Study of local themes helps schools in India drop British accent

EDUCATION in India hasn't changed much since the days of the British Raj. Primary school children still repeat the day's memorized lesson, and near the end of the school year, students frantically cram prepared answers for their final examinations. Many Indians complain that their school curriculum is the legacy of the British colonial days - an anachronistic and entrenched mode of instruction that produces assembly-line graduates who are seldom taught to question and think creatively.

Gloria de Souza, a former schoolteacher in Bombay, hopes to radically overhaul the way children are taught in India through a system of learning called Environmental Studies (EVS).

In an recent interview with the Monitor, Ms. de Souza said she wants children to get away from the rigid textbook-based syllabuses teeming with everyday examples of European life; away from dictated class notes given to generations of students; and away from a system where mechanical memorization serves as a ``crutch for non-comprehension.''

So far, de Souza is making some headway. In Bombay, which has one of the world's largest school systems, consisting of 700,000 pupils, city officials are adopting her EVS approach. And in 1986, the Indian government mandated her method as the standard of instruction in all schools Grades 1 through 3.

EVS is distinctly Indian-oriented and experiential, and it emphasizes problem-solving by introducing students to their natural and man-made environments, de Souza says. It remedies the current ``dehumanizing system of learning'' that produces ``mindless rote-learners.''

De Souza questions the relevance of the traditional Indian school curriculum to Indian children. She says the accent should be Indian-centered and away from its Western bias. She was especially dismayed when she asked older students what they planned to do after leaving high school - and 90 percent said they set their sights on going abroad and not returning.

``What really struck me was that I was part of a system that did not offer students sufficient information about their own country,'' she says. ``That India, despite its problems, has such a proud heritage. If we expect things to change, then the answer is not to escape from them or to have a defeatist attitude.''

In 1982, de Souza set up the Parisar Asha Environmental Education Centre in Bombay. Parisar Asha is from the Sanskrit derivatives for ``hope'' and ``environment.'' The center, assisted by UNICEF and several foundations, has served to help spread her philosophy of learning.

She says EVS is based on the principle that ``all students, if given the chance, are natural learners when made aware of their political, social, cultural, and physical surroundings. Through this interaction, you grow by discovering your values and attitudes.''

In EVS during the monsoon season, for example, third-grade children experiment with water and its forms - solid, liquid, and vapor. Frequent drought in India makes water an important subject. So the class is encouraged to draw conclusions dealing with the water cycle - condensation and evaporation. Children are also exposed to Indian plant and animal life spawned by the rains.

Schoolchildren in Bombay learn history on field trips or with audiovisual lessons. They view ancient temples, forts, and monuments, comparing the architecture with buildings nearby. De Souza cites an example of students taken to the gigantic Gateway of India arch in Bombay, the site where in 1911 the viceroy of India received King George VI and Queen Mary. Students observed the patterns on the arch signifying Hindu and Mogul influences. ``This way history comes alive to them,'' she says.

``Many children were being taught about robins, blue birds, and willow trees, which they never saw in India,'' says Michael Northrop, executive director of the Washington-based Ashoka Foundation, which has helped fund her project. ``They learn about Trevor and Rover and London Bridge and not about their own country, but some distant land where they all want to go and not return.

Mr. Northrop says the foundation supports de Souza because her methods - given the Indian orientation of her approach - could serve as a catalyst for social change in the country.

``If successful, her approach would have an impact all over the country, possibly globally,'' Northrop says. He also notes that deSouza's methods are attracting interest beyond India. In March, she presented a paper on her efforts at the International Child and Youth Care Conference in Washington, D.C.

``If Indian democracy is to survive, then it's the masses who will determine what the future of that democracy will be,'' de Souza says. ``If they can be manipulated by power centers, then there is no future for a democracy. But if people can use their ability for discernment through education, then there is hope.''

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