A woman puts a balloon inside a plastic bottle with the mouth of the balloon stretched out over the mouth of the bottle. A student is asked to blow into the balloon, but it doesn’t inflate. Then, a hole is pierced in the bottle, and this time when the student blows, the balloon inflates. With this, the teacher explains the concept that air occupies space – the air in the bottle had no exit will the hole was made in it, leaving no space for the balloon to expand.
The above is the description of a fascinating video of an activity at a school nestled in the lush green meadows and picturesque valleys of the Nilgiris. Called Vidyodaya, the school caters exclusively to primary education of children from adivasi communities, and uses alternative teaching methods to explain science and maths concepts that could otherwise be hard for the children to grasp.
The video you see is from a YouTube channel – ‘Kaathadi’ – which teaches maths and science concepts to children aged up to 10. These videos are produced by the Vidyodaya Maths and Science Resource Centre in collaboration with the Vidyodaya school in Gudalur. Kaathadi’s videos – available in both Tamil and English – stand out for their simplicity and experiment-oriented approach to engage children while simplifying the concepts.
Kaathadi started a year ago, and draws from experiences of the teachers and the students of Vidyodaya, which has educated hundreds of children from the adivasi communities living in and around Gudalur. It was started in 1996 by the Viswa Bharati Vidyodaya Trust (VBVT). The aim was to address the deprivation of education opportunities among adivasi communities in the region.
When VBVT started the Vidyodaya, 15 youngsters from the adivasi community were also taken in and trained as teachers, said B Ramdas, a Founding Trustee of VBVT. “But over time, they became not only teachers but managers too. Some of them are now running the school and are members of the trust. The founding members have actually stepped back and have handed over the trust to them,” Ramdas said.
The VBVT has nine members of which currently five are from the adivasi community and four are the founding members of the Trust.
Vidyodaya also provides education to its students free of cost. “We don’t collect fees. Instead whatever little money children bring during the course of the year, we deposit in their names in the bank and use it to pay for books and stationery the next year,” Ramdas explained.
The school does not have uniforms and the study materials are provided at a subsidised price. The children are also taught how to make utility and decorative objects in the afternoon, which are sold and the revenue is deposited in the children’s bank accounts. VBVT also accepts donations.
Vidyodaya now has around 80 students in LKG to class 5. Exclusively catering to the children from the adivasi tribes of Paniyas, Bettakurumbas and Kattunaickan living in Gudalur and Pandalur taluks of the Nilgiris, the school has three teaching volunteers and five teachers, who are also from the communities.
“Though the syllabus is in line with what the state government has prescribed, the teaching method is unconventional. The teachers majorly use stories and life experiences from the tribal culture familiar to the children. Hence the gap between the child’s experience in their homes and in school is reduced,” Ramdas explained.
It is this alternative way of teaching basic concepts that spurred Vidyodaya Maths and Science Resource Centre, and eventually, Kaathadi.
Deepak Chandra and Maya, the two resource persons working full-time on Kaathadi, started working with the Adivasi communities around two years ago. They shared lesson plans and resources with the volunteers who teach in the villages in Gudalur and Pandalur. However, when those failed to give them the expected results, they decided to switch to videos, as they could be seen independently by kids at home too.
As they started making videos, they realised that though very YouTube channels focus on using activities and accessible objects to understand abstract science and maths concepts.
“So, we decided that we will focus exclusively on experiments and activities that the children can replicate on their own. We started with activities and experiments that could be done with easily available low-cost materials, even scrap, so that children don’t have to invest in equipment. The purpose of the videos is to facilitate learning by discovery and inquiry, through hands-on activities and to bridge the gap between textbooks and daily life,” he added.
To expect a child that air – which is invisible – occupies space, can be difficult, and even more so for children from marginalised communities, who may face alienation and language barriers, among other hurdles.
“In most schools, subjects like maths and science are taught in an abstract manner,” Maya said. “This leads to many children [from marginalised communities] dropping out as the foundation for learning these subjects is not laid at the elementary level of schooling,” Maya said.
Though the teachers and the students of Vidyodaya school are not directly involved in the video development, Deepak and Maya frequently take their inputs from classroom experiences. Students also help the duo at times by performing the experiments for the videos.
Ramdas is very particular about the community taking charge for their own development.
“It is their community, so they should take responsibility for it and direct the enterprise in a way they think will benefit their development,” he said.
He adds that the trust also has resource persons in the tribal villages to help students to transition smoothly to mainstream education from class six, when they move out of the Vidyodaya school.
“There is usually a divide between what we (non-adivasi persons) imagine is good for them and what they know is good for them. That divide needs to be overcome. That's the philosophy around which the trust has been designed. They have to be self-reliant and we help them do it,” he explained.
At present, due to the pandemic, the school has been closed. However, teaching has not really stopped, Deepak said. “Teachers make short videos and send them to the students’ parents. Whenever the students watch the videos, they respond on the WhatsApp group,” he explained.
However, given that not all parents have a mobile phone with internet connection, Deepak said that they are identifying volunteers at the village level now so that smaller study centres can be set up and education can continue. “We have initiated eight study centres as of now which will have 10-12 students when things open up slowly,” he added.
Viswa Bharati Vidyodaya Trust can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To know more about donations and their work, check out their website here.