The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Creativity Adda: Interview with Ashish Tiwari

"Those who are dejected and have tired feet choose to walk the well carved path. I love all the raw paths I have created for myself through my journey."  - SD Saxena

His father wanted him to be an Engineer and mother wanted him to be a Doctor. All that Ashish wanted was to serve for the nation and work for child development and learning. Under the pressure of his parents he did complete BA (Political Science) and a Masters program in Public Administration. “I haven’t used these degrees or in my real life so far. My practical experiences working with various organizations and directly with children have played a key role in what I am today.” states Ashish. Here is my interview with Ashish Tiwari, co-founder of Creativity Adda in Delhi.

Me (Sharmila) — Ashish tell us a little about yourself.

Ashish — I am a sincere and hardworking person. I try to live on the basis of my life principles. I believe that sharing ‘love’ is the way of life. I am always ready to help people in need. I am very dedicated toward my work. I do not consider any job small or lowly, I try to do whatever task comes my way with joy. I haven’t earned a lot of money so far, but I have earned a lot of love. Many people stand by me and help me all the time.

Me — What motivated you to work in the area of child development and learning?

Ashish — I first questioned the schooling system when I failed ninth grade examination due to typhoid. I was depressed but spending time on sports and extra-curricular activities brightened me up. One of my primary school teachers introduced me to an organization named Manzil to learn computers. Ravi Gulati Bhaiya (co-founder of Manzil) offered to teach me math. I agreed. Soon after, I was asked to teach math to other children. I had many questions about the way math was taught to children. Most children often develop hatred toward it. I worked hard to make it relevant and contextual. I wanted children to see math as an important part of their life. Around this time, I also had the opportunity to attend a workshop, ‘Theatre in Education’ facilitated by Walter Peter. This workshop brought in greater self awareness in me. Shortly after this workshop, I participated in a play and my acting was appreciated by many. At that time, I recalled how dejected I had felt when my grade 3 teacher rejected me while selecting characters for a school play. I realized that you can do wonders, if you have someone supporting you and your ideas. I started working with children in two areas — Math and Theatre. I set up a Math foundation to strengthen math basics among children.

My dad wanted me to become an Engineer, mom a doctor and I wanted to join the army. After a conversation with Ravi Bhaiya, I felt highly motivated and realized that I wanted to work with children and serve the nation. After 12th, I did not want to waste time in getting degrees, but focus on learning through experience of being with children. I wanted to understand child psychology — how they think, how they learn etc. I accepted a job offered to me by Manzil and my journey continued. I did complete graduation and post graduation on insistence of my parents. I also spent two years in my village where I learned to farm and taught children as a Youth Collective fellow. I founded Ashneer and co-founded Adhyayan Learning Centre before I co-started Creativity Adda with Manish Jain.

Me — So what is Creativity Adda?

Ashish — The Creativity Adda is an unschool — self-designed learning (SDL) space, for students of Mukherjee Nagar Boys Senior Secondary School, a government school in Delhi. It is being supported by Shikshantar (Udaipur) and DS Group (Noida). The learners are free to decide what they want to explore. There is no centralized curriculum; rather, each learner is involved in designing their own personalized learning goals. We always start by asking them what they want to learn, how they want to learn, and from whom they want to learn. There are five different hubs — Slow Food Junior Chef’s Academy and City Organic Farm, Community Media Academy, Designlab-Makerspace, Art, Music and Dance Studio, and Sports and Fitness Centre.

Creativity Adda gives children an opportunity to first understand themselves, their uniqueness, their talent and their dreams. It is nurturing them to express themselves without any hesitation and then supporting them in pursuing their interests and their leadership skills. People look at this as an alternative space, but this is not an alternative space, it is the need of every child. It is what the mainstream should be.

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Me — Do share some examples of Self-Designed Learning (SDL) to help us understand how it works and also tell us what inspires you at the Adda?

Ashish — In SDL, the student is encouraged to explore their passion and purpose in the spirit of peer-to-peer collaboration. They work on real world projects. There are many examples of this. Children learn to make and repair things at Makerspace. When they see something needs repair like a mobile or a mixer grinder, they bring it to the Adda. They try repairing it with the help of friends and facilitators. They research on youtube and at times also talk to a local expert. Children bring different recipes to try out in our Chef’s Academy. Two years ago when we were travelling to Sardarshaher for LSUC, a fellow train passenger shared methi thepla (fenugreek parathas) with the children. Children loved them. They asked for the recipe and also searched it on the internet and then prepared theplas at the live kitchen at LSUC.

A mother of one of our Junior Chefs was not happy about his interest in cooking. She did not have any positive things to say about her son when I met her. I asked her to give me a month to bring out his potential. Today her son has learnt more than 50 different recipes, can cater for 200 people at the Daryadil cafe and other events all by himself and has strong marketing skills. He did well in his ninth grade exams recently. His parents were amazed at his development and now trust Adda.

Another student wants to excel in skating. It was a wow moment when I saw him sharing his skills with international students without knowing their language at the IDEC gathering, Bangalore. He aspires to skate at the international level. Another boy has opted out of school and is focusing on becoming a photographer. He now takes up real projects and has started earning as an entrepreneur.

The students once baked a chocolate ragi cake and expressed that they wanted to share it with people living on streets. This thought itself warmed my heart. Many such stories inspire me and motivate me to continue working.

Me — How is a self-designed learning centre different from vocational training or hobby centers?

Ashish — Adda is neither a hobby class nor a vocation class. In a hobby class, a child gets to do things only once or twice a week for an hour or two and is bound by a curriculum. At Adda, the students have the freedom to do whatever they want for 4 to 5 hours every day. It provides an environment where many resources for learning are available without cost. Students not only plan and design their own learning, they also are involved in designing the space. The students have their own democratic council in which they are involved in making various decisions concerning the Adda.

We have found that when children have the freedom to engage with an activity or resource every day for as long as they want, they develop different and unique ideas. They innovate, improvise and their real creativity starts to flow. In vocational training centers, learners usually only learn a technical skill. In addition to this, the Adda is also committed to helping students develop their leadership, entrepreneurship, organizing and communication skills.

Me — What are some of the challenges you face in a SDL space?

Ashish — Parental beliefs about the schooling system and their focus on performance in exams is a big challenge. Parents feel that children have to go to school and then tuitions. The priority is to perform well on exams. There is no time for a space like Creativity Adda. Most parents come to me to only talk about the negatives in their children. With the relentless pressure of exams, they fail to see any positives. I often ask them to identify two positive qualities in their child and appreciate them.

That being said, we still have a lot of local parents from the nearby bastis who are supporting Creativity Adda. We have also gotten very good support from the School Management Committee and the local MLA Pankaj Pushkar for setting up this space. We are also finding that Indian companies like DS Group are starting to see the value of self-designed learning and creativity.

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Me — There is a general opinion that SDL is only for children from affluent backgrounds and not for children from lower economic backgrounds. What is your opinion about this?

Ashish — SDL is only dependent on one’s quest and love for learning. This drive can be found in children from all backgrounds. Passion for learning is there among both the rich and the poor. The rich may be able to organize certain kinds of resources and create a more well-equipped learning environment more easily. Children from the lower economic backgrounds might struggle to get these resources but they have a very high potential. They are usually strong and resilient and have a high value for the resources they have. We are finding that students from lower-economic backgrounds excel much more when they grow up in an SDL environment. Creativity Adda is one such example to prove that SDL is not only for children from affluent backgrounds. There has to be a much stronger public commitment to bringing opportunities for SDL and alternative education to children from low economic backgrounds.

Me — We see many people starting SDL centers. What is your advice to them?

Ashish — I would love to see SDL centers taking over our current schooling system. I am very happy that many such centers are opening up all over the country. When there are more and more spaces such spaces; there will be a change in our perspectives and in our society. I would love to see these centers support each other and co-create together. They are always invited to come spend time with us in the Creativity Adda.

Me — I heard you have a little daughter. What are your plans for her?

Ashish — My wife lives in the village along with my parents and my brother. Our daughter is a toddler. I do not want my daughter to go to school and I would love to see her thrive on the self designed learning path. I want her to learn from her environment and pursue her interests. However the decision of going to school is hers. I will not stop her if she wants to go to school. I will support her in whatever decisions she takes.

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Me — Thank you Ashish to have taken time out to share your story and your valuable insights about children and learning. I wish you and “Creativity Adda” all the very best.