Child-centric preschool education at Tejasvita: Introduction

– BY GAYATHRI TIRTHAPURA, CO-FOUNDER TRUSTEE AT TEJASVITA TRUST

When we set out to build a preschool program for children from low-income communities about seven years ago, we were very clear that our teaching and learning methods and processes would be designed to cater to how young children learn effectively. Expecting them to sit in one place for long periods of time and listen to a teacher talk is simply not effective for preschool children. Such a style of teaching is only effective when the learner has made up her mind to “learn” the topic that the teacher is teaching and actively engages with the learning process out of her own interest. A preschool child however is intent on exploring the world on her own terms and in a classroom full of children, every child carves her own path of discovery. And what’s more, young children interact with the world around them through all their five senses and like to actively move around to engage with their environment. In effect, what comes naturally to young children is “play”.  

When we hear the word “play”, some of the images that come to mind are, children playing in the playground or children doing pretend play or children playing on a beach and so on. What is also a perfectly good example of play is when a child engages with hands-on learning materials in a classroom in an enjoyable way, out of his/her own choice. The common characteristics in all these examples is that activities are self-chosen and self-directed by the child, the child is intrinsically motivated to do these activities, the activity leaves a lot of scope for creativity and is conducted in an active, non-stressed frame of mind . 

Designing and implementing a program that caters to “how naturally children learn through play” would fit into a child-centered approach to education – where you use the child’s needs as the starting point for developing a curriculum and teaching-learning methods.  This approach sits in contrast to teacher-centered education where you design the curriculum and teaching-learning methods as per  “what is the most efficient or convenient way to teach a large group of children”. Child-centered preschool education would require one to understand the needs of every child in the classroom, their developmental levels and abilities, and accordingly create opportunities in the classroom for every child to learn through play. In such an environment, every child in the classroom could be engaged with different materials, have different learning goals, and learn and progress at a different pace based on their interests and where they are in their learning levels. In contrast, in teacher-centered education, at any point of time, the teacher would deliver a single lesson to the whole classroom with a single learning goal and children are expected to stay on course with whatever the teacher has planned, regardless of their interests and abilities. 

While the teacher-centered approach brings about efficiencies in teaching, it doesn’t really guarantee that every child learns, because not every child would be interested in the lesson that the teacher is teaching or be able to adapt to the difficulty level of the lesson being taught. We chose the child-centric mode of education for Tejasvita’s preschool program because we wanted to make sure that every child in the classroom is set on a path to learning.  While the design and implementation process for a child-centric model has been fraught with many challenges especially because we wanted to implement a lower cost program in the low income communities, we are very happy to report that we are seeing great results.

One important indicator of our success is the progress in the attention spans of children we’ve seen during the last 2 years after serving the children with our program consistently through the academic year. Of the 200 children we’ve served every year, children who entered our program at the beginning of the year with the lowest attention-spans for learning improved 200% on average in their attention spans, by the end of the year in our environment. Several children went from not being able to sit for even a few minutes to being able to attend to an activity for 20 minutes or more at a stretch, with interest and focus. This result shows that a child-centric education program is effective even for children who are not doing well in other kinds of learning environments.

Child-centered approaches have been explored for over a century for all age groups of children starting from infancy to young adulthood. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Maria Montessori are the pioneers of this method and made several discoveries that proved the effectiveness of this method early on. However, teacher-centered approach still remains the dominant method in the classrooms of India. Although pockets of effort exist across the country to bring in child-centric education into classrooms, at a systemic level, it is largely non-existent today. 

In a series of blog posts, I’ll be discussing the design and implementation of different elements of the child-centered approach and the resulting learning outcomes in Tejasvita classrooms. Do check back for further updates on this topic.

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