Our curriculum through the years is a dynamic response to what we perceive as movements in children and in the world at large.
Education in society today largely ignores psychological issues such as insecurity, apathy, and self-absorption—forces that we feel are at the root of political, environmental and social crises all around us. Understanding these is central to bringing up children, to their emotional well-being, and by extension to the healing of society as a whole.
Learning, therefore, has to be about human nature and relationship as well as the traditional subject areas. Academic learning and certification alone will not suffice. If we want every child to learn, regardless of background and ability, we have to create the right space for learning. This demands a relationship between teachers and students based on affection, not fear. In such a space there can be close listening and attention. We do not promote hostility among students by comparing them, nor do we measure a child’s worth using arbitrary criteria. By being in touch with the emotional life of the child, the teacher promotes security and well-being, and creates the conditions for lifelong learning.
Dialogue as a process is an integral part of our curriculum at all ages, and it is described in detail in a separate section below.
Our junior, middle and senior school curricula is briefly outlined here.
The 8 to 12 year-olds are exposed to a wealth of experiences, a great many of them being linked with the natural world. They also learn the fundamentals of language (Hindi, Kannada and English) as well as of mathematics. Possible areas of engagement in these years are cooking, cleaning, drama, music, dance, pottery, art, craft, land work, nature walks and observation, astronomy, annual excursions, caring for things and for each other. Through all these activities, we learn the need for keen observation and total involvement.
When they are a little older, students continue to have similar activities, but they now begin to explore subjects at greater depth. They engage with projects that open them up to worlds beyond their own familiar lives. These projects are broadly around themes in the social studies and science. Children are trained in academic and critical thinking skills, alongside the nurturing of their artistic inclinations and physical abilities. All along, we are concerned with a sense of responsibility for the place and the people, expressed in small acts of taking care of common property and looking out for each other.
When the students are around 13 years old, they are introduced to separate subject areas such as history or physics. Their writing and articulation skills are sharpened. The teachers keep two factors in mind: that each child reaches his or her levels of excellence, and that a basic grounding in all subjects is given to each child regardless of talent or aptitude.
Our senior school programme both challenges and nurtures the 15-18 year olds. It is spread over three years to enable us to actualise our intent. It is a rigorous programme and we want students to come to it with an understanding of its demands. We look to these emerging adults to support the teachers in the running of the school, in terms of owning the ethos of CFL and mentoring their juniors in various ways. They are encouraged to be partners in their own learning—rather than passive consumers—and can participate in creating their own programme. Students also prepare for school-leaving certification in these years.
All senior school students participate in a General Studies course, which is concerned with social and environmental awareness. In the environmental component we want students to have an understanding of the unique challenges facing our planet today along with an intimate relationship with their local habitat. In the social awareness module we want our students to have empathy and an appreciation of how people outside their milieu live. A key ingredient for both modules is interaction with people who have committed their lives to either social or environmental issues.
Our learning programs and some details of their curricula:
- Dialogue through the ages
(Below is a piece on dialogue written for an issue of our annual newsletter; this gives a feel of how we approach dialogue as a community).
What do you think dialogue is all about?
“We think of all the bad things we have done and we share it!” comes a quick reply from a junior school child. “It is about confessing,” offers another generously, much to the amusement of the adults who may have a fleeting comical vision of themselves sitting at the receiving end in a confessional box! These children are not entirely incorrect; sometimes the discussions are about actual “wrongdoings.” However, we don’t stop at the discussion of the incident and those involved. Be it pre-teens, teenagers or young adults, the incidents may vary, but the themes that emerge are remarkably the same. Of course, these themes are relevant for us adults as well.
The question Why do we talk behind other peoples’ backs?, raised by a middle schooler, is as relevant for a nine year old as it is for a nineteen, thirty-nine or a ninety year old. For the nine-year old, it may be grounded in a particular incident, with particular people. Finger pointing could be the starting point of the discussion. “He did!”, “She did!” and so on. Often, in the course of discussion, this moves to a reflection, at least for that moment, to “I did too” or “I also do.” For some children, that moment doesn’t last very long, but for others, even at this age, it becomes a part of their way of processing the world. For instance, in a discussion about a peer who often got easily upset, an eight-year old asked: How can you say you have made up your mind not to get upset when it is the same mind that is making you upset? This offers more food for thought.
As we move on to 12-13 year-olds, we notice that the students are able to start turning the questions around to themselves on their own in remarkable ways. There is the possibility to move away from a particular incident to a more general inquiry with questions such as: How does it make me feel when I gossip and why? Why do I feel anger/jealousy/insecurity/a sense of division and what does it do to me? Why am I restless or bored? Why do certain things make me feel happy and what does this do to me? and so on. Students sometimes share candidly from their own lives, both personal and at school. At times, when questions like Why do we have to keep asking why? or Do we have to talk about fear again? arise, the half-joking response from the adult may be, “Well, if you have solved the issue of fear and aren’t scared of anything anymore, we needn’t talk about it!” The children roll their eyes in mock irritation and we move on – either to continue talking about fear, or to their (momentary) relief, bring in a new theme of anyone’s choice.
The senior school students may engage in a discussion on the role of their consciousness in the crises of the world, how their relationships operate from images (positive or negative) they have of each other, whether they can be skeptical of the absolute “truth” of their feelings or emotions, about the nature and existence of the self, and so on. Again, a frank sharing by both adults and students, an ability to look inward and an interest to carry the discussion forward, are essential. Some students may argue, You have been doing this for twenty years and haven’t come to any answers. Most others who are not interested in all this seem to be living just fine. So why must we ask all this of ourselves?! It is not always easy to respond to this. Firstly, the assumption that the ‘others’ they refer to are ‘fine’ is not apparent at all. Further, asking such questions of oneself and each other does not guarantee arriving at a state of happiness. We ask these questions because they seem important, shake us out of our comfort zone and hopefully will inform our approach to life. Submitting to a guru or religion doesn’t seem to work. We are left with the same questions, or perhaps more questions arise: what is the role of religion in creating feelings of division in society?
After much discussion, sharing and some moments of insight, we often catch the children and ourselves indulging in behaviours and patterns which we may have just put under the scanner! And back to the drawing board we go – to err is human after all! But there seems to be some learning in the process: the eight year old boy who at the beginning of the year had thought dialogue was all about sharing the “bad things” we do, now says, “It is about what is on our mind.” Well, one hopes this is not limited to the “bad things” we do!
- The Sciences
Any subject that is studied as science must have certain underlying characteristics with regard to its content and purpose.
- Science involves the observation of the external world through the senses and with instruments that extend the scope of the senses.
- It asks specific questions – qualitative and quantitative – regarding any phenomena observed.
- It attempts to explain these phenomena and establish causal relationships through experimentation.
- It uses the laws so established in developing technology.
It is clear to us that this process necessarily produces only a partial picture of the world, both because of experimental limitations and because social and emotional factors are deliberately ignored in science. We also feel that it is important to convey to the students that science deals with building a model of the universe, to be modified and reworked if it does not fit. Whereas reality is, models are always provisional.
The following list of experiences, skills and abilities can be divided into two parts; a core list that would be expected of all students by the end of eight to nine years of study, and a list of higher order skills that could be recommended for and expected from students who are more inclined to pursue science at a higher level.
Core experiences and skills
- Learning to observe or learning the art of observation. This is probably the most basic skill required and it cuts across all disciplines, whether it is the sciences or the humanities. It is possibly the most difficult one to teach. In operational terms, it would mean paying attention, without quick expectation of results, to any kind of phenomena.
- Familiarity with ordinary materials, chemicals, and organisms.
- Some engagement with ordinary materials, chemicals, and organisms.
- Some engagement with everyday technology, for example, zippers, bulbs, electronics.
- Developing skills in drawing, tinkering, carpentry and model-making.
- Developing skills in handling instruments, equipment, and chemicals.
- Learning safety procedures.
- Appropriate writing skills. This requires practice and definitive work on the part of the teacher to correct mistakes without sacrificing individual modes of expression.
- Collecting and tabulating data by drawing graphs or constructing tables.
- Appropriate analysis of the data collected. This is often dependent on mathematical ability. Sometimes it requires ingenuity and mathematical sophistication and may involve a conceptual jump.
- Capacity for questioning, that is, not taking things for granted. This too is a difficult skill to inculcate, as it requires considerable mental alertness and patience. It cannot be taught and can only be exemplified and nurtured.
- Reasonable knowledge of basic science terminology and history.
- Looking at science with a sense of perspective.
Higher order skills
For the more scientifically inclined student, these are key skills:
- Deduction, induction based on analysis.
- Ability to connect various aspects of science.
- Self-study and ability to carry out independent investigations.
- The Social sciences
Children have a strong urge to work with their hands. At CFL, it is our intention to nurture this quality of the child. Through the years, the students are exposed to different materials and are encouraged to work with them. One of the conditions of achieving the full potential of every child is through a sustained programme of opportunities with materials and equipment. They create and design tangible objects using materials such as fabric, thread, clay, paper, bamboo, coconut shell and beads. This has helped them to learn the nature, beauty and limitations of each of these.
The most difficult task of our curricula is to keep this perception open and to help to develop both sensitivity and selectivity. Children tend to replicate what they consider as a “perfect craft piece”, without experiencing the process involved in making something. The craft curriculum in CFL emphasises the importance of the process involved rather than arriving at the end result.
Every class begins with a meeting to discuss and organise the time and tasks involved. The approach to an idea, or a design and the visualisation of detail is given importance before getting into skills and techniques. Extension projects are given when the students are around twelve years old. Students are made aware of the care and maintenance of the tools and of the necessity of, say, cleaning the work area after work is completed. The craft lab is open throughout the day to encourage easy access for the adults and students to work on their projects.
As the children begin to make craft items, which have an ornamental or utilitarian value, they learn to also bring in aesthetics and quality in their work. The process of understanding any material is an interesting aspect in itself. One learns this by being patient and willing to try and make mistakes. The teacher suggests, stimulates and motivates the child to seek new solutions. Teamwork in creating an art piece is an important aspect apart from individual engagement, and brings in qualities such as co-operating, brainstorming together, helping one another and assessing each others’ quality of work.
- Art and Design
Art work allows the child to play with line, form and colour. It provides immediate gratification and is immediately meaningful to a child. It nurtures the exploratory and creative experience through handling material. It is important that the adult is more of an observer and intervenes only when absolutely necessary.
We begin with the child learning to observe lines, forms, shapes and colour in the environment. Looking and drawing is a very important part of the curriculum. The final artwork is unique and beautiful in its own way when there is this close observation.
Group feedback occurs more or less once a week. At the end of a session, all the artwork is put out on the floor and the whole group walks around commenting on their own as well as others’ work. It is a serious activity and a whole lot of listening happens at this time. Most children are careful about what they say but are truthful.
The 8 to 10 year-olds, left to themselves, are usually happy to draw for long periods of time without being aware of time and what is going on around them. Free drawing is something that is encouraged. Flat, bold and direct representations are common, slowly moving on to more sophisticated details. The 11 to 14 year-olds learn the art room “etiquette”; the maintenance of the art room and art materials needs constant discussions. At this age, they begin to expect more of themselves as artists. Quick work is done and if they are dissatisfied, there is a loss of interest in their work. They are ready to improve their technical skills and have more control over the media. There is a readiness to rework problem areas and a greater awareness of detail, as they grow older. There is exposure to other artists’ works in the form of readings from the library and looking at works of artists who happen to visit the school.
Coming to the senior school allows students to choose an activity they will work on for the term. Now there is a seriousness to work at something in a sustained manner. Here, students are able to work for longer times on their own and are ready to look at their work more critically. More serious reading is suggested regarding art and emphasis is given to preparatory work.
- Kannada and Hindi
English is often the common spoken and ‘thinking’ language in a cosmopolitan community in middle class India. If anyone comes to our campus, the conversations heard will largely be in English. With this backdrop, our Kannada and Hindi curriculum attempts to bring these languages alive in a meaningful way.
The goal of our Kannada and Hindi programmes is to enable students to understand and converse in both the languages and have some knowledge of reading and writing. The emphasis is primarily on listening and speaking, followed by reading and finally writing.
In the age group 6-9 years, the classes are mainly conversational. We read stories, teach poems and songs and children may perform these in the school assembly. Students and teachers play many language games such as dumb charades, Chinese whispers, word building and story building. Necklaces are made with flowers or seeds, pictures using leaves or wool; students learn colour names using flowers, or go to the pottery shed to work with clay. Each activity lends itself to learning a wide range of vocabulary.
Reading and writing in Kannada and Hindi is introduced through picture-word books. The students borrow regularly from the library, and these could be books read to the children by parents, or books they can read on their own. In the latter years, students are encouraged to choose novel/chapter books or nonfiction.
For students aged 11-13, stories, poems, language games and hands-on activities continue. To provide a challenge, projects are introduced. Some themes stem from discussions with the group, and some from individual interest. Themes have included: poets, rivers, clothes, food, festivals and historical places. These projects can involve field trips, interviews, reference work, and translations. At times, these are compiled in a book form and become a part of the library. Projects are shared through presentations to the rest of the school. As they are mostly initiated by the children, there is a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Students may also translate and illustrate English story books into Kannada or Hindi. Textbooks are used as supplementary material.
We also use visual media in the classes. These are then used to have role play sessions, or to discuss a character, or to critique the film. We recommend movies or documentaries which the children can watch at home with their parents.
There seems to be broad consensus among educators that being competent in mathematics involves moving towards a mathematical disposition. This disposition has been broken down into five components.
- A well-organized and flexibly accessible domain-specific knowledge base involving the facts, symbols, algorithms, concepts, and rules that constitute the contents of mathematics as a subject-matter field.
- Heuristic methods, ie search strategies for problem solving, which do not guarantee, but rather significantly increase the probability of finding the correct solution: for instance, decomposing a problem into subgoals.
- Meta knowledge: this involves knowledge about one’s cognitive functioning on the one hand, and knowledge about one’s motivation and emotions on the other hand (eg becoming aware of one’s fear of failure when confronted with a complex mathematical task or problem).
- Positive mathematics-related beliefs, which include implicitly and explicitly held subjective conceptions about mathematics education, about the self as a learner of mathematics, and about the social context of the mathematics classroom. It also importantly includes not having the false belief that girls are weaker at math!
- Self-regulatory skills: These include the self-regulation of one’s cognitive processes (planning and monitoring one’s problem-solving processes) on the one hand, and skills for regulating one’s volitional processes/activities on the other hand (keeping up one’s attention and motivation to solve a given problem).
At CFL we address the first two components by using text and material that reflect the above concerns. There is a great emphasis from an early age on understanding rather than rote learning and a variety of methods and material are used to ensure students have a number sense and get a feel for the beauty and depth of mathematics. Perhaps a central feature of our curriculum are projects in mathematics, which are a excellent way of showing the beauty of mathematics explicitly and encouraging cooperative learning.
It is interesting to note that the last three components deal directly with the culture of learning mathematics and keeping in mind the psychological state of the learner. At CFL we consider these to be of great importance.
In our mathematics programme we build on the overall environment at CFL with its emphasis on learning without fear to foster reflective learners. Our main intention is to create a space where students enjoy learning mathematics no matter how talented they are, and not to churn out a few competent mathematicians, leaving behind several traumatised souls!
- Fitness, Sports and Games
The sports program is envisioned to
a) stretch and strengthen the major muscles of the body
b) build cardiovascular endurance and
c) expose and build skills in a number of sports.
Each week we dedicate several hours to fitness, sports, walks and running. Keeping in mind differences in growth rate and strength, we have found different ways in which we can push everyone to exercise and be fit.
Students play in groups with a range of ages. We often have to consider questions such as: is a sport like volleyball appropriate for someone whose bones have not strengthened? What does it mean for an 18 year old to play with a 13 year old on a sports field? There are definitely opportunities for all students to understand the notion of team spirit and to care for each other; for older and/or more skilled students to help younger students gain skills in particular areas of the sport. We have often relied on the support of older students to help shape this program and to guide younger students in both exercises and in specific sports.
We do cardiovascular exercises (running, building agility while running), dynamic (movement based) stretches before playing the sport of our choice (basketball, football, frisbee, table tennis, volleyball), and a mandatory cool down at the end. In many sports, more than consistent running, lunges, lateral moves, bursts are required. This kind of movement is facilitated by agility training.
Drills are done to improve eye-hand coordination and reflexes. The cool down is a series of static stretches (holding the body in a particular position for some length of time) and is extremely important as it allows for the body to return to its steady state (heart rate stabilizes, allows for the blood pressure to drop steadily, instead of suddenly, and allows for muscles to relax).
In summary, most of the time, the sports field is filled with excitement and enjoyment. There are times, however, when some are frustrated, low on energy, or generally resisting playing. We attempt to make time to reflect on the session immediately after it, looking at questions such as: were we attentive to our bodies, our movements? Did we include everyone regardless of skill level? Did we hold the spirit of play as more important than winning/losing? Have we kept to the ethos of games time, which is to explore whether there can be rigour without aggressive competition? Questions such as these are also an important part of the program.
We use a combination of the two traditional frameworks—phonetic and whole language—in our English curriculum and lessons. Broadly, this approach includes an equal emphasis on reading for meaning and on decoding. Daily activities include reading and discussing one’s own interpretations of texts; connections to one’s own experiences; awareness of theme, plot, characterization, author style; and development of critical thinking skills with respect to critical issues in the texts.
There is an exposure to a variety of writing forms such as poetry, news articles, graphic novels, folktales, legends, classics and science fiction, keeping in mind culturally diverse literature. At times there is reading to research one’s own questions and curiosities in history or science projects. The library is an integral source and part of our language program.
Writing across the ages includes stories, journal entries, information essays based on research, recipes, letters, posters, and argumentative pieces. We keep in mind the purposes of writing so that there are creative, informative and persuasive elements in the ‘voice’ or tone of pieces. Writing is also seen as a collaborative experience through class magazines, newsletters, writing of plays and so on.
Finally, writing is viewed as a process, developing from a brainstorm of ideas to a final draft through the following steps: first draft, revision, and editing.
While punctuation, grammar, capitalization, phonics, spelling, and handwriting are important components of a language program, our approach is to address them in the context of the broader lesson, theme, project or story. The ‘whole language’ approach moves away from teaching writing as broken into the parts above, or thinking that until children master reading techniques, they cannot be exposed to literature or books from a library. It deviates from the notion that children learn best when vocabulary and reading are restricted with predictable sentence structures and patterns.
Since we are a small community, children are immersed in purposeful elements of language: assembly presentations, read-alouds, book reports, news boards, posters, school magazines, small-group discussions and whole-school open forums. Against this background, we address the strands of speaking/recitation, listening, reading and writing.
We believe that competitive exams or comparative grading are harmful for the learning process. Learning that is driven by the fear of examinations kills curiosity and intrinsic motivation. Yet both students and teachers benefit from on-going assessment with an informal and integrated approach.
As the classes are small, teachers are closely in touch with students and are aware of difficulties as they arise. We engage in regular practice and review. Homework appropriate for the age level is an integral part of the learning, at home and at school. We evaluate the students’ understanding through such close monitoring.
The teachers provide feedback to the student and the parents informally as often as necessary. In some courses rubrics are used as self-assessment tools and by the teachers as well. Formal written feedback is provided once every year. The reports are a qualitative record of the students life in school during the year and contain a review of their academic work as well as comments on their social and emotional life.
We also understand that for the students’ future studies and opportunities, formal certification is useful. At around ages 15 and 18 years, we prepare them for recognized school leaving certificates: currently the IGCSE examination for the tenth standard, and the International A levels at the time of graduation. Both certifications are given by Cambridge Assessment International Education. Occasionally, a student may opt for the NIOS or no certification, engaging in everything else the senior school offers.