The School, KFI, Chennai has created a new methodology that seeks to build a link between knowledge and empowerment, to equip each student with the ability to think, to apply and to discover. We call this the Middle Schools Active Learning Methodologies (MS-ALM).

Methodologies for active learning may seem, from one point of view, to be possible only after the event—where active learning is, the methodology exists. Yet it has always seemed important to think about what frameworks and contexts invite active participation from potential learners, and what preparation institutions of learning must do, to awaken, nurture, and sustain inquiry. Given Krishnamurti’s vision of learning, it is not surprising that the schools he seeded and helped grow, are keeping these concerns alive. It is, however, significant when a far-sighted leader in government and his team of committed teacher-educators, in collaboration with a Krishnamurti school, bring about a transformation in the structure and functioning of schools across a whole state.

Inception of the collaboration

Mr. Vijayakumar, State Project Director of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Tamilnadu [SSA TN], having heard of some of the innovations brought about at our school, visited us at the end of March 2007. Over five years, he had reworked the educational basis and classroom transactions at the primary school level across the state, in what was hailed as ‘a silent revolution’. Now in search of a middle school pedagogy that would continue and sustain the focus on the learner, he had examined many different possible frameworks. On his visit to The School he sat in the circle of children in a middle school class during ‘circle time’ and observed the transactions in the classroom carefully for a full hour. He and several of his colleagues held conversations with the teachers, the children and the Principal regarding what ideas could be taken forward and replicated.

Under its Outreach programme, The School had begun to consciously reach out and share, collaborate and extend itself. Some workshops had been planned and conducted for teachers from many schools, under the umbrella of Life Skills Education, between the years 2003–2005. Among these had been interested corporation school teachers from all ten zones of Chennai. This programme incorporated seven areas of exploration and inquiry for the teacher and student. [See Mind Map–Appendix 1].

In May 2007 we were now asked to conduct an eleven day workshop for SSA teacher-trainers or Block Resource Teacher Educators [BRTEs] to communicate and explore the possibility of incorporating new approaches to learning in middle schools across the state. In what turned out to be an amazingly egalitarian and participative process, the best learning practices in our middle school were accepted. These were later adapted and formulated for all state middle schools over the year 2007–08. For the teachers of The School who participated in this process this interaction proved to be immensely enriching.

Broad educational underpinnings: the journey of The School

In 1998–99, The School in Chennai had reorganized its primary classes, from Grades 1 to 4 into a multi-age format. Classes 1, 2, 3 and 4 were replaced with 4 mixed-age learning environments called Jamun, Mango, Peepul and Neem. There were many questions on how to address the persistent patterns of behaviour that teachers witnessed in the middle school as well. Many different approaches were tried in order to change the landscape of interactions between teachers and students. But the questions remained: how could one build and sustain autonomy, independence and initiative in learning? How could one affirm the dignity and innate intelligence of all learners?

Since then The School had embarked on a journey of finding out whether, through good design of the educational environment, a greater sense of purpose and energy could be drawn from the student. A key perception was that each student needed to be ‘active’ and not ‘passive’ during the transaction of academic learning. Another was that participation in ‘constructing knowledge’ was better than students largely acting as recipients. Universal and well-researched contemporary understandings on the ideal learning environment came to underpin what later became known as the Middle Schools Active Learning Methodologies (MS-ALM) initiative. Many of these were initiated and tested in the middle school at The School.

During the academic year 2006-07, a pilot programme based on self-directed learning in mixed age groups was attempted at The School. The middle school Mixed-Age Group (MAG) programme had 29 students whose parents had volunteered to participate. The intention was to evolve a structure that removed obstacles that seem to have grown in the way of students taking charge of their own learning. In January 2007 the school decided that it would be worthwhile to proceed further in this direction by shifting the whole middle school into the MAG format. It was in this evolving scenario that the fruitful interaction with the SSA happened, and a new programme for the middle schools in the state of Tamilnadu—based on Active Learning Methodologies—took shape.

Parameters and principles for active methodolgies of learning

In evolving the framework for the ALM for government schools, the classroom, the textbook, the exam and the syllabus were taken as given. The rationale was that methodologies we chose would apply in diverse circumstances and contexts. We believed that creative inputs and in fact, learning itself, with all its lateral possibilities, was not a function of ‘what’ is taught as much as ‘how’ it is learnt. Moreover it was felt that providing an opportunity for the child to learn required few special aids, and large numbers in a class need not stand in the way of a child meaningfully engaging with her peers, in paired or small group learning activities.

While not contesting the knowledge that was mandated by the state board system, we anticipated that active learning methods would help avoid the usual pitfalls of encouraging rote-learning and privileging short-term memory, by creating a culture and framework of ‘rehearsed’ understanding: the idea being that within 90 minutes of class time, processes would be embedded that would allow the student to visit the content several times. There was to be a range of learning tasks, which included basic skills [reading, writing, listening, communicating, thinking] that would be used and reinforced in a phased and sequential manner. This was intended to build meaning and focus into the formal classroom interaction that the student has with her peers. In evolving the pedagogic framework, the broad parameters of development in children were also thoroughly explored. An additional bonus of a learner-based methodology is that depth in learning would not be forced; quite naturally, the sum of the learning could exceed the total of its parts.

In fact, allowing a child to construct his own knowledge makes it possible for learning to happen even where there is temporarily no teacher for a particular class. Building capacity in children to formatively and critically evaluate their own work also saves the teacher endless corrections while ensuring accuracy in each child’s learning.

We worked at child-friendly and realistic assessment formats (which are now beginning to be adapted and tested across the state). Perhaps the best part of the ALM was that it allowed room for all children’s voices to be heard through discussions and presentations, and built enthusiasm for taking initiative. The beauty of the process lies in its simplicity.

Mind Map 1 in the Appendix contains a summary of the philosophy underpinning the MS-ALM.

Preparation for organization

Once it was clear that there was widespread acceptance of this framework from teachers and students alike, and a Government Order was passed to encourage its practice, the SSA-TN entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with The School to gather support for the work regarding ALM to move ahead. Trainers from SSA started visiting The School and working hard to generate the framework of lesson plans to enable active learning to happen in the classes. To support SSA trainers in taking the next step, a team of teachers from The School provided guidance and support, and English, the sciences and social studies were taken up in the first phase. Mathematics was reserved for the year 2008–09, and path-breaking work has been underway. The trainers, numbering up to 15 on any given day, would work in The School and our teachers would interact with them. This enormous effort from the trainers, more than 2000 man-days of effort, honing the lesson plans for transference to teachers, was a major thrust of the academic year 2007–08. In addition, with the assistance of eminent scientists, The School has facilitated the running of a model Mobile Lab as a pilot venture.

Evolving the Framework

Two manuals were produced—one on the theoretical basis of the ALM and the other on the lesson plans. This incorporated the principles that underpinned the programme and also set out the details of the methodology to be adopted. The following aspects of the programme were detailed: skills, curricular frames, lesson planning, monitoring, assessment and testing, value education as well as curricular enrichment. Lesson plans include both chapter plans and unit plans. A lesson plan is broken up into various units based on the time available. For example, a lesson titled ‘Photosynthesis’ may be transacted for a duration of time (say 90 minutes), thrice a week, for two weeks. Each transaction is titled a unit. In this particular example, there are six units of 90 minutes each. The learning cycle for any given unit of study is divided into well-defined phases: introduction, understanding, consolidation, reinforcement, assessment, remedial. For each of these a wide range of processes have been identified, that the teacher may draw upon judiciously. The mandatory elements for teacher and student have been woven together in four different formats to enable a variety of strategies and methods of presentations.

The mandatory elements for the student include:

  1. Reading: implies underlining key words and finding the meanings of unfamiliar words.
  2. Raising questions.
  3. Drawing mind maps.
  4. Summarizing in any of the formats suggested in the student tool kit.
  5. Discussion in
    • Large Groups-----all students
    • Small Groups-----3 or 4 students, maybe 5
    • Pairs---------------2 students
  6. Writing

The same technique can be used both passively and actively depending on the orientation of the teacher. However carefully a lesson plan is articulated, the teacher must clearly be rooted inwardly in facilitating an ‘active’ learning for the student. Great attention must be exercised in watching for passivity creeping in.

As the ALM manual also says:

Children gain confidence if they are able to accomplish what they set out to do. Instructions are given to help people perform tasks or fulfill roles. It has been clearly understood that no instruction can be so precise that another cannot make a mistake. This is another reason that active learning gains significance. Learning to do something is only through doing it. One starts with an idea and then during implementation, one may fumble a bit. Then one gains proficiency through repetition. Part of resourcefulness is to give oneself permission to fumble. The other aspect of exploration that one needs to understand is the boundary of safety for oneself and others. Being resourceful is to be able to try something that one has never done before, with confidence and caution.

Mind Map 2 in the Appendix contains a depiction of the main pedagogical principles and processes underlying the MS-ALM.

Creating an atmosphere of learning: the role of the teacher

Krishnamurti asks, in Letters to the Schools, ‘Are you creating that strange atmosphere where learning takes place?’

This role actually requires that the teacher be differently active—evolving and transacting frames of learning that include the learner transparently. This also requires that the teacher keep avenues of learning alive, while being well prepared for what will happen in any particular class.

How were the teachers from schools across the whole state to be prepared for such a role? How would they imbibe the principles and spirit of the MS-ALM programme? Here we have a narrative, constructed from feedback received, that gives us glimpses into the means of communicating and dimensions of teachers’ ‘learning by doing’, that the SSA teacher educators attempted to put into place.

A Teacher’s Narrative

I am a government school teacher in a village school in Tamilnadu. I teach in the middle school. In July 2007 I was called for training. The government regularly organizes training programmes for teachers. I was wondering what this one would be like. There was a lot of excitement in the air. The BRTEs of the SSA were conducting the programme. It was a pilot module that was going to be tried out. As the training started, I learnt a lot of new things.

  • Active learning meant that children did not sit passively in a classroom but actively engaged with their lesson in many different ways. I learnt a lot about this age group, their developmental tasks, the nature of learning itself, and the link that all this had, with ALM.
  • I learnt that constructivism meant that children constructed their understanding.
  • I learnt about individual and group processes, and classroom techniques.
  • What was also amazing was that there would be randomized presentation of what students discussed in their small group—not just by the best child and not occasionally, but in every unit!
  • There was a range of teaching-learning strategies—not resource intensive at all.
  • There were so many possible activities and formats for assessment!

I struggled to accept some things the BRTE spoke about—that teaching did not mean that learning happens. I quickly understood that I was no longer going to be the centre of a classroom. That also left me with mixed feelings. How would my role be redefined in this new system? I was given a template of a lesson plan. All periods were now of one and a half hour duration—that seemed a major shift in itself—and units were planned on that basis. I came back excited and apprehensive. Anyway there was no harm trying it out. I went to class and followed my instructions meticulously.

The response was amazing—all children actually read every bit of the lesson—if not by themselves, then with a friend. In this methodology we could pair a student who could read with one who could not. (Of course, I had done that myself on many occasions). The lesson had been broken up into small segments and in one class children did not have to read more than 3–4 pages. That chunking was very helpful. I introduced mind mapping. That, I can tell you, was such a hit. I never realized how well all children can visually design and represent what they know. They drew and drew and did not want to move on. I did not have to coax, cajole, threaten or scold. In fact I had difficulty stemming the enthusiasm. They then shared their mind maps in small groups and also came up with a small summary. I needed to be very alert, to stick to the time boundaries. There was such a clamour to present. I realized that every child could have an opportunity to present his/her group’s work. They had got most of the main concepts and I had to add very few. We then had a small memory game and then got down to writing some of the answers to the questions given at the end of the chapter that were given in the textbook. They were to complete that for homework. I went home strangely tired—I wondered why. The day had been different, and I wondered what the difference had been. Soon further training sessions came my way. I was eager to meet other teachers and share my experiences and questions. We were well supported by the BRTEs. There were also interesting EDUSAT classes. Perhaps what is best is that though I talk less in the classroom, the children learn more…and my questions count!

What we have learnt

At our school this whole venture was seen as a special and valuable opportunity, and the support to SSA was seen in the gaps in the timetable of a fully running school. Working and practising teachers took on the additional work in their free slots. For those of us who worked with the BRTEs of the SSA it has been a year-long lesson in humility. This process has reiterated the enormous enrichment value of good consultative process. We have perhaps also learnt the importance of a sustained, disciplined and meticulous approach to preparing a good lesson plan—that no good or creative idea, however original, can be arbitrarily introduced. Nothing could have prepared us for the extraordinary responses from the trainers, teachers and students we encountered, the enormous energy of a vibrant mainstream intervention.

Issues related to state and central government educational structures—pedagogic and social implications

The present move rides on the strong case for social justice in which schools have an important role. After the noon meal schemes, now government schools may be getting ready to say that ‘every child has a right to actively participate in knowledge creation and construction’. The winds of change have blown away many myths:

  • The underprivileged need educational opportunities that are different from the privileged.
  • Good education can only happen with heavy infrastucture and excellent facilities.
  • Government schools and private schools have little in common.

The sharing of the ALM processes proved, with refreshing simplicity, that what works among children in a private school can work equally well in government schools; in fact, better! The horizontal transfer of the processes also gives great energy to the reverse possibilities—of private schools learning from the movements in government schools. Nothing could be more precious in our times. When divisions are gaining prominence, to discover the truth that all of us are human and similar, and the same processes work well with all of us, is valuable to perceive. And probably nothing holds more promise for the creation of a level playing field, than such simple processes in education, held consistently and humanely, focused on unleashing the learner.

For The School, what began as a journey towards discovering more meaningful educational parameters has taken us further than was ever expected. It is a fulfilling thought that thousands of children in remote corners of the state are using processes that this school uses with its children.

The way ahead

None could have expected this work to spread so far, so quickly. One cannot but marvel at the remarkable movement in Tamilnadu government school education. The structure has been transformed and the bar has been raised. How many children in private education actually have an active school day? How many schools have discovered the special chemistry between educational strategy and individual will, needed to lead a class without using heavy authority and fear? And how many children get to participate actively in the creation of knowledge and understanding in the classroom?

Yes, when a private school shoulders responsibility for reaching out to government schools, there is so much that can be achieved: one could call it a silent revolution. Like all revolutions it promises to upturn the status quo and many assumptions of the older order. Ten thousand middle schools across Tamilnadu underwent a dramatic, refreshing process in one year with teachers, trainers and students encountering easily learnable processes through the ALM. It is the rare privilege of Krishnamurti Education centres to have been part of this movement.

Quality school education in the world’s largest democracy is surely an achievable dream today.

In conclusion

This work was reviewed by the Seventh Joint Review Mission in 2008. The following is a relevant extract from its report.

Popularly recognized as ALM by the educational practitioners at upper primary level, the method involves the active engagement of the student in constructing knowledge. The innovation was developed with the help of ‘The School’ of KFI and involves major changes in the classroom processes emphasizing the importance of the engagement of the learner with the sources of knowledge and not as a recipient of information from the teacher. In order to ensure its acceptability in the ongoing system of education at the upper primary stage, the changes in classroom processes have been anchored to the existing textbooks while allowing the teacher to guide students in critiquing the knowledge contained in the ‘text’.

Mind Map 1

Mind Map 2