Alternative Education - Learning Our Purpose In Life
by Neelam Mehta
Education is the building block of civilisation. It is through sharing of thoughts and ideas that each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one. The purpose of education is to help each person discover his purpose in life. This it does by helping us develop our uniqueness and reach our full potential.
Krishnamurti sums up the function of education beautifully in the following lines: “Surely, education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joys. You may earn degrees, you may have a series of letters after your name and land a very good job, but then what? What is the point of it all if in the process your mind becomes dull, weary, stupid?”
Self-growth or competition
Unfortunately, education today has been reduced to a numbers game. With admission cut-offs going not just through the roof but the sky, our education system has bred a culture of one-upmanship and cut-throat competition. Frenetic lifetimes are spent keeping up with the Joneses in complete disregard of our deep urges for expression which manifest as our talents. The grading and evaluation system of education is in a certain sense, the root cause of a world obsessed with success. In an environment of competition there are 99 losers for one winner. The question to ask at this point in time when humanity is constantly striving for more and better, and not getting anywhere is, is comparison a relevant paradigm of evaluation? Shouldn’t the education system evaluate the individual on the basis of his own learning curve rather than in comparison to others? Competitiveness sows the seeds of inadequacy early in life. As a result, the drivers which give us action are outside of our ‘self’. We spend our entire lives running a race without a finishing line in sight, constantly trying to ‘match up’ to, we are not sure what. In the process, our inner drivers – our natural talents – are muffled early in life. The result is that true satisfaction forever eludes us. We then experience our inner void as a bottomless pit which we keep filling with accomplishments, achievements and acquisitions, but never arriving.
Apart from the flaws of comparative evaluation, the mass consumption design of modern education has taken the joy out of learning. Pre-set curricula is pushed down our throats - like it or lump it! Pink Floyd’s famous video, We don’t need no education is a graphic depiction of the effects of such a system. Tagore called our schools factories – “At half past ten, in the morning the factory opens with the ringing of a bell, and then as the teachers start talking, the machines start working. The teachers stop talking at four in the afternoon when the factory closes and the pupils then go home carrying with them a few pages of machine made learning”. He tried to revive the Indian educational tradition which was a harmonious package of knowledge, values and life-skills delivered in small learning groups called gurukuls.
Different strokes for different folks
In 1983, Dr Howard Gardner wrote his ground-breaking book, Multiple Intelligences and forever changed our perception of intelligence. It showed us a much broader band of intelligence of which IQ is just a fractional bandwidth. IQ has been reigning supreme, and has held a monopolistic sway over modern education system. Dr. Gardner’s theory has shown us that an IQ-based education is one-dimensional and askew in that it treats a part as a whole. It completely disregards a whole world of talent outside the ambit of IQ that never reaches its potential because there is no recognition of it. Every child is born with a special gift as has been poignantly shown in films like Rain Man and Taare Zameen Par, but our IQ-centric perception doesn’t allow us to recognise it. One child can be as different from another as an apple from orange, and so cannot be measured by the same yardstick. The current system not only fails to recognise each child’s unique gift but also does a lot of damage by judging the non-IQ type as a failure. Dr Gardner’s theory suggests that, rather than relying on a uniform curriculum where ‘one size fits all’, a new system needs to be devised which should offer individual-centred education.
Based on the principle of mass production, the current system delivers as per the law of averages. A large group of students is expected to move at the same pace during an academic year in a variety of subjects. A student's unique talent in one subject may make its pace seem too slow for him, while the pace of subjects that pose a challenge to his aptitude may seem too fast. So the mass-production design ends up making him slow down in the former and labour under pressure with the latter to come to the median of ‘average’.
A new paradigm of learning
Here is a new paradigm of education that a) allows a student to choose his own pace for each subject b) focuses on reinforcing his strengths rather than highlighting his weaknesses and c) automatically unfolds his natural talents and aptitude. It is a system of learning and evaluation based on vertical growth where a student is in competition with only one person – himself. He doesn’t get comparative grades vis-à-vis other students but gets graded by a learning graph that traces his growth in different subjects. This is only possible though a paradigm shift in the structure of educational institutions.
The new structure is like a pyramid – very broad at the base, which means that elementary education has a vast range of subjects. It is crucial that in the early years a child is exposed to several disciplines and that each discipline is given equal respect and importance. There is nothing like ‘extra-curricular’ because subjects outside of the main curriculum tend to spawn the most satisfying careers. The academic performance or IQ levels of AR Rehman, Sachin Tendulkar and MF Husain are of no relevance to their success.
The most important feature of this new paradigm is that classrooms are based on subject plus grade and not on grade alone as in the current system. Let me explain. When children join school, they are exposed to every conceivable discipline of learning in the foundation year. The foundation year is the only time when the entire class is together for all the subjects. At the end of the first academic year, there will be subject-plus-grade classrooms such as English grade-2, English grade-3, Maths grade-2, Maths grade-3 and so on. Each period change will mean a change of classroom. In the second year, a child may go to grade-2 of Maths in the first period and grade-2 of music in the second but grade-1 of English. The concept of ‘exam’, where a student is ‘tested’ will be replaced by a system of appraisals. After the foundation year the appraisals will be done every six months to allow for students to grow faster in their strong area which means that a student may even go up two grades in a year in a certain subject. In this system, every student’s pace is honoured and most importantly, he doesn’t need to spend all his time and effort struggling with his weak subjects at the cost of his strong ones. The report card is in the form of a personal growth graph where the concept of ‘failing’ is completely done away with. The whole emphasis shifts from struggling with weaknesses to reinforcing one’s core strengths.
This requires a very complex and elaborate infrastructure for sure, but the system is based on sound logic. Everyone gets to learn at his own pace without pressure. In the current system, one of the greatest flaws is that a student may flunk a class because of certain subjects, even though he may be really good or even distinguished in others. This arrests his growth in areas of strength. Apart from that, the stigma of flunking a year leaves an indelible imprint of failure on his psyche. Excellence is a function of specialisation. No one can or needs to excel in everything. Even if there is just one thing that he is good at, he can be facilitated to excel in that and an elementary or working knowledge of others would suffice. The pyramidical structure allows him to keep dropping off his weak subjects beyond elementary level and ensures that his natural talents and inclinations get etched out along the way. His aptitude automatically unfolds. At the end of school he doesn’t need to undergo aptitude tests to find out what he is good at. That’s what his schooling was all about!
We welcome your comments and suggestions on this article.
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