David Horsburgh was an educational reformer who is famous for introducing and inspiring activity-based learning processes in India. The educational system in India after its independence in 1947 was an offshoot of the MacCaulay system of education which was designed to train Indians to discharge clerical duties for the red-taped colonial bureaucracy. Rote learning and memorization was encouraged along with submissive and passive learning with the main aim to enable learners to know the basics of the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic in order that they aid vested economic machineries. This kind of education catered to around 12% of the population which was the literacy rate at the time of independence. The vast majority of the population of India in the 1940s was illiterate and subjugated.
David Horsburgh came to India in 1943 as part of the Royal Air Force and was enchanted by the idyllic rural setting in Chittagong in East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. He went back to England and studied in the University of London. After World War II, he returned back to India with a keen interest in educational reform. This led him to teach in Rishi Valley School and Blue Mountain School in Ooty which follow progressive and more activity oriented forms of learning. He also did stints with the British Council in Chennai and Bangalore. After decades spent in vibrant educational settings, he finally set up a very innovative school in rural Karnataka in Kolar District called Neel Bagh in 1972. It was a realization of a sincere and passionate dream. His spouse Doreen and son Nicholas helped him in this endeavor. The school had a wide-ranging curriculum and included gardening, music, carpentry, etc, apart from conventional subjects like mathematics and language learning. It reflected the versatility of David Horsburgh himself who was famous for his charisma and exuberance. In fact, David Horsburgh was very much inspired by AS Niell who was the founder of SummerHill School, another innovative school in England, where children could learn freely and without fear.
David Horburgh found that many students found school very stressful because of examination pressure and eventually did away with exams. In Neel Bagh, he set up a lovely library with environmentally friendly buildings in a 7 acre plot of land. Children learned with the help of activity-based books carefully planned by David Horsburgh and his team as well as with the help of educational toys, puzzles, etc. The teachers merely acted as facilitators. The students were all poor villagers from Kolar District and its surrounding expanses. With carefully planned activity-enhancing resources and with the help of facilitators, the children blossomed. This was an antithesis to what was happening in primary government schools in rural areas in Karnataka which had high dropout rates. They followed dull and rigid curriculum with poor infrastructure and had large instances of teacher absenteeism. Teacher facilitators who taught at Neel Bagh went on to set up their own school like Ms. Malathi who founded Vikasana, another innovative school for the rural poor in Karnataka. Many state governments like the Tamil Nadu government incorporated activity-based learning inspired by David Horsburgh into their curriculum. Thus, David Horsburgh was one of the major educational reformers of India post-independence and has helped in the slow transformation of education in India from a dull MacCaulay type of education to a joyful and activity-based approach.