Progressive Education Dismantles All Barriers of Curriculum Limitations

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Deepti Acharya, the Founder Director at Sanskriti International School, has been in the education sector for more than 30 years. Over the past three decades, she has been growing and evolving along with her entire team. She started her journey as an educator after her high school, but started a chain of pre-schools upon receiving her master’s degree in Education from the USA in 2004.

Ms Acharya is the Coordinator of SSG-School Support Group and Advisor to QKS-Quality Kathmandu Schools. Encouraging the fellow co-working cohorts for dream projects and empowering them with required skills and training sessions, she corroborates her great attainments. The zeal to learn and explore the unexplored have ever been kindled in her life. She has shared her invaluable experience in a short talk with College Readers. Excerpts:

What ignited your enthusiasm to venture into the education sector?

Although my father owned a school, I was quite reluctant about pursuing a career in the school sector. But when I grew up, I ended up adopting school education as my career. I was determined to find my living in corporate sector like banks or INGOs, but the expectation and reality segregated. About 24 years ago, I was in search of a day-care center for my daughter, meeting expectations turned out to be quite rare a thing; so, I started researching on a day-care center with a firm mindset. Then I went to the USA to know more about day care and Montessori education and there I studied for two years. Upon my return to Nepal, I founded a pre-school, and subsequently established three other pre-schools in different intervals of time. I established a school for my daughter but soon realized that it was the need of working parents too.

What made you feel it was necessary to establish a progressive school?

The first three years are the most important timeline for children in terms of learning; however, the best period to develop cognition is the fetal phase. We must focus on nutrition psychology, hygiene and milestone development in each age segment. That was all I learnt in the USA, and based on the same, I started nurturing the children back in Nepal through the pre-school. After I ran a pre-school for 0-3 year olds, the parents urged me to upgrade the school which was a need of the time as well. So, I went to study in the USA again to acquire the knowledge base for 3-6 years’ age group kids and Montessori schooling. I kept upgrading the school and myself through a series of training sessions because it could be unfair to send the children to general and traditional schools. Later, I acquired the training for handling the students from pre-school to grade XII and finally involved in the school education. Now, I am imparting education to all age group students.

While learning and getting trained, I realized the importance of psychology, pedagogy, education philosophy and content and have been applying the same to my school.

We talk much about a progressive school but generally ignore the basic proposition of its origin. The theory of progressive learning generated after many years of practice. Theorists like Maria Montessori, Locke, Maslow, Piaget etc. and various other philosophers have contributed a lot for centuries to frame the education model that we’ve replicated in our education dissemination in the 21st century.

Age-wise brain development, hierarchy principal and cognitive principal are the tools to learn children’s psychology which helps us to hit on the need and educate our young learners. As every other aspect evolves with time, education also carves out different paths to ensure evolution of different techniques. We need to harness the latest trends and technologies in school and education systems. I have found a lot of resources invested in research of education, especially in the study of brain development in the developed countries. That is how progressive model follows the findings of the research in education.

The first school was a passion for me; now it has become my purpose. We should show our students the ever-changing nature of the world and train them to be adaptive as per the circumstances. Mere book-based teaching and rote-learning diminish the overall learning and understanding of things. We, therefore, should focus on value-based education.

You are one of the forerunners of progressive education in Nepal. What does it mean to be a founder of progressive education?

The theorist, John TB, propounded the idea of progressive education. By its very name it is for progression and development. It is a student-centered education system which underpins the critical and creative thinking abilities of students. It discards the teacher-centric and logocentric teaching and learning system. A teacher’s role is to facilitate the students rather than act as a source of knowledge. Progressive education focuses on knowledge, skills and attitude. Attitude can be understood as aptitude, understanding and assessment of the students. There are many different ways in progressive education to lead the students ahead. Experiential learning, learning by doing, project-based learning, problem-solving, student-centric learning, critical thinking, creative thinking, divergent thinking, which are the attributes of progressive education, prepare children to cope with 21st century challenges and become independent learners. General activities, such as lecturing and explaining are not progressive activities. Activity is an aspect which eases a young learner to achieve a goal or target.

There are certain bottlenecks in implementing progressive education in a full-fledged way, such as central evaluation or examination system in which one’s progress is assessed in terms of final grades/ marks. What sort of education turns out to be a progressive one in the Nepalese context?

The curriculum of the Government of Nepal is not bad, but most things are limited to textbooks. There lies the biggest challenge. The curriculums cover a wide range of things for holistic development of students. Students learn from art, music, various programs, opportunities and exposures as well. Course books become instrumental for providing facts and figures but they don’t need to be fully consumed to measure one’s intelligence. There are various ways of expressing one’s understanding like poster painting, art, music, writing etc. which progressive education equates to all ways of expression of the understanding. For example, we teach our students in progressive mode up to grade seven but the central examination system of grade eight compels us to adhere to bookish learning to conquer the basic level examinations.

A progressive school cannot function well due to the barricades of compulsory examination system in grades 8, 10, and 12. Students are also forced to adopt book-based learning because of societal and parental pressure to score high percentage and grades in the examinations.

Is there any room for integrating both the mechanisms?

Why should the government force our learners to take exams in grades eight and ten? If we are given the authority to evaluate students independently till grade ten, students will achieve phenomenal success. Because of the circumscription of national curriculums we seem to fail to fulfill the needs of global education. So, if the government leverages us the autonomy up to grade ten and restricts it with national and central evaluation system in grade 12, we can see a prospect of fusing both the modes. We won’t have time for other activities and learning by doing if we get worried about course completion and adherence to restrictive curriculum grids.

Knowledge, skills, attitude and culture are the inherent aspects of progressive learning as you’ve mentioned. How would you find a way for its implementation?

We encourage our students to acquire understanding of the task they do. When they link their knowledge with skills, they develop an understanding of the concept. As a result, the students can apply the knowledge through practice in their lives and will be able to solve real-world problems. Learning must be applied in one’s life through skills.

How are the attributes which you have mentioned above reflected in your growing acclamation?

The fourth batch of our school has already graduated. Students come back and commend me for the knowledge and skills they learned during their schooling. They appreciate us because what they had already learnt in Sanskriti School are the nascent matters for other college-goers. Our students have excelled in project-based learning and presentation skills, creative thinking and analytical skills. Those students who have just passed their exams from traditional schooling find all these aspects difficult; they have not learnt to be dignified, respectful and resilient individuals. The progressive mode of learning provides deep understanding of the subject matter which helps the learners cope with the challenges of real-life situation.

Could you please enlist the special features of progressive education?

Project-based learning, problem-solving learning and student-centered learning are the crux of progressive schooling. Student-centric, analytical and creative learning activities, team building and mutual collaboration, respecting others’ existence and opinions, effective communication are the things needed in a school to create progressive learning atmosphere. Twenty-first century skills, life skills, values and integrity must be combined with knowledge.  

What support, if provided, can help us in implementing progressive model of education fully in Nepal?

Government support is a must for applying the progressive mode of teaching and learning. The final evaluation of grades eight and ten must be handled by the respective schools independently. I have implemented the progressive mode cent percent up to grade 7 but I cannot provide the same teaching and learning mechanism to grades 8, 9 and 10 because of national curriculum barriers. So, it’s only 70% of progressive education modality that is implemented in these grades.

Students’ achievements are generally measured on the bases of marks/ grades they secure in final exams and their success in passing the IOM or IOE entrance examinations. How can progressive education diminish this trend?

Progressive education doesn’t prepare students for final examinations but for their real-life phenomena. We want our children to be socially and emotionally strong and resilient no matter how they perform in the board examinations.

There are myriads of schools claiming to provide progressive education in Nepal. On which ground is Sanskriti International School different from its other counterparts?

When I began the school without textbooks, I felt like walking on a thin layer of ice. I was questioned by the parents and many others too. How could the students face final examinations without textbooks? I strongly believe that once students enter the school they should feel happy, and there must be a caring and stimulating environment to foster every learning activity. Social, emotional and academic aspects must be duly addressed. Sanskriti International School has always been a pioneer in providing new programs. We are the first to provide IPC and 3DI and we are introducing some other new programs shortly. We focus on the outdoor learning of students too. In this regard, we perform distinctively from every dimension.

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