Will you send your tot to Finland or Canada?

Updated: Dec 15, 2019, 08:24 IST | Pallavi Smart | Mumbai

Mumbai's pre-schools have graduated from getting kids to write in four-lined notebooks to teaching numbers through real-life counting, thanks to the availability of Western educational programmes. But are they truly life-changing?

A class in session at Podar Jumbo Kids where the students learn by watching a robotic toy. Pics/Ashish Raje
A class in session at Podar Jumbo Kids where the students learn by watching a robotic toy. Pics/Ashish Raje

While looking for a pre-school for her three-year-old, the factors that Santa Cruz resident Tara Ramakrishanan had in mind were: proximity to her home and safety. She was also keen that the school be a branch of the same academy where her sister's children studied. "My knowledge about kindergarten until then was based on my own memories from childhood. It was only after I started hunting for schools for Rudra Raj, that I realised that there's a range of curricula offered in the early childhood education spectrum."

Much as primary and secondary education in Mumbai (and across India), come with a varied set of curricula to choose from—CBSE, state boards, IGCSE and International Baccalaureate—today's pre-primary schools offer courses in early childhood education (for ages 3 to 6), developed by different countries in the absence of any recommendation laid down by the Indian government.

A sensory class at the IB section of Podar's pre-primary section
A sensory class at the IB section of Podar's pre-primary section

Rudra Raj studies at Khar's Podar Jumbo Kids where he is learning through the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), developed in the UK. EYFS is based on seven principles starting from communication and language development, social, personal and emotional development to physical, literacy and mathematics development thorough guidelines for assessment. This is done not through rote learning, but the use of a sand box, puppets, story-telling and drawing with defined guidelines of assessment for age-appropriate areas of learning and development.

Underlining the importance of early childhood education, Swati Popat Vats, president, Early Childhood Association (ECA), says, "These are the formative years because this is when major cognitive, emotional, social and physical developments take place. All these abilities determine a child's ability to learn in the future. They need to learn how to interact appropriately, express their feelings, manage strong emotions along with fine and gross motor skills, speech and language development."

Tara Ramakrishanan has enrolled her three-year-old son in a school with a UK-based curriculum called Early Years Foundation Stage, which focuses on using a sand box, puppets, story-telling and drawing as learning tools
Tara Ramakrishanan has enrolled her three-year-old son in a school with a UK-based curriculum called Early Years Foundation Stage, which focuses on using a sand box, puppets, story-telling and drawing as learning tools

Saying that this is why curricula for early childhood education is important, Popat points out, "Early childhood education remains an unexplored area in India. Even the Right To Education (RTE) Act doesn't discuss education below the age of six." ECA is pursuing the Indian government to form a curricular framework for these formative years and, in September 2019 the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) put together a draft of such curricula for pre-schools and kindergarten. Currently in a draft state, the curricula will be opened to stakeholders for suggestions after which the implementation will be discussed.

While India may be lagging behind in developing its early childhood curricula, schools in Mumbai are taking advantage of the progress made by other countries. For instance, the Maple Bear chain of pre-schools follows the Canadian framework. Here, rote learning is replaced with inquiry and observation. Shalini Jaiswal, director of academics, says, "Teaching and learning of language is done here through the practice of immersion. When teaching a child a new language, it is done exactly the way any child learns their mother tongue. You do not start from the alphabet. The child is immersed in the language from written material, sounds and communication. If a child responds in their mother tongue, the teacher rephrases it in English or the language being taught, but does not translate. The idea is to help children arrive at those words on their own and not by the teacher repeating the translation."

Swati Popat Vats, president of Early Childhood Association (ECA)
Swati Popat Vats, president of Early Childhood Association (ECA)

We also have available in Mumbai, the Finnish pre-primary system, which claims to be most effective learning pattern. Under this, the idea of age-appropriate learning is given a skip and replaced by stage-appropriate learning. In any class of 20, children of different ages are included. Yet, each child is facilitated by the teacher to learn at the specific stage they are at. A class is conducted by two teachers and each child will be engaged in different activities. This encourages the concept of individualised learning while still being in a group. "After all, that is how the world outside the classroom is. You work with people from different age groups. That approach has to be developed in the early years. This learning philosophy does not believe in bright colours in classrooms. Earthy walls ensure an introduction of major colours to children through specifically designed toys," adds Anita Kotwal, general manager, Pre Schools, at Podar Jumbo Kids, which will offer the curriculum from the coming academic year.

Schools here also offer the Te Whariki (developed in New Zealand), Reggio Emilia approach developed in Italy and Waldorf theory (see box). While most of the curriculum framework is easily available for the educators through their online presence at no cost, it is when a school plans to implement the framework that they have to pay fees to the original developers to license it. Fee structures for the courses also vary depending on the location of the school. An educator at one of the schools explains, "In a city like Mumbai, real estate plays a major role. We may be offering the same curriculum in Colaba, Andheri, Thane and Nerul, but the cost will differ because of property rentals."

A classroom at the Maple Bear chain of pre-schools where kids are taught through the Canadian approach of early childhood education
A classroom at the Maple Bear chain of pre-schools where kids are taught through the Canadian approach of early childhood education

While your child studies the Finnish or Canadian system, what happens when they join primary school? To ensure that her child gets an IB primary education, 40-year-old Purvi Ruparel, a homemaker, picked a pre-school that offered the same curricular system. Chitra Ahuja, headmistress at Podar Jumbo Kids School, says, the IB pre-school curriculum has an inquiry-based learning. "For example, topics such as where are the moon and stars, what's day and night, varieties of birds are all introduced through exploration.

In class, children are given a topic and then asked to draw whatever comes to their mind. Then, through their drawings alone, the lesson plan is taken forward. Stories are not told in class directly; they are formed with each child adding to the previous one's inputs. After their own formation, the original story is then told with pictorial presentation by teachers to make the child understand different characters in the story and the types of the story—moral or personal." Ahuja adds that numbers too are taught differently. The children learn to count their toys or steps on a staircase. "The idea here is that unless the child understands the concept of five through exploration s/he will not be able read, write or say the number five."

While the new learning techniques are certainly good news for urban parents, Popat and others argue that the Indian government needs to come up with regulations to ensure not just uniformity across schools, but setting a certain minimum standard that each school must follow. Psychologist Dr Seema Hingorany, says, "A lot of research in the area proves that the later years of a child depend on the development in first seven years. It is high time that a policy is formulated not only to bring in uniformity, but also create awareness among parents." Bella Kotwani CEO and principal at the Cosmikids pre-schools, says, bringing in uniformity in the way pre-schools function will address confusion among parents on which school to select. "If not a complete curriculum, a framework of what is expected at different ages should be defined for parents to understand the development of their children," she says.

Divya Punjabi, curriculum head at the Kangaroo Kids Education Limited, argues that early childhood education policy should not only be about the curriculum or framework, but also about building an entire system catering to and involving early childhood education. "It has to include teacher-training, school infrastructure and environment, and take into the changing needs of young parents. But in all this, it is important that the government doesn't shy away from dipping into the expertise from existing players in market, even if private."

Three other learning techniques

Reggio Emilia (Italy)
Developed after World War II, this approach believes in every child as an individual. It revolves around the concept of project-based learning. The idea is to put children in an environment where they work on problem statement and learn through exploration. The concept is best explained by creator Lorris Malaguzzi: "Children know 100 languages, we take away 99 of them." It's used at Singapore International School's kindergarten in Mumbai.

Waldorf theory
Like Reggio Emilia, this theory does not have a set curriculum but gives a basic framework of principles on which learning can be based. Based on the philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner, this theory believes in providing a free atmosphere to children to learn with natural phenomena of rhythm, music, art by giving complete autonomy to each school and teacher to design learning modules around it. In Mumbai, Tridha School, Andheri, offers this approach.

Te Whariki (New Zealand)
Te Whariki guides to observe developmental milestones such as the ability of contribution, belonging and exploration. There's no fixed age-group in class and students can be from one-year-olds to three-year-olds. In such a scenario, it is important that a child learns to share, care and learn. Learning goals are to help the child explore and experience. A teacher is expected to ask the child how their day was when they enter and start from there to understand their social and emotional development. It is used at Podar Jumbo Kids in Walkeshwar.

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