break the mold

Kalpana Pathak, Breaking the Mould: Alternative Schools in IndiaChennai: Westland Ltd. 2016, ISBN 978-93-85152-29-0, pp. XVI+230, Rs. 295.

Education is a field of interest in our time. This fact is testified by the proliferation of many institutes and centers offering education and the amount of publicity. The landscape of education in India is neither admirable nor outright condemnable. There is no doubt that India does not fall anywhere among the best countries when it comes to education. According to the 2016 Legatum Prosperity Index, India ranks 102nd out of 149 countries surveyed, in the field of education. Our education system leaves much to be desired. While on the one hand, there are people who endorse IIT and IIM as models of success, there are many more who bemoan the rote learning approach that characterizes the Indian educational system.

in break the moldThe author explores the world of alternative education in India and attempts to present her extensive study in this field. The book contains nine chapters plus a helpful introduction. The chapters explain different aspects of alternative education and thus provide an overview of alternative education in the country.

Alternative education in its broadest sense can simply be defined as everything that is not in mainstream education. One’s first impression upon hearing about alternative education may be to think of it as a Western idea. If this is the case, one will be surprised to know that there were notable Indians who also pioneered the concept locally. Famous Western names associated with alternative education are Montessori and Steiner. In the pre-independence period, social reformers and freedom fighters started to explore alternatives to the education system of the time. Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Mother, Jiddu Krishnamurthy and Gijubhai Padhaka emphasized experiential learning and innovative education (p. 19). For some of these individuals like Tagore, the search for a method of alternative education arose out of their negative experience with mainstream education.

The first chapter though called “The Origins and History of Alternative Education” offers very little in this respect. What he does in fact give is a brief history of education in India, starting from the Vedic period through the medieval and modern times and culminating in the post-independence period. The last part of the chapter introduces the concept of alternative education and briefly describes the reasons for its emergence.

The second chapter is long, as it deals with “the philosophies of alternative education thinkers and their schools.” This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book because it forms the basis upon which all further interpretation rests. The author examines the status of the philosopher in the light of his views on education. She then goes on to describe carefully the minute details, an institute associated with the philosopher.

Chapter 3 examines the rationale for alternative schools and their views on educational components such as classroom, pedagogy, art and craft, physical activity, and assessment and study materials. The next chapter is also a very important chapter from the book’s point of view because it presents the “Advantages, Disadvantages, and Myths of Alternative Education.” In order to emphasize this point, the author compares alternative education to mainstream education and thus shows the advantages and disadvantages of such a system. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and myths, showing a positive trend towards alternative education. Myths and flaws are presented though not in an entirely neutral manner; The author tends to be defensive about alternative schools.

Chapter Five discusses the “Challenges of Alternative Schools.” Again, the challenges presented are critical but receive subtly biased representation. The author downplays the effectiveness of these challenges and makes them seem like minor hurdles that alternative education can overcome. Close and critical examination will reveal that they are not as easy to dismiss as the author seems. Chapter 6 is clearly added for dramatic effect and chronicles student, parent, and teacher interviews associated with the alternative schools. At this point, the author appears to have become immersed in the concept of alternative education. The repeated emphasis on the quality of alternative education acts on the unconscious mind like advertisements.

Chapter Seven assesses the impact of the Right to Education (RTE) Act on Alternative Schools. RTE threatened the ideology of alternative education and brought it to its knees. The strain on the infrastructure and qualifications of teachers, for example, has placed heavy burdens on the meager budget of such schools and the voluntary nature of their teachers. Chapter 8 touches briefly on the topic of “homeschooling and alternative education”. The author ends the book with a detailed guide to alternative schools in India. As I went through the list, I noticed that mostly larger countries were mentioned. I did a little research myself and found a site ( that acts as an online directory of all the alternative schools registered. The author provides a brief description of each school and provides contact and address details.

The book explores a lesser-known competitor to mainstream education. However, the author immerses alternative education in milk and honey and presents it in a glorious way. On some occasions, the author has repeated quotes in an attempt to make a point. Such repetitions become exhausting after a while. Images accompanying text fail because they are blurred due to their conversion from color to grayscale. On the back cover one reads: “All in all, a must have on every parent’s bookshelf.” I beg to differ. While reading this may motivate some parents to place their children in an alternative school, most parents will find such an option not feasible despite the attractiveness of the concept. Basic factors such as proximity and transportation must be considered before enrolling a child in school. While alternative schools are cheaper, they are not always located in close neighborhoods due to their educational requirements. The book is undoubtedly very useful but it suffers from many grammatical errors and typos. The author deserves credit for his painstaking visit to these schools and for collecting data and comments. However, her presentation lacked journalistic impartiality, but consisted of the subtlety and style of a journalistic background.

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