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By now, most of us agree that the education system in India needs a major revamp. While the system and its eminences work on it, there are others who are experimenting on new approaches towards teaching and are attempting to scale their reach based on the success of initial phase. Among these players, there are sub groups. While some advocate for changes in the syllabus, there are others who promote new approaches to teach the present syllabus. Samacheer Kalvi in Tamil Nadu and Nalikali, Kalikayatna in Karnataka are a few examples.

Given the magnitude of the system’s responsibility in this context, as Mr Ashish, Co Founder of Sahaj Foundation in Bir, Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh argues, the attention on traditional knowledge has been lost. While there are other controversies around gender perspectives and historical contexts described in text books, Ashish opines that it is important to preserve our traditional knowledge and the best way to do that is to build them in during schooling itself.

Hailing from Solan District of Himachal Pradesh, Ashish moved to Chandigarh to continue his studies post class 10. He then pursued Electrical Engineering from IIT Roorkee, which landed him a corporate job with a Consultancy Firm on Climate Change in Ahmedabad. While working, Ashish also volunteered with an NGO that was working in the field of inclusive education, in a village 20 kilometers from Ahmedabad. “The present generation is very lucky in that it has good access to opportunities that can expose them to the challenges that India is facing and build sustainable solutions that do not compromise ESC (Economic, Social and Cultural) rights of the people. Tata Jagruti Yatra was one,” explains Ashish, who participated in the 2010 Yatra along with his wife, Ms Divya.

Ashish and Divya were intrigued about people not following their heart, in spite of knowing that it is right and why they resorted to behave like the crowd. They were uncomfortable with this homogeneity imposed by globalisation and feared that this could distance indigenous populations from their traditional knowledge. They decided not to do so. “We decided to work with people in a peaceful environment and settle down in a Himalayan village,” says Ashish who also gained work experience in rural development from IIT in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. Soon after marriage, they established Sahaj Foundation in November 2013 to work in Bir in the field of education.

Sahaj Foundation’s central objective is to connect children with their roots. Lamenting that the modern system of education takes them away from their tradition, encouraging them to migrate to the cities, the couple resolved to establish simple mechanisms and structures to facilitate children learn about their own traditions from the community members. “We wanted to promote inquisitiveness. We wanted to see the process inculcate an inquiry building attitude and the value of cooperation in executing multi stake holder decisions,” explains Ashish.
Before establishing the activities with children, the couple realized that there were more teachers in private schools than in government schools. So, instead of going through the schools, they decided to start a community centre where children can come in after school hours. With the help of the local Gram Panchayat they established the centre, in the place given by a Ward member who also helped in bringing children together for this programme. Initially, they used the regular teaching methods to assess the learning levels among the children, who were a mixed group from different classes. Soon after, they introduced activities like storytelling, writing, math puzzles, games, word puzzles, etc. that the children were free to choose from.
Through the activities were chosen by the children, specific themes were taught and children were engaged in evolving the whole discussion around the theme during those activities. “Provoking their curiosity always worked for us,” he adds.
As the group came to a good shape, Ashish and Divya introduced a simple questionnaire and taught the children how to conduct surveys. These surveys where intended to help children learn traditional knowledge from their communities on various topics - flora, fauna, food, ayurveda, traditional remedies/medicines, etc. Ashish and Divya were convinced that surveys were the best way to introduce children to the rich traditional knowledge, as the whole process was driven by curiosity and inquiry building attitude.

Of late, they have introduced the Prashn Vikas Ka (Meaning - Question of Development) programme in a local school(not a government school) under which children are introduced to concepts like agriculture, housing, health care, etc and the continuum of methods used in each, as they had evolved from the beginning to modern times. In housing for example, children are facilitated to learn the evolution from mud houses to concrete buildings and the reason behind these developments. As they proceed, the whole discussion comes around the relevance of these in the present context. So, they not only know what happened, but also know why the changes came up and how their communities took to them. In the case of building roads, which we all think is a sign of development in the villages, there have been undesired consequences in many cases. “So, inquiry building will lead them to understand the whole picture,” he says.

Taking children through all that is not seen in their text books, Ashish feels that the process has actually caused changes in their lives too. “When we serve, we get to know more of ourselves,” says Ashish, who wants to create a cadre of young minds who can challenge the tide of mainstreaming, whose force is very strong and imposing. For, they know that these minds will be able to critically reflect on the community decisions. “Sustenance and survival of the fittest seems to govern most of the decision making at household and community level. Although many youngsters want to do something else, which they know is the right thing to do, they do not go for it. Gandhiji said that in order to be happy there must be harmony between what we think, what we feel and what we do, otherwise there is no integration of multilevel decisions. This is why we believe in inculcating values, inquiry building and life skills - all of which can make our children happy about what they want to/are doing. This, only this happiness at heart can drive them to think for their communities,” asserts Ashish.

- Shanmuga Priya. T

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