Alternative Education - Learning to Live
by Harvinder Kaur
It must be the inbreath of brahma… the world seems to be moving towards a certain unity. Another level of consciousness is finding expression in various walks of life - medicine, science, economic systems, office work and my own field of specialization - education. As in other fields, there is a growing demand for what is called 'holistic education', where all the faculties of the child are addressed.
Holistic education is the mantra for the New Age. And the piercing gaze of analysis is shining mercilessly on the educational horizon asking fundamental questions. Can right education and right life be separated? Or are they fundamentally the same? Can you address one without looking at the other?
As I see it, education in India has been a predominantly academic affair even after independence. Even the many residential schools that I have been exposed to, or taught in, didn't directly address the emotional growth of the child or the mental faculties in their entirety. While, of course, mental and emotional faculties are brought into play when children have to learn things and prepare for exams, the focus is primarily on information and not on developing the faculties and facets of the students.
Education, in India at least, seems to place information on a pedestal, while the other aspects of the human being are sidelined. Very few schools seem to be interested in devoting time or employing people who take care of the emotional growth and spiritual dimensions of the growing child. This task is left to the family, or to the winds, I don't know which.
Take a look at the report card issued by an average school. The student is assessed on subjects like Physics, Maths, English and Hindi with sports and a hobby thrown in. I would suggest that the ideal report card should focus on faculties like analytical ability, helpfulness, stress-handling techn-iques, practical problem-handling abilities and similar skills. A focus shift of this sort will see, in good time, a nation where real people grow and live. After all, what matters in life is the character and mental and physical strength of a person. When education focuses on information, these aspects are inferred to be byproducts of subject mastery.
The basic difference would involve a focus shift where faculty development becomes the primary aim instead of information acquisition, which then becomes the secondary aim at school level.
This is not to suggest that there are no worthwhile educational institutions today that address these issues. Both the western and eastern world has seen thinkers and educationists who have risen to the occasion. People like Tagore, Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo in India, and others around the world (Rudolph Steiner would be a good example), tried to experiment with the educational system of the times and arrive at solutions and alternatives to help the situation. There is a great amount of literature available which contains the views and thoughts of these authentic thinkers. Tagore's poetical and aesthetic vision, along with unpleasant memories of his own schooling, led him to create Shanti Niketan. Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo, who were both men of deep spiritual insight, addressed education as a fundamental dimension of human life.
I have personally seen, experienced and been involved with the work of some institutions based on the philosophy of these thinkers. They seek to let the child grow at his or her natural pace without defining rigid parameters or setting goals for the child to achieve (a definite characteristic of Aurobindonian education).
The underlying belief is that you can't force learning upon the child, nor can you inject learning into a child's head in double or triple doses, because he or she is expected to pass an exam. Education is to be a natural, spontaneous unfolding of one's interests and personality, which, at the same time, develops self-discipline and basic values. The role of the adults is to help in this process. The experience, I must acknowledge, has been eye opening.
Both types of schools encourage noncompetitive, introspective and experiential learning. To come back to the more practical example of report cards, these are painstakingly produced, and are much more than statistical indicators of subject information mastery. The reports include analysis of behaviour and skills, including several authentic observations of a child's conduct. Exams and external competition take a back seat. A sincere attempt is made to address the physical, emotional, mental and psychic growth of the child. Since this is a tall order, there are obvious loopholes. The teacher-student ratio has to enable such attention for each child. This implies the need for more teachers and hence more money. Many such institutions encourage volunteerism to meet their needs. While this works for some, the basic issue remains - the need for greater funds for meaningful education.
While these schools, along with other initiatives from thinkers, have not given complete answers or even offered perfect models to emulate, they have inspired many people to experiment with education in order to try and develop a superior system. Schools that follow alternative systems are not always well known. However, their educational experiments are a source of inspiration to any sincere and interested person.
What is interesting is that even regular formal schools - with uniforms, exams, straight lines - are sitting up and making changes or at least experimenting. Sports and 'hobbies' are a regular feature in most progressive schools, even though they do not form a part of the main curriculum. Students are actively taking interest in social issues and political problems. Schools are trying innovative teaching methods, where methods of learning are as, if not more, important than methods of teaching. Parents are being guided about their role.
Schools are shifting from one-, two- or three-term exams to consistent internal assessment where there is a chance to look at the person and assess him or her, instead of testing mugging power. I have also noted a change in the quality of question papers in several schools. There is an attempt made to make question papers more creative and more analytical. Even on the larger scene, organizations like CBSE are attempting to introduce grades instead of marks in the board exam assessment (though there's a raging controversy about it). Such a move makes assessment more realistic; the point percent competition raging in our country serves to break hearts rather than measure heads.
Many schools are discouraging burdensome homework, especially at primary level (sometimes parents end up doing the homework!). When schools do give homework, they are usually practical and relevant and help the child to connect to his environment, like an interview with grandmother about her times, or an interview with the dhobi or maid. Reference to sex is no longer a taboo at school and steps are being taken to introduce it judiciously. Students have started to raise their crammed heads to look up at real life. Changes are finally happening in education.
All in all, the need to have a system that addresses the person as a complete entity, wherein the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of a person are addressed in the social, political, cultural context is strongly felt today. The school cannot be an island unto itself anymore, catering to a certain aspect of the human being and ignoring the rest. This is required not just in India but the world over.
With the breakdown of the family and the setback that the institution of marriage has received due to increasing divorce rates, the growing child suffers. Schools, especially residential schools, are looked upon as foster homes in this situation. While this may be an unfair expectation, a holistic education that fulfils most of a child's needs for nurturance, growth and inner strength will be a substantial support in helping him to attain to physical, emotional and spiritual maturity.
Harvinder Kaur is an educationist who has experience of
both formal and 'alternative' education. She has also educated
teachers on innovative methods of teaching.
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