Octopus School – Jidnyasa

There are 12 learning centres in Pune. Jidnyasa (http://jidnyasa.org/) is one of them. It’s an experimental school located at the base of a hill on the road that starts from Kinara Hotel on Paud Road. There are 85 students in the school. Students appear for the NIOS / IGCSE pattern in class 10. Timings are from 8:15 to 3:00 p.m. It’s seven years old. Last year there were two students who took the SSC board exam. But Maharashtra board has changed its norms and so students from such schools can’t appear for SSC board exams anymore. This year 4 students are expected to pass out. The fee is Rs. 88,000 year. Just enough to make it self sustainable. The fee includes breakfast and lunch.

The school was founded by Sachin and Jyotsna Pethkar.  As a student at Abhinav Vidyalay, Sachin avoided teachers by sitting on a window middle bench. He believes that the front benchers and the backbenchers are both under intense scrutiny by teachers. He remembers 2 episodes related to his own health from school days. Swimming was something that he loved. Yet every time he would enter a pool, there would always be infection problems in his ear. ENT specialists dosed him with tons of medicines, but it didn’t help. The other medical episode involved dentists. His wisdom teeth were popping out, and he went to a dentist because of this pain. The dentist misdiagnosed and ended up doing 8 root canals. Sachin decided then that his selfish career priority in life was to take care of his own health. He started off by doing his diploma in pharmacy. On the advice of an architect family friend, he went on to graduate in Ayurveda. The biggest benefit of becoming a doctor was that he researched and experimented, and came up with something that finally gave him relief from his own health problems. This did a lot for his self belief.

After his marriage, he started a hospital along with his wife Jyotsna, also an ayurveda graduate. They had a mobile dispensary in a modified 407 truck. This van would go every week to villages in Mulshi and give free service to the villagers. 2007 was the second turning point of his life. And it is again related to childhood. But this time the childhood of his daughter, Gauri. She was 2 years old when they started the school hunt. Although Sachin had apprehensions about putting his daughter so early into school, the rest of the family thought that earlier was better. So Gauri started at the local Euro Kids. And that is where Sachin’s disenchantment with education came back to him.

The Pethkar family are landowners in the area. There is a huge apartment complex next door which has been built by them. The 2 acre plot where Jidnyasa currently stands was reserved as an amenity space. The family had got plans sanctioned to construct a five storey school building there. They were in discussions with a lot of school operators and consultants. The idea of running a school as a business did not appeal too much to Sachin. He took a couple of years off from his medical practice in order to move around India and the world to find out what is it that education should really be doing. He came back to found Jidnyasa. I find a lot of practices of Summer hill School being adopted by jidnyasa. Here is a link to Summerhill -(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERQKi9fBRnw.) Sachin thinks of Jidnyasa as a philosophy-less and value-less school. The idea is not to burden students with external biases. Teachers are facilitators, who come into play only when students need help. Students themselves have to be in a situation to think, to be curious. These values are symbolised in Jidnayas’s name and its logo of a question mark subscripted by an equal to sign. (I wonder what the equal to sign symbolises.)

The school architecture is inspired by an octopus. There is a central square room which is the core. And there are tentacles that spread out in seven directions. Each of these tentacles is a room. The central room has a ceiling height of about 30 feet. It’s used as a basketball court and an assembly area.

Octopus

There is a netting  below the tiles, in order to ensure that no loose tiles fall down. The structure has been made with heavy steel columns and beams, kind of over engineered.

Tentacle Room Roof 1 Tentacle Room Roof 2

What I liked was the small shop that they have at the entrance which retails craft work made by students. Making entrepreneurs early.

Student Craft Sale

 

The tentacle rooms are designated for certain purposes. There is one room devoted to all things Maharashtra. One for India. One for international stuff. Another for the universe. And finally one for what the school calls the super universe. Apart from this, other rooms are used as a kitchen, a workshop and a craft room. The school had designated one of the rooms as a laboratory, but they realised that the entire school is actually a laboratory. So the microscopes get moved around to wherever the interesting stuff is. So now the initial lab is used only as a store room, and sometimes for experiments which involve chemistry.

Workshop 2

Workshop 1

Workshop 3 Glimpses of the Workshop

In the triangular spaces between the rooms there are small garden areas. However, due to inadequate sunlight in the spaces, the School has now added a plot outside for farming. When the number of students was less, the school used to sell the surplus vegetables. Nowadays the entire production gets consumed in the school itself. Students get wet waste from home and there is a compost pit that has been created. The compost is used in gardening and farming.

Compost Pit

The Composting Area

Garden Spaces

One of the farms

The focus in the initial years of education is on speaking and listening. Reading and writing start around the age of 7 or 8. That to the bare minimum. Say something like 10 sentences a day. As kids grew in number and age, the conventional examination preparation started building up. And now there is a separate rectangular structure called the exam room. It does not have the beauty of the main structure, which looks magnificent with its Mangalore tiles. 

Exam Room

The Exam Room

Students are given a lot of freedom at Jidnyasa. The concept of freedom that most parents think of is a kind of paradox, as it is most often accompanied by constraints. Sachin questions whether this can really be called freedom. The same dilemma is also reflected in the school. Although students are free to do what they want to do, but getting exposure in a diversity of areas  is a constraint that Sachin sets on students. His idea is: Please watch the trailer, and then decide whether you want to watch the film. The Marathi word for freedom is Swatantra. We could look at it as Swataha che tantra. Roughly translated, it implies the ability to make your own tools. So students spend a lot of time in tool development. Students study language because they want a tool to communicate what they think. They study the tool of science because they want to move from seeing to observing and understanding. Sachin believes that this tool development stretches his students. With the facilitators taking care that the stretch does not transit to stress.

Sachin talked about the student centred philosophy of the school. Nowadays society has started looking at schools as employment guarantee schemes. Reality is that they should be employability skill enhancers. The school ensures that students are challenged everyday. Kids have different speeds of learning. And the school nurtures them by giving them experiences. Sachin gave a very interesting nomenclature that is used in schools,  teaching aids. He asks whether these teaching aids are also able to be used as learning aids? Most schools are designed around the teacher. For the convenience of the teacher. As a result, students suffer. At Jidnyasa, the teacher is at the periphery, and the student at the centre. The student is the doer, and the teacher the observer. Teachers give help, only when asked for. As part of the observation, the task is to find out what students are good in. And how is it that their weaknesses can be overcome enough to get them to hygiene levels of skills in that area.

The sole directive to facilitators at Jidnyasa is to avoid judgments. When our beliefs become  strong, we develop rigidity in our thinking. How flexible should our beliefs be? Am still thinking about it. Facilitators are advised to not look at student behaviour through the prism of ideologies and values. An interesting example that Sachin quoted was of a student who has a deep interest in guns and fighter planes. Our friend unfortunately, does not seem to be the army types. The child’s mother, a psychologist, is very concerned about the future of her son. Would he go on to become a goonda? Sachin thinks he might. And unlike other schools, Jidnyasa is quite ok with it. Every school needs as much diversity in their output, as there is in the input. However, Sachin hopes that this kid will end up doing his goondagardi in the corporate world, and make the world a better place as a result.

Class Lockers

Shelves in every classroom. Each room has a toilet block, which is behind the shelves.

Prajatkta tai, the teacher who had showed us around, had her daughter studying in the school. 5 of the 10 teachers have their wards in the school. This makes a difference to the quality of education. There are 2 mavshis who help in the kitchen. One works as a general help to teachers. And one Kaka who helps in maintenance. There is also a visiting gardener. Apart from the regular teachers, there are also volunteers or facilitators who come down to teach. One of them is an architect couple who have designed this school. Shivaji Kachre, who was present on the campus, is a filmmaker. Then there is a Kathak music exponent. 

Table Tennis

Table Tennis Room

Students are involved in most facets of school operation. Once a month the entire school is cleaned up by students. Each group takes care of one of the rooms. There is a toilet block attached to each of the tentacle rooms. On that day students clean up the toilets too. Two students are on volunteer duty at the kitchen everyday. There is a condition of homework attached to a field trip. For example some of the students were taken to Nashik. Only those who had studied minerals were taken to the Gargoti museum. Conflicts are resolved using a student parliament. It’s an elected parliament which meets every Friday. Whenever there are disputes, there needs to be a written complaint, this leads to improved writing skills. Also any dispute requires a witness. Kids are allowed to choose their lawyer.

Room under the Tree

Open Air Classroom

One of the challenges in running Jidnyasa is to manage parents. Teachers mobiles are kept in office. It’s a lovely Idea, to allow teachers to concentrate on people who are meters away, instead of getting worried about people who are kilometers away. Teachers also spend a lot of time inspecting students. However, I think the communication with parents about their observations could be better, because I got a feeling that very few parents really know what their kids are doing in school. With independence comes responsibility. And parents want to know whether this responsibility is developing in their kids. The parent of any new admission spends the first two months getting worried about the dahvi and the dahva. Or as we would say in Hindi, the dasvi and the dasva. Or in English, how is my kid going to perform in the board exams and life. (Dahva is a ceremony that is held 10 days after a person dies.) What they need to understand is the role that materialism and money play in society. Most of us look at money as ends, for which Sachin uses the word sadhya. Where is it not really the means, or sadhan? The root word for sadhan, comes from dhan, which is money.

One small very area that was disconcerting was the inculcation of a competitive spirit instead of a cooperative one. Every year there is a best student of the school that is chosen. Students go through an elaborate process. There is an outside jury involved. Does not seem to be in the spirit of Jidnyasa. Talking of values, Sachin Pethkar is a very patient listener. Most schools, when they have visitors are quite keen to tell them about what all is happening in the school. Visitors have a lot to learn from schools like Jidnyasa, but the vice-versa may also be true. Sachin called us up next week and we did a p4C session for the Jidnyasa kids.

We did the P4C Fox and Goat story with about 20 children. Was quite happy with the interactions that we had with the student. Their behavior made it look like they were already halfway through the P4C course. After the narration happened, Nabha asked students what were the thoughts that had come to their mind after listening to the story? Key phrases: Need to plan for the future. Don’t be selfish. Don’t trust everybody. The central theme for discussion was trust. Do we have stereotypes in our lives about animals? Why are foxes always cunning, and goats gullible? possibly, that is their nature. A fox needs to be cunning because he needs to find his food. And you can be wise, only in the presence of fools.

So who should we trust? Most students agreed that we can trust our parents. We asked them why? Possibly, because they love us. Possibly, because there is a bond. Possibly, because our parents’ thoughts match with our own. Possibly it’s instinct, something that has come through our genes. Words that students associated with trust are: Believe, Not harm, Love, Depend. There was an interesting discussion on love. One student said that if we trust a bank, does it mean that we love our bankers? A minute later, another student pointed out the fallacy. Love leads to trust, but the vice versa is not implied.

Another question that we put across to the students: in what situations would you trust a stranger? The answers: Spent time to know that person better. Try to trace common contacts through a discussion of the stranger’s history. Yet first impressions do matter. We take instantaneous decisions about distrust for sure. The thought for the week was who did we not trust this week? Why?

At the end, we had an interesting discussion about institution building. Sachin does not worry too much about the future. Actions happen only in the present. He believes that if ideas are good, they will survive. Why worry about propagation?