Methods of education that create enthusiasm for learning and reduce the school dropout rate: A success story – West Bengal

“The goal is to prepare some model students in our villages, so that others will be inspired to follow them.” – Santal educationist Boro Baski >>

Challenges

The issues in tribal education are the conflict between the state’s policy of assimilating minorities into the mainstream culture and the tribal people’s reluctance to abandon and insistence on maintaining their identity. Rural tribal children face a severe dilemma when they are forced to reject their own culture and accept the schools’ middle-class values. This conflict results in high dropout rates, low educational aspirations and in a diminished self-esteem.

Other problems lie in the medium of instruction in a language which is not the mother-tongue, in the curriculum based on middle-class Bengali requirements in case of West Bengal, in the method of evaluation, the lack of quality teaching and a defective administration. Everything seems to be set up against tribal children. For example, schools tend to become painful for children when they face a teacher who does not understand their language and who speaks in a language the children do not understand. Children have to memorize lessons without understanding them. They get bored and prefer looking after the family’s cows or goats to attending school. Most teachers come from non-tribal communities. They hail from a middle-class background and are hardly aware of the socio-cultural background of their pupils. This lack of understanding creates serious problems. Unfortunately, the primary goal of formal education boils down to getting a salaried job through competitive examinations. Tribals, however, live with minimal consumer interests and material requirements. Their concept of pleasure differs from the ‘mainstream’. They have hardly any urge to compete for material and academic success. Their life is not marked by the sense of formal discipline and punctuality that schools require both at the individual and the family levels. Tribal village culture gives more scope for independently moving around at random than is typical of mainstream life. Hunting, fishing, roaming, drinking, singing and dancing all have an accepted role to play.

Our School

To address the problems Santal tribal children face in our villages our organization Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha started a Non-formal Santal School Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram (RSV) in 1996. At present, it has five classes – from kindergarten to class IV. Moreover, it runs two hostels for secondary school students, one for girls and another for boys who attend government schools. Since, Santal life is moulded by various socio-cultural and religious intricacies the shift from tradition to modernity is loaded with difficulties. We therefore have taken a holistic approach, trying to address all relevant aspects of village life. For example, in education we do not only pay attention to our students, but we take their family-situation into consideration as well. We realize that illiterate parents can hardly guide their offspring academically. We have built village-style open classrooms and we encourage students’ involvement in campus cleaning and its development. Children come to RSV from eleven different Santal villages. The school has a big campus with a playground, a bio-orchard garden, a fishery pond, agricultural land and an oven to bake bread.

Method of education

The children are first taught in their mother tongue, Santali, not in Bengali. After 18 months of schooling, the medium of teaching gradually switches to Bengali. Since there is no unanimous Santali script in our area we choose to use Bengali alphabet from the start. Learning in their mother-tongue at first builds up enough confidence in the children that they can cope with the Bengali language and with an educational world most of their parents are not familiar with.

We have prepared several Santali Primers to teach Bengali letters and numbers through traditional Santal melodies. Santals traditionally learn their customs and rituals from their elders in the family and society through oral and informal methods. The learning process takes place mostly during group activities in a natural and pleasant atmosphere. Taking our inspiration from this tradition and from Rabindranath’s ideals of education, we have begun to inculcate dance, music, Santal myths, folklore and history in our teaching programme. School starts in the morning with prayer and meditation in Santal manner. Then the children study, do gardening, play, sing, dance, paint, take lunch and return home. In the government school books, students read about the lives and work of great Indians like Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and in the present generation, Amartya Sen. We at RSV, however, feel that in addition to knowing great national and international figures, it is important to know about the lives of good and successful people in our own community. This will encourage self-confidence and a sense of pride of one’s community and heritage. Santal students need Santal role models with whom they can identify. Therefore, we give utmost importance to excursions and visits to historical places of the Santals. An annual trip to Bhagnadihi, the birth place of two Santal heroes who started guerilla warfare against the landlords and local police administration in 1855-56, is one to mention.

The parents of the students have a forum in the school, where they come together once every two or three months to discuss the development of their children and the school. They also render free service on the school campus, such as cleaning the bio-orchard, working in the vegetable garden or leveling the road and the playground. Parents also pay a small monthly fee. Those who cannot pay in cash may pay in kind giving rice, potatoes, vegetables or rendering service in the school campus. Parents also actively participate in the various cultural activities of the school.

The goal of our hostels is to prepare some model students in our villages, so that others will be inspired to follow them. We are also aware of the problem that educated Santals are often isolated from their community after adopting a different value system through formal education. Therefore, the RSV school and the hostels are situated within one kilometer from the villages, so that the students can go home to spend weekends with their families

Evaluation

Our methods of education have drastically reduced the school dropout rate, and children discover a lot of joy and enthusiasm for learning. While our villages were basically illiterate up to my generation, all children now learn to read and write. Many ex-students of our school are doing very well academically in higher-level schools, colleges and universities. Some of our alumni have government jobs; many more are self-employed. Many educated youths have also taken up the school and organizational responsibilities to carry on the initiative we started a generation ago. Santal villagers are beginning to understand that education makes a difference.

More information

For further information about the school, organization and recent publications please log on to our website-

Friends of Ghosaldanga and Bishnubati e.V., Frankfurt (Germany)

https://www.dorfentwicklung-indien.de (in German)

Source: Courtesy Boro Baski (M.S.W., Ph.D.) co-founder and principal of Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram,  personal message 23 October 2014

The smart boy or clever girl who is deprived of the opportunity of schooling, or who goes to a school with dismal facilities (not to mention the high incidence of absentee teachers), not only loses the opportunities he or she could have had, but also adds to the massive waste of talent that is a characteristic of the life of our country.

Nobel Awardee Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian (Penguin Books, 2005), p. 344 | Find this and other books published in India | Tribal Children’s Right to Education | Video documentary on the Lifeworld of an Enlightened Villager | Related posts about childhood >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta in “Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi culture?” (The Hindu, 13 February 2021) | More about the role of tribal communities in preserving India’s biodiversity and ethnobotany >>

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