Despite the unfavourable climate in the state for how they function, alternative schools are making an effort to change the way knowledge is transferred. Is there only a single model for learning? Can a child learn at his own pace and explore his interest and gifts in a regular school? Do we need to compartmentalise children based on their age? Should learning also be based on a child’s interest and experiences? Is continuous evaluation and constant comparison required for good outcomes? Alternative schools use these questions in developing their unique approach to education. Alternative education defies any sort of definition, as there is no single learning approach or one teaching model. Hence, M Srinivasan, principal of Gear International Innovation School considers alternative education as a model where the need of the time and child is given importance. “The latest ideas in terms of research and best practices are brought together in alternative education," says the principal of Gear School, a mainstream school which has incorporated principles of non-formal education in its curriculum. "It is not restrained by any system and is driven by ideology.” History The concept of an alternative approach to the way children experience school is not entirely new. Long before the recent upsurge of alternative schooling, social reformers and thinkers had proposed non-formal modes of education in the country. Prominent thinkers and activists like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Sri Aurobindo and Gijubhai Badheka have been proponents of a different form of education that was not regimented. Before the British established the current system of education in the country, knowledge was imparted through village schools like pathshalas, gurukuls and madarasas. Learning Approach Experiential learning is the catch word of several alternate schools. They teach multiple disciplines like pottery, tailoring, gardening, puppetry, dance, martial arts and farming, and the focus is on learning by doing things. Self learning and self assessment are also two important qualities stressed in experiential learning. For example, Gear school uses a learning approach which is based on Project and Activity as well as Inquiry and Research (PAIR). The school is divided in to four modes of learning based on the way learning takes place, how human brain functions, and various other factors. Exploration mode is for children between the ages of 2.5 to 5.5 years. Formation mode covers 5.5 to 9.5 years, experimentation mode is from 9.5 to 13.5 years and mass mode is 13.5 to 17.5 years. There are nearly 20 students in a section and four sections for each class. At Poorna, an alternate school in Bangalore, learning is personal and meaningful for the children, and teachers try to make learning deeply interesting to children without coercing or stressing them. “We try to co-plan a curriculum that keeps the children's needs and interests at the centre. We also want education to help children become caring members of society and develop mutual respect toward each other regardless of class, caste, or creed. In a nutshell, we want the experience of learning at school to be joyful one,” says Indira Vijaysimha, founder trustee of the school. Class Structure A class, or learning group, at the school has approximately 15 children of similar age. Children are not grouped according to ability. The evaluation methods for younger children consist primarily of informal assessment of children's learning. Lessons are planned around specific objectives, and teachers keep note of whether these learning objectives are achieved or not. This method is also used for older children who additionally may take examinations twice or thrice in a year. Children are encouraged to fill in self- assessment forms so that they can be partners in charting their academic progress. Integration to society The school authorities claim that students from an alternative school like Poorna are supported in their journey of self development and this makes them both resilient and reflective. “They will not merely fit into mainstream society but will more likely go out there and transform it, Indira Vijaysimha says. "We are all too aware that mainstream society is far from perfect, so why should we aim at fitting children into it - we want them to make a difference to society, not conform.” Several alternate schools are located in suburbs or rural areas, away from the hustle and bustle of the (what City?) city. One such school Vikasana, which is located on Kanakapura Road, focuses on educating children of migrant workers. The school has 32 students, from various states, between the ages of four and a half and sixteen. The founder of the school, Malathi MC, says that her institution functions on the basis of David Horsburgh’s(considered as father of non-formal education) theory of non-formal education. “A teacher in an alternative school is just a facilitator. The responsibility of the teacher is to help students discover fun in learning. The emphasis is on doing things. We ensure that our students master the skill and use it in their daily lives. If we teach them how to make dresses, we ensure that they learn how to make dresses, which they can then wear or they can sell.” Challenges In addition to financial struggles, the schools often have to deal with a lack of trust by the general public. They challenge people to think deeply and not just follow directions and face bureaucratic hurdles in getting registration from the government. “The only thing that at times prevented me from giving up in frustration is a deep conviction and an unwarranted faith in human beings,” says Indira Vijaysimha. There are also institutions like Poorna Pragnya Learning Centre, which had to be shut down due to expansion of a highway. Tara Gopinath, who founded the school as early as 1984, says that children of alternate schools might find it difficult to fit in to competitive society initially, but gradually learn the rules of the game. “Several of our alumni have succeeded in their respective careers, be it in art, science or academics.” Examinations in alternate schools In most of the alternate schools, examinations are not just another tool to get feedback about what has been learned or to evaluate the expertise of the teacher. Based on the examination results, those in charge of classes and curriculum may make course corrections and re-think the teaching methodology. Unlike the process in a conventional school, exams are not used as a tool to pass judgments on students and declare them pass or fail. Student of alternate schools often take examinations administered by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). Teachers who work in alternative schools say that it can be very liberating and exciting to teach in ways that connect with students and to watch the spark of understanding ignite throughout the class. “It can also be frustrating and demanding as we struggle with unruly children, heavy workload and lack of clarity about what the true aims of the school are," says Indira Vijaysimha. "It can also be frustrating, during parent teacher meetings, when parents unthinkingly expect teachers to fall back on traditional methods, or display little understanding about children's inner development. One learns to be patient and tolerant and also more forgiving of oneself.” List of prominent alternate schools in India Andhra Pradesh Timbaktu Collective Sumavanam Village School Rishi Valley Education Centre Gujarat Anand Niketan Shreyas Foundation The Riverside School Karnataka Gear Innovative International School Poorna Learning Centre Centre for Learning Kerala The Choice School Sri Atmananda Memorial School The Gurukul Delhi Ankur- Society for Alternatives in Education Saakshar Lavenir, The Gnostic Centre