian keeper, named Ocem. This rhino was the first to arrive in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and it caused quite a sensation. The animal was examined by scholars and the curious, and letters describing the fantastic creature were sent throughout Europe.

Albrecht Dürer, an artist, mathematician, engraver and painter living in Nuremberg read about this strange animal and based on the description, he began a pen sketch which became a woodcut. Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS became famous. Dürer himself had never seen a rhino and hence his rendering was more fanciful than accurate.

In many ways a rhinoceros is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, literally meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, belies its unusual appearance. Much before Dürer, even for those who had seen a real rhino, its strange form and peculiar characteristics spawned a variety of tales. Tribes in Africa and Asia where the rhinoceros is found in the wild, have their folk tales that imagine how this creature came to be what it is. Here are some abridged versions.

A folk tale of the Tharu people of the Terai grasslands at the foothills of the Himalaya describes how the beast was created by the Hindu god Vishwakarma. He picked the best parts of many animals on earth and stitched them together. His creation had the skin of an elephant, the hooves of a horse, the ears of a hare, the eyes of a crocodile, the brains of a bear, the heart of a lion, and horns like Nandi, Shiva’s bull. Viswakarma creatively twisted, moulded and further modified these parts, even fusing two horns into one. The result was beyond his expectation, a masterpiece of the art of imperfection.

The naturalist and wildlife writer Edward Pritchard Gee recounted an ancient Indian myth that explains the ‘armour plating’ of the rhino. It is said that, once, Lord Krishna decided to use rhinos in place of elephants in battle. However, when the creature, all covered in armour for battle, was brought in, it was found to be too stupid to obey commands. Therefore, it was sent back to the forest. Unfortunately, they forgot to take off its armour—and so it remains until this day.

One African tale tells of how the rhino got its skin. Long long ago, when all the animals were without a skin, God gave each one a needle and told them to sew a skin for themselves. The animals got to work, each creating for themselves beautifully patterned and fitting skins. But Kifam, the first black rhino, was clumsy and short sighted. As he started on his skin, he dropped his needle; so he charged back and forth looking for it, but being short sighted, he could not find it. In frustration, he snatched up a thorn and started stitching, trying to put something together. When he put on his hastily assembled patchwork coat, it hung in wrinkles and folds. The other animals all laughed at him; this made him very cross; he was sure that they had hidden his needle. Since then the rhino charges at everything that crosses his path.   

Another African folktale explains the rhino’s habit of scattering its dung. As the story goes: In days long ago when animals could talk, Elephant always used to tease rhino about his near-sightedness and bad temper. One day Rhino really lost his temper. He challenged Elephant to a contest. The contest was to see who could produce the largest dung heap. Imagine two very large animals and the vast quantities of vegetation they eat, and you can imagine the lot of dung that they both make! But in the contest, Rhino made the larger pile of dung. The elephant was enraged. He attacked the poor rhino with his trunk and tusk and beat him till he cried for mercy. Finally the Elephant stopped the beating but made Rhino promise that he would never again challenge Him—the mighty Lord of the Beasts. Rhino never forgot that dreadful beating, and he is afraid to ever offend Elephant again. And that is why he always kicks at his dung heap, scattering it until it is quite flat, so that it always looks smaller than that of the Elephant.

While Rhino’s looks may be perplexing, it is the Rhino’s survival in the wild which is a   pressing issue for wildlife conservationists. Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, two are found in Africa–the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. The other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino. While each of these species faces a different level of threat, some of the common threats that all of them face include poaching for their horn, habitat loss, and extreme climate events like floods and tsunamis.

Around 2010 less than 30,000 rhinos were alive in the wild. The plight of the Rhinoceros was not widely known around the world, and most people didn’t know just how close to total extinction majestic species was. So WWF-South Africa announced World Rhino Day in an effort raise awareness about this beast in peril, in an effort to save the world’s remaining rhinos.

Today this has become an international event. How this came about is another, modern-day, story of two determined and dedicated women.

In mid-2011, Lisa Jane Campbell of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was preparing for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found a blog by Rhishja Cota-Larson from Saving Rhinos in the USA. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of protecting rhinos. In the months that followed, they worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international day of celebration of all five species of rhinos, and awareness of the threats that they face. The two continued to work together to promote this day every year.

22 September–World Rhino Day has since grown to become a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, cause-related organisations, businesses, and concerned members of the public from nearly every corner of the world!

This is my small celebration of this quirky creature with a horn on its nose!

–Mamata

Between the Headlines

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I am a newspaper person. My day does not begin until I have perused my three morning papers. Even during the first Covid Lockdown when newspaper vendors stopped home-delivering newspapers, and after a week of serious withdrawal symptoms, my husband and I found an enterprising footpath vendor who braved the police to provide newspapers to addicts like us.  

In the last couple of weeks a lovely poem by Gulzar is doing the rounds, which beautifully captures this addiction. Called Newspaper Mornings, it opens with the line Bina akhbar ke, chai subah ki adhoori lagti hai (the morning tea feels incomplete without the newspaper).

 An article related to this succinctly sums up the charm of the printed newspaper vis-à-vis the blizzard of 24/7 TV channels and Social Media that relentlessly batters our senses and our lives. The newspaper does not try to recruit you to its agenda, it puts you in control. …The important thing is that you get to choose. You comment on a headline, smile at a cartoon, match wits with the crossword, eyeball a celebrity, pore over the sports statistics. …And then there is the pleasure of serendipity. You discover what you didn’t know before, you learn new things at random.

Exactly how I relate to newspapers! I often miss the headlines, but I very much enjoy reading the little items tucked away among the big news. From the mundane to the bizarre, these tidbits add the spice to my chai!

Here is a random taste from the last one month’s newspapers.

Uplifting News: People attending a kite festival in Taiwan were left looking on in horror after a three-year-old girl was lifted high into the air by powerful winds after she got entangled in the strings of a gigantic kite. The child hovered above throngs of spectators and was zipped around by strong winds for a heart-stopping 30 seconds amid inflatable pandas and astronauts as screams erupted from spectators. The girl, who was identified only by her last name Lin, landed mostly unscathed, except for abrasions around her neck and face. 

Lip-smacking News: Waking up to a town coated in chocolate powder sounds like a childhood fantasy, but for some residents in Olten, Switzerland, it was a reality on Friday morning, when it started snowing particles of cocoa powder. Popular chocolate company Lindt & Sprüngli has confirmed local reports that there was a defect in the cooling ventilation for a line of roasted cocoa nibs in its factory; as a result of which the fine chocolate dust escaped. Combined with strong winds the powder spread across the town, leaving a fine cocoa dusting on everything.

Missing News: At least 513 animals have been reported as having gone “missing” from Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, a report said on Sunday. In July 2019 there were a total of out of 917 animals in the zoo. But by July 2020 the number came down to 404. The animals are suspected to have been stolen.

Chilling News: Austrian athlete Josef Koeberl broke the world record for longest time spent submerged in ice. He lasted more than two hours in the box, wearing nothing but a swimsuit. Koeberl took on the challenge in front of Vienna’s main train station, fully submerged up to his shoulders in a clear box filled with ice cubes. Over the course of the two hours, his temperature was monitored, and afterward, his health was checked by medical officials in an on-site ambulance. Josef Koeberl beat the previous record for full-body contact, which he set himself last year, by over 25 minutes.

Searing News: A couple’s plan to reveal the gender of their baby-to-be-born went up not in blue or pink smoke but in flames when the device that they used sparked a wildfire that burned thousands of acres and forced people to leave from a city east of Los Angeles in California. The couple went into a field and fired a device which was to let out the coloured smoke, but an errant spark quickly ignited the tall grass there, leading to the disaster. This was as part of a trend where confetti, coloured smoke, and balloons are used to announce the coming baby’s gender.

Educational News: Surat, Gujarat’s Diamond City is creating a new benchmark in green learning with its innovative approach to promote cycling among young children. To pedal up its efforts the local civic body has designed a course ‘Cyclology’. The subject will be a ten-hour course for which books have already been printed. Students will be taught history of bicycle, traffic rules, along with environmental, health, social and financial benefits in the course.  “If we teach them early kids will develop a habit for life.”

(NB No mention of whether kids will actually have to learn cycling!)

DIY for Dummies News: Whether you have hundreds of gigabytes or boxes of decades-old albums here are some simple ways to catalogue and organise your images. Cathi Nelson founder of a global community of photo organisers uses a prioritisation system she calls ABCS. Album (photos worthy of a physical or online album), Box or Backup (photos you want to keep in some form but don’t need access to), Can (as in trash can) and Stories (photos that conjure up a great memory and are thus worth holding on to). She further advises “Don’t get too lost—you only want to look at each photo for two or three seconds, max.”

Vocal for Local News: The red-purple dragon fruit that has helped Kutchi farmers make a killing may soon get a new name—kamalam (lotus). Officials and farmers say that the shape and external appearance of the fruit has a striking resemblance to a lotus. Kutch farmers have already started branding the fruit as ‘kamalam’ in the local markets.  

Breaking News: In a daring loot near Surat, burglars stole an entire ATM weighing at least 500 kg, and took it to an isolated spot in a farm about 150 feet away. They used cutters to break open the cash tray, and took away nearly Rs 8 lakh from it, in the early hours of Wednesday. They escaped leaving the damaged machine behind.

News That You Can Use: All of the above. I just did!

–Mamata

Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.

–Meena

How (Not) to be Grandparents

With a Special Day for almost everyone and everything, how can we leave Grandparents behind! Yes, 13 September is marked as Grandparents Day. As with all Days it is the marketing hype that takes over. We are reminded that it is the time to show our love for our grandparents with cards and gifts. Having just recently come to know about this day, it got me thinking about grandparents.

I never really knew three out of my four grandparents. My mother’s father died much before I was born. My father’s father is a very hazy memory. My paternal grandmother is an image of a little old lady in white sitting in a large chair in the family home. The only one that I remember clearly is my mother’s mother—equally tiny, fastidious, and scolding; one whose sharp tongue we children were wary of. Not exactly grandparents like the ones we read about in storybooks–roly-poly grannies who cuddled, and baked cookies and cakes, and indulgent grandfathers who told awesome stories.

As years went by, we, the grandchildren grew up and, moving ahead, had our own children. Suddenly our own parents became grandparents. I wonder what memories our children have of their grandparents–Hazy, clear, happy, unhappy, or more complex. More years whizzed by, and now, our children have grown and married, and have children of their own. And believe it or not, we find ourselves being bestowed with the exalted title of Grandmother and Grandfather! How did that happen?

As one writer humorously put it: Except for the fact of our birth, grandparenthood is probably the only state of adult being that is thrust upon us without our permission or concurrence. We choose a husband, we decide on a child, we become a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief. Only on the grandparent level we are suddenly and arbitrarily informed of what has been done to us after there is no undoing it.

I must admit that I have not yet been officially conferred the title, although I am delighted to be an honorary Nani. But as my contemporaries take on this new role, I have been observing, and thinking about, changes in the role and function of grandparents. As a bystander I may have a different perspective on things, and I beg to be excused if I am way off the mark.

Most of my generation grew up to be career women. While we did not live in joint families, we did seek the comfort and succour of our parents or in-laws’ home when it was time for our babies to be born. Yes we did read our Benjamin Spock and had some notion of child rearing, but we more or less went with the wisdom and experience of our mother or mother-in-law, especially in matters of infant care. Today’s generation of young career parents have much more access to information, much wider exposure to a range of theories on child rearing, and definitely clearer ideas on the subject. At the same time our own generation is not quite the ‘waiting at home for the daughter’s confinement’ one. We are, ourselves, reaching almost the peak of our own careers, but gladly taking the time out for getting into our new roles, just as our daughters take time out from their rising careers to take on motherhood.

Interestingly this has created new challenges for all three generations—children, parents and grandparents. And along with How to be a Good Parent guidebooks, there were also numerous advisories on How to be (or not) a Good Grandparent! There are reminders to grandparents to NOT do just what their parents did, and hints on how to tiptoe gently around the protocols established by the parents!

The battle between the generations will go on as long as there are different generations. As will the special role that grandparents play in a family. The fact is that we all need each other. And children especially do need grandparents to care for them and comfort them, to provide role models and role alternatives for them, and to create a living link between the past and the present.

Margaret Mead, one of the most eminent cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century describes this important connection in a passage she wrote in 1966, and which rings just as true even today.

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Margaret Mead Source Google

In a changing society, grandparents themselves change. Far from representing what is stubbornly old-fashioned, they are men and women who in the contemporary world have the greatest experience in incorporating new ways and ideas. Very often their daughter is mired down in a thousand details of baby care and housekeeping and their sons are struggling to establish themselves in the world but grandparents have the leisure to follow up what is most modern and new. And unlike their own parents who grew old early under physical stress, today’s grandparents generally have years of vigorous living ahead.

More often than we realise, grandparents who move away from the homes where they brought up their own children are not settling into ‘retirement’ but are instead into new activities. Some of them have—and more could have a very important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Because as adults they have lived through so much change—the first talkies and television, the first computers and satellites—they may well be the best people to teach children about change.

With a lifetime of experience of how far we have come and how fast, grandparents can give children a special sense of sureness about facing the unknown in the future. Having experienced so much that is new, they can keep a sense of wonder in their voices as they tell their grandchildren how something happened, what it was like the first time, and open their grandchildren’s eyes to the wonder of what is happening now and may happen soon. And as men and women who are making new beginnings, developing new interests they can demonstrate to children that growing up is only a stage in a lifetime of growth. As in the past they represent continuity. But now, in a changing society this continuity includes the future and the acceptance of the unknown.  Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views   June 1966

–Mamata

Focus on a Nutrition Success Story

Nutrition Centers for Pregnant and Lactating Women

During this Nutrition Month, sharing a good practice..

The criticality of proper nutrition for pregnant and lactating women is undisputed. Equally undisputed is that their nutritional status in India is extremely worrisome. Of course the government through its Anganwadi program does supply day rations for this stage of life. But in the field, what we found was that these rations were taken home, added to the general pool of foodstuffs in the household, and consumed by all. So probably the men or the children ended up getting a little more food, but very little extra went to the target women. It was not considered at all OK for the daughter-in-law of the house to keep aside the rations that she had received for herself! So in reality, these pregnant women got very little supplementary nutrition.

Based on some state government experiences, we at GMR Varalakshmi Foundation decided to reverse the equation. Rather than the food going to homes, we thought it might work if the women came to the food. We set up small community-based Nutrition Centers which pregnant/lactating women could easily access. They had to come into the Centers at a certain fixed time every day for about half an hour. We worked out a menu of supplementary nutrition in discussion with an eminent national institution working on the subject. The menu was not a complete meal but a list of items worked out to plug the commonly found gaps in this group. Some criteria we had was that it should involve minimum cooking, and should to the extent possible, be based on seasonally available local foods. Women coming to the Centers continue to avail the Anganwaadi rations.

So women come to our centers every day and it is like a little kitty party. They eat the snack, chat together, share notes on their pregnancy.  There are organized activities—from a talk by a health worker on immunization and family spacing, to games related to food, nutrition and childcare, to screening of films on health, sanitation, etc. Records are kept of their weight, hemoglobin, and doctor advice. Special care is paid to vulnerable cases.

The Centers have been in operation for almost a decade now, and have almost 100% track record of institutional deliveries and of baby weight above 2.5 kg. And the cost? The snack costs Rs. 15 per woman per day. And the program is for 12 months for each member—from roughly 3rd month of pregnancy to 6th month after delivery, with home delivery of the food during the weeks when the mother is not able to come to the Center. That is a cost of about Rs. 5500 per woman for ensuring her health and to lay the foundation for a healthy life for a baby. Extremely scalable for organizations. Not difficult even for individuals to support.

There may be many, many other such simple ideas tried by innovative NGOs and others across the country. The key is to share, learn and multiply the good practices!

–Meena

Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung

–Mamata

 

Feed Them Young

fruitsSeptember is observed as Nutrition Month in India. And God knows we need to do all we can, considering how poorly we are faring. Just to reiterate some of our national statistics:

  • Under-five prevalence of stunting (when a child has a low height for their age) is 37.9%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%. Under-five wasting (low weight for a child’s height) prevalence of 20.8% –greater than the developing country average of 8.9%.
  • 40 per cent of adolescent girls and 18 per cent of boys are anaemic.
  • 4% of women of reproductive age have anaemia.

No questions about it, there have been tremendous efforts. India’s school mid-day meal programme is the largest feeding initiative in the world. Some states, apart from hot meals, also provide milk to the children. The Anganwadi role of providing supplementary nutrition and take-home rations for under-6 children and pregnant and lactating mothers is another crucial input. The efforts to strengthen the Public Distribution System are key. The opening of subsidized canteens in many states is something that has seen success too. Non-government actors too have played a role—Akshaya Patra’s mid-day meals are something which many school children look forward to, and indeed are often the reason why children want to go to school! Many other NGOs have innovative programmes too.

Proper nutrition for all age groups is important, but it takes on special importance in the case of infants and children, as this lays the foundation for healthy adolescence and adulthood.

it is not just what parents DO NOT feed the children that is important. It is equally important what they DO. Here is a sight one can often see. A daily-wager mother is on her way home. The child is hungry and crying. It may still take them half an hour to get home. Not only is the child demanding food, but a particular kind of food—a packet of chips or namkeen. The mother often succumbs, stretching her affordability to satisfy the child and the hunger. Other times, the scene is repeated with a slight variation—a small child walking home from school insists the mother buys a small packet of noodles to cook for the evening snack.

Not to say that every child and adult does not deserve to indulge once in a while on junk foods. But when it is a habit and a lifestyle, and when it comes at the cost of nutrition for a child, it takes on a serious dimension. Rs. 10 can easily buy an egg and a fruit. But the mother has only Rs. 10. And that that goes for the chips or namkeen, which at best does not contribute much nutritionally, and at worst is actually unhealthy. And the child does not get the egg and fruit.

One supposes that it is not right to hope that government will ban such small packs for unhealthy foods—after all, it is a free market and people have to make their choices. And what is more, we have been told that there are fortunes to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and that it is indeed our duty to make these fortunes by adapting products and services to meet this demand! But can they be more informed choices? Can there be huge educational campaigns not only for what is good nutrition for a child, but what is not? Can schools step up their education about this? Can we reach parents? Can packs carry warnings?

And more proactively, can the Government Subsidized Canteens also sell items like boiled eggs, fruit by the piece, chikki made of groundnuts and jaggery? Can every village panchayat put up hand-carts with these items at certain times of the day? And if at all we are to have small packs of anything, can it be milk at Rs. 10?

COVID times have made all these issues more challenging—not only through disruptions to the official systems, but more seriously in the long term, due to loss of jobs and incomes. We have to go into mission mode and plan how we will overcome these. This is a problem that affects not just our today, but a whole generation.

–Meena

 

How Montessori Came to India

The year was 1911. A young man set up practice as a District Pleader in Vadhwan Camp, in the erstwhile princely state of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra. His practice was doing well, he was gaining a name and earning too, but his heart was not in the machinations of legal matters.

In 1913, he became a father to a son. The advent of the child Narendra triggered the life mission which would launch him into a new role. The man was Gijubhai Badheka and his mission was to bring about a revolution in the field of child development and education.

Indian education during that time was a curious mixture of the Macaulayism as practised by the English rulers and the traditional “spare the rod and spoil the child” tenet. Narendra’s parents saw the sorry state of the local schools and were apprehensive about the kind of education their son would get. Gijubhai yearned for something different for his child, but was not able to visualise what this could be. So he started reading whatever he could find about education and educators. He also started sharing his anxiety and dilemmas with his friends.

One of these was friends was Darbarshri Gopaldas Desai, who visited Vadhwan Camp often. He told Gijubhai “If you want to read literature about children’s education, and see a new kind of school, go to Vaso and meet Motibhai Amin”. This was when the door opened for him. Gijubhai went to Vaso, met Motibhai and saw his school. He came back with many books; among which was a book describing the Montessori Method of education. This was Gijubhai’s introduction to the thinking of Maria Montessori, and her writing.

The more he read, the more deeply he started thinking about children and child development, and about putting the theory to practice. He also started experimenting with young Narendra, and sharing his observations with his friends, as also the ideas of Montessori. As his desire to spend more time and energy into this new challenge grew, the further he drifted from his legal practice.

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Dakshinamurti Balmandir

That is where serendipity stepped in. In 1915, Gijubhai helped to frame the constitution of an educational institution in Bhavnagar called Dakshinamurti. Its founders were kindred spirits, all grappling with dilemmas about education, as well as reading the works of Montessori. This was the turning point. In 1916, at the age of 32, Gijubhai quit his legal practice, and joined Dakshinamurti, initially as Assistant Warden of the student’s hostel, and teaching in the High School. His direct interactions with students reinforced his conviction that if real change had to happen it was critical to start from early childhood. He put forth a proposal to the Board to start an experimental pre-school (Balmandir). His wish was granted and in 1920 the Dakshinamurti Balmandir started. This became Gijubhai’s karmabhoomi (the land where one works). And this is where he applied the Montessori philosophy and method, drawing upon the core beliefs and tenets about child development, while adapting the methods and techniques to suit the local realities.

In 1925 Gijubhai took on three major initiatives that created a revolution in the thinking and practice of children’s education across Gujarat.

He set up a formal Adhyapan Mandir to train young people in the philosophy and practice of pre-school education.

To spread the thinking and to attract larger interest in children’s education, the first Montessori Sammelan (Conference) was held at Dakshinamurti. It was chaired by Saraladevi Sarabhai, who had personal experience in using the Montessori system in educating her own children, and who had tremendous belief in this philosophy. The Sammelan concluded with the setting up of the Nutan Bal Shikshan Sangh, headed by Saraladevi Sarabhai to take the work ahead.

Gijubhai invited all citizens interested in the new children’s education approach to join. The enthusiastic support of these members helped spread the new wave not only across Gujarat, but also other parts of the country. The Sangh became a platform to carry this forward. It was proposed to publish a monthly Shikshan Patrika to give voice to the movement.

In 1926, the second Montessori Sammelan was held at Ahmedabad, presided by Gijubhai. Educationists came from all parts of India and carried back the Montessori message.

In the short period from 1920 when he embarked on his mission, till his death in 1939 at the age of 54 years Gijubhai not only pursued his passion for, and practice of his vision of pre-school education, but wrote prolifically for children, teachers and parents.

He combined the scientific perspective of an experimenter, the desire to do something new, the insight to draw out some light from the doldrums that the educational system was in, and faith. This was supported by the revelations from the writing of Madame Montessori.

Sadly the two great like-minded people never met in person. Madam Montessori first came to India in 1939, the year that Gijubhai passed away, at the invitation of Theosophical Society of India. She was then 69 years old. She made Adayar, Chennai her home and lived there along with her son, Mario till 1946.

By then seeds that her writing had sown had already taken root and spread, and Gijubhai was the gardener that nurtured the early shoots, and encouraged the branches to spread far and wide.

The Dakshinamurti Balmandir continues to function today, in its original building, one hundred years after it was first established.

It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel the pressure too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.

If we could say: “We are respectful and courteous in our dealings with children, we treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves” we should certainly have mastered a great educational principle and undoubtedly be setting an example for good education.

Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook (1914)

A teacher’s work is like flowing water. …If we do not understand those who have to be educated; do not think about what they like and what they do not, then our work and theirs will go in vain. The fulfilment of the work of education is not in teaching one or two subjects nor preparing for a certain class, or passing matric or BA. Real education lies in making humans aware about their own unending strengths. It is to reveal the secret of how to animate these and how to use them. To do this requires that the strengths are respected. Their individual development needs to be given first place. Rather than being taught, they need to be guided onto the path of self-knowledge. This is the work of education today.

Gijubhai Badheka  Note to Teachers circa 1920.

–Mamata

 

Montessori–For All Our Children

August 31 marks the birth anniversary of Maria Montessori, whose name of course is synonymous with the education system all of us wish our children to undergo. But even if she had not pioneered this revolutionary system of education, Ms. Montessori would still be in annals of history as a path-breaker. In 1883-84, at the age of 13, she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school. Not only did she choose technical subjects, but she did it with the hope of becoming an engineer, an almost unheard of choice for a girl. By the time she graduated in 1890, she had changed her mind and decided to become a doctor instead. This was not an easier choice though! She was strongly discouraged from taking up medicine in the University of Rome. So she enrolled for a degree in natural sciences, earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This along with her studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893. This was only the first step though.  She was met with hostility and harassment from students and professors. Her attending classes with men in the presence of a naked body was considered inappropriate, and she was required to perform her cadaver dissections alone, after college hours. Nothing deterred her, and she graduated from the University of Rome in 1896. The mores of the times also brought unhappiness in her personal life. She loved a colleague, Giuseppe Montesano, and even had a son with him. But she could not marry him because if she married, she would have to give up her professional work.

She specialized in pediatrics and was involved in the education of mentally challenged children. In 1906, she was invited to set up a childcare centre in San Lorenzo , a poor, inner-city district of Rome, working with the most disadvantaged children of the area, who had no previous exposure to school. She called the center the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “Children’s House. It was a quality educational environment for youngsters whom many had thought were unable to learn. About 50-60 children were enrolled to being with, and the building porter’s daughter was the first teacher, under Dr. Montessori’s guidance.

BunnyThe school showed amazing results. Soon the children exhibited great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals and clean their environment, were calm, orderly, self-regulating, and engaging in hands-on learning experiences—essentially teaching themselves.

Montessori’s experiments began to be widely studied and replicated, not only in Italy but across the world, till today it is a household name. India too has a long history of Montessori education, going back to the 1920s.

This system of education is undoubtedly what is needed for our young children today. Every Anganwadi  and primary school should be a Montessori school. Considering that the whole experiment began with the aim of catering to under-privileged children who were first generation learners, and with a not very educated daughter of a building porter as the teacher, it is the most obvious model for adoption.

But alas somewhere, this system of education has become identified with exclusive schools for the children of the rich and famous. The fees are out of reach of even the middle class.

Is it that we have, in the pursuit of the letter of Montessori’s methods, completely missed the spirit, and have become inflexible and unable to adapt to make it workable at low cost?

At a time with the new National Education Policy has recognized the importance of education for ages below 5 for the first time, it is time for introspection, creativity and a re-think on how this pedagogy can be the basis of learning in every educational institution.

–Meena