An excerpt from the book Once Upon A Story by Dr Swati Popat Vats and Vinitha

Gijubhai, the teacher who had a vision about how education should be. Let us make it a reality!

The Indian education space is abuzz with discussions and speculations every year when the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) [ The Programme for International Student Assessment is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring fifteen-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.] test scores are released.

Educators and even the education minister make a beeline to Finland to understand how Finnish children have such excellent scores on the PISA test. On studying the Finnish system, they realise that:

1. The Finnish truly ‘play’ in their schools.
2. Children do not write till the age of seven and
3. Finland has no homework.

Finland unboxed education and removed the ‘schoolifcation’ from its schools.

If only before going to Finland we Indians would have taken the trouble to study the work of Gijubhai Badheka who Mahatma Gandhi fondly called ‘Moochali Ma’.

Everything that one sees in other ‘progressive’ countries’ educational reforms is present in Gijubhai’s book, Divaswapna. If every teacher in India reads and learns from this book, we would have educators from Finland and other countries visiting our schools to learn from us!

Gijubhai did not think out of the box, he threw away the box. The first change he brought in his classroom was stories and games. So, the first thing we need to do is ‘unbox’ play and bring it back to our schools. For that we need to educate parents who are mostly incredulous and upset when a child comes home from school and says happily that they played. Parents are clueless that most of the learning required (for life) happens through play.

Play fertilises brain growth.

One of the constant struggles of primary schoolchildren and their teachers is that children cannot sit and focus for too long to complete a task. This occurs more so for Indian children as we coop up children for hours together in a desk-chair prison and make them do ‘worksheets’ and ‘workbooks’ that can show us their achievement of having learnt to ‘write’. Children need movement to develop their body and brain. Play is the work of childhood and important foundations of learning are laid through simple play. And if you need one more reason to increase playtime, then well, kids in Finland play and their children score well in PISA too.

In fact, qualifying every progressive thinker and educator as being ahead of their time is incorrect. They are not ‘ahead’ of their time; they just know when the time has come for change.

Gijubhai played in his classroomantakshari, [Antakshari is an Indian game played among adults initially where folksongs (and later film music) were played phonetically. The phonic sound of the last word in the last line of the song sung would become the starting phonic sound of the opposing team’s song.] kho-kho, grammar games, riddles. He did away with mindless handwriting activities and senseless recitation. He focussed on cultivating creativity, thinking, logic, problem-solving, and social skills, and all of these in the 1930s. And do you know that besides assessing students’ strengths in mathematics, science and reading, PISA also assesses students on an important twenty-first-century skill collaborative, problem-solving and creative-thinking skills? This goes on to show that Gijubhai was much ahead of his time! In fact, qualifying every progressive thinker and educator as being ahead of
their time is incorrect. They are not ‘ahead’ of their time; they just know when the time has come for change.

Gijubhai never approached teaching subjects in the traditional way. He looked at it from the point of view of its consumer—the child. For a teacher, the consumer is a child. Teaching a child, Gijubhai thought, had to thus be what was familiar and accessible to a child, something he/she could relate to.

Thus, he introduced geography with drawing. The children in his class were told to draw whatever they wished to draw. Like all kids, they were awkward initially. But Gijubhai was patient. He let them scribble, doodle and do whatever they needed to first relax, and then enjoy and grow confident in what they were doing on paper. He further introduced objects for them to look and replicate. When they had done a handful and a heartful of these still objects, he took them out for walks.

This is hands-on learning, experiential learning and eclectic learning. He did not like students sitting at their desks all day long and yet today our students still sit in classrooms designed seventy years ago!

These walks and excursions were ones where they looked (the bank of a river from afar, from up close, the sunrise, the horizon), touched (soil, leaves, insects), tasted (fruit and berries), inhaled (different fragrances) and heard the sounds around them and discussed among themselves. He asked his students to draw a map leading to those places, measure the distance, and in this interesting work of drawing and going to places, geography lessons unfolded smoothly.

Students ought to spend more time in real-world scenarios, studying interdisciplinary issues and questions. The human brain is designed to make connections. But how did Gijubhai know about these progressive ideas? He was not a teacher, just a lawyer, but he got interested in teaching when his son was born and he read the work of Montessori, the Dalton Plan and researched many more. He not only read their work, he tried to implement what he learnt and also made changes to suit the culture, age groups and needs of the children he taught.

Gijubhai often took his class outside near the lake where they would collect stones, twigs, make clay toys, study the topography or play games. His class then created a museum with all that was collected and even catalogued each display item. This is hands-on learning, experiential learning and eclectic learning. He did not like students sitting at their desks all day long and yet today our students still sit in classrooms designed seventy years ago!

From him, we ought to learn to do away with our obsession with the tenth- and twelfth-grade results. If only we could! Instead of assessing children, schools need to start assessing the environment in which children are taught.

It’s no surprise that physical activity is linked to higher academic performance, better health and improved behaviour, and by bringing his classroom outside, Gijubhai was actually making them better learners. It’s time now that we should free our children from the classroom method of teaching and step outside with them.

Gijubhai also had a unique method of assessment: no correcting children’s work with a pen, no senseless tests and proposed the incorporation of open-book exams. From him, we ought to learn to do away with our obsession with the tenth- and twelfth-grade results. If only we could! Instead of assessing children, schools need to start assessing the environment in which children are taught.

It is time to ‘unbox’ assessment to include life skills that are becoming increasingly crucial to thrive in the workplace and an ever-changing global world. It is time to assess collaborative skills, problem-solving skills and how students can tackle a problem by collaborating with a partner. The importance of collaboration skills can no longer be undermined by Indian schools, as the next round of PISA tests is likely to include a new measurement of global competence, which will look at how well students can navigate an increasingly diverse world, with an awareness of different cultures and beliefs.

Picture Credit: Dr Swati Popat Vats/ The Write Place/ Vinitha

Excerpted with permission from Once Upon A Story by Dr Swati Popat Vats and Vinitha, The Write Place.

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