The Wonder of Learning by Experiencing by Radha Gopalan


       The Wonder of Learning by Experiencing

A meaningful educational process is one that tries to bridge the gap between the reason and the heart, the mind and the soul. It is by experiencing alone that learning becomes an enriching process. Here a teacher shares her enriching journey.

                                                                                 By Radha  Gopalan

The joy of learning by seeing and doing was revealed most wonderfully to me by a group of 5-8 year olds. At the heart of the experience was the way these young children looked at everything around them with wonder and a desire to explore. These children live and study in a private, residential school where most of the students are from affluent, urban backgrounds. The school is located in a rural community about 20 kms from the nearest town.

I periodically engaged with this group of children as part of their Environmental Studies or EVS class. During one such session, we began exploring the question: Where does the milk that we drink, come from? The community where the children and I lived, buys milk from a nearby village co-operative run by a group of small and marginal farmers. We decided to visit the co-operative to trace the route that milk takes from its source, the cow, to our homes.

We reached the cooperative, as planned, at the time when they were collecting milk from various farmers.  The curious children  walked around peering into milk containers that the farmers were holding. Their excitement was palpable with shouts of “fresh  milk is so white and frothy! I feel like drinking it straight from the bucket!” “Can we drink it straight from the bucket?” “Why does milk look different when we drink it at home?” Some of the children had dashed down the street and were shouting “Look everybody on this road is milking cows at the same time!” “Wow, look at the speed with which the milk is coming out of this cow. The milk from the other cow is slower. Why is that?” “There are many different coloured cows. Some are brown, black and white, grey, white. Why are they coloured differently?” “Why do some cows have horns and others don’t?  “This cow is eating something while the lady is milking it. What is it eating?”
The farmers and I tried answering each question from which the milk story slowly began unfolding seemingly in a fragmented fashion. The narrative did not follow  the stepwise journey from the cow to our table:  starting from the cow, the milking activity, to the cooperative collection centre and from there  to the central kitchen of the school  where the children and I lived. The fact that there would be questions around the colour of cows, speed of milking, what they eat etc., did not occur to me. I was struggling with several things: how does one explain that different colours mean different breeds, what are breeds, some breeds have horns, others do not etc. The challenge here was to simplify these ideas for 5-8 years old without deflecting the questions..
We then sat down in the village and over several glasses of warm, sweet milk, tried to piece together the story of the milk based on what they had seen and understood. What emerged was a rich and textured account. It became clear that our story was not merely about tracking the milk from the cow to the table. We learnt about breeds (there are different types of cows just as there are different types of dogs and cats), difference between indigenous and exotic (imported from the Netherlands, Denmark etc.) breeds of cattle, why conserving local breeds is important, raw milk vs pasteurised milk, the art of milking a cow, diet of cows, how farmers’ children help their parents while studying in school etc.
An interesting pedagogical experience emerged: learning through immersion in a real-life situation an open-ended exploration led by the young children and not the teacher. The children’s sense of wonder, keen observation and uninhibited way of asking questions allowed them to learn in a way that would not have been possible in any classroom or audio-visual aided environment. When planning this activity I had done so with a pre-conceived idea of what 5-8 year olds could comprehend which had led to the struggle I had experienced when the children were asking seemingly diverse questions. If we had explored this question sitting in a classroom or in a structured manner as I had planned to we would have probably traced the journey from the cow to the table by drawing a classic milk supply chain diagram. How lifeless that would have been!

The challenge many of us educators face is to keep this sense of wonder and newness alive in children as they grow and learn. With a few exceptions most young people lose this ability by the time they reach puberty. It is also the time when our mainstream education system begins to complicate the learning process. The number of subjects they have to study increases, there are performance related expectations around exams and later around career choices. As educators we also seem to get drawn into this time-bound “deliverable” style of functioning: moving from one exam or test to the next and focussing on ticking the boxes or rather topics to be covered in the curriculum.  To keep the joy of learning alive and to equip young people with skills that will keep learning alive all through their life it is critical that we integrate real-life experiences in their learning programme.
Experience with “cool” and jaded 16-18 year olds has showed me that it is possible to ignite that spark for learning or generate that “aha” moment by challenging them with real-life situations. To illustrate: while teaching Environmental Legislation (a dry topic for most people) to forty Class XII students I decided to take it out of the classroom. The students were divided into groups of 8 with each group taking on different roles e.g., Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Industry representatives, citizens likely to be displaced by a project and the World Bank. They were given a case study (2 pages) from which they had to construct their respective roles. They then had to face each other, question, challenge and play their parts. The excitement this generated was similar to that of the 6-8 year olds. The number of questions that emerged were documented and after the excitement of 1 hour of role playing the students documented the process in the form of a flow chart on a large flip-chart. As we went through the flowchart I corrected their understanding and we had together created notes that they could use to study from. During the discussion we also touched upon various topics that we had to cover in subsequent classes but which had emerged during the role-playing. This gave students confidence to engage with what they were reading in newspapers about environmental issues. It also exponentially increased their interest in reading the newspaper regularly and bringing to class issues that they had read and had questions about.
Facilitation of experiential learning requires a lot of preparation on the part of the educator. Apart from domain knowledge and expertise, classroom management skills, it also requires a fine balance between a hands-off approach and timely intervention to make the learning experience effective.
Writing about these experiences brought to mind the struggles faced by Ramesh, the teenage son of one of the farmers in a nearby village. From the age of 5 or 6 till he was 14, Ramesh had accompanied his father when he took their cattle grazing, helped wash their cows and bulls, learnt about all the plants in the surrounding areas, what animals ate and what they did not, which plants had medicinal value, when they are to be harvested, how to build a cowshed, how to yoke bullocks, repair water pumps etc.  Familiarity with cows and breeds, their feeding habits, the interdependency between animals and farming was part of Ramesh’s growing up. He probably had answers to all the questions that the 5-8 year olds were earlier asking me about cows and milk when he was their age.

Ramesh studied in the local Government school where the medium of instruction was Telugu.


Here he had to learn about things and places which he could not relate to at all.  He was expected to know facts about these places, to remember formulae, terms all of which were not only unfamiliar but seemed irrelevant. Learning was within the classroom walls. All the knowledge he had about animals, plants, the
environment around him, and his hands-on technical skills did not have any value in school. By the time he was 14 years old and in Class X he did not have the time to help his parents on the farm. Like many of his school mates Ramesh also began to reject the knowledge he had from experience, as useless.

When he graduated from High School he had to join an English Medium school for Class XI and XII. Ramesh loved Biology and decided to study Science. Within a month of joining the new school he became depressed, lost his confidence and wanted to discontinue his studies. Between trying to cope with English and cramming facts in Science he found it impossible to continue. Ramesh, his parents and I had several rounds of discussions and finally he decided to take a break from school and work with his father on the farm.

The diverse and creative ways by which Ramesh, the 16-18 year olds and the 5-8 year olds learnt, when in a real-life situation, allowed them to see the interconnectedness that is a necessary part of life. It allowed them to think with freedom rather than being restricted by the teacher’s knowledge. Young minds must be nurtured to have this freedom since this is how we will find answers to life’s increasingly complex problems – ecological and social.

Ramesh continued his education by learning from practice. A  friend of the family put Ramesh in touch with several communities practicing agro-ecological farming in various parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In visiting them he slowly regained confidence and began to value the knowledge and skills he had by virtue of having grown up in a rural environment. He also realised that his father was a progressive farmer who had always been practicing farming the way all these communities were trying to learn. Ramesh has just completed his Class XII through the National Open School system while working and learning from the land from people who have rejected mainstream education. He now plans to come back to his village, work on the family farm and motivate his friends and peers through his learning experience.

Our current education system focusses on fact-based learning from books, the internet and notes from teachers. The written word dominates and this kind of learning is what young people are forced to aspire to if they want to be considered “successful” in life. The wonder and excitement experienced by the young children or the excitement of the Class XII students must be the norm rather than the exception. The learning by doing and living that rural children like Ramesh have must find a place in our education system. The balance between the “theoretical” classroom and the “practice” real-life—between the facts and the experience is what makes learning relevant and real. The resilience that such learning brings is critical for young people to navigate through life more meaningfully.


Radha Gopalan is an Environmental Scientist by training .She has taught at  Rishi Valley School for over 7 years In addition she continues to be engaged with small farmers in the surrounding villages trying to understand human-nature relationships.

This article is published in The New Leam, February Issue( Vol.2  No.9) and available in print version.
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