We don’t need no education

Posted: May 15, 2011 by Gurveen Bedi in Career, Education
Tags: , ,

Winston Churchill once said – My education was interrupted only by my schooling. Perhaps Churchill should have sought advice from Mark Twain who had said only a few years before Churchill – I went to school, but it did not interfere with my education. Winston Churchill and Mark Twain were not alone in their views on schooling. Several successful personalities (Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein etc.) belonging to different timeframes of the world, have expressed serious doubts about the efficacy of the “education” provided at conventional schools. Though the above statements were made almost a century ago, they are as valid today as they were before. The 21st century might have witnessed a gadget boom, transformed the services industry, ushered in a social media revolution, and changed the way the world looks! But it has failed to influence our schooling system, which has remained archaic, forgotten and ignored like our historical monuments – with old foundations, shaky walls and boarded windows.

Being a civil engineer, I might still pretend to have a hint of expertise in the restoration of historical buildings, but having just finished my student life, I can in no way claim an expertise in redesigning our school system, nor will I pretend to do so. It’s just that my father’s frequent transfers gave me an opportunity to study in five different schools across four states in two different boards. Along with that, being the daughter of a school-teacher gave me a perspective into the thought process of teachers and a chance to strike up numerous dinnertime conversations with teachers across classes. All these experiences concluded in a course on Education that I managed to chance upon in my MBA. Hence this blog post, though not an expert view itself, is an amalgamation of hours of random discussions, snippets from experts and records of experiments, all in an attempt to find the missing spark in our schooling system.

…so long as it’s black.”

When I first watched Ken Robinson’s video talk, I was more enamoured by the creatives rather than the content. Though some of the content did strike resonance with me, being an outcome of the very schooling system that Ken had criticised, I chose to ignore it. It was only later that the essence of what Ken had spoken jolted me. Ken had spoken about the fact that our schools are a derivative of industrialisation, hence are organised on factory lines. That is why the most important factor considered while slotting children in different classes is their ‘date of manufacturing’, not their aptitude or interests or ambitions. Babies are put into the factory of education and then come out as standard products – engineers, doctors, MBAs, CAs – each product category different from the other, but each product in a category eerily similar.

Every child has a varying interest in different subjects. For example, I have always been a lover of English and Mathematics, while my brother was a die-hard fan of Physics and Geography. We had the same upbringing, similar schooling, and same genes – but still our talent and aptitude lay in different things. But no school would ever consider putting me in Standard 7 and my brother in Standard 6 for Maths, and vice versa for Physics. Because we were expected to perform by our birth date, our aptitude being too subjective a term.

A system where children are slotted at different levels for different subjects does exist in some measure in schools in the US. For example, for every class there might be a Basic Mathematics class for students who perform at an average level in the subject, and an Advanced Mathematics for students exceptional in it. Such a system allows students to spend more time in subjects that they are interested in. Not every student can be a historian and not every student will be a mathematician. Hence, allowing students to study the basics in all subjects but be an expert in only a few, is a policy that makes sense. Especially in India, where most students decide their future paths abruptly after Class 10th, such a system would give them time to understand what they like studying, hence allowing them to make better career choices and perhaps solve the ‘engineer-doctor’ syndrome affecting the Indian middle class.

A derivative of the caste system, the ‘engineer-doctor’ syndrome is a vicious circle of hierarchical occupations. Daddy Engineer tells his son, “You have full freedom son, do anything as long as you become an engineer”. Doctor Mommy and Doctor Daddy tell their daughter, “We won’t force you to chose biology, but think of the clinic before you make your choice”. Almost as if Ford was telling his customers, “People can have the Model T in any colour so long as it’s black.”

It’s time to cure the syndrome, to transform our schools from the factories that they are, to centres of learning, to finally let go of Ford’s Black car hangover, and let our children paint their lives with colours of choice from their palette.

To Sir with Love

An important cog in the wheel of the schooling system is teachers. We have all had good teachers, insignificant teachers and bad teachers in our school lives. Of course the bad ones are remembered the most, followed by good teachers, and the insignificant ones don’t matter.

On an average, the pedagogy that our teachers adopt in schools is uninspiring, insipid and boring. Largely, the teaching styles inhibit participation in class. In fact, most teachers do not entertain questions in the middle of their teaching. They encourage students to speak only when spoken to, not when they want to speak, if they care to want to speak at all. Even if students speak in classes, they do so to express doubts, never opinions. It is assumed that the teacher is better at everything than the student, so the roles of talker-listener are clearly demarcated. Children, of course, are not born with this system in mind. In fact it is almost morbidly beautiful how these roles get reversed over time. When a baby is born, it’s the baby who governs the language of conversation (Ba Ba, Boo Boo, Te Ta etc.) and it’s the parents who oblige by uttering syllable-like words that they can’t make sense of. Gradually, as the kid grows, she starts asking so many questions, that it would make one feel that if unstopped, her barrage of questions could probably cause some serious brain damage. But once she starts going to school, a sudden role reversal happens – this ability to conjure up questions reduces, and slowly the curiosity is stymied by systemic problems. In fact, Albert Einstein has famously said It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. Miracles do not continue indefinitely, hence we need to stop depending on them, and instead develop pedagogy that nurtures this curiosity, rather than suppresses it. Teachers should make special attempts to involve students in class discussions, to prepare examinations where opinions are asked rather than just hard facts, to encourage students to ask more and more questions without fearing that a question might be labelled foolish. A change of attitude is required so that teachers learn with students rather than make students learn.

Not only that, our curriculum also has to be designed in a way that children enjoy their experience in school. Considering that education now needs to compete with mind-boggling and brain-fizzing distractions in the form of internet, playstations and television, it needs to have other aces up its sleeve, as plain textbooks will no longer suffice. The best way to conjure up these aces is to be as mind-boggling and brain-fizzing like the distractions, and that is where audio-visual educational aids step in. In India, the development of digital content in the K-12 (Kindergarten to Standard 12) space is a growing business, but it still has not attained the large scale usage that it should. Currently this digital content is purchased by a few enthusiastic and tech-savvy parents, but for a prolonged solution, this initiative will have to be taken at the teacher-level, school-level or rather system-level.

It’s not simple to make all these changes in the existing system. Teachers will argue that these changes have no point because in the end the board examination gives no value to such learning. Board officials will say that teachers are not skilled enough to handle new systems of pedagogy. The education ministry might point out to the paucity of funds due to which hi-tech educational aids cannot be invested in. The baton might be shifted from the teachers to school authorities to board officials to the education ministry and back from the education ministry to board officials to school authorities to teachers. But someone needs to take the first step, give a nudge to the first domino. Perhaps the need of the hour is an incarnation of Ricardo Braithwaite – who will step into the corridors of our schools or the offices of our education boards or the hallways of our education ministry and start putting systems in place that ensure that the seeds of creativity in children are not lost in the drone of education.

Security Prison 21

In Phnom Penh, somewhere in the inner city lies the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A number of schoolchildren visit it daily, and a lost tourist might even mistake it for a school by looking at its exteriors. It is actually the site of the notorious Security 21 prison by the Khmer Rouge communist regime. But before being converted into S-21, it was actually a high school. Makes one wonder that probably not a lot of work needs to be done to convert schools into prisons. The bells, grills and guards would just be the same, maybe some additional walls could be put in. In fact, not only do our schools look and feel like prison chambers, sometimes we treat them in the same way as well – any child who does the mistake of peering out of any classroom window is promptly admonished, as if a crime had been committed by being curious.

The underlying issue is that we simply consider our classrooms as four walls and a roof, needed to contain students and teachers rather than as learning aids themselves. There have been the occasional manicured gardens, bright posters on walls, colourful notice boards in classes in some schools, but school space and its constituent elements have never been actively used for learning. There are numerous ways in which this can be done. For example, having abacus as window grills, making scale of measurements on desks, drawing shapes and colors on the floor in corridors, graffiti boards on the walls, painting numbers on stairs so as to make learning a part of play for young children. Even for senior classes, the furniture in the classroom can be made movable, such that different methods of pedagogy can be employed – group study, projects, individual study etc.

In technical terms, this creative designing of school buildings is called “Buildings as Learning aids (BaLa)”. Vinyãs is an architectural firm that has invented BaLa and is involved in several consulting projects to publicise the use of BaLa. In fact, Kabir Vajpayee, a Prinicipal Architect at Vinyãs has also written a book on the subject, in case any of the readers wish to learn more on the subject.

According to BaLa, simple creative ideas when deployed in the classroom space can combine with the mundane textbook or blackboard to create a vibrant learning atmosphere. Proper utilization of the classroom and school building can create a space for children where they find comfort and freedom, where they get enthused to experiment and learn. We really need to redesign most of our schools to distinguish them from our prisons. Though Kiran Bedi might want to get education in our prisons, let’s not get the prisons into education.

The little girl at the window

The story of Tottochan was written by a Japanese author, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Tottochan was a young girl, who was thrown out of her first school because of her excessive curiosity, divergent thinking and overzealous nature – in other words for looking out of the window constantly, calling over street-musicians to the class and talking to swallows. She is subsequently admitted to a different school – Tomoe Gakuen, which turns out to be a Wonderland for our Tottochan. Tomoe Gakeun is a school where classrooms are held in stationary train wagons, self-study is the prominent mode of education with teachers stepping in only when one has doubts, there is no demarcation of periods for every subject – you can do any subject anytime as long as you finish all the work by the end of the school-day, physically challenged children study together with everyone else to make sure that they mingle in the world naturally, lessons in science are taught on nature walks and constellations are taught by holding night camps for star-watching. It is a school where learning was imparted in such a subtle manner that it left its pupils wanting for more, where each day held something new for Tottochan, where Tottochan could dream and conjure up a future of her choice.

Like Tottochan, I have a dream too, a utopian one perhaps. Of a school like Tomoe Gakuen. I have a dream of a school where a child is understood by her interests rather than age, where teachers are guides and not gods, where classrooms are a whirlpool of colors, where classes are a smorgasbord of subjects. I have a dream where the little girl staring out of at the window is not reprimanded but rather the whole class is taken outside to show the others what she is able to see.

I have a dream….

  1. Anandh Sundar says:

    While I agree with the sentiments in this post, the question is how will an infrastructure starved country like India( both physical and teachers wise) be able to add flexibility? Digitization and BALA may reduce the cost of teaching and classrooms respectively, but these seem incremental improvements. The recommendations in the post can be done in an elitist system like IB but to incorporate this in mass cookie cutter schooling does seem difficult.

    And then, are we not passing a value judgement on the students by putting them in advanced streams in school itself? That may only increase the number of students who enter say engineering with starry eyes, but then leave that field to do MBA etc.

  2. Rahul Madhavan says:

    Was very surprised to see this. I have been speaking to someone who is planning to start a school, in fact an alternative education system to get rid of the exact same issues with the pedagogy that you are speaking about. Maybe Shantiniketan is a good example of where to start of if we want to clean up and start letting the kids be kids?

  3. Rahul Madhavan says:

    Also, I wish this world was made by dreamers. I would love to see you start a school one day with everything set just right, where students perhaps don’t need but start wanting education…

  4. Gurveen Bedi says:

    I agree that there are several schools in the country where basic infrastructure is a problem and such measures might be an issue there. But there are so many other schools in Tier I and Tier II cities that have the means to try these measures, but they still don’t. For such schools, infrastructural deficit is nothing more than an excuse for not taking appropriate steps to make education a better experience. Imagine a history lecture on the freedom struggle, what would it take to make the children feel alive in the class? Perhaps a poster of Jalliawalla Bagh and a sound-clip of the independence speech by Jawaharlal Nehru. What would that cost? A little bit of inventiveness, and perhaps 10 bucks. Hence, money is not the constraint, rather the attitude towards education is the real roadblock. Thus, an attitude change is required from teachers to experiment with different means to make education fun and meaningful; these means might not necessarily be digitization or BaLa only. This change needs to be driven by the school administration; budget can never become an excuse for it. Once this attitude changes, these seemingly incremental improvements will revolutionize the way teaching is carried out in the country, affecting both the elitist schools and the cookie cutter ones!

    As for your second question, the system that I have suggested of children being slotted at different levels in each subject does not mean putting them in advanced streams early on. The system will involve an assessment of children at every stage and then subsequent slotting. They will thus be sitting in Advanced Levels of subjects when their brains are ready to understand them, not otherwise. This will make them move at their own pace without running with the fastest kid in the class. I understand that in an Indian system where half the parents will be heartbroken if their kid did not make it to Advanced Mathematics first and made it to Advanced English instead, the parents will need to be counselled more than the kids. But we need to take a step somewhere if the engineer-doctor cycle is to be broken, and allowing children to move at their own pace, is a good step to begin the journey with.

    Glad you liked the ideas. Shantiniketan is a befitting example, thanks for mentioning it. In fact if you are interested, you might want to read up on Kiran Bir Sethi, and what she is going in Riverside school in Ahmedabad. Its quite revolutionary in its own way. I would love to work and help build a school like that someday! Hopefully the next gen will be able to easily attend schools like this.

    A world made by dreamers can indeed fulfil the most utopian of dreams! I cannot resist quoting one of my favorite lines here

    “Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

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