When my daughter was a toddler, I chose a popular and traditional school in Bengaluru. Like most schools, it only focused on academics even in kindergarten. The children rarely went outdoors, had tons of homework, and no playtime at all. In grade 1, the textbooks were dull and completely outdated. My daughter, who used to be curious about the world, retreated into a shell and became disinterested.
When my husband and I moved her to a progressive school in Bengaluru, her journey changed completely. Her school had project-based learning and each term had a theme. From textiles and rainforests to the Olympics and space, the school wove these themes into the subjects so effortlessly. It was magical to watch my daughter learn and explore the world.
Unlike the linear structures of mainstream schools, progressive schools encourage children to learn in different ways, collaborate, and develop skills for the future. They still use the national or international syllabuses as broad frameworks. A few examples of progressive schools in India are Campus K in Chennai, Shibumi in Bengaluru, Abhaya School in Hyderabad, Yellow Train School in Coimbatore, and the Sahyadri School in Pune. Today, you will find many progressive schools in almost every city in India.
Ryan Chadha, the co-founder and Director of the Shishya Jigyasa Academy, a progressive school based in Bengaluru, believes that in India, the education system is a treadmill of grades, entrance exams, and college. “A huge percentage of parents see education as an insurance policy and want to play it safe,” he says. “The world has thus far rewarded a certain kind of academic achievement and skill. But now, with the world increasingly rewarding a vast variety of skills and abilities, to be good at academics alone is a very dangerous position to be in. Initiative, entrepreneurship and the ability to find new solutions to problems are much more important than academic ability alone. We recently had our middle schoolers do a project where they made a robot using everyday materials. They learned product design, engineering, and how to use soldering irons and glue guns. No textbook or lecture can come close to this. ”
Chadha says that the fifth and sixth graders in his school recently took the Cambridge checkpoint exams. “They took a healthy yet competitive approach to exams,” he says. “We also introduced 'social checkpoints' where children worked in pairs or groups to solve checkpoint exams.”
Bengaluru-based Santhi Prasada, parent to a 16-year-old daughter, questioned the relevance of a traditional school when she found that the class teacher did not even know her daughter’s name during a parent teacher meeting. Prasada and her husband, who were high achievers during their school days, wanted their daughter to opt for engineering but she loved art. “One day, in the tenth grade, my daughter drew a picture of a man,” says Prasada. “I am a medical professional and I understand anatomical proportions, so I gave her suggestions to improve her drawing. She took them seriously, stayed up all night and perfected her drawing.”
Amazed by her daughter’s perseverance, Prasada enrolled her in a progressive school in Bengaluru named Aurinko, which also conducted a summer program in design. “In the program, the instructors asked the children to make a portfolio about where they saw themselves in 10 years,” she says. “My daughter saw herself as an illustration artist. She had an exact idea of how much she would earn, where she will live, how many hours a day she would work, and even how many cats she would have.”
Many parents worry if their children will ‘adapt’ to mainstream colleges after a progressive school but higher education today is all about experiences and networking, not just degrees. Says 19-year-old Purujit Banwasi, who studied in a progressive school in Bengaluru since grade 1, “Adapting to college was not difficult at all. My school taught me the approach that I still follow, which is to prioritise learning and not marks.” Banwasi, who is the co-president of his university’s theatre society, credits his progressive school with cultivating his varied interests.
My daughter’s progressive school sparked her love for subjects as diverse as geography and art. “In India, we still think in terms of commerce or science, engineering or arts,” says Chadha. “Why can't we let a child study music, physics and economics at the high school level? James Dyson, a prolific inventor, mainly studied art at high school and college, and learnt enough engineering by himself so he could keep inventing things. We limit the world for our children at a very early age but the real world is full of opportunities.”
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai