Accessible quality education rooted in indigenous wisdom is the mantra at Tilonia’s Barefoot College
Rajasthan: An engineering class is underway. The 45 students are grandmothers from 10 different countries. None of them have formally studied science. In fact, most of them are semi-literate. Dressed in a ghaghra odhni, their rural instructor Magan Kanwar doesn’t speak any of their languages or even English. But their communication is perfect, as she instructs them on assembling circuits for solar lamps. This group of women, after a six-month training, will return to their respective villages and electrify them. If you thought this was unusual, this is just one of the multiple uncommon but highly effective educational innovations at Social Work and Research Centre, Tilonia’s Barefoot College, located in the heart of rural Rajasthan, 110 kilometres from Jaipur.
In the past half-century, it has stood for bringing together technology, communication, education and handicrafts for the betterment of the rural communities rooted in traditional wisdom and practiced through Gandhian values. The college, right from the beginning, has been putting into practice all the values of modern education: breaking silos between subjects, experimental and hands-on learning and most important of all learning for change and impact.
In 1975, the institution began with evening literacy classes for 15-35-year-olds. As the student body expanded across villages, so did the numbers of Night Schools. Community-run village education committees (VEC) appointed local teachers provided with uniform training on basic subjects, civil and Constitutional rights.
Learning in these schools is integrated in the pupils’ lives. They learn mathematics through the number of animals they take for grazing and science through the concepts they see around them. Local and relevant environment issues are added to the teaching alongside agriculture and animal husbandry, because most of them tend cattle. Though the journey is barefoot, the approach is modern and updated, and 2014 onwards, when it was seen that digital growth is imperative to education, Barefoot College equipped the schools with technology and thus began Solar Digital Night Schools. These Night Schools across 10 states have impacted 80000+ working children.
As far back as 1988, Shiksha Niketan, a primary school for low-income, marginalised children, practised methods we often associate with modern pedagogy: experiential learning, learning from one’s immediate environment, project-based learning and STEAM. “The mother of a child does at least 20 experiments in science every day. She does it without realising this is the study of science. The same concept is there in the book, but is unfamiliar territory for the child. We connect the students to the subject through examples of routine activities around them. The focus is on developing the curiosity of the child,” shares Durga Singh, a founder teacher of Shiksha Niketan.
The communication team simplifies a concept through puppets and the carpentry department becomes a lesson in geometry. Functional props, origami and visitors at Tilonia expand the perspective of the learners. “The alumni of Shiksha Niketan are in various government and other high-paying jobs across different levels. But there is a greater sense of pride when our alumni are recognised as good citizens of their villages, helping others grow along with themselves,” says Singh.
Even Shiksha Niketan cannot meet the needs of 10-year-old Anshu, who moves with his nomadic sheep herder parents. Like him, there is an entire section of children of nomadic communities that cannot pursue education as their families constantly move for work. A six-month programme to address this gap was started in 2007 in the form of a residential Bridge School at Singla, 25 kilometres from Tilonia. The programme, now is 10-month-long, covers the entire syllabus till Class V for children between 8 and 12 years, who never went to school. Students from five districts come to this school where a greater preference is given to the enrollment of girls. Besides attending regular classes and extra work in the evenings, the students learn grooming and care. They play games and work with the volunteers to explore concepts in their academics through the simple, practical model that Tilonia creates. At the end of the course, the students take the Class V exam via Shiksha Niketan and can then pursue their further education.
There is no rulebook in the ever-evolving lab of Barefoot experiments. However, the Barefoot College lives by the Constitution of India. From slates to iPads, this educational journey has kept up with contexts. So, with the implementation of the Panchayati Raj Act, a new model was created to explain the basic Constitutional framework to the children. In classic Barefoot style, it was learnt by doing.
A ward was made of 10-12 students and they elected one member representative. The ward representatives together formed a Bal Sansad. This Parliament chose its Prime Minister through an election that had proper canvassing and election symbols. Secret ballots were maintained. The PM chose a Cabinet and assigned roles. They participated in the various meetings of the organisation and gave recommendations to the programme coordinators. The children who grew up with this learning went on to mobilise people to get water supply lines to their village, agitated for removal of alcohol ‘thekas’ and even contested polls. Devika, as the PM of her Sansad, also went to Sweden to receive an award where she met the Queen and they exchanged notes as heads of institutions!
From making the campus self-sufficient in energy requirements back in 1996 to the renowned Solar Mamas programme that teaches components, colour coding and circuits of solar home-lighting systems to women from non-electrified villages, this transfer of solar energy to the rural community has a three-layered impact. It sustains the villagers’ need for electricity at reasonable costs through the most vulnerable section, the women. It lights up perspectives – a significant takeaway of education across all areas. Thirdly, it saves millions of litres of kerosene from being used as an energy alternative.
At the Barefoot College, string puppets evolved into more practical glove and rod puppets besides life-sized and giant puppets. Made of scrap cloth and paper, the puppets are contemporary characters identifiable by the villagers.
When they give out information about a programme or a government scheme, they both engage and simplify the concepts, creating wide-spread awareness. Traditional folk instruments and songs are part of the performance. This delightful, digital fatigue-free audio-visual medium has been working with the villages for the past 40 years.
The puppets go by relatable names to be one with the villagers. As Chetan Kaki and Dhanno Bua, they propagate equality and fight for women’s rights. The revered puppet, Jokhim Chacha, the bard of Tilonia, is 365 years old.
“We engage the students in a conversation about various facets of learning. The puppet makes them curious through a peculiar style of talking based on the character,” shares Ramnivas from the communications team. In the past four decades, the team has performed interactive shows in 3,000 villages changing mindsets, gently but firmly.
(The author is an independent writer from Ajmer, Rajasthan (Charkha Features; firstname.lastname@example.org))