Rishi Valley Satellite Schools and Beyond

The  Rishi  Valley  Satellite  Scheme
- and  its  extensions  overseas
(also known as "School in a Box")
- A Visitors View, Some Tentative Findings:   Bangalore,  2006
This article is by Kathleen Kelley-Laine, a sociologist who has  worked in educational research and innovation at the OECD for over twenty years.

If you have questions about the ’School in a Box’ scheme, she is willing to be contacted.

 Kathleen Kelley-Laine
(1) The Introduction of the scheme
(2) How the scheme has changed village culture
(3) Transferring the scheme to other places in India
(4) Transferring the scheme to other countries
(5) Some notes on Krishnamurti's influence
(6) 2008 Update and DVD


(1) The Introduction of the Scheme

  The situation of rural schools in India was not brilliant in 1987 when Padmanabha and Rama Rao came to Rishi Valley, supported by a government grant to study the state of primary education in the area.  Their mandate was to find innovative approaches that would address the issues in rural schools.

    Just as seed will grow in fertile ground, the Rishi Valley Education Centre provided the rich soil in which the innovative ideas of the young couple would find root.  Inspired by Krishnamurti's (* see below) values about holistic education, respect for children’s needs to be actors of their destiny, and the role of relationship and compassion in daily life, the two pedagogues, together with the motivated teachers and staff, went to work to elaborate what is to-day a most successful story of quality education and community development.

    In 1987, all rural children were supposedly in Government Schools. The study that P. and R. Rao carried out at the time showed that there was a mismatch between the actual situation and what was written on paper.  For example, in a  one room class with children from 1st to 5th grade primary school; although there were to be 5 teachers for 5 grades, in fact often there were only two for the whole school. .  Teaching meant textbooks, rote learning and the teacher in front of the class.  Given the difference in levels of learning, of language, economic status,. many children were simply left out, ignored by the teacher to fall by the wayside. It is evident that many children dropped out of school, or were pulled out by their parents to work in the fields.  Child labor was common practice of the time.  Children, whose language, culture and social identity were chastised by the teachers trained in the conventional system, were probably relieved to go back to known and familiar customs of their village.

    It is against this background that RVEC set up two satellite village schools on the grounds of the existing Rishi Valley School.  Although the classes were multi-grade, multi-level, the teachers were using textbooks that were not really adapted to children’s various needs; self-paced learning was not yet in place.  One of the major problems in the beginning was to know the kind of stimulus needed and in fact to start from scratch brought great energy.

    It was decided that they would begin by creating one school per year.  Teachers were recruited from the local community and trained by the Rishi Valley Education Centre.  Schools were to be in villages with no government school nearby as they did not want to take over the responsibility of the government.  Another criterion was to improve accessibility of children to the school.  Instead of having to walk for miles, the school would be located in the village; this would meet the challenge of drawing children into the schools.

    Rigorous action research was set up to document the difficulties, drawbacks and eventually led to modifying the materials. Holistic education means learning within an environmental context.  Close to organic growth, it implies the integration of nature, the community, human values and customs.  Children to grow and learn need to experience the security that is provided by the familiar; only then can they go forth to explore the word and embrace what is new. For the artisans of “school in a box” it was evident that the village schools would meet success through the integration of the local community in the school.

    How was this to be done?  To motivate children through good pedagogy, it was felt that learning materials needed to be based on the local culture.  Why not use mother’s stories to teach reading, rather than some abstract and unfamiliar text.  Workshops were organized with interested mothers to discuss their children’s schooling; eventually mothers began offering stories, songs and rimes.  The local tradition of leather puppets could also be called upon to translate the oral, then the written into action and play.

    It was a thrill for young teachers to see the excitement and enthusiasm of small children when they were able to make the connection between their mother’s oral stories, the written word and being able to put all this into action with the puppets.  It also gave them more confidence in reading.

    As the use of TV and film for primary entertainment are spreading in rural villages, it is increasingly important to revive traditional culture.  Using puppets in school is not only a pedagogical device but is also a safeguard for 3000 year old tradition.   Action research revealed the importance of making use of all the senses: touch, smell, vision etc. to learn the shape of words, for example and to give cultural meaning to their content.  Through this method children are able to master reading very quickly and are therefore encouraged to continue.  This is very important in a poor rural setting where immediate results are essential in an economy of “survival”.

    The teachers also use their senses and creativity as well as their critical faculties as they design the materials for the curriculum.  This active investment in the actual content of learning gives them a unique role in the school and the community.

    Designing the materials had to be sensitive to the government school curriculum outcomes.  A group of teachers were brought together by RIVER; they began the designing the curriculum by referring to various resource books and by using the parts of the local textbooks that they felt would be useful.  Each school adapted these “official curriculum criteria” to their local environment taking into consideration the levels of learning that children needed to attain at different ages, while maintaining great flexibility through the ladder system.  This means that children can miss school during illness, local festivals and harvest season  without falling behind.

    Schools based on the “joy of learning” can sometimes be considered as incompatible with academic achievement.  RIVER had to work all the harder to make sure that children would meet the criterion to be able to pass on to the 6th grade and do well in the entrance exams.  It is largely for this reason that children are introduced to text books in class 5, the last year of primary school.  An increasing number of children continue in government schools until 7th grade; some go to college and even university.  Many of the girls get married at 15 years, have children and work in the fields.


(2) How the scheme has changed village culture

How has “School in a Box” changed village culture?

    While in 1987 it was evident that village children would work in the fields rather than go to school, to-day it is evident that all village children go to school rather than working in the fields.  Most children’s parents attended the village school when they were young and they find it normal that their offspring do the same.  Even grandmothers feel that education is essential for their grand children.

    The presence of the village school has considerably improved the quality of life for the inhabitants.  The involvement of parents and elders with the school has united villagers around an essential element in their lives: the education of their children.  As children became literate, so some of the parents were motivated to learn to read and some mother’s committees took on teaching each other.

    One of the most important indicators of the increase in the quality of village life is the reduction of child labor.  School in a Box is a kind of safeguard for a child to enjoy his childhood, at least until he or she is ten years old.

    The school serves also as a resource for health care.  Mothers are asked to bathe their children at least every second day.  The Rishi Valley Ayurevedic Health Centre trains health workers who come to the villages and use the school as a resource for teaching healthy living habits, cleanliness, and giving out basic medical kits for the prevention of illness.  They also encourage villagers to create herbal gardens and grow those plants that can be used to heal a number of illnesses such as colds, intestinal problems, skin diseases etc. 

    Environmental education is also on the curriculum.  Children become ecologically aware; they have a school garden where they learn to cultivate fruit and vegetables for their own use.  Growing papayas provides a special boost for nutrition and the importance of clean drinking water has become common knowledge.

    School is a resource not only for learning but also health, literacy, entertainment when local actors want to put on a puppet show.  School is a place where children can play, where generations meet and grandmothers tell stories.  School has become the heart of village culture.


(3) Transferring the scheme to other places in India

    Is “School in a Box” transferable to other States, countries, situations, cultures?

    The architects of “School in a Box” warn that a meaningful transfer of the methodology involves a radically new way of looking at the pedagogical situation: the physical organization of the classroom, the roles of the teachers, the students, the interaction between them, as well as the content of subject matter itself.  It is suggested that a whole spectrum of attitudes have to be unlearned and another set learned.  In fact they recommend a process of “ transcreation” through capacity building with the help of a team of resource person, educators, storytellers, writers, illustrators.  The focus of the capacity building process is to make respective groups understand the main principle of the whole exercise, namely that the content should reflect local cultural context, while at the same time the teacher caters to the learning needs of the child.

    Now, nineteen years down the road, RIVER, has considerable experience in “transferability” thanks to rigorous work, action research and the important human dimension that goes beyond the concrete results of “School in a Box”.  UNICEF was a major partner that helped open up the work with larger groups and with other partners.  The RIVER methodology in turn has enriched their own approaches to education and has given them extra strength to come up with structures.  In the scaling up phase new partners began emerging, taking interest in the RIVER methodology.  Visits by organizations such as the World Bank, the European Commission, and the Government of India opened up new horizons for transferability.  In India, with the governments funding of the improvement of basic education, different groups were encouraged to explore the “School in a Box” methodology and RIVER was called upon to collaborate with a number of other States.  To note only a few examples here:

Tribal Schools in Andhra Pradesh: Paderu and Rampachudavaram are inaccessible tribal areas of AP.  In 1996, three nodal agencies, the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, UNICEF and RVEC collaborated in planning, co-coordinating and implementing an ambitious program in these districts.  In two years, 2,200 schools scattered over the two districts of Paderu and Rampachodavaram were established, and a new version of the teaching-learning material was produced in collaboration with tribal teachers.  The Tribal version of the teaching-learning material was called Anandalahari (“Joyful Learning”) and it lived up to its name.

Kerala: In 1996 when District Primary Education Program (DPEP) Kerala decided that the RVEC methodology was well suited to remote tribal and coastal pockets of Kerala, a similar exercise in trancreating the Educational Materials for use in Malayalam dialects was undertaken.  The thirty multi-grade centers in remote and educationally backward areas of Kasargode, Mallapuram and Wayanad Districts are functioning in Kerala, and have grown to almost seven hundred, as expansion plans continue.  1600 schools were using this program at last count.

Chennai Corporation schools: This was the first major project in an urban situation.  River supported the Corporation teachers in designing multigrade materials and building the capacity of the teachers in RIVER strategy.  Around 2000 children would be impacted by this programme in experiencing a child friendly learning methodology.  Already the teachers give examples of children coming back from the private schools to the government schools after seeing a tangible change in the classroom climate.  A series of workshops are planned wherein all cadres of the education department are involved in not only understanding the RIVER strategy but also to make them own up the entire initiative. Now they are scaling up this methodology to another 3000 schools.
(4) Transferring the scheme to other countries
    The first overseas project was in Ethiopia.  A Rural Education Project modelled on the RIVER approach was initiated in southern Ethiopia to educate local children and bring them to a level of permanent literacy.  The visiting team from Rishi Valley ( Mr. and Mrs. Rao) went to Ethiopia for one week and found many similarities with the rural situation in India: small farmers, very slow transportation, often no roads into the villages.  After this initial visit from RIVER, a core group of educationists from Ethiopia and administrators from the sponsoring group in North America visited Rishi Valley for a planning session.  The next step in the project was a field consultancy by the RIVER resource persons in Ethiopia.  This was followed by a month long workshop at RIVER for curriculum, on design of model schools, on selection and preparation of teachers.  Other countries are showing interest in this kind of collaboration such as Columbia, Brazil, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

    What are some of the challenges of transferring “School in a Box” to other countries?  According to P. Rao, working with the traditional system is always difficult in the beginning and it takes hard work to prove that the innovative methodology does work.  Motivated teachers can be found in every State, in every country.  RIVER sets up “designer workshops” with teachers, designers of materials, folk singers, local artists and community members to adapt the materials to the local language and cultural situation.  This designing work goes on for twenty days so that the entire system is in the local language and is not a copy of the Rishi Valley version.  Then the materials are experimented in the State or country and the “transcreation” process begins.  Initially they involved 15 to 45 schools, slowly expanding in one year to 75 to 125 while continuing to scale up to 1000 schools in two years. The Government of India is now following this route.
In India, during the initial stages of the work,(1993) the textbook lobby showed strong opposition to the “School in a Box” methodology.  Teachers were designing their own materials and would no longer need textbooks!  Then a group of interested teachers from the government schools wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education in support of the innovation; finally a team of government officials came to visit Rishi Valley, were positively surprised and decided that any teacher, who wanted to take up this project, could.  Then RIVER began involving the textbook writers and the textbook boards and the creation of materials became a collaborative effort between teachers, textbook writers and designers.  This bridged the gap and teachers, experts together integrated this approach in the textbooks.  

    Another important feature of this approach is that it is not possible to pervert its initial community based focus. Even if bureaucrats would want to apply the method across the board it is not possible.  The “School in a Box” methodology is programmed for a local context with built in checks and balances, and teachers have a strong feeling of ownership for the materials.  As demonstrated above, and despite the local approach, the methodology is highly replicable in other cultural contexts.

How to transfer “School in a Box” to another country, culture, and situation?

1. DEMONSTRATION SITE:   Start by identifying a few schools in a province close to each other, interested in “transcreating” school in a box within their local structure.

2. PARTNERS:   Group of motivated teachers and potential community members (mothers, health practitioners etc.), an  NGO, local teacher training experts, or other supportive structure such as UNICEF that could coordinate the work and provide funding.


3.1 Teacher takes a leading role as “animator” involving the community and working with them in local activities to improve the environment, health, literacy etc. 

3.2 Teacher works with other teachers to set up a small collaborative group.
3.3 Teachers link up with the local Education Department and try to include them in the innovation strategy to create confidence and an open situation that usually leads to acceptance by the government.

3.4 A core group consisting of a trainer, designer, primary school teacher, professional from the NGO spend 10 to 15 days in Rishi Valley to explore what can or cannot be replicated of the RIVER model in their local situation.  They also come to have a deeper understanding of the methodology.

3.5 Attend a one month “designer’s work shop” at Rishi Valley to design materials for grade I that they will try out in a few local schools in their country.  These materials are thoroughly researched, evaluated with close observation of how they meet children’s needs.  They also design teacher training programmes.    By the end of the month at RV they should have road map for the 1st year of how to proceed in setting up a “School in a Box” in their local situation. Then they meet again after one year for the designers workshop to design the grade II curriculum for one month.

1.  Preoperational visit by RIVER for one week

2. Workshop for one month at Rishi Valley to design grade I curriculum. After one year grade II one month to design grade II materials.
3. Pilot school phase grades 1and 2 for two years. Becomes model school for other teachers to see. During this phase there are one or two short visits by Mr. and Mrs. Rao and other resource persons for on the job support.
4. Evaluation by teachers by setting up medium term goals i.e. 6months, mothers stories after 8 months, one year, 15 months etc.  There could be an external evaluation using the Rishi Valley MGML (multi-grade, multi-level) quality indicators/parameters after two years.
5. Scaling up after two years of extensive research.


(5) Some notes on Krishnamurti's influence on the scheme

*  According to Krishnamurti since all ideals are subtly coercive, therefore the teacher’s task is to abandon these, along with his own will power in order to give “ full attention to each child, observing and helping him”. “The moment we discard authority, we are in partnership, and only then is there cooperation and affection.” (ESL p. 35) The teacher who thus enters into a partnership with the student, who begins to understand “the inherited tendencies and environmental influences which condition the mind and heart and sustain fear.” can help nurture awareness, which is the first step to freedom.  For Krishnamurti the terms “freedom” with its sense of “liberation from inner and outer compulsions” is a necessary condition of goodness: “It is only in individual freedom that love and goodness can flower; and the right kind of education alone can offer this freedom.  Neither conformity to the present society nor the promise of a future Utopia can ever give to the individual that insight without which he is constantly creating problems.” (ESL p. 28)  The “partnership” can only become egalitarian if it is non-authoritarian. (Radhika Herzberger)

    Creating “fear” in children, the basis of many a traditional pedagogy in the West must be avoided at all costs.  Fear, for Krishnamurti is the main hindrance of freedom. “ Fear is an emotion that is all pervasive.  It penetrates both the conscious and the unconscious mind of teachers and students.  It dulls their minds and hearts.  It is at the root of conformity and competition, both of which schools nourish.  Fear, Krishnamurti insisted, cannot be eliminated through discipline.  It can, however, dissolve when the mind is still, when it is aware of “ of its darkening influence”.  The teacher’s responsibility is to help a child “to be fearless, which is free of all domination, whether by the teacher, the family or society.”  To bring about freedom, it is necessary to have “self-knowledge”, to know the routes that fear takes and to become liberated from its throws.

According to Krishnamurti, the basis of ethics is self-knowledge.  His notion of the “self” is not that of traditional Indian thought, but rather the everyday self, in its relationship “with people, with things, with ideas and with nature.”  The Teacher must “educate” himself, find out his own attitudes through reflection, and understand the fear in his own life.  If the teacher does not understand and “is himself confused and narrow, nationalistic and theory ridden, then naturally his pupil will be what he is, and education becomes a source of further confusion and strife.”

(6) 2008 Update and DVD

There is from a recent article in the Kinfonet Newsletter . 

School Without Walls
The documentary School Without Walls, written and directed by Robert André, is a tribute to the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources (RIVER) program, an initiative started by the Rishi Valley School, which was founded by Krishnamurti in 1926. The purpose of the RIVER program is to introduce education into the deep rural context of the families living in the villages around Rishi Valley. Through the children and their parents, School Without Walls traces out the manner in which this program adapts to their way of life as the school becomes an integral part of the community. We have assembled some clips from the film School Without Walls. (Please note that if you do not already have Microsoft Silverlight installed, you will be prompted to do a quick download and restart your browser before you can view the video.) 

Mosaïque Films is the producer and distributor of the film School Without Walls. An English and a French version of the film is sold on their website: www.mosaique-films.com. To obtain a copy in either language, please contact the office of Mosaïque Films in Paris.

In the current issue of the Link you can also read a related article entitled "School in a Box". The article details the RIVER program and discusses the "transferability" of such an endeavor to other situations and cultures.

This article is by Kathleen Kelley-Laine, a sociologist who has  worked in educational research and innovation at the OECD for over twenty years.

If you have questions about the ’School in a Box’ scheme, she is willing to be contacted.

 Kathleen Kelley-Laine