Fraught with multiple problems, the Indian school education system is in need of sweeping changes. Muni International School, a budget private school, is showing the way forward with its pioneering teaching model and methodologies, particularly relevant in the post-COVID-19 world.
Nothing describes the cold and clinical Indian school education system better than the cheeky lyricism of Pink Floyd’s powerful “…just another brick in the wall” anti-schooling anthem. After all, a student is not so much an individual, as a member of a “batch” mass-produced year after year by a school. Students’ passage out of school is but a rite that must be. Their marks are the determinants of their immediate destiny. Their idea of success is inevitably conflated with that of “making” – as opposed to earning – lots of money. Their innate skills and interests cower in a corner before their colossal “career” plans. Most don’t know and wouldn’t care to know beyond their syllabus. Some are not sure even of the subject matter they wrote tests on. Courage is quick to abandon those with low marks; they are unable to view themselves beyond their mark-sheets. Many are weary of education already; they must get a job. And except perhaps a handful of exceptional students, these barely-adult young people begin their life journeys unsure, muddled, bored, and wholly content with mediocrity.
Dismal though all of this may sound, hope isn’t lost. India is already witnessing a nascent revolution in the school education sector, all thanks to a man who didn’t just lament the failures of the system, but chose to act in order to rectify them. And blazed a trail with his Muni International School.
Man on a Mission
Ashok Thakur, the founder of Muni International School, served in the Indian Army for eight years. While the rigours of military duty taught him tenacity and the ability to achieve targets in the face of adversity, it also made him realize that the existing education system had not adequately equipped him to brave challenges or realize his full potential. It was as though schooling were a mere ritual that must be completed. In fact, this was a near-universal feeling that Mr. Thakur observed even among his peers. Because Mr. Thakur wasn’t taught English in school, he decided to send his children to a reputed English-medium school. But his conviction regarding the inadequacies of the traditional schooling system was only reinforced when his children seemed neither prepared for life’s challenges nor acquired fluency in English.
In 2002, Mr. Thakur started the Muni International School on a 250-yard, family-owned property in Uttam Nagar, West Delhi. Twenty eight children, mostly from the area’s neighbouring slums, formed the first batch. Though charged a meagre fee of Rs. 30 per month, half of them were unable to pay. Determined to keep the school up and running, Mr. Thakur would fly to Dubai every summer to earn money.
His efforts soon began paying off.
A School Like No Other
Muni International School is set apart by its distinct child-friendly learning and teaching methodology that is underpinned by the belief that every person is gifted with at least one unique talent. Unlike traditional schooling, children here aren’t just taught lessons from a fixed syllabus, but imparted life skills, taught universal human values, and trained to discover their latent gifts. Some of the core principles of the school which effectively address the systemic issues plaguing Indian school education are as follows:
- Peer to Peer Learning: The unilateral teaching method involving one teacher explaining the same lesson in the same fashion to a class of 30 or 40 students has long been a bane of the system. At Muni International, the Buddy system and Group Responsibility and Reciprocal System tap the natural energy of children and enable them to become equal partners in the teaching process by explaining lessons to one another, instead of a teacher. Not only does this eliminate boredom and enliven the classroom experience, but customizes it for each child, making learning fun and interactive.
- Language Learning: Indian school children, even from English-medium schools, frequently hesitate to speak in English. At Muni International, English is taught with special emphasis on spoken English. Besides English, children are given the option to learn other foreign languages such as Japanese, French, Arabic, and Chinese. It is heartening to note that every child at the school speaks fluent English, besides being proficient in at least one other foreign language. Astonishingly, there are no run-of-the-mill language classes, language books, and language teachers at Muni International.
- Leadership Development: Instead of mere theory classes in civics and political science, the school replicates the parliamentary system to give students first-hand knowledge of how democratic institutions work in the country. Accordingly, there is a school parliamentary board to which every month every class chooses an MP (Member of Parliament), MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly), and Councilor, along with members of the Judiciary. Besides choosing ministers, MPs are made responsible for the operation of the school. Ministers perform their duties in accordance with the roles expected of their respective ministries such as finance, health, etc. The President elect is either the Principal or the Manager or Administrator. Every month, a new MP is elected to the “Lok Sabha” (Lower House) and no student repeats her/his role during the rest of the academic session. The following month, a student goes to the “Rajya Sabha” (Upper House). MLAs choose the Chief Minister and other ministers in their respective classes; they are also given responsibility of their class, as if it were a state. This parliamentary system helps mould students for the 21st century, equipping them with job skills such as leadership, team work, and creativity, as well as life skills such as empathy, responsibility and patience.
- Practical Education & Innovation: Barring a few exceptions, students in Indian schools are typically promoted from one class to the next without having understood various theories and concepts, leading to a point when the backlog of confusion becomes impossible to clear. But the Eklavya System at Muni International encourages children to create and innovate on the basis of a chosen lesson or topic from the school curriculum, helping them develop a spirit of inquiry and scientific temper.
- Digital-Ready: Muni International has already begun embracing the technological changes that 21st century education must eventually ready itself for. Apart from the frequent use of audio-visual aids, all children – from the 5th to the 10th standard – use Tablet PCs and e-books, ensuring lighter schoolbags and environmental protection (by saving paper). Thus from a young age, children are equipped with the necessary skills for their digital knowhow and growth.
- Unconventional Examination Pattern: It is often said that the system of exams and undue importance to scores have tacitly encouraged unhealthy competition, rote learning and the viewing of learning as a rigid goal, rather than a fluid journey. Since 2010, Muni International has followed a system of examination known as “Am I Able?” in which children analyze and evaluate themselves instead of competing with peers in the race for marks. In being pushed to outperform themselves, children are frequently able to deliver to the best of their abilities.
- Research & Development Wing: The Muni International School is one of the few schools in the world to have a dedicated Research & Development division that serves to monitor and find solutions to learning obstacles faced by students as well as evolve teaching methodologies that are in keeping with the times. The division also works to fashion novel ways of skill development and value inculcation in students. Significantly, the Muni R & D Division works towards STUDENT PURPOSE FINDING (SPF), in which it endeavours to discover the individual potential of each child, and helps them hone their talents to find success in life.
While acquiring literacy is a painstaking process that may typically take several years, the conducive learning atmosphere and ingenious methods at Muni International enable unlettered children to read and write in as little as 3-4 months.
- Acupressure & Paramedical Skills: Every child in the school is taught Acupressure to help relieve aches and pains. As part of the “Half kilometre” method, children are instructed to use their knowledge to get rid of chronic pains in people in their immediate community.
Children are also made adept at dispensing home-remedies and diagnosing minor diseases through a Health Plan that contains pre-accident and post-accident plans.
Recognition for Good Work
Its remarkable features notwithstanding, Muni International School is at its heart a noble venture that arose out of the altruistic instincts of its impassioned founder.
For nearly two decades now, Muni International has been providing education and life skills to underprivileged children at nominal fees. Doing so makes it unique among private schools for two reasons. First, most private schools in the country have steep fees; Muni International provides world-class education at nominal fees. Second, by giving marginalized young people an equal opportunity to grow and shine, the school breaks with the elitism of English-medium private schools.
Muni International School’s efforts, though, have not gone unnoticed. The Muni model is being replicated in several private and government schools, including those run by the Delhi Government. Besides, it has been accorded national and international recognition which includes being declared one of the top 15 schools in the world by UNESCO, receiving the “Best Education” and “Innovative Methodology” award from Prakh Foundation, being declared “Change Maker” school by the Ashoka Foundation (U.S.A.), ranked best school in India under the budget private school category for five consecutive years by the Education World Magazine, and several other awards and accolades. Notably, Japan selected Muni International as the only partner school in India for its student exchange programme.
It is encouraging to note that the Muni International School has three branches at present (excluding the one in Delhi), but – with the help of franchises – is swiftly expanding all over the country, taking baby steps towards revolutionizing learning and transforming the lives of the underprivileged everywhere.
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The Shadow of COVID-19
COVID-19 has not left any sphere of human activity untouched, and school education is no exception. All the same, many educationists have been bemoaning the lack of preparedness for the pandemic. This includes both tangible – lack of dependence on digital modes of teaching – and intangible preparedness – value-based education stressing the importance of health and environmental sustainability.
The Muni model of education has always been a prescient one. For instance, use of audio-visual aids, e-books, tablet PCs began early at Muni International. Dependence on the teacher-centric method of learning has also been relatively low. Most of all, there has always been a strong emphasis on holistic education in which children are taught the importance of hygiene and health-care as well as imparted universal human ethics underlining the value and inter-dependence of all life-forms in nature. What, after all, is COVID-19 but man’s comeuppance for his overexploitation of the natural world?
For a young generation whose lives and minds would inevitably be shaped by a global pandemic of this scale, the pioneering methods of education espoused by Muni International School may be the only hope standing amidst the wilderness of despair.