4 Apr 2014

The History of the Ashram School (2) – Kittu Reddy

We shall now go back in time to see how the Free Progress System was introduced in the school.

From the year 1959, many tentative experiments were being made in the Free Progress System. These attempts were first made on a small scale with a small number of students and teachers who were willing to try out the experiment. The source of inspiration for these experiments was in the writings and talks of Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

We are quoting one of the passages from the Human Cycle that served as an important source of inspiration:

“The discovery that education must be a bringing out of the child’s own intellectual and moral capacities to their highest possible value and must be based on the psychology of the child-nature was a step forward towards a more healthy because a more subjective system; but it still fell short because it still regarded him as an object to be handled and moulded by the teacher, to be educated. But at least there was a glimmering of the realisation that each human being is a self-developing soul and that the business of both parent and teacher is to enable and to help the child to educate himself, to develop his own intellectual, moral, aesthetic and practical capacities and to grow freely as an organic being, not to be kneaded and pressured into form like an inert plastic material. It is not yet realised what this soul is or that the true secret, whether with child or man, is to help him to find his deeper self, the real psychic entity within. That, if we ever give it a chance to come forward, and still more if we call it into the foreground as “the leader of the march set in our front”, will itself take up most of the business of education out of our hands and develop the capacity of the psychological being towards a realisation of its potentialities of which our present mechanical view of life and man and external routine methods of dealing with them prevent us from having any experience or forming any conception. These new educational methods are on the straight way to this truer dealing. The closer touch attempted with the psychical entity behind the vital and physical mentality and an increasing reliance on its possibilities must lead to the ultimate discovery that man is inwardly a soul and a conscious power of the Divine and that the evocation of this real man within is the right object of education and indeed of all human life if it would find and live according to the hidden Truth and deepest law of its own being.”

(SABCL, Volume 15, pp 28-29)

Here is another passage from the Mother’s conversations which was often quoted and which became the basis for the Free Progress System.

“Essentially, the only thing you should do assiduously is to teach them to know themselves and choose their own destiny, the path they will follow; to teach them to look at themselves, understand themselves and to will what they want to be. That is infinitely more important than teaching them what happened on earth in former times, or even how the earth is built, or even... indeed, all sorts of things which are quite a necessary grounding if you want to live the ordinary life in the world, for if you don’t know them, anyone will immediately put you down intellectually: “Oh, he is an idiot, he knows nothing.  But still, at any age, if you are studious and have the will to do it, you can also take up books and work; you don’t need to go to school for that. There are enough books in the world to teach you things. There are even many more books than necessary.

But what is very important is to know what you want. And for this a minimum of freedom is necessary. You must not be under a compulsion or an obligation. You must be able to do things whole-heartedly. If you are lazy, well, you will know what it means to be lazy.... You know, in life idlers are obliged to work ten times more than others, for what they do they do badly, so they are obliged to do it again. But these are things one must learn by experience. They can’t be instilled into you.”

(MCW, Volume 8, p 181)

The problem was how to create a system of education which would help them to know themselves and choose their own destiny, with the ultimate result of bringing the psychic being of the child forward as “the leader of the march.”

Gradually, these attempts began to increase in number and by the year 1962, there was one whole section of the school that was following this system. It was named Vers la Perfection. In this process some interesting experiments were tried out, some seemingly a bit impractical. However, the Mother allowed things to develop and encouraged the teachers to find out by themselves how to implement the free progress system. As all these attempts were going on, quite naturally, a lot of discussion was generated among the teachers.  The Director and the Registrar – Pavitrada and Kireet Joshi – were deeply involved in all these discussions and often the matter was referred to the Mother. As a result of all these discussions and efforts, some basic principles were laid down.

The basic principles on which the Free Progress system was founded were as follows:
  • The first assumption was that every child was essentially a soul and the business of the educator was to help the child to bring it forward as the leader of his march.
  •  Since each child was a soul and therefore unique, he had to be treated according to his nature and temperament. The natural consequence was that individual attention was given great importance and consequently group classes were not encouraged too much.
  • Another consequence was that each child was encouraged to work at his own pace, depending on his capacity. It followed also that a child could be at different levels for different subjects.
  • There was also an effort to replace text books by worksheets which were prepared in such a way as to make it more relevant to the child’s needs and interests.
  • Finally, the whole purpose was to encourage the child to take up the full responsibility of his own education and choose his own destiny.
Evidently, this was not easy for it meant a total reversal of the existing system of education; in a sense, it was a big risk that was being taken.

As already mentioned, the attempt was first made on a small scale with a  limited number of students and teachers fully supported by the Mother. By the middle of the year 1962, it was felt that this system could be tried out on a bigger scale for all the secondary classes from December 1962.

Here another problem cropped up. It was understood that this system would be succesful only with those students whose psychic being was somewhat prominent, for only then would they be able to use their freedom properly without being distracted by the vital and other pulls of the lower nature.  The question was: who is to choose the students? Since most of the teachers did not feel confident in their own judgment, the matter was referred to the Mother and She graciously agreed to make the selection herself.

Accordingly, the students numbering about 150 were divided into 5 batches. Mother came down to the first floor and the students, over a period of five days passed in front of her. She indicated which students could be selected and even in some cases made some remarks on certain students. All these were noted down by a teacher standing beside the Mother. I remember that in some cases, the Mother made some remarks about a child; in one case, she remarked about a young girl: “Oh, she is  an old friend.’

It will be interesting to note that almost all the students were selected by the Mother for the New Classes.

The Functioning of the System

Let us now see how the system functioned on the  ground level.

Firstly, there was no fixed time table; when the students came to the school, they went and sat in the class rooms allotted to them. Three or four teachers would be sitting in the same room. After the bell rang the students would start working on their own on any subject of their choice. Whenever they needed any help from the teacher, they would consult him. During the course of the work, if either the teacher or student felt the need to fix an appointment with the teacher for further consulation, it would be done by mutual consultation. Similarly whenever the teachers or students felt the need of a group class, that too was fixed by mutual consultation.

There was great freedom for the students and the teachers were there only to help and guide the students.

In sum, the whole responsibility of education was on the students themselves. They had to decide for themselves the subjects they would study, determine the pace at which they would work and even the quantity of work done.

Many teachers felt that the attempt was premature, but all agreed to give it a try. However within a few months, it appeared that the system was not working very well. The majority of students were misusing their time and were unable to use their freedom properly. Finally a group of teachers wrote a letter to the Mother. We reproduce in full the letter with the answer of the Mother.

Pavitra-da,                                            August 1st, 1963

For quite a long time, and particularly during the last few months, many of us — teachers of the New Classes — have noticed a growing disorder and confusion in the School. We therefore decided to make a report with the hope that a timely intervention by the authorities might change the situation and improve matters. In making this report we have given our considered opinion and judgment, always keeping in mind the welfare of both of the students and the Institution.

The disorder that we see can be placed under three headings:

1) Indiscipline,
2) Irregularity and consequently
3) Poor work done by students.

Indiscipline: This problem which probably has always existed to a certain degree has now assumed rather serious proportions and has become quite acute. It is now quite a common feature to see students enter the class ten or fifteen minutes late and stroll out again a few minutes before the bell. Many of them go to the News-Paper Room, the Post-Office and the Projector Room during class hours. Very often children are seen loitering about, sometimes in the streets and sometimes in the School compound during class hours. The other problem, which we shall only just mention,— for it is too well known — is that of the stealing of notebooks and books, both of teachers and students.

Irregularity: This is a problem of a somewhat different nature. Very few students have attended regularly all the classes. Many of them started with great enthusiasm, but after a certain time — particularly when they had to give a test — dropped out and rarely came back. Finally, when they restarted, they had forgotten much of what they had learnt and much valuable time was lost in catching up. This also makes it impossible for the teacher to do any kind of Project work; for he never knows when a student will turn up again the next time.

In the afternoons, also, many students are found in the Library; many others do not come to School at all. As a result, the number of hours that a student devotes to his studies is between 4 and 5 hours, as there is no homework to be done; much of the time in these 4 or 5 hours is spent in chatting and gossip and work without concentration.

The consequence of all this has been poor work by the students. Not only is the amount of work done insufficient but also the quality is poor.

Taking into account the overall performance of the students, 59 may be said to have done quite poor work, 45 very poor, while only 23 have done average work, 4 good and 3 very good.

Taking into consideration, subject-wise performance of work, we find that 77 out of 116 are below normal in English; 63 out of 71 are below normal in French; 130 out of 142 are below normal in Maths; 66 out of 69 are below normal in Physics; 33 out of 38 in Chemistry; 99 out of 139 in Natural Science; 95 out of 127 in History; and 115 out of 127 in Geography.

We have all felt therefore that something should be done before it is too late. The first and most essential step, we feel, is to have a minimum number of fixed periods for each subject; this minimum number can only be decided later on. Some of us, however, feel that all classes should have fixed periods. The timetable will be fixed by the office and once a student decides to attend a class, he should be regular and punctual.

Another point which we should mention is that of teaching only through work-sheets. Many teachers feel that all subjects need some oral treatment, the proportion varying with the subject. A combination of the work-sheet method with oral exposition and discussions seems to be a possible solution.


First for the teachers:
I am satisfied with the figures indicated in the report. In spite of what one might think the proportion of very good students is satisfactory. If out of 150 students, there are 7 individuals of genuine value, it is very good.

Now for the organisation:
The classes as a whole may be reorganised so as to fulfil the needs of the majority, that is to say, of those who, in the absence of any outside pressure or imposed discipline, work badly and make no progress. But it is essential that the present system of education in the new classes should be maintained, in order to allow outstanding individuals to show themselves and develop freely. That is our true aim. It should be known—we should not hesitate to proclaim it—that the whole purpose of our school is to discover and encourage those in whom the need for progress has become conscious enough to direct their lives. It ought to be a privilege to be admitted to these Free Progress classes. At regular intervals (every month, for example) a selection should be made and those who cannot take advantage of this special education should be sent back into the normal stream. The criticisms made in the report apply to the teachers as much as to the students. For students of high capacity, one teacher well versed in his subject is enough—even a good textbook, together with encyclopaedias and dictionaries would be enough. But as one goes down the scale and the capacity of the student becomes lower, the teacher must have higher and higher capacities: discipline, self-control, consecration, psychological understanding, infectious enthusiasm, to awaken in the student the part which is asleep the will to know, the need for progress, self-control, etc. Just as we organise the school in such a way as to be able to discover and help outstanding students, in the same way, the responsibility for classes should be given to outstanding teachers. So I ask each teacher to consider his work in the school as the best and quickest way of doing his Yoga. Moreover, every difficulty and every difficult student should be an opportunity for him to find a divine solution to the problem.

5 August 1963

What is important to note is that the Mother despite the apparent failure at the beginning was insistent that the Free Progress System should continue with whatever modifications in the organisation of the school. The direction for the future was clearly laid down by the Mother.

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