Amaltash: Individualised learning in a vertical group

Viju Jaithirtha With Roopa Devadasan and Kabir Jaithirtha

The Amaltash programme started as a pilot project to study the problems and possibilities of individualised and group learning in a mixed age group in the middle school. The Valley School, Bangalore has worked with mixed age groups in the junior school for many years. This programme was offered to all parents of students entering Classes 6, 7 and 8 with a cut off of 20 students.

What did Amaltash offer initially?

  1. Students would work at the level that was appropriate to them, irrespective of the ‘classes’ they came from.
  2. Students would work as individual learners so that each one could learn the basic skills, at the pace that was right for them.
  3. Group activities had objectives that were not the same as the objectives for learning basic skills.
  4. Students would be given training for examinations only when the basic skills were in place and the students had the necessary stamina and maturity.

While some parents opted for the Amaltash programme because their children had learning difficulties in the horizontal groups, the majority had very well developed learning skills. Though almost all the students were those entering Classes 6, 7 and 8 of the horizontal groups, we had one boy from Class 9. Amaltash envisaged taking the students to the Class 10 examination and beyond, if necessary, thus challenging the assumption that mixed age groups were not practical, or suitable for the higher classes.

An overview

Amaltash tried to operate free from the constraints of a day-school routine. There was yoga several times a week, weekend cycling trips around nearby villages, a lot of encouragement to be quiet and on one’s own, to play team games well in a non-competitive manner, opportunities to look after animals and trees and to be responsible for the care and cleanliness of the classroom. The culture classes were intense—the adults were demanding and relationships had to be established.

An attempt was made to create a strong academic programme that emphasized skill building in the areas of Mathematics, English and the sciences. (In addition, the flexibility of the programme allowed for several subjects of the students’ choice. For the IGCSE we have been able to offer a total of sixteen.) Content, per se, was not an important aspect at this level —except where it formed the basis of the skills programme. For example, History was not taught ‘formally’ as accumulation of information about certain periods in time, whether by doing projects or reading a textbook. In our view, the skills of History were, more significantly, critical reading and attention to prejudice and points of view (including the teacher’s!). Travelling to historical sites and to have some contact with different cultures within the country seemed far more necessary and rewarding. Content, when necessary, as for an examination, could be acquired later.

There was no attempt by the teacher to create individualised material. This would have been difficult and unsatisfactory. A series of text books were identified—one for the younger students up to the secondary level and another for the secondary examination itself. These texts were not meant for particular classes such as Mathematics for Class 7 or English for Class 8, but as a series for the age range of 11 to 14. Even the exam texts were meant for the years 14 to 16, and not for Classes 9 or 10. This may seem a minor matter but is a strong reminder to both teachers and students not to carry the horizontal mindset into the vertical group. It reinforces the fact that students will be at different levels in the 11-14 and even the 14-16 range of years. Despite taking this into account there would be some in the vertical group who would not fit even these flexible, convenient slots. All the texts were chosen for being student friendly, designed for independent work and incorporating practice, review, testing and activities.

Mathematics

Students normally worked individually though they interacted with the teacher and with each other in the learning process. Most of the students found the material adequate and challenging. A few needed extra practice and in the case of one student (who had serious difficulties with the subject), simplified work was designed for that particular need. This was not difficult since such students need repetitive work to take them through a concept in smaller steps. One can design such work in a few minutes which would be challenging enough to keep the student occupied for 20 to 25 minutes. In the correction as well, a great deal of interaction took place between the teacher and the learner. Concepts were further developed or clarified and mistakes were a starting point for discussion. The older students did the initial correction of their work before submitting it to the teacher. The next step was to try to get the older students to correct the work of the younger ones. This facilitated contact between different age groups (always a challenge when the move is from horizontal to vertical), reinforced the learning of the older student and, most importantly, the teacher could gently move from being a figure of authority to a facilitator.

Some students moved very fast and others rather slowly. But this is to be expected in the learning of Mathematics where there is such a connectedness and building upon, that each student has the right to take as much time as she needs to understand concepts, particularly the basics. Those for whom this subject continued to be difficult would drop it naturally, after a point, but none need to bear the scars of the terror of learning and taking exams in Mathematics.

Over the two years, in Amaltash, we have seen the interaction in the learning process grow very naturally among the students. The older students have enjoyed working with the younger ones. After a while competition among the students seemed to have taken a back seat. This was partly due to the structure of individualised learning as well as regular dialogue about comparison and competition whenever it surfaced in class, even in a so-called ‘fun’ situation. To us who were closely involved with Amaltash the point where competitiveness was not the driving energy for learning was tangible. It is not an endemic force that cannot be eradicated.

English

The language programme sought to strengthen the basic and essential skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. There were some units in the material chosen for Amaltash that were new, for example: ‘Evaluating presentation’, ‘Investigating the media’ and ‘Focussing on audience and purpose’. Since students had not encountered these topics earlier, everybody in this group of 11 to 14 year olds began with Book1 of the chosen text and Level A of the Vocabulary Workshop. In the following weeks it became possible for the teacher to observe the natural rhythms and the academic capacities of various children. While most raced ahead with the work because they were older or more capable, there were a few for whom this first level became extraordinarily difficult. For a while assignments were simplified and teacher support increased. The greatest challenge was to find appropriate material for this minority, which enabled them to be challenged while working at their own pace.

For the group as a whole the reading comprehension skills were individualised. But there were possibilities for group work as well, especially in activities relating to spelling, grammar and vocabulary. When a certain error was observed across the group (for e.g. the confusion between the plural and the apostrophe or the ‘of/off’ or ‘lose/loose’ usage) correction became a class activity. Then there was the reading together of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and listening to an audio recording of the James Herriot stories, the Mahabharata or articles on science. Students reading on their own (fiction/non-fiction) or reading out to each other, just outside, under the tree, after working within the confines of the classroom, was strongly encouraged.

The Sciences

The children were introduced to different levels of text and, quite naturally, fell into the self-study mode at the level where they could work independently, yet be challenged by the material. After every unit, there was a set of revision questions that helped as self-assessment. It also helped the teacher to keep track of where each student’s problems lay. Wherever possible, the children worked with more than one textbook/reference material on the same chapter. This consolidated key points, deepened understanding and kept interest alive. One of the most difficult challenges was the planning of age-appropriate laboratory work, given the constraints of timetabling and the fact that students were invariably working on different topics simultaneously. Easier to organize was the science learned outside the ‘classroom’, while doing yoga, on a nature walk, planting trees or viewing a series of films on birds by David Attenborough. One such rather interesting exercise was the students presenting the story of the life of a scientist of their choice. This brought some understanding of scientists as people, as well as the history of Science, while honing their research and presentation skills.

The movement of learning within the group was interesting to watch as well, with the original ‘horizontal classes’ reorganizing into different learning levels, with minimum fuss and heartache as they accepted each other. It was also evident that some children learn best by ‘doing’ first and then repeating for consolidation, while for others ‘reading’ is the quickest route to conceptualization. These styles of learning Science revealed themselves naturally in a mixed age group of 12 to15 children and without the anxiety of comparison.

Assessment

There is perhaps an implicit assumption that assessment and evaluation need tests. Tests become a way of controlling and motivating the student. And in the exam classes one cannot fail to observe the subtle power dynamics played out between students and teachers. What we tried in Amaltash was to find out at which level of the subject the student was working at by simple record keeping, an absolute imperative for a vertical group. Secondly, material chosen, if good, will have self-assessment built into it. These include review exercises, tests and practice sheets at the end of every unit. For the student, self-assessment becomes part of the act of learning—to be taken after proper study, to be taken more than once if necessary and not an act imposed by the teacher.

Amaltash and certification

In our schools, one of the major concerns of parents is whether adequate training to take exams at the end of the 10th and 12th year of school is possible, without the students experiencing the pressure of examinations at regular intervals. A compromise strategy is to have exams only from Class 8 and above. A different approach would be for the student to take the exam only when he is ready. Then time can be set aside, exclusively, for preparation.

A year into Amaltash and some of the students were ready to begin preparation for an examination. We were looking for both academic and emotional readiness. Therefore, not all who were above 14 years started on the examination syllabus. Some needed more time and, after discussion, parental support was forthcoming. For those taking an exam the texts changed, naturally, but work continued in the self-study mode. There were now different time schedules for completion of work, keeping in mind the varied rhythms and capacities of the students as well as the demand of an examination. In the run up to the exam, students are likely to ‘complete’ the portions at different points but all will have more than enough time for revision. The IGCSE, the examination we chose, is available twice a year and a student can indeed take the exam when he is ready and take it without any fuss. The whole process then happens without the attendant hype and hysteria that is such a disturbing aspect of tests and examinations.

Problems

Difficulties that surfaced with the programme have been several and enormous but all related to the interface between the accepted and the experimental. It began with the attempt to create a flexible programme in the context of a day school; Amaltash did not fit in seamlessly with the rest of the school. Further, there were difficulties of attempting to bring together a programme whose goals and approaches were different from the approach of the rest of the school. Though almost all the children were happy with the space and leisure and responded to the challenges of the culture classes and the learning space of the classroom, they were unsettled by their own comparison of what was seen as an experimental approach vs. the mainstream. Finally parental insecurities and confusions, especially as students moved closer to examinations compounded matters. Very quickly, self-study, at one’s own pace, which was not what the children of friends and relatives were doing, seemed very alarming. Also, once the novelty of Amaltash wore off, there were demands that some students should take the exam concurrently with their erstwhile classmates in the horizontal groups.

Challenges

The challenge of Amaltash is to find ways to retain the freedom of learning till the very end while keeping a continuous, ongoing dialogue with parents. Then, one needs to communicate to both parents and children that examinations, if they need to be taken, are only one part of the educational process. Naturally, this brings us to those children who are not academically inclined. There is an urgent need to create opportunities for such children, help them develop skills which will ensure livelihood and all this should become a creative movement in the context of our society. To ensure that this can happen we need more teachers to understand and be comfortable with the objectives, approach and structure of the learning process in a vertical group.

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