Gautam Khandelwal, a former teacher and a qualified Chartered Account and MBA from Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), Anand, Gujarat, threw up his mundane existence to start up a learning centre for fun which he calls, Masti ka Paathshala. Khandelwal taught in mainstream schools in Gurgaon and Jaipur before founding Masti Ki Paathshala, a democratic learning centre in rural Rajasthan. Funded by friends and others, the learning centre opened in the leopard-infested village Agar, in the Alwar District of Rajasthan in April 2017. Khandelwal is dipping into his savings to run the learning centre and has his family in Jaipur supporting him through and through, though he says his relatives wonder at his lack of a steady paying job that can take care of his wife and two kids. “I have now set out on a very interesting journey. Let us see what the future holds for me.” He also intends to work on healthcare and livelihoods.
After 7 years of teaching, I finally decided to ‘drop out’. The journey was both enjoyable and painful. Enjoyable because I got to meet with some very bright young souls who are going to, as Michael Jackson sang, Heal the world. It was painful because I saw suffering all along the way. I saw young children being bullied by adults. I saw confusion. I saw this yearning to play but alas the course had to be completed. I saw this deep desire to learn and go beyond the prescribed curriculum. However, in most cases, the career teachers of today vis a vis the gurus of yesteryears, did not know anything besides the prescribed text. I saw children “begging” for marks. I saw children cheating for marks. Those who scored a 100 were heroes and those who failed were considered scums of the planet.
Schools go against the very nature of the child. Children by nature are playful. They want to play, explore their surroundings, spend time socializing, rather than spend half the day in the classroom and the remaining half in tuition centres and at home doing homework. The child is the key stakeholder in the education process. However, the irony is that the child has no say in how things happen at school. At best, their opinion is sought on certain matters.
Having seen schooling from close quarters and after reading a lot on education, I was convinced that children had the capacity to meet their own learning needs. All that was required was to present them with a safe environment where they could live life their way. A place that has all the ingredients for a good education so that each one could then cook their own recipe. More so, I always wanted to go work in the poorest and the most underdeveloped areas. This led to the birth of Masti ki Paathshala (School of Fun), a democratic learning centre where the children ‘call the shots’. There are no tests, no marks and no curriculum. What we do have is a lot of talking and a lot of play. We have laptops, tablets, a small library, a small science lab, board games and a lot of junk that is used to do all sorts of things.
After visiting villages in five different districts of Rajasthan, I finally settled on this village called Agar, in the Alwar District, not very far from the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Masti ki Paathshala 001 was set up in Agar in April 2017. While it is a challenge for educational institutions to enrol children, we never did and will never solicit children. I did initially harbour doubts on how and whether children would come to Masti ki Paathshala. I still remember vividly on the first day, 6 boys came out of nowhere, enquiring what this place was all about. Since then, we have never looked back. In fact, the moment they realised that this was ‘their space’, they have come in droves.
Masti ki Paathshala operates in the problem-solving mode. We pose real life problems to children. For instance, we are presently working on the Swach Agar Mission, a cleanliness campaign. The children have been cleaning open drains that had not been cleaned for the last 6 months. We will further set up dustbins and also run a drive to eliminate polythene from the village. In order to get a buy-in from the community, the children will also run a communication campaign. For this purpose, we recently did a workshop on Photoshop and Coral Draw. The children should now be able to make posters which could be stuck in and around the village. We are also trying to do a puppetry workshop which could then be used in the communication campaign.
In this manner, not only have children found a solution to a problem that the adults could not solve, they are also picking up important life skills. Thanks to their new-found enthusiasm, children have now decided to engage in all sorts of problems that beset the village - water shortage, lack of street lights, poverty, etc. I believe that this child-led model of education is far more empowering than the teacher-dictated model. Besides, it involves no violence which continues in conventional schools.
Unlike in conventional schools, we do not have any tangible benchmark to measure progress. In fact, I believe that if the children are allowed to pursue their passions, there is no need to measure their progress. Therefore, I do not have anything tangible to show on that score. However, I can assure you that there is a lot of learning that is going on here. The most important learning is self-esteem and the self-confidence effects that this model generates. Children now feel confident that they are capable of solving any challenges that life throws at them.
Parents often complain that children are only seen to be playing at our learning centre, which in a sense is true. Our validation simply comes from what the children have to say.
This region became infamous a few months back due to the presence of man-eating leopards, who claimed about 10 lives in the region, including 2 from our village. So while there is no timings in the centre as such, we prefer the younger children to leave before dark. However, they just refuse and often have to be ‘thrown out’. I am made to feel as if I am the Pied Piper in the village. Parents have told me many a times that while their children may not obey their instructions, they don’t go against what we ask of them at the Centre. I guess that is simply because they feel respected here, that they have a say in how things are done, that they are treated as ‘equals’.
The journey until now has been very meaningful albeit not without challenges. As said earlier, this area is notorious for man-eating leopards, who almost made Kaluram, our colleague its victim. We are faced with a financial crunch on a regular basis. We have a very unconventional learning model, which will take time for acceptance from the adult community (by the way, the children love it, which I think is the best validation).
There is a financial crunch that we have to deal with on a regular basis. I have been working without pay for more than a year now, drawing on my savings at a very rapid pace. Until now, my friends have funded our operations. My deep gratitude to all my friends who have never let me down. The Centre for Health and Education Reform, our legal entity, will also work in the healthcare and livelihoods domain.
On the healthcare side, the idea is to set up nature cure hospitals. Nature cure mainly requires mitti (Earth), hawa (air) and paani (water), which is found abundantly in rural areas. More so, there is no reliance on external factors such as doctors and expensive medicines. Most importantly, it is extremely low-cost and highly effective. In my opinion, nature cure appears to be the perfect model for rural health.
On the livelihood side, the long-term goal is to ensure that no one from the villages has to migrate in search of work. This will solve the twin problems of infrastructure bottlenecks in urban areas and that of forced migration in rural areas. Besides, it will generate employment here in the rural areas and diversify the employment basket away from agriculture, which is a highly unpredictable activity. Our work on livelihoods is also very important since it will help us fund our learning centres and the nature-cure hospitals. At the moment, we are experimenting with stitching cotton bags and wallets and food processing.
My goal is to set up at least 500 Masti ki Paathshalas and nature cure hospitals before I die. All this will of course require extensive funding. Therefore, we are looking for funding. We have sent applications for funding to the CSR wing of some organisations but have yet to hear from them.
(The writer is Founder, Masti ki Paathshala. Khandelwal can be contacted at: email@example.com)
Updated Date: Mar 05, 2018 12:35:20 IST