Nearly shouting and sure that his answer was right, the small boy from the UKG stood in front of my colleague and friends. Unfortunately she had to tell him that the word he wrote and spelled was “Deer” and not “Elephant”. It was one of the first days in our school project where we spent the following 11 months and actually we were really amused about the mistake of this small kid. He was four years old and because of this the miscomprehension from reading still seemed ‘sweet’.
It was by that time that we began to notice some great differences between the Indian educational system and the one in our culture. The first one was the age in which children start in India to read and write. The children coming into the LKG are round about three years old – barely able to hold and control a pencil. And as they still struggle to draw straight lines and even circles, they are taught the alphabet. The alphabet of a foreign language i.e. English they never have spoken before.
In order to give them a connection to that language the students are taught some simple English words. It was one of our favourite games to run through the classroom and point on different things: “What it is this?” and “Which colour is it?”
The Nursery and Primary school was called “English Medium School” because all the subjects except Tamil (the native language) where held in English. Maths, Science, General Knowledge and all the others had books with complicated English explanations for the “space and its galaxies”, “Division” and “Paper production” and lots more.
Some children who learn easily and get along with how they learn startled us with their ability to speak nearly correct English with the age of 10 years. In that age I only started to learn how to introduce myself and some fruits. Knowledge which was taught already in the first standard in Tamil Nadu. The big problem is that only a few children cope with that system. And sometimes it’s easy to understand why.
‘English Medium’ means that the teacher in many cases reads out the text written in the book and translates it into the native language. This leads to the fact that many children don’t even listen to the English part because they hardly understand it and know that they get the Tamil translation in a few minutes. Once the text is explained, the questions and answers from the book get answered with sentences directly from the book and all the students have to copy them. Now the homework could be to copy those questions and answers two times again. I was confused the first time I heard that. That doesn’t make sense.
Why should I copy a text? The answer was easy: They don’t understand the answer, maybe not even the question. They have a sequence of letters and words in front of them where they don’t have an idea of their meanings. But at the end of each term there is a moment they have to reproduce the hieroglyphics in front of them- the examinations. Those are held to test the children’s knowledge of the subject matter. So, the only solution to get points it these tests is to learn the answers by heart. They don’t learn the number ‘365’ when the question is “How many days are there in a year” but the whole sentence: “There are 365 days in a year.” The consequence is that the children develop an amazing ability to repeat whole sentences and even paragraphs but do not have an inkling of the material they are talking about.
Coming from a completely different background we tried different things with the children. Our focus was to let them write their own answers or that they at least understand what we worked out it the lessons. I didn’t want to teach them that the word “same” can also be “identical” or “comparable” if they don’t know what the latter ones mean. I taught them that the benches they sit on are all the same.
“But – oh no, one is different. Do you see why? It doesn’t have wooden legs but metal. It is not same.” Even though we were sometimes becoming desperate because the children still didn’t understand us, we kept on trying. The best time was when there were no books to follow, no regular lessons and we could do what we wanted. We asked them to write down their hobbies and their favourite food. We let them do a “profile” of themselves with name, date of birth etc. It was a task the children could easily connect to and I was so happy that we had that time with them.
I still remember my question to Apkesh from the second standard:
“What is your aim in life?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your ‘future job’ – what do you want to become? A doctor, a teacher, a driver…?”
“I don’t know” and he was already skipping the question.
“Okay, then write that down. Write that you don’t know.”
And I still have this answer. A wonderful answer he wrote himself which I didn’t correct because I wasn’t his teacher anymore. But if I had been I would have encouraged him to always keep on trying.
The answer he wrote was: “I don no”
And who knows, maybe someday all the children get the chance to learn by making faults. It’s only going to take some time. It also did in Germany. This kind of method is not unknown to our grandparents or even parents.
Just someone has to start. And better is if this someone gets some support.
Former FSL-India Volunteer from Germany