A free school for early years I Community Wellbeing Center I Education Research Unit
1200 FAMILY MEMBERS
1 LEARNING COMMUNITY
Project Re:Imagine was founded on the belief that all children deserve an education that leads to human flourishing.
Started as a small learning centre in Bhor, Maharashtra with just nineteen children from a first-generation school-going community, till date, the centre has served 500 children and their families through the following three services:
- A full-fledged early childhood care and education (ECCE) centre
- After-school academic and socio-emotional support for children in the age-group of 6-14
- Community mental health and wellbeing support for families and community members
Currently, there exists a huge imbalance between our collective enthusiasm for quality early childhood education and care (ECCE) for all children and our understanding of what it constitutes. Though there seems to be mounting evidence and excitement around its benefits – ranging from cognitive to economic – sadly, it remains an area of low-priority for the Indian State.
Additionally, our understanding of how children learn and grow in the earliest years – what constitutes “quality” ECCE – remains pitifully inadequate. Most ECCE programs in the country today are based on outdated science (at best), market demands for school readiness, an unhealthy fixation on standardization and scale and a gross disregard for the natural intelligence of children. Research shows that such education programs running on scripted lessons and suspect metrics are responsible for furthering the problem that they intended to solve in the first place.
At Re: Imagine, we started with the belief that all children deserve an education that fosters individual and collective flourishing. We spent the next decade, figuring out how this belief translates into a workable model on the ground.
From the beginning, our learning centre at Bhor was designed as an intentionally small experiment. Working with no more than 50 children each year allowed us the space for deep work – to research and develop an affordable, high-quality ECCE program that has relevance across the country. Our program is not just theoretically sound – drawing from rich philosophical thinking, scientific advances, and experiential evidence – but is also rooted in the needs of children and the community.
With Re:Imagine as our research lab, today, we engage nationally with multiple actors – spanning government entities, academic spaces, multinational agencies, nonprofits, families, schools, corporate and community-based organizations to support them create high-quality educational experiences for all children.
Between what we truly want for our children – happiness, self-confidence, joy, and a life full of meaning – and what we teach at school, there exists a gap. At Re: Imagine, we aim to bridge the two. We believe that wellbeing is not just an outcome of a learning experience but an essential prerequisite for it. Our approach of be-well-to-learn-well draws from the latest advances in neuroscience, psychology, education and contemplative wisdom traditions. We place a high priority on the intentional cultivation of mental and emotional states like attention, joy, mindfulness and compassion along with nurturing an ethical orientation towards the world. It is this baseline of cognitive and affective balance that we believe provides the foundation for meaningful learning.
With the culture of wellbeing as the context, we consider student ‘understanding’ and its actualization at the very core of our work. As opposed to learning from an inert content, we value that children participate in the process of forming the content based on their own experiences. A child could learn from a text-book that the food we eat has different sources. On the other hand, a child could collect information from the immediate surroundings and draw inferences to learn the sources of food. The processes can be many and diverse. We put value on the process of meaning making over just ‘knowing’.
Teaching children how to think clearly has a special space in our learning community. We take up themes, concepts, issues and ideas – both about oneself and the world- which have the potential to provide depth, connections, significance and multiple perspectives. That is they are topics which are ‘generative’ in nature, which lend themselves for natural enquiry. The voices of our children and our community are represented in our topics. The State’s minimum learning level expectations have been kept in mind in making these choices.
Studies from the last 50 years show that parental engagement children’s learning is associated with higher rates of school completion, daily attendance, motivation to study, and learning outcomes. A Brookings Institute study suggests that parents have a much bigger impact on theIr preschool-aged children than teachers do. And programs that support good parenting practices in vulnerable communities pay off in the long run, especially in the early years.
Though the home is where the child spends 50-80% of her waking hours, the educational potential of the home environment is an understudied and underworked area. In fact, for families with non-literate parents, the home environment is seen as a mere hindrance to the learning process, a space where learning at school is simply undone. The expectations that formal schooling place on such parents are either too little – monitoring of homework, payment of school fees – or too much – support children academically.
Our work with vulnerable communities over the last decade points to a completely different reality. At Re: Imagine, we support non-literate parents in creating a conducive socio-emotional climate for learning at home. With their own wellbeing as a starting point, we then support them to create the causes and conditions in their homes where learning can take place. Evidence from the ground shows that when they do so, children thrive at school.
At Re: Imagine, our community engagement program rests on three pillars – fostering parental wellbeing, collaborating with parents as co-teachers, and making regular community visits. The engagement starts off with parents participating in a weekly program where they work – individually and in groups – on issues of their mental health and wellbeing.
By the third month, when parents have adequately worked on their own selves, we invite them to our centre to co-facilitate and engage directly with children across curricular areas of art, play, drama, story-telling etc. This often helps students see their families in a new light -as equal partners in the learning process and as valid sources of knowledge.
An effective feature of our engagement with parents is the regular visits to the community. Facilitators schedule weekly visits to children’s homes where they organize informal learning events, or engage in conversations or sometimes, just have chai with the family. Our facilitators, as well as parents, maintain that these visits over time have improved student attendance rates, parental and student motivation towards learning and the quality of family engagement with children’s education at home.
It is generally a healthy development that nonprofits in the space of education today are more invested in measuring impact than they were ten years ago. However, what qualifies for ‘impact’ in areas as complex as children’s education remain unclear. For funders who want to know whether their funds made a difference and for nonprofits who want to tell a story, the most trusted language remains that of academic scores in standardized tests.
This obsessive focus on quantifiable progress – where the entire value of a school year tends to get measured in academic scores in Language and Math – reduces programs for marginalized students to an endless exercise of skill-drill and test preparation. Not surprisingly, children are bored in our schools, not learning adequately and eventually dropping out of our classrooms. Once again, the very solution becomes the problem.
At Re:Imagine, we measure impact in the spirit of self-assessment across three areas – learning and wellbeing for students, teachers and the community.
Student learning and wellbeing is recorded – by teachers, parents and the students themselves – in what we call the portfolio. Each child has her own portfolio – a mix of teacher and parent observations, and different kinds of student work – ranging from artwork, illustrated storybooks they had written, test scorecards and worksheets, videos and collectables from a nature walk to detailed illustrated plans documenting how they solved a real-life math problem. Though the teacher records details relevant to the growth and learning of the child, it is ultimately the child herself who decides what stays in her portfolio. Teachers at Re:Imagine spend close to 40% of the school year observing and documenting children’s learning journeys. The portfolio provides a balanced snapshot of the mental, emotional, social and physical development of our children as well as skills in foundational subjects required in formal school settings. The assumption underpinning the design of the portfolio is that every child learns differently and that a uniform, universal measure doesn’t suffice to test student learning. We hold mid-year and end-of-the-year learning showcases where the portfolios are co-presented by the children and the teachers through charts, skits, songs, games and an exhibition-style display.
Just like students, teachers and community members participate in a diffused year-long process of reflecting on their work and wellbeing. Teachers record their growth as well as areas of improvement in their journals which they share in a way they want during monthly meet-ups. Each teacher takes up a research project at the beginning of the year, which usually involves some kind of ethnographic styled observation on some aspect of their work with the children. The teachers generally publish their project work in the yearly magazine which is shared with the larger community. Families in our community assess themselves on their state of wellbeing and engagement with children’s learning. They also provide feedback on our program both, formally in group forums and informally in one-on-one conversations with facilitators during the community visits.
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