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Book Excerpt: Kalpana Pathak’s ‘Breaking the Mould: Alternative Schools in India’

By Kalpana Pathak

Synopsis of the book

India’s education system has attracted bouquets and brickbats in equal measure. On the one hand, there are the IIT success stories, many of whom go on to head MNCs and successful businesses in India and abroad. But on the other hand, the rote learning which is de rigueur in most schools has been blamed for the lack of creativity and innovation that the Indian education system is said to suffer from. The ‘system’ has its supporters and its detractors. Into this hugely contested space are a handful of alternative schools that seek to go against the grain. In recent years, these schools have attracted a great deal of attention as many parents seek a more relaxed and humane education system for their children. But doubts and questions about what they are doing is right for their child persist. In Breaking the Mould, Kalpana Pathak unpacks the world of alternative schools. She delves deep into their philosophy, practices, and curriculum. Extensively researched, this book will satisfy all doubts that one might have about alternative schools. A directory at the end of the book lists all the alternative schools in the country with their addresses and contact details. All in all, a must-have on the bookshelf of every parent.

Read this extract and make up your own mind.

How Alternative Schools Operate

Alternative Schools

Alternative schools are schools which provide an alternative (a non-traditional education system) to mainstream education. Mostly child-centred schools, these base themselves on a number of philosophies. Their approach to studies and teaching are different from the run-of-the-mill schools. These schools believe in allowing the child to follow his or her own pace while learning without the regimented structure of formal schooling. The ohe heriveion (let’s put this in the present-day, verall growth of children is paid attention to, and teachers are not authority figures. Punishment is not part of the system and students are not forced to study. Class sizes are kept small and teacher student ratios are healthy. Art and craft are paid as much attention as academics are.


The classrooms at most alternative schools are fairly large and spacious with large windowsills to allow children a look at nature. While in many schools one finds tables and chairs, many still follow the traditional method of children sitting on mats and using chowkies (small wooden tables). Walls in senior classes are largely plain but primary classes are often painted with lively colours and drawings put up by students. Some classes have large colourful puppets and dolls displayed. Unlike the mainstream schools, classrooms do not have a platform or dais for the teacher to sit. To stress that the teacher is not an authority figure, the table and chair for the teacher is laid at the same level as that of the children. Some schools also have classrooms out in the open. The architecture is simple and buildings are minimalistic. Some schools have classrooms attached to the hostels which are shared by a teacher-in charge. Some classrooms for higher secondary children also have a  small self-catering kitchen attached to facilitate making of tea and coffee.

Art and craft

Art is relied upon heavily and plays an important role in a child’s learning process in most alternative schools. The child is encouraged to draw before learning to write. At Jane Sahi’s Sita School for instance, children learn words by drawing them out on a sheet of paper. So when a child is asked to spell and draw the word loud, he does so by ascribing characteristics  to the words. Long is written on a paper, cut out vertically. Green is written only using green colour.

Almost all alternative schools use unfinished toys and wooden blocks and images carved out of wood like animals, circles, triangles, rectangles and squares for children to construct and deconstruct. Children also use shells to play and learn. This is meant to make children to use their hands extensively to express and learn. Colourful puppets are also commonplace in classrooms as teachers use them extensively for lessons.  Art and craft is an inseparable part of alternative schools. Right from Kindergarten, children paint, do beeswax and then in Grades clay modelling, they knit – finger knitting, knitting on needles, embroidery, crochet, woodwork, also metalwork and stone-carving in higher classes. At Patha Bhavana it is a compulsory subject for all students till class VIII. After that they can opt for any one stream. Clay modelling begins from the Nursery stage.

Physical activity

Unlike at mainstream schools, physical activity is not a 35-45 minute affair. Given that children are restless by nature, primary classes in alternative schools have an earmarked play area in the classrooms. For instance, at Inodia Waldorf School, the classroom for standard one and two children have lofts on which children could climb up and down. Patha Bhavana’s class structure allows children to hop, skip and jump to their respective classes under the tree at the end of a session. A banyan tree in the middle of the school allows children to climb up and down anytime during the day. This is allowed as a means for children to let out their pent up energy. Games and sports is a compulsory daily activity. At Patha Bhavana since the school has a full-fledged Department of Physical Education at the University, students can pursue their passion in this field. Students are encouraged to participate in district and state-level tournaments. But more emphasis is laid on participation and not so much on performance. At Waldorf schools in the primary segment, there is an emphasis on community games rather than individual sport. “Grade five has a games event called ‘Olympics’ which corresponds with their history lessons on Ancient Greece. Children play basket ball, hand ball and such other sports. Playing is more important than winning. But when someone is playing better than others, appreciation is also a must. Children learn this throughout their school years,” says Chowdary of Inodai.


At a Waldorf school, day one is all about imitation and children are being introduced to primary colours. On day one the teacher picks colour yellow and shows children how to spread it on the paper. Children follow her. Day two is dedicated to colour blue. Day three is for the colour green. But green’s introduction will involve a little trick. The teacher decides to do this by way of telling a story about two friends named yellow and blue.

“The friends go out to a garden to play and while playing they hug each other. When yellow and blue hug each other, its magic and there is a new colour, green,” the teacher says while showing the children how the colours meet and form a new colour.

The children, in awe, immediately begin to imitate the teacher, repeating the story. They have not only been introduced to a new colour but have also been shown how it is formed.

In another class, the playtime is over and it is time to clean up. The teacher folds the play clothes and places the toys back on the shelf, leading by example. Children imitate.

At Anand Niketan, Wardha, the learning and the language that a child brings along to class establishes the process of introducing the child to lessons. Conversations with children happen in their language so that they can be taught languages. Letters are introduced during the course of conversation and words with the letter are introduced drawing upon the child’s daily life and experience. For instance, in Hindi language, child is taught the word Aa by saying Aai (mom).  This way, in 45 days the child learns basic reading and in six months starts reading letters and words. Slowly the child is introduced to books to familiarise her with reading.

Similarly, measures and tables are taught in cooking classes sometimes. Reading stories to children is part of the daily routine to increase their interest in reading. The library lays down pictorial books for children to feel and handle the book even if the child cannot read.

At Gram Mangal in Pune, class two children are busy sorting the leaves that they have collected. Each group is patiently sorting them in their own way – long leaves and round ones, spotted leaves and plain ones, single leaves and compound ones. In the end, along with patience and learning to work in a group, the class has found 18 ways to classify the leaves. Elsewhere in the school, after a visit to vegetable market, the kindergarten children are engaged in making pictographs of their favourite vegetables. Potato usually tops the list.

Class five is preparing to go to the school’s little field.  While one group would sow wheat, the other will collect kitchen waste from the neighbouring houses to feed the earthworms in the compost pit.

In some schools in the lower levels from pre-KG to UKG, schools use the flash card method of Dr. Glenn Doman extensively to teach General Knowledge, English, language and mathematics. Some of the Montessori methods of teaching are also incorporated in the lower three levels in order to allow the children to become self-starters, self-confident and imaginative self-learners.

The act of teaching in the lower three levels consists primarily of presenting sensory images, objects and information to the child in a pleasant and interesting manner in the form of flash cards. This permits the child to observe and inquire about the subject, without compelling the child to memorize. Coloured flash cards with large images are utilized as convenient, low cost teaching aids. Most alternative schools do not believe in giving homework to children.

Assessment and Study materials

Assessments are done, but formal exams are absent. Every teacher understands that a child in a certain age group should pass a certain milestone in terms of his/her academic and non-academic development. So the teachers assess the children accordingly. A child is observed on all accounts: happiness, enthusiasm, reading skills, fine motor skills, concentration, responsibility, social skills, physical growth, social circle, friendliness etc. and then assessed.

In upper primary classes though, informal oral tests or written tests are taken. While some schools have introduced mock exams, others have not. The teachers periodically review lessons to assess the child’s understanding. If a child finds it difficult to understand something, remedial classes are offered.

In some schools, drawings of the children are observed and studied to assess if the child is fit to graduate to the next grade. These schools however, never detain a child. They work on the premise that every standard draws some basic lessons from the previous one. So they give the child time to understand the lessons. In some cases where the child finds it difficult to understand, he is given extra time to absorb and if need be, seek remedial classes.

The policy for special children is also the same. For instance, a severely dyslexic child at Anand Niketan had good eye and hand co-ordination but was very slow in taking academic lessons. The school realizing the child’s strength introduced the child to stitching and embroidery encouraging the child to do well in that. The school also provided him training in the skills so that he can take it up as a career option if need be.

In the primary classes the assessment is done by the teacher on a daily basis through her/his observations and class work. Moreover, the assessment is not only for academic progress but also for the life skills that are developing in the child over the years. The Assessment, as it is conventionally understood, would start sometime in Grade 7. The next three years up to Grade 10 the children would be trained in the art of writing an examination. At Patha Bhavana, teachers go by continuous assessment. There are no terminal exams till class VIII. From class IX, the terminal exams are basically practice tests and not part of the evaluation.

There are no prescribed text books. A large portion of the teaching materials are prepared by the teachers themselves. The teachers pick up their facts from all authentic sources. This happens especially in the lower classes as these schools have devised their own syllabus and methodologies to teach in these classes. Teachers customise their teaching aids to suit the interests and knowledge levels of the students. While many teachers make binders for the students by culling out research material from various sources, in many cases, for subjects like Hindi, English and Mathematics, they get their own books printed by local printers.

At Inodai Waldorf School teachers are encouraged to do research. They prepare their Block lessons (a block could be for 3 or 4 weeks – the same subject for 2 hours daily), and present it before other teachers in weekly Thursday meetings where they get suggestions from others, which the teachers can incorporate in their lessons. The veracity of information is always cross-checked. Moreover, the teachers have mentors who guide them into following the Waldorf system.

‘Breaking the Mould: Alternative Schools in India’ is available on Amazon US and Amazon India.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Intersectional Identities: Disability and the Other Margins’, edited by Dr. Nandini Ghosh, IDSK and Dr. Shilpaa Anand, MANUU.

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