Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 13, Part 1
"It's a school", Damini exclaimed, happily surprised. "Actually, Damini", Sophie clarified, "it is a Learning Community." "Same difference", Damini shrugged, reverting to her schoolgirl lingo for a moment. "You will see", Sophie said with a smile. In a courtyard, a number of eight to ten year olds were playing with different kinds of toys, hoops and balls.
They walked past the courtyard and entered a corridor. Turning left, they walked into a room. A number of teenagers - between fifteen and nineteen - sat in a circle along with a number of older people of all ages. They were in a discussion and as Sophie and Damini entered, many of them looked up. A few smiled at Sophie. Sophie did not join the circle but sat on a cushion outside the circle. Damini sat next to her. The group was discussing the water situation in the region and planning on building earth works such as bunds and small earthen dams. On the wall, there was a contour map of the area with clear markings of catchment areas where water would collect. A sixteen year old boy was presenting the catchment area in that region and how he had identified regions where water would collect and the position of possible earthen work. The group listened attentively with a few questions being asked when someone in the audience did not understand something. Once, an older woman in the audience questioned an assumption that the boy made. Another man presented a counterpoint and a short discussion followed.
Subsequently, a fifteen-year-old girl made a presentation on a blackboard, showing the group how they could calculate the volume and speed of water flowing down various gullies and the size and type of earthwork to be built at various positions. She was explaining some of the civil engineering principles she had used. Again some discussion followed.
Another girl came up and showed how much this water shed plan would raise the water table over three years and how different kinds of water usage would affect the water table in the region.
After these presentations, a woman said that they should probably take a break at this point, have some refreshments and think about the data presented. The group would reconvene in fifteen minutes and discuss the items left on the agenda. Some people stood up and stretched themselves. A few strolled out of the room. A man walked to a large container in a corner and began to serve some brown-red liquid into glasses. It smelt like a tea. Others had formed small groups and were talking. Two boys and the girl who made the calculations had gathered next to the blackboard and were drawing diagrams, calculating numbers and having a heated discussion. A man walked up to where Sophie and Damini were sitting and pulling up a cushion sat next to them.
"Hello, Jean", Sophie said. "Hello Sophie", the man replied. "I see we have a guest", he continued. Sophie made the introductions, then added "I see today's session is turning out well." "Yes", Jean replied. "The children have put in a lot of hard work to understand the basics of fluid dynamics, hydrology, and other civil engineering principles to explain to us what solutions might be possible."
Sophie had noticed that Damini was rather confused with all that was going on. She turned to her and smiled, "this is not a regular school as you know it. This is indeed a Learning Community. The older folks learn as much as the children."
"We have had an increasingly worsening water problem, Damini", Jean said. "With cutting down of trees and erosion along the hills, the ability of the rains to regenerate water has been reduced. So, our community decided that we must explore possible solutions and then find one that could work for us. The children here, depending on their interests, took up various aspects of the problems and decided to find solutions to them. This is a great learning opportunity to them. In fact, as they learn, they solve problems that are relevant to this community that they live in. And in the process, as you saw, Thierry, Anne and Michel have learnt about various aspects of engineering, physics and math that they are interested in. Some of the older folks, depending on our knowledge and experience act as guides and mentors to these children in helping them understand the information and apply the knowledge to solve the problem."
"It is in such a fashion that children and adults learn in this community. They even do research. Like Marie who is sitting there has been doing research on the ecological diversity of this region and how it has changed over the last three generations", Sophie said, pointing to a girl sitting on a wheel chair.
"This Learning Community is important in strengthening the community and empowering it", Jean continued. "We learn with the children and hence we know about new things. No one can come and speak gibberish to us in some scientific jargon and tell us that we do not understand stuff so they will do what they think is good for us. When a planning officer comes with a plan that does not makes sense to us, we can explain to him or her why it will not work. Besides, learning does not make these children think of themselves as above the rest of the community. They see how their learning is most useful here in the community. Of course, we also collaborate with some communities around here in working on larger projects. For example, seven communities worked on the bridge that was built across the gorge which is about three kilometers from here."
Someone brought some refreshments in earthen cups to the trio - tea for Jean and Sophie and some fruit juice for Damini. Damini thanked the man for the juice. She got up and walked towards Marie who was now talking to another boy. As she approached them, Marie looked up and smiled at Damini.
"Hello, I am Damini", she said, introducing herself to the two teenagers. "Hello, Damini", Marie replied. "I am Marie, and this is Leo. Are you from one of the neighboring communities? We have never seen you before?" "No", Damini replied. "I am visiting from rather far away." "Are you visiting Sophie?", Leo asked. "Yes", Damini replied. Changing the subject of discussion, she asked, "This seems to be a very different way of learning that I am used to. Could you tell me more about it?" The two children looked at her rather disbelievingly. "What other way of learning might there be?", the probably wondered. Leo queried back, "You mean there is another way that you learn?" "Yes", Damini replied. "We have large lecture classes where a teacher comes and lectures all the children on some topic - for example, history, or science or math. Based on what we learn, we do some example problems in our notebooks, maybe discuss some of our methods and solutions and go home with homework, which consists of more practice problems. In some courses, we might have a project to apply what we learn through the course."
The two children looked at her wide-eyed. "Wow! That must be boring. How do you manage to learn anything?", Leo exclaimed. "My grandmother says that they used to teach children that way when her mother was young", Marie said. Then, noticing Damini turn red in embarrassment, she replied to Damini's original question. "We have some group learning sessions that we sign up for. One of the older people in the community, depending on when they are free, will offer to teach us some basic things. These include math, the sciences, some methods in calculations or experimental techniques or styles in dance or drama or some techniques in craft. But most of the time, we have projects that we work for. Many of them are for the community. But some are projects that we plan along with our mentors or guides to apply what we have learnt. The mentors and guides are older people in the community. Sometimes we have visitors in the community and if the visitor has some special skills, we set up some time to learn from him or her."