Need for excellence, not literacy


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THIS essay is about a single school started twenty two years ago, that seeks to provide an excellent education inclusively for every child, regardless of background. It was based on research that revealed two crucial problems in Indian education: one, the lack of political will to bridge the divides between classes and communities;1 and two, a weak technological base, resulting in spaces, curricula, school rituals, and pedagogical strategies that are inadequate for the task of excellent education. Vidyashram, the school described here, has the ambitious agenda of applying solutions to these two problems.2 A much abbreviated description of its practices, successes and failures, will permit us to understand better the vast challenges of inclusivity.3

Vidyashram classes include the poorest and most marginalized people in the city and neighbouring villages. Our aim is to have an excellent school, not a school for ‘the poor’ or ‘the under-privileged’.

The classroom is understood by us to be a miniature world, and a crucial site for the production of equality. In the larger world, the population is divided up between those who do and do not have economic capital, and those who do and do not have the social capital of parents with English and a ‘good’ education. In the Vidyashram classroom, we work to erase this taken for granted difference purposefully. The teacher has a list of strategies to dissolve the power of a starkly divided outside world by creating an alternative world where children experience a variety of things simultaneously, and which, by sheer habit and the power of rituals, they learn to take as normal. Children are differentiated in numerous ways and respond to the plurality of divisions with imagination. They are not committed to the idea of haves and have-nots and are fine with marginalizing economic or social capital to an unimportant category among the myriads of interesting categories that exist.4


An inclusive classroom such as the one above does its pedagogical work partly by creating child-centred spaces and routines that are conducive to the free working of the imagination. I give four instances. One, the simplest strategy is replacing authoritarian seating consisting of rows of chairs facing the teacher by islands of seats facing inwards. Children turn around to face the teacher when needed and turn back to face inwards to do their work otherwise. We also have floor seating in every classroom, which apart from its advantages to the human body, makes the child feel physically happy and psychologically on a continuum with home culture. Children take turns sitting at desks and sitting on the floor, and cease to regard either as more privileged.


Second, is a related element of time. The procedures adopted in schools, as bells ring and bags are fussed over, books and copies pulled in and out, and teachers enter and exit, produce discomfort for the child. At Vidyashram, we overcame the bogey of shortage of time by designing a day with no bells. Each unit of work or subject of study goes on for one or two hours. The children are still trained to complete work and to respect the clock, but as a virtue in itself, not at the service of the timetable.

A third, crucial procedure in our school bears resemblance to the Gandhian concept of working with one’s hands and cleaning up for oneself.5 Children use the broom and duster to clean their classrooms everyday, with the simple idea that one should have control over one’s spaces, and not the moralistic one that working with one’s hands is a virtue. The North Indian dust; encroachment by dogs or even monkeys; by insects, ants, roaches, or mice; the wind and leaves and water; or the absenteeism of the sweeper or the maid – can be among the scores of reasons why one’s surroundings can regularly be less than impeccable. When the class itself has control over their space, no excuse is relevant. Children develop the realization that it is their space and they have the authority to organize it. It is not a question of responsibility so much as authority.


Fourth, we have the radical rule of banning private materials up to class V and having class-shared, communally owned ones instead: class pencils, paper, glue, scissors, crayons, and so on. There is a further ritual where they empty their bags in the morning, put their books and copies into designated shelves, and take out what they need when they need it. This re-emphasizes the two goals of equalizing through communalization of property, and of actively teaching from nursery upwards such that their space can be controlled by them, that they are welcome in their interfering with it, and that they can identify with it. These are huge citizenship lessons that, together with the lesson of equality, can be taught best not through preaching to them, but through the way they daily interact with their spaces.


When interacting with educators, I had questions for them about their procedures in school. I did not ask them specifically about the city, which I saw as garbage-ridden, or its residents, all of whom I understood to be unworried about the garbage. However, I was often told, ‘yahan ka mahaul pichhra hua hai’, (‘This is a backward place’) or ‘yahan ke log niche varg ke hain’, (‘People are of low class here’). The speaker, obviously, blamed backward, lower class people who were oblivious of the importance of progress, and never blamed his own ability to be an adequate educator or reformer. The ‘backward’ and ‘lower class’ people, when asked, blamed the educators for not teaching well, and for not managing the students, the classrooms, and the schools efficiently.

This latter, education-centred view is precisely our view at Vidyashram. Garbage is not a cultural problem of Indians, their ingrained values of public and private notwithstanding. Nor is it only a historical problem, although the colonial state did successfully destroy some self-regulating mechanisms of city neighbourhoods, and exacerbated the retreat into the private as the only legitimate domain, with the public as ‘another’s’ (the state’s) responsibility.

Garbage is an educational problem. The only way that garbage has been tackled anywhere in the world in a long-term way is through education. The school everywhere has acted as the modernizing agency par excellence and has taught modern citizens to follow rules, including that of garbage control. How should we make this happen?

The Vidyashram approach has been to teach everyone through a combination of science, arts, and civics. Science allows us to approach the topic of germs and infection and legitimizes projects of cleanliness. The arts allow us to celebrate pasts of nature worship and empathy, of beautiful spaces and control over one’s ‘natural’ proclivities but, importantly, to do so in reflexive and creative, and not moralistic, ways. Civics allows us the discourse of ourselves as a nation, thus expanding our self-definition in a necessary move of modernity. This teaching is not easy and there is constant danger of a relapse into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘we’ the educators and reformers, and ‘they’ the people to be reformed.


In order to have socially inclusive classrooms, the curricula need to bridge the family-school divide. In the 19th century, modern schooling was introduced by the colonial state through a limited technology of teaching that was possible for very few schools to take up, and with which only a small part of the population could be reached. This was accompanied by a politics of schooling where not only was it the lack of a technology, but the very aim was to make the new education possible mostly among the elite. The family of the new educated had to be behind the student, especially with the support of the mother, or had to be able to afford tutors and the specialized studying – cramming – of the student for a decade or more of his life.

Today, the dependence of the school on the home is so pervasive that even so-called Montessori schools will tell the parent of a five year old, ‘She needs to learn her Hindi matras (vowels). You need to sit her down every day and teach her. She must get into the habit of sitting down every day.’6 In order to reverse this, we have to be clear about ‘the work of the school’ and its exact interaction with the family. The first policy we adopt is that of ‘no tuitions’ and ‘homework that can be done by the child herself.’ This entails an ongoing training of teachers because the habit of depending on work to be completed at home is ingrained at every level in Indian education. It involves workshops with parents because parents are ready to believe that no homework or less homework indicates a poor school with loose discipline. It also includes far more academic preparation on the part of the school to ensure that the material desired to be ‘covered’ is indeed thus covered. It demands a huge effort on the part of the teachers to give attention to every single child in our inclusive classrooms, coming as they do from varied backgrounds.


To teach the same disciplines that are considered universal with the use of local content is a huge ideological and technological project in the case of colonies like India. At Vidyashram, we have been radical in conceiving of knowledge as already global and not up for negotiation.7 We believe that the universal should be partly seen as ‘adult concepts’ that in any case are outside the domain of the child, and should be creatively treated throughout as ‘foreign’. At the same time, conceptually it can be brought close to the child by approaching it through local narratives and images.

We make our own worksheets, an exercise specifically separate from teaching, after realizing through experimentation that a teacher is not a curriculum developer. Our work-sheets for up to class V consist of the stories of various people, animals, symbols and imaginary constructs in the communities of our city, each of which opens up into the salient issues of social studies, history, languages, math, and science that are part of a universal curricula for elementary school.

It is important not to idealize this approach. It is an immensely pragmatic approach, not a romantically conceived one of some kind of ‘back to the people.’ Nor is this a ‘community’ based approach in which we wish, a la Dewey, for the child to master his world from the closest concentric circle of the self, the family, the community, the state, the nation, and the world. On the contrary, we believe, with Kieran Egan, that the most fantastical and ‘foreign’ of information is palatable to, exciting to, and even desired by, the child, dealing with power, confusion, struggle, journeys, rewards. None belong realistically in any time or place.8 Such a curriculum provides huge potential for equality between classes and communities.


Libraries: For excellent and inclusive teaching, we believe passionately in the power of narratives and of images. Thus we introduce a subject first through storybooks, accompanied by pictures. When children are read to in English, they do not understand what they hear, but they are mesmerized by the style and the accompanying pictures and by judiciously interpolated playacting. This technique succeeds in increasing their English vocabulary, their ability to focus, and their pleasure in books and narratives.

How to have books at all? By budgeting one textbook less per child and replacing the textbook with a different storybook for each textbook, we have the equivalent of thirty storybooks per class of thirty. The value gained is disproportionately huge. How do we get teachers who know how to read storybooks to children? We can’t ever get them ready-made. We have to train the teachers; they have not known this technique and they are not comfortable with it. But it is only a technique and it is a question of professionalism, and teachers can be taught to do it.


We empathize with those teachers and educators who believe, apparently sincerely, that the course of study in the Indian school is so ‘vast’ and so overwhelming in its challenge that there is no room for reading outside the course. This accords well with the actual lack of library holdings in schools and the absence of a culture of reading. The solutions are simple: a powerful will on the part of the administration; the ongoing training of adults to learn a new thing; and the persuasion that reading is a value, and that children learn best when they become good readers.


Using the body: Together with reading comes performance. The human body is the cheapest tool to use. While it is lovely to have charts and materials, it can be prohibitively expensive. So we use theatre, music and dance to teach, and need nothing else than our bodies for this teaching.

When a teacher is hired, she is warned that she will have to include some weeks of compulsory training in her ‘work’ that will be scheduled at a time typically understood to be ‘off’ for teachers. Then the teachers are trained for two to four weeks in a variety of theatre techniques with a professional volunteer theatre artist. Alongside, we discuss various issues related to a changing society, such as gender roles and the competing values seen as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. We have workshops in art, music, dance and film. The other elementary, but incrementally very productive, part of using theatre is to add theatre games, the technique of simply acting out whatever it is that is to be taught. Children in various classes at Vidyashram are always made to act out the stories they read with their animal or human characters, emotions and actions. This includes the story of numbers, fractions, chemical and physical properties. The intangible learning from actually doing what is otherwise theoretically presented, is unmeasured.

Music and dance are more like reading in the advantage to be had from sudden immersion. All children are taught to sing and dance. They learn all kinds of songs in various languages. Even when they do not necessarily understand the lyrics, they are caught up in the beauty of the music. Learning songs teaches them discipline and rules, together with the achievement of a final product. We try to get music teachers who can make them think of rhythm and pitch, and associate music learning with the sounds in their everyday lives. We are working on a curriculum for children that uses music and dance in the manifold ways in which they can be used.


Creative writing, including writing books: From class I or II onwards, our children write stories and books. We believe that creative writing is a skill that can be taught and we teach it to teachers and to students through work-shops. It is a cheap activity, but needs time in the schedule and the support of everyone in charge. It needs the belief that children can be taught to enjoy writing and that they will in fact enjoy writing. We have never been proved wrong in this. We have a school full of children writing journals and writing creative stories and books.

Almost every school underestimates the power of rituals, and uses very conventional ones: uniforms, greeting and parting, assemblies, and more elaborate periodical and annual rituals. Educators should realize, and be trained in, how rituals can be successfully or unsuccessfully devised for any given purpose.9 At Vidyashram, our purpose is:

1. To have an integrated school where children are children, regardless of their background. We therefore devise rituals for the purpose of integration, such as seating and distribution of materials.

2. To produce students who are environmentally so sensitive that every issues of development must necessarily have an environmental component for them, and so that at no time would they tolerate garbage and environmental destruction. So we ritualize classroom and campus actions, such as the cleaning up and looking after of common materials and spaces. Then we have experimented with different projects, such as having houses named after fantasy lands (Oz, Neverland, Narnia, and Wonderland) devoted to environmental projects.

3. To have children love to learn, to think of learning as magical and fun, and to have the foundations for continuing to learn throughout their lives. For this, we deliberately do away with many rituals prevalent in Indian schools, such as rising to speak in class, asking loudly for permission, and always observing silence in classrooms. We instead have rituals that permit high comfort levels, egalitarianism, and pleasure in the activity engaged in.

4. To deliberately respect some Indian practices, such as putting elders and guests above oneself. Rituals for these have to be combined sensitively with our other requirement, of teaching respect for rules, applicable to everyone no matter what the status of the person.

The bottom line is to be very thoughtful and reflexive about every ritual chosen. Rituals comprise the hidden curriculum, and whatever is not taught directly is taught directly enough through the rituals adopted.


Teachers are at the heart of the success as well as the failure of an educational system and, therefore, are roundly blamed for the failure of the Indian one. We have to find our way out of the impasse that we need teachers in order to produce change, and that teachers are themselves at the heart of the problem. We adopt the strategy of patiently working with teachers in at least three ways to help them escape the cycle of reproduction that decrees that they will reproduce the most basic, and worst, features of a system that has in its time produced them.

The first way is intellectual. Teachers undergo a course of study through which they are taught to think differently about themselves, their world and their history. Thus, instead of ignoring the caste, class, gender and cultural categories which their own formation may have gifted them, and overlooking the passivity they have also learnt regarding these categories, we require them to read, think and discuss these ideas from carefully designed curricula for adults, gleaned and translated from the best of writing on these subjects. Alongside, they escape from the world of mechanical rote learning that they have been familiar with for their whole lives, by learning their intellectual lessons in interactive settings where they are enabled to read on their own, research and respond, discuss and participate.10


The second way of producing change in teachers is institutional. We seek to design a work environment that makes teachers aware of and focused on their professionalism. This is largely a process of setting up the correct spaces and systems. We believe that people adapt to systems and that it is not their responsibility to develop them, but to take advantage of the convenience and, then, prestige that functioning in a rationalized environment provides.

The third way to help teachers become leaders in producing inclusivity and excellence in their classrooms, is through the use of the arts, and of theatre in particular. We believe that the way to break the cycle of reproduction is by being guided in, then freed in, using one’s body in new ways. Teachers learn concepts and values tactically that would be difficult, if not impossible, to teach intellectually.


Vidyashram’s ambitions far outstrip its goals, but we know what we must do. The parents of some families are not able to fully work in synchrony with what remains, ultimately, a modern and modernizing agenda. We need to establish more projects with communities, and a better personal understanding of each separate child’s home life. We need to devise more ways in which parents can interact with the school and feel confident that the school is ‘theirs’.11 We need to train teachers further to bridge the terrible school-home divide more imaginatively and overcome their strong ideas of who is who in Indian society. We need a curriculum and teaching plan that does a more fantastic job still of using the images, narratives, sounds, work and play all around us as well as aeons and oceans away from us.

But I wish to propose, humbly, and also proudly, that our school, Vidyashram, demonstrates that inclusivity can indeed be achieved. Solutions are possible and at hand, and have been put into practice. They consist of the twofold commitment I stated in the beginning: to develop the postcolonial consciousness that of course all Indian citizens are one, and our children should all develop into the same privileged educated people as presently only rich children do; and to develop the technology – the materials, the resources, the teaching methods, the teachers – to put the conviction into practice. Much as I empathize with the feelings of those disturbed by the levels of illiteracy in India who then strive to promote literacy, there is an unstated critique of them in my essay and in our school: what is needed is not literacy, but excellent education. Otherwise we will have to do the job twice over, and at our present rate of progress, we may not have the time to first make our population literate, then to provide them with an excellent education. The literacy effort is in fact based on a colonial consciousness: literacy for them, excellent education for us. Vidyashram is a model of excellent education for all, privileged and underprivileged.



1. This is of course not an exclusively Indian problem. Even in large, old, and wealthy democracies such as the USA, public schooling has been called ‘worse than a promise broken… because it has achieved only the same quantity of public schooling, not the same quality. This failure is a downright violation of our democratic principles’ Mortimer J. Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Macmillan Publishing Co, New York, 1982, p. 5. See also, A. Lawrence Cremin, The Genius of American Education. Horace Mann Lecture 1965. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1965; and A. Lawrence Cremin, Popular Education and its Discontents. Harper & Row, New York, 1989.

2. Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru, though no expert on education, also mentioned these two as the problems of Indian education. He called them ‘provision’ or ‘resources’ and ‘the values question’. See Alexander Robin, Culture and Pedagogy: International Comparisons in Primary Education. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2000, p. 100.

3. It is an unmatched privilege that I can speak authoritatively about the inside functioning of a school, and the processes of managing it and giving it direction. My interests are in the problems and solutions of Indian education, but I agree with Pedro Nogwera, renowned Californian educationist, that ‘to say anything about schooling, you have to be in schools.’ Pedro Nogwear, Lecture at the Munroe Center for Social Enquiry, Pitzer College, Claremont, 8 February 2011. My larger work on the subject is a forthcoming book, A Post-colonial School in a Modern World.

4. We have been challenged in this effort when we have presented our work to scholars. According to many scholars and educators, class divisions are so ingrained that children will inevitably feel self-conscious about them no matter what the context. Indeed, difference based on seemingly innocent categories such as ‘those who have pets’ translates indirectly into an economic division since, as we know, the practice of keeping pets is largely a middle class one in the Indian context. But, none of our interlocutors has tried consistently to create an alternative world that is as real to the child as the adult one is to the adult. Our confidence in our solution is based on its successful practice. Our children do not demonstrate any long-term acknowledgement of class difference. The short-term consciousness of class difference that arises, say from a nicer bag, a more expensive tiffin box, or a better tailored uniform, is sought to be overcome, and then is largely forgotten, thanks to the power of the world of the classroom deliberately created by the teacher. I am not including in the discussion here the equalization of nutrition that we have to also undertake by giving free meals to some of the students. This seems like a self-evident strategy, and a simple echo of the hot lunches policy in government schools.

5. For Gandhi’s scheme, see Humayun Kabir, Education in New India. Greenwood Press, Oxford, 1977, especially chapter 2.

6. St. Mary’s Montessori section, Varanasi, 1991.

7. We consider it a gigantic disfavour to the child to teach her mostly some locally held or community-bound set of concepts or facts, rather than what is universally taught, even if the ‘universal’ is perfectly understood by us as a euphemism for the ‘western’. Madrasas that serve the children of poorer Muslim communities do precisely this kind of a local history teaching, either directly or by default, condemning their students to social immobility. I describe this at length in my essay ‘History and the Nation’ (Nita Kumar, The Politics of Gender, Community and Modernities: Essays on Educaiton in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007, chapter 2) where I emphasize that there is not so much a good-bad relationship between universal/ national history and local history as a question of power. Which kind of history bestows power on the student? Our duty lies in empowering the student. To also sensitize her to the shortcomings of this universal history and to construct ways of keeping local histories alive is a separate, essential task.

8. John Dewey is discussed in Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille McCarthy, John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1998. Kieran Egan, Children’s Minds, Talking Rabbits and Clockwork Oranges: Essays on Education. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1999; and Hunter McEwan and Kieran Egan (eds.), Narrative in Teaching, Learning, and Research. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1995.

9. I have made detailed studies of this with regard to nationalist schools in India, such as Annie Besant’s Central Hindu Schools, Hindu revivalist schools such as the Arya Mahila School, and community schools that sought to synthesize Indian and western teaching, such as Khatri and Agrawal schools. See, Nita Kumar, Lessons from Schools: the History of Education in Banaras. Sage Publications, Delhi and Thousand Oaks, CA, 2000, chapter 4.

10. Administrators are to teachers as teachers are to students, for purposes of specific training. In this, the same criteria of aiming to make the teachers motivated and powerful apply, and this is achieved through specific styles of teaching, such as in groups that work independently. Then there is a parallel idea of ‘lead-managing’ and not ‘boss-managing’, that is of having the workers feel that they are looking for exactly what you are asking them to do – in this case, effective teaching. See William Glasser, The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. Harper Perennial, New York, 1990; and William Glasser, The Quality School Teacher. Harper Perennial, New York, 1993.

11. Peter Senge, et al., Schools that Learn. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 2000.



Sabiha Bilgi and Seckin Ozsoy, ‘John Dewey’s Travelings into the Project of Turkish Modernity’, in Thomas Popketwitz (ed.), Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey. Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2005, pp 153-177.

Brian Caldwell, Self Managing School (Education Policy Perspectives). Routledge, Illustrated edition, 1988.

Kieran Egan, Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget, and Scientific Psychology. Teachers’ College, Columbia University, New York, 1983.

Nita Kumar, Friends, Brothers and Informants: Fieldwork Memoirs of Banaras. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Nita Kumar, The Problem of Training Teachers and Creating Classroom Strategies. Paper presented to Deshkal Conference on Inclusive Education, Delhi, 2006.

Clifford Mayes, Ramona Maile Cutri, P. Clint Rogers and Fidel Montero, Understanding the Whole Student: Holistic Multicultural Education. Rowman and Littlefield Education, Lanham, Maryland, 2007.

Thomas S. Popkewitz, ‘Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey: Modernities and the Traveling of Pragmatism in Education – An Introduction’, in Thomas S. Popketwitz (ed.), Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey. Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2005, pp. 3-36.

Regie Routman, Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk about Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas. Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 1996.