Muktangan: A Community-Based Education Model for Public Schools

By Aruna Jyothi and Ira Joshi | Mar 29, 2024

The teaching-learning process emphasises the role of children in actively constructing their own learnings and concepts. Rooted in this strong belief, their educational philosophy is supported by a learning environment where children are supported to construct their own learning and feel free to share their ideas, thoughts, and expressions.

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Introduction

The name Muktangan means freedom in the aangan’ (aangan in Hindi means the courtyard or outer area), a true representation of the philosophy followed in the schools run by the organisation. With the idea of active constructivism’ at its core, Muktangan was set up in 2003 to provide free and quality education to young children from underserved communities in Mumbai. The first preschool for young children began with humble beginnings on the premises of a municipal school. The founder believed in establishing positive relationships with children, teachers, and parents right from the start and making each an important partner in the educational journey. In fact, the name Muktangan was coined by a group of community members which clearly reflects the strong community involvement in the school. As parents and community members gradually recognised the efforts by the organisation in the preschool, they wanted Muktangans approach to be extended to children in the primary years. This led to the first public-private partnership between Muktangan and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) – the inception of an English-medium primary school from kindergarten up to class X. Over the years, six more schools were added. Muktangan educates more than 4,000 children living in underserved communities every year.

A Community-based model of education

Muktangans work is grounded in the principles of community participation in education. It strongly believes that members of the community must be mobilised to facilitate and sustain change. To support this, it recruits and develops members from the local community as trained teachers. This has dual benefits. The teachers who come from the same community understand children’s context and provide contextualised learning experiences.

For instance, during our visit, children of the senior kindergarten class made Ganesha idols from clay and performed an elaborate activity during their constructive play. Children made offerings to Ganesha and worshipped him, possibly emulating the practices followed in the Ganesha festival. Having known the cultural practices themselves, the teachers participated in the children’s activity with enthusiasm. This acceptance of children’s culture in the curriculum allows for the teaching experience to be contextual, relevant, and engaging.

Muktangan teachers form a bridge between the organisation and the larger community, encouraging them to participate in the school processes. This enables the community to be active stakeholders in their children’s education, making everyone accountable for the learning process.

Guiding philosophy

Muktangan has developed a unique model within the mainstream education system based on the theoretical underpinnings of constructivism. Rote learning – a widely prevalent practice which relies on memorising facts and information – is discouraged. The teaching-learning process emphasises the role of children in actively constructing their own learnings and concepts. Rooted in this strong belief, their educational philosophy is supported by a learning environment where children are supported to construct their own learning and feel free to share their ideas, thoughts, and expressions. Unlike in traditional schools, teachers in Muktangan schools give children opportunities to exercise their autonomy in everyday activities. They actively listen and respond to children, and promote children’s interactions with materials and with each other, reaffirming the belief that children can think and make decisions.

Day schedule

A typical day in the kindergarten classes begins at 9 AM. Children, when they arrive, are warmly greeted by the teachers who use different ways to get children started for the day. On the day of our visit, teachers had put a hoop at the classroom door, and children had to enter their class by going through it. This created excitement as children enthusiastically made their way inside.

A child enters the UKG class through a hoop.

Once inside, children mark their attendance themselves by hanging their name tags on the Attendance Board. Singing songs and rhymes in different languages is a noticeable feature of KG classes. We could see children joyfully singing songs in six different languages. These action songs and rhymes bring children together, setting the tone for the day. After this active engagement, a few children are called to the front to tell the class which day of the week and month it is and also the day’s weather. Children move from one activity to the next with the teacher asking, What is over?’ and children responding, Listening session over!’ The daily schedules are well-planned and displayed in each class. This helps children to follow activities one after the other. After these large group activities, children move into smaller groups. Each class has three groups with 14 children and a teacher. The physical space is clearly demarcated with coloured circles to help children move easily from large group activity into their own groups without teacher assistance.

Self-marking attendance

The next small-group activity is show and tell’, in which one or two children bring an object from home and talk about it in the group. The activity is meant to promote oral language development and expression. The teacher’s role is to prompt children during the activity and expand their conversation appropriately. This activity is also used to introduce letters of the alphabet depending on the object brought to class. For example, on the day of the visit, a child got an onion for this activity. The teacher wrote the letter O’ and repeated its sound, before moving to the next activity.

After a few structured activities, children are taken for outdoor play. Groups rotate between indoor and outdoor play to optimise the space. This also ensures the sharing of resources or play equipment, like slides, swings and climbers. Teachers supervise the children. Once inside, they are given a healthy snack which usually includes seasonal fruits. This ensures that children are not hungry as they spend three hours in school and also get a healthy snack which supports their nutritional needs.

Teachers use storybooks, puppets, or picture cards to tell stories to children, recognising that stories are an integral part of the kindergarten schedule. These are used in the designated story circle’ time to ensure that children get the opportunity to listen, read and narrate stories. Older children are also encouraged to tell stories in Hindi or their home language.

The cognitive concepts related to the curriculum are addressed through a concept circle’, a designated time for children to learn key concepts from the curriculum. Teachers use appropriate materials to build children’s understanding of concepts related to maths and cognition. Children work on these concepts in groups or individually using worksheets.

Children engaged in a concept circle’ activity on shapes

After the story listening session comes the constructive play’ session where children choose any material to play with. They are given time to plan’ their play and choose the play materials they would like to use for this play. Teachers do not intervene but make observations and maintain records of specific children while they engage in the activity. This is followed by reflection time’ where the teacher and children sit together to talk about their play.

The day for kindergarten classes ends at 12 noon with a goodbye circle’ activity where children and teachers discuss the activities done and sing a song before dispersing.

Curriculum planning and assessment

Muktangan has created its own curriculum based on the three curricular goals of the National Preschool Curriculum document, developed by NCERT in 2019. It is designed for children in two age groups: 4 – 5 years (junior KG) and 5 – 6 years (senior KG). Emphasis is given to activities that promote all the domains of development: physical-motor, cognitive, language, socio-emotional and aesthetic. Each year, teachers of Muktangan come together for an annual workshop to map the learning goals and the plan for the year. Teachers then use this plan to prepare their weekly and daily teaching plans, keeping in mind children’s needs and interests. It is, thus, not surprising that there are variations in daily teaching plans across schools, reflecting the autonomy given to teachers to plan according to the specific needs of their classes. Each Muktangan school has a trained preschool faculty’ (or ECE member) to provide on-the-job training to preschool teachers. Interestingly, these preschool faculty members are former Muktangan teachers who are recognised for their contribution and offered a leadership role to support new preschool teachers. The preschool faculty have learnt to navigate the everyday challenges of teaching and learning, having gone through this journey themselves. Probably this is one of the reasons for the amicable relationship between the teachers and the pre-school faculty, who belong to the same community and recognise the hard work that teachers put in every day.

Each school’s activities are an outcome of the continuous planning done by teachers with support from the pre-school faculty. There is a designated time in the daily schedule for planning and reflection. Once children leave, the teachers and the preschool faculty sit together to reflect on the day’s activities. Based on these reflections and the monthly outcomes, they collectively arrive at the next day’s plan and note it in their planning book.

Muktangan follows a well-defined assessment process which relies on teachers’ observation of children. Every day teachers observe one or two children and document their observations in a diary. These observations are based on children’s conversations and their participation in activities. As per Muktangans process, all children are systematically observed twice a month. Teachers use their notes to fill each child’s quarterly assessment card. The assessment card provides a snapshot of each child’s development in the domains of language and literacy, personal, social, and emotional development, physical development, artistic expression and foundational maths, science, and social studies (which are under the larger domain of cognitive development). This is shared with parents twice a year.

Learning environment

The learning environment, which includes the adults and children, their interactions, and the physical space, has an important influence on children’s learning. Considering this, Muktangan classrooms are spacious with ample learning resources for children to explore. These are kept in well-demarcated learning areas within the reach of children, which ensures that they can independently take and put these back. All the spaces and materials are labelled in English to promote print awareness which helps in emergent literacy. There are no printed charts with pre-defined images. Instead, teachers make their own materials based on the activities and topics that children are exploring. The storage shelves have a mix of procured and locally available materials to allow for free and guided play.

A Blocks Corner in one of the classrooms

Both the KG classes have a specifically designed playhouse which has household objects, toys, props, and everyday items for children to explore, manipulate and discover. The corner is an extension of the children’s home and a place within the classroom where they can take on various roles and engage in pretend play. Teachers know their children by names and the classroom environment is warm and inviting. Right from the beginning, teachers’ efforts are to build positive relationships with children and their families. The teachers recognise all that children bring into the classrooms their cultural practices, language, ideas, emotions, and experiences. Teachers and children treat each other with respect, which helps to create a nurturing environment where children feel valued and loved.

Linkages with parents and community 

With the idea of community engagement and empowering the community, especially its women, Muktangan encourages the active participation of the community in the education process. It is this community-based model which ensures parents’ and community’s involvement in multiple areas which creates ownership and accountability for all.

At the beginning of the academic year, parents are invited for an orientation to understand the school’s philosophy and approach. During this session, parents are encouraged to discuss their commitment towards their children’s learning and development. Once they agree on certain points, these are written down and parents’ signatures are taken. This chart is placed in the classroom as a reminder for parents to reaffirm their commitment. The engagement with parents continues through monthly meetings with a pre-determined agenda in which important issues related to children’s learning and development are shared with them.

Parent commitment chart displayed in a UKG classroom

Teachers make regular home visits to engage with parents. They plan these home visits with specific objectives in mind. Sometimes objectives also emerge from needs that a child may have in a specific domain. These are identified by the teacher during her observation and written notes that are meticulously maintained in class. During the home visit, the teacher uses activities to demonstrate how parents can support their children at home. The activities are simple and do not require many resources. For example, practice for picture reading can be done using old magazines or other environmental print materials easily available. After their visit, the teachers fill out their pre-school home visit form’ to document the purpose of the visit, the activities demonstrated and the parent’s response to it. This systematic documentation allows teachers to have purposeful interaction with parents.

Each Muktangan school has also set up a community library with the purpose of promoting a reading culture in the community. Five parent volunteers from each community are responsible for running the community library. Each volunteer gets a bag which has around 40 books. The books donated to the library are in languages that most community members are familiar with, like Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Urdu, and English. A WhatsApp group is created where parents post pictures of children reading these books independently or with adults. The bags are rotated after 45 days so that there are new books to read. Parents also give feedback on the books based on their reading history or interest areas.

Another initiative started by Muktangan is the toy library. In concept, it is like a book library, but instead of books, children can borrow toys. The school keeps a repository of toys which are donated by people, which include educational toys and those that are used for free play. The toys are age-appropriately categorised and children can borrow them to play at home. This initiative allows children opportunities to play with toys which may otherwise not be affordable for their families.

Teacher recruitment and development

Teachers are recruited from the community and given intensive one-year training at Muktangan. The two important modules of the training are: 1) Teacher-learner and society and 2) Understanding self and educational beliefs. The pre-service training model of Muktangan incorporates building teachers’ theoretical foundations in child development, language and early literacy, and maths. Aligned with its overall approach of constructivism, a large part of the training includes hands-on activities and demonstrations so that the teachers can learn through active exploration and interactions. One of the teachers had this to say about her training experience.

We were constantly asked questions that made me think about my current beliefs about teaching children. Sometimes, we used to get desperate for an answer. But our trainers made us think and reflect. I realised that I had never voiced my opinion before. They always encouraged me to speak even if I was wrong. It gave me confidence.’

The pre-service training also includes an intensive 400-hour internship programme where the teacher trainees observe classes with an experienced teacher. During the internship, they observe specific children which supports them in their process of learning. The Muktangan teacher education course prepares teachers to address Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) in the Foundational Stage, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. We were informed that their current training programme considers ages 3 – 8 years on a continuum and the activities reflect this. Any training programme which focuses on this continuity in its design is also likely to promote it in the learning experiences for children in the pre-primary and early primary grades.

Scale and sustainability

Muktangans direct work in schools continues to exist in seven Muktangan-supported municipal corporation schools. These schools act as sites for research, teacher training and demonstration of their practices. Based on this evidence-based work, the organisation has started the Muktangan Education Resource Centre (MERC), a hub for research and documentation of their teaching-learning approaches. The organisation has consciously decided not to work directly in more schools, but to disseminate their curricular and pedagogical practices with others, including teachers, teacher educators and representatives from government and other organisations. They believe in making a meaningful difference and sustaining their impact through changes in the larger education system. As per the website, they have reached out to more than 75,000 school-age children and 5,000 teachers and teacher-educators through their outreach efforts.

Reflections

Without a doubt, the visits to different centres of Muktangan have been an enriching experience. The dedication and commitment of all members – top management to helpers in the school – is obvious, which is one of the important contributing factors for a successful model. Any organisation which considers education as a catalyst for bringing in social change is bound to thrive and sustain for years to come. It is also worth noting that Muktangan made a conscious attempt to improve the quality of the existing public education system by providing well-trained teachers, its own curriculum and pedagogy. It will be useful to explore if there are other such programmes in India and how they address the educational needs of children in their context.

As mentioned by the National Education Policy (NEP, 2020), Teacher education is vital in creating a pool of schoolteachers that will shape the next generation.’ In that sense, it is appreciable that the students who pass out of these schools are brought back into the teachers’ pool to pass on their learning to children in their community. In that sense, it is quite likely that they become role models for their community too. It is, therefore, quite important to examine the organisation’s teacher development programmes or modules. From our conversations, we understood that their pre-service modules equip teachers sufficiently and the professional development for teachers in service is more for operational purposes – which reminds us of Finland’s models of education. It would be interesting to study this model further to see the possibility of it for large-scale implementation.

One could certainly see the classroom transactions reflecting teacher preparedness in their interactions with children and the teaching and learning processes. The impact of their work on children is quite evident from the confidence that children have. It is clear that the programme has empowered individuals and created awareness among community members regarding the importance of education. Further observations are required to understand the extent to which the core philosophy of active constructivism is getting translated into practice. It calls for more visits, classroom observations and interactions with teachers, children, and members of the organisation to get a nuanced understanding of classroom practices. One needs to study further to understand if the founder’s vision has translated into the organisation’s mission.
 

Authors

Aruna Jyothi and Ira Joshi are faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru