World as a classroom

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Watching an eclipse through solar filters made by women who were until then unemployed. Proceeds from the sale of these filters formed the seed fund for the Navnirmiti Trust. - COURTESY: NAVNIRMITI TRUST

An innovative method of teaching mathematics that encourages children to learn by doing produces suprising results.

"The essential quality for a mathematician is the habit of thinking things out for oneself. That habit is usually acquired in childhood. It is hard to acquire it later."

- Professor W.W. Sawyer, mathematician.

A SOLAR eclipse is considered inauspicious. But it turned out to be very auspicious for a group of people from Mumbai who decided to embrace this magnificent moment in 1995 and use it to spread scientific awareness. The eclipse sparked the birth of Navnirmiti.

"The idea grew out of the circumstances of some women workers who were retrenched from a factory and desperately needed to earn. I was racking my brains for ways to get them some work," says Vivek Monteiro, its founder and driving force. A physicist turned trade union leader, Monteiro found the answer in his enduring passion - science.

"I thought that it would be cheap and easy to produce solar filters for the upcoming eclipse. After some research and development, we came up with a product that, at Rs.5, was ten times cheaper than anything comparable in the market, but of the best quality. And the women earned Rs. 2,000 a month." The All India Peoples Science Movement and similar networks sold five lakh filters,s which generated a surplus of Rs.3 lakh for the women. This formed the seed fund for the Navnirmiti Trust.

What started as a desperate attempt to generate employment for five women is now a thriving social enterprise that provides high quality education to those who do not have easy access to it. Navnirmiti's work has sparked wonder and curiosity in thousands of schoolchildren across the country - from Himachal Pradesh to Tamil Nadu. It develops, innovates, produces and disseminates low-cost learning toys and methods so that children learn by discovering, rather than by rote.

Navnirmiti's team is working in around 5,000 schools in different parts of India to implement a comprehensive system for primary school maths, Universal Active Math (UAM), with tangible results. An evaluation of Class III students in nine schools in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, in 2005 shows that 51 per cent of the children scored above 80 per cent, and 74 per cent were above 60 per cent. Before UAM was introduced, only 36 per cent of students scored over 50 per cent during an assessment of Class III students in 48 schools there.

"Children from slums in cities learn to speak two or three languages at an early age. They count cricket scores at lightning speeds. Those working with carpenters never make mistakes while making a right angle or a plane. There are countless examples of kids using maths skills in their everyday life. But the same children fail in maths in school," says Monteiro. The problem lies not in the students' capabilities or in maths as a subject, but in the method and language of teaching maths.

Traditionally, children are taught maths in alphanumeric language through written numbers. "Both writing and numbers are abstract skills, which are new and unfamiliar. This is the main reason why kids fail in maths," says Monteiro. "Alphanumerics is not mathematics. It is only one of the languages of maths. There are other more natural languages. UAM introduces the learner to the new concept in a familiar language, using the universal language of things and activities and making real-life connections. Then, this familiar concept is translated into the alphanumeric language of pencil and paper. Do and discover problem-solving is the driving force of the UAM approach."

UAM works with the existing syllabus but changes ways of learning. It involves teacher training, monitoring, evaluating and making mid-course corrections. "It also means a lot of re-learning for teachers, both of the subject and their method of teaching," says Geeta Mahashabde, director of UAM. "While working with our kit, teachers re-learn their maths. Also, their approach must change. They have to realise that there is no `right' or `wrong' answer. Mistakes are an important part of a child's learning and provide clues to their learning process. If a child is not getting the `right answer', they have to pose simpler problems and then let children discover the more difficult ones as they go along."

Understanding the transit of Venus by projecting its image using a plastic ball and mirror.-COURTESY: NAVNIRMITI TRUST

The Arya Vidya Mandir in Mumbai was the first to implement UAM and is now savouring the results. "Our maths classes are always full of life, joy and discussion. Working in groups has also encouraged children to help others. Those who have finished all four years of UAM are more curious and now want a logical reason for anything that the teacher asks them to do," says Vatsala Sharma, a teacher in charge of the school's UAM. "The concepts are very clear to our kids and they come up with their own applications. They also approach problems in their own way. There is no rule, they think it through."

Understanding what they learn increases children's confidence tremendously. "It's a very energising experience for children. They want more," says Geeta Ladi, in charge of product design. She recounts how a six-year-old girl who was learning UAM walked into their office during a workshop of Anganwadi teachers and started explaining maths to them. "The teachers were amazed and the child was brimming with confidence," she said.

"Knowledge is monopolised and distorted today, particularly with the greater commercialisation of education. Ours is a systematic attempt to break knowledge monopolies. At low or no cost, we are trying to make internationally high quality products accessible to all. There is no compromise on quality," says Monteiro.

"The world is a far richer environment for learning than any book or computer. In that sense, the learning environment of a rural school is in no way inferior to that of elite schools, provided that children are taken through a conscious learning experience and are encouraged to experiment, do and discover."

Every year, Navnirmiti continues its astronomy awareness workshops in schools. It is also venturing into science education, with a poster tool learned from their South African friends at the University of Port Elizabeth. "After maths, we are aiming to universalise high quality elementary science learning with these posters," says Amod Karkhanis, trustee and chairperson of Navnirmiti. "We are also working on developing a low-cost, portable laboratory. Often, children are intimidated by a laboratory and all the expensive equipment in it," says Jyoti Francis, managing executive of Navnirmiti. The organisation's most popular 3D toy, Jodo, is also one of its most versatile and is used not only to teach kids but also by scientists, designers, artists and architects.

Through it all, Navnirmiti has retained its spirit of social enterprise. It is a fully self-sustaining organisation that does not depend on funding agencies, but is run from money generated by offering their products and training services. The production workshops are run by a women's cooperative, employing around 40 people. It also has an independent sister organisation in Delhi called Jodo Gyan.

What's next in the pipeline? Universalising primary school maths is a big task just begun. New sun dials and a `geo-synchron' that tracks the earth's rotation are in the pipeline along with more research and development on existing products to lower prices further. And, of course, there will be preparations for the next solar eclipse on March 29, 2006.

"During one of the sun workshops, one little boy was so amazed with the telescope he had made, that he told the volunteers that when he grows up he wants to start a telescope factory," laughs Geeta Ladi. The sun certainly seems to be smiling on all the kids touched by their work.

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