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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 13, Part 2

"Besides", Leo added, "we have times set up amongst us children when we have discussions on various current issues or on the classics. We plan these sessions ourselves based on what we would like to do and where we think we need to strengthen techniques or skills. We also plan hikes to the mountains or some fieldtrips to the forests when Marie needs to collect samples from a certain part of the woods. The older people also have their own sessions where they might discuss political affairs or have some technological updates or argue on some issues of Hindu philosophy and we are allowed to join in if we like. Besides, we older children are also required to mentor and guide the younger ones."

They saw Jean and Sophie approach the group. "Hey Leo, Marie", Jean said with a smile on his face, "Hope you are being nice to our visitor here." "Of course, Dad", Leo replied.

Damini turned to Jean and asked, "How do you ensure that everyone learns and does what they have to. In our schools, the teachers have a really hard time forcing children to do their homework and learn what they have to learn. They use all kinds of carrot-and-stick techniques like memos to parents, exams, various forms of punishments and rewards."

Jean laughed while the two children looked completely bewildered by what Damini had to say. "Why would anyone have to force anyone to learn anything?", they wondered. "Damini", Jean said, "do you like to play?" "Yes", Damini replied, not sure what her liking to play had anything to do with this. "What do you like to play?", Jean continued. "Oh! I like to swim, and play polo in the pool. I also like to play tennis and badminton. I enjoy chess and checkers as well. I also like to play some video games." "Good", Jean aid. "And what happens when you are playing and your parents calls you to come to eat." "They literally have to pull me away from what I am doing", Damini replied smiling. "That is exactly what happens when you do something you are enjoying rather than when someone forces you to do stuff", Jean said. "In these Learning Communities, the children do what they love. Children love to learn. Actually everyone loves to learn new things. However, either by forcing children or by punishing them, one reduces their enthusiasm. When you want to learn something - for example, the strategies in your new video game - you literally have to be pulled away from it at times. I am told, yesterday Thierry and his father had a big argument because Thierry would not come to dinner on time since he was working on his calculations."

Damini thought for a while. What Jean said made sense. And she could see the passion of these kids in what they did. But what if one of them did not like to do Math but only liked Chemistry. She asked Jean, "But in such a system, children will not learn what they do not like?"

"That is a good point", Jean replied. "However, you must realize that to solve real problems one usually need all kinds of information. For example, Anne loves physics and hence she loved the flow problems. But she is not a big one for math. However, she realized that to solve the problem that she presented today, she would have to learn calculus as well. Having taken on responsibility for the project, she had to learn calculus and solve the problem. Similarly, Marie is another one to shy away from math but she needs it to better understand the rates of growth of plants. So she makes an effort to learn it. Similarly, Thierry would love it he would have nothing to do with the social science but could instead only look at the environment. However, in trying to solve problems of the environment, you have to understand how people interact with the environment as well as how they interact among themselves to use the environment. So the children do have some favorites but they do end up learning about a broad range of things to solve real problems."

"OK people", someone announced. "Let us get back to our meeting, please. We have quite a few things to discuss." Everyone moved back to his or her place. Sophie and Damini moved back to their cushions outside the circle. Leo went to the board and said that he would be presenting an economic cost-benefit analysis of a few proposals that the group had decided to explore in an earlier meeting. He spoke about talked about the assumptions he had made in the analysis and the problems with the assumptions and then presented the numbers and his analysis. A number of questions came up. Another girl - Sophie said her name was Coleen - asked whether an economic analysis by itself could be the basis of making these decisions because it did not account for a number of aspects of the community that could not be quantified by such an analysis. Another man said he agreed with Coleen, that one of the most favorable plans as per the cost-benefit analysis positioned a bund right on their ancestral burial ground. Leo answered that Coleen was right, that the economic analysis should be used as only one of the factors among many others to make such a decision.

At this point another woman stood up and said that they had looked at various aspects of the problem. They had done a technological feasibility study of the possible solutions as well as an economic analysis. Now they must look at other socio-cultural aspects and then at the next meeting, once people had an opportunity to think about all this information, they would come back and decide on which one of these plans they should take up and what the policy guidelines of implementing such a plan must be. Another girl stood up to present the socio-cultural analysis of the plans and a survey showing the results of discussions she had conducted with various people in the community.

At this point, Sophie tugged at Damini's shirt and whispered that they should leave. Quietly, they slipped out of the room. A few people nodded or smiled at them as they left. Damini was thinking about Aris Turtle's question to her regarding where children - the citizens of the future - might learn about democracy. Turning to Sophie she asked, "Will all these children that we saw be part of the discussion regarding which options will be chosen and implemented?" "Yes", Sophie replied. "After all, it is important that these teenagers who will the lead this community in the future understand the mechanics of a democratic decision making process. They must understand how it is possible in a democracy to shut up some voices and the problems that arise in the future when such things happen. After all, you cannot just throw young people who have been brought up in authoritarian institutions into a democratic process. They will have no notion of the give and take, of the negotiations and compromises that are central to a democratic process. If young people have not learnt how to make decisions in a democratic set up, they will either take up authoritarian roles in a democracy or they will forfeit their responsibilities of taking informed decisions. Both of these will weaken a democracy. Thus, it is only natural that if citizens are expected to live in a democratic setup that they must be exposed to such a setup right from their young days.'

"Now I understand", Damini said after a short pause. "One of the teenagers in that discussion said that they plan their entire schedule - when they want to go hiking, what they want to learn in their science discussion group, etc."

"Yes", Sophie replied. "This Learning Community is run completely democratically. The teenagers and the older folks decide how much resources they can use on this center based on total resource constraints and then decide what they want to do with those resources. Everyone older that thirteen joins in these discussions. The younger children watch these discussions if they want to."

They were walking along the corridor. They passed a room that seemed to be the venue of a rather excited discussion. Sophie stopped, looked at Damini and then taking her hand, she turned around and slipped into that room. There were a number of eight to ten year olds gathered in two groups around two large tables. In the middle of the room, an older man stood with a large bucket with mugs of various sizes. He looked up and nodded at Sophie as the two entered. A couple of older children sat at a desk at the back of the room. Sophie and Damini walked to the back of the room and sat down at another desk.

The facilitator of the group was beginning a new game and the group was all excited. "We have a vessel of water", he told the group. "It is a limited amount of water", he continued. "Now, you can ask for various amounts of water to use for whatever you want. Meanwhile, will someone keep an account of how much water you are using for what purpose?" "We want a gallon of water for having our bath", one child shouted. "And we want a gallon for cooking and drinking", another child shouted. "We want two gallons to clean our utensils and our houses", another voice piped in. "What about our fields? We need at least six gallons for our fields", another said. And as each voice asked for water, the facilitator took out mugs of different sizes from the vessel and handed it to the children. They asked water for their pets, for a swimming pool, to play in, and so on it went till the water ran out. "But we need water for our industries", one excited voice exclaimed. "Yes, and we need water to wash our vans", another said. "But we are out of water", another said.

"So we clearly need to re-evaluate our water needs, do we not?", the facilitator asked. "Why don't all of you break up into two groups? Gerald and Henri", he said, pointing to the two older boys at the back, "will help us account for how much water each of us uses in our homes. And then we will find out ways in which we can reduce our usage of water. Please list down how much water you use for brushing your teeth, for having a bath and so on. Also, please list down whether water used in this way needs to be purified by simple filtering or whether complex chemical treatment is required. And finally, list down next to each use how you can reduce your water usage by 10% or more."

The two boys at the back went to the two tables and the children began to work, discussing how they use their water.

"This is another example of learning democracy", Sophie told Damini. "After they have evaluated their water usage, they will look at how much water the community has and how its use can be reduced. They will look at how one kind of users can reduce their consumption so that another set whose needs are more pressing get some water. They will talk about different choices that people have and how to compromise so that everyone has some amount of water to use. The group will also study various ways of purification of water. They will examine what water has meant to different people culturally and how it has been a reason for conflict. Thus, by the end of this project they would have learnt about the physics, the chemistry and the socio-cultural and political aspects of water. Besides, they learn how to live in a democracy by living in one. They learn how they can make decisions in a democracy by making those decisions and observing what works and what does not. They learn that democratic processes can be subverted by the powerful and weaker voices can be made to cow down but the price that the future pays for it is humungous. And all of this is achieved by playing games. Is it not fun? Do you think someone would have to force you to learn in such an environment?"

"I know this is a stupid question", Damini said sheepishly, "but can all of this not be leant in a lecture setting?"

"There is no stupid question, Damini", as you must have learnt by now. "In a lecture setting, you cannot do. You are only told. You do not participate. You only consume. Since you do not participate, you are not aware of all the loopholes. That is one big drawback to learning. Consider you were learning to play a game - say basketball. You could be told all the moves but if you do not actually try them out, you will not know which moves you can do, which ones you cannot and how you can defend against various moves. In doing, you begin to learn that which you most need. There is no useless learning. There is no instance when you wonder why you should bother learning about that kind of information. You are always alert, curious, excited. Besides, you have experienced both kinds of learning. And you know which one is more invigorating."

Damini quietly shook her head. She was taking all these amazing things in. This was indeed a different kind of learning. No wonder, Sophie had said that this was not a school but a Learning Community.

 

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By Sanat Mohanty
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