Let us build a village

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

African proverb

Churning thoughts

The current situation, when schools are encouraging online learning, has kept me thinking and this article is the result of my pondering over learning in general and alternative learning spaces in particular.

With our primary focus on R & D in Education, NumberNagar® has worked with over 100 schools in the last 1.5 decades in various capacities. We have partnered with different kinds of schools, with varying degrees of engagement. We have worked primarily to enhance the learning capabilities of students and the teaching capabilities of teachers. In the process, we have created and delivered innovative learning solutions – learning spaces, learning kits, and extensive training programmes and workshops.

Our focus has been on the formative years of children – 5 to 14 years, and the foundations of learning any subject – Maths, and English. We have extended this focus on a need basis with customised experiences for every customer.  NumberNagar® learning centres across Bengaluru and beyond are now operational, touching the lives of many children, and providing entrepreneurial opportunities to aspiring individuals and families.

As the situation currently demands, we are also providing online classes to some of our students. This is to help them stay focussed on their academic commitments during the lock-down.

Alternative learning spaces

Over the last month, I have been bombarded with questions about the future of NumberNagar®. The most common question has been whether we will go digital, with the increasing demand for online learning. As a fundamental philosophy, we believe in hands-on learning, regardless of the situation. In the formative years of a child’s growth, nothing can substitute human contact. We also believe in collaborative efforts and we will continue to explore technological integration into the learning experience. NumberNagar®’s core purpose will remain the same – creating meaningful learning experiences for children.

NumberNagar® learning centres function primarily as after-school learning centres for Maths and English. However, the learning space, the 5C™ methodology, and the concept learning kits are designed to provide a more integrated and holistic learning experience. This can go beyond the confines of subjects and focus on developing the best practices of learning. So, NumberNagar® learning centres have enormous potential to be alternative learning centres. We have found this to be true especially for homeschooling students.

Alternative learning spaces are substitute school-like learning environments that function on learner-centric methodologies. The fundamental idea of an alternative learning space is to focus on the learning needs of every learner and create an environment that engages them in ways that suit them best. They are typically non-regimental, allow for flexibility, have a small number of students, and provide individual attention to all learners.

As a process, an alternative learning space is a community-building exercise. The stakeholders – students, parents, facilitators, and space play major complementary roles. For the sake of clarity, I am going to address this process under a STEM methodology.

S for Space: 

The learning space can be as simple as a garage or as complex as a multi-acre campus. It must have enough scope for the student to explore hands-on learning along with some technology integration. Technology is an integral part of our existence today and shying away from that will only make contextualization a difficult task. What technology, how, and how much of it, is a debate I will save for another day and another article. For the sake of clarity and convenience, let me call this kind of learning space a blended learning environment.

The space I imagine is one that allows the child a maximum degree of freedom for exploration. It will be a place where kids can break open things and build things to explore the world around them. The city was a primary inspiration during the conception of NumberNagar®. Continuing this thought, I imagine that various locations in and around the city will be explored for an enhanced learning experience. This means a lot of learning happens through field trips and educational excursions. Parents can choose to be part of this experience too. That way they will be able to share their own learning with the group and be part of the learning experience of their child.

T for Time:

The current times have encouraged us to think out of the box, have they not? So, let us look at what changes can be made to the school timetable.

Typically, school timings are decided for better execution of a plan that involves hundreds of students. An alternative learning space can exercise greater autonomy on schedule. This is a result of smaller numbers of students and the lower student:teacher ratios.

It does not mean that there should be no timetable. There could be 3 or 4 broad learning sessions in a day of approximately 90 minutes each. These sessions could be further broken down into smaller chunks of activities. The students could be actively involved in planning these sessions for themselves and the group. This will help focus on the exploration of concepts through hands-on activity, discussions, reading, playing games – both physical and digital, and so on.

This guided learning experience could encourage children to be self-directed learners from a young age. Effective time management would be a core skill that they learn and apply with discipline. This will lead to an enhanced sense of responsibility and accountability.

E for Energy:

Energy is the actual capacity to do work. While time is finite and universal, energy is not. Everyone has 24 hours in a day, but each one accomplishes different things in that time.

Children come with their own individual energy levels. Therefore, they need different engagement models to keep them occupied. To address this situation, a thorough understanding and application of Multiple Intelligence, differentiated instruction, and other learner-centric pedagogies would be fruitful.  The same is true for the facilitator too. To better utilise the energy of the facilitator, she must engage with small groups of not more than 5 students at a time.

Over the last decade, we have religiously adhered to the holy grail of 1:5 facilitator:student ratio in our learning centres. We have seen the impact of this decision on the enhanced learning abilities of our students. This not only improves the student-facilitator relationship but also makes learning a far better experience. This is also one of the reasons we believe that only online education might not be a fruitful approach for younger children.

M for Motivation:

Motivation is the driving force. The significant aspect of a student’s learning experience is the ability of the facilitator and the learning environment to motivate them consistently. Our 5C™ methodology is a crucial factor in keeping motivation levels high. It also ensures that the focus is on learning how to learn. The goal of an alternate learning environment should be to train students to become independent learners and have independent ideas for the rest of their lives.

The role of a parent in motivating their child is also crucial because parents are the first heroes in a child’s life. The inspiration they bring to the table is of great importance. A good parent-facilitator relationship is critical to the success of such learning spaces. More constructive involvement from the parent, better is the result. Constructive is the keyword here, it should be borne in mind that more involvement does not mean constant criticism.

In many conventional school scenarios, this involvement is more transactional than transformational. Alternative learning spaces would be ideal to develop fruitful partnerships between facilitators and parents.

Bringing it all together:

I sincerely believe that the key to the success of raising a sensible generation lies in the collaborative effort of the entire society. It takes a village to raise a child. Alternative learning spaces provide fertile grounds to build such intimate villages.

Food for thought

I have come to increasingly realise that many parents think that the burden of the child’s education should be primarily borne by the school and they themselves are passive beneficiaries. I also perceive a sense of entitlement when parents complain about what the school should or should not be doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The child’s entire life experience is her learning ecosystem, there is no isolation. Neural networks do not fire in silos, they thrive in connections. So, parents, teachers, schools, homes, family, friends – everyone is a stakeholder in the child’s education. It is true that the school holds the child’s attention for a big chunk of time, but that time is not directly proportional to the quality of the child’s learning experience. The school provides a structure – for learning, for socializing, for activity, for discipline. This must be supplemented, complemented, and augmented by the remaining parts of the child’s life. When this sense of integration is understood and parents consider the school ecosystem with a partnership mindset, the child benefits hugely.

This mindset of partnership is better established with alternate learning spaces, owing to smaller numbers and better accessibility between the parents and facilitators at the learning centres. These learning centres also provide much needed hand-holding to parents who decide to home-school their children.

In the new normal that will be staring at us in the post COVID times, what would parents think of sending their children back to schools where 100s of children congregate? Will social distancing be realistic with scores of young children? Would alternate learning spaces with a smaller number of students and intimate learning environments feel safer? Think about it!

Watch this space for more insights.

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Sriraghavan S M

Sriraghavan (Raghu) is an Astronomer by qualification (MSc, Astronomy, Bangalore University) and a teacher by passion. He is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist. His firm belief and conviction to transform the education system in India led him to be an entrepreneur through NumberNagar®. His core work at NumberNagar® revolves around product presentations, academic content, and training. He teaches Maths and Science to young students, rubbing off his passion to them. He trains teachers as well, inspiring them to better themselves. He has taught Physics in educational institutes, during his early career days. He has travelled extensively all over Karnataka, training teachers and popularising Astronomy. He advocates multiple intelligence and is constantly on the lookout for new things to learn. He is ambidextrous and enjoys sketching. He was an avid cricket player in his younger days. He is an enthusiastic biker and uses long solo motorcycle rides as means of reflection and rejuvenation.

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