Alternative Education - Where is the life we have lost in living?
by Harvinder Kaur
"Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
– T S Eliot
I see it everywhere, most of all in the minds of children. The dominant symbol of recent times – a question mark. The ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ are more than bubbles that can be easily burst or blown away. People are questioning the old order – and the new. In education, especially in India, the old soil is being loosened. Perhaps it is time now to sow new seeds, the seeds of a more holistic education, which resonates with the mind of the New Age child.
While this has been brewing for almost a decade, the momentum has caught on now. More and more people are asking the right questions and some are trying to provide worthwhile answers. In India, the Union HR Minister, Kapil Sibal, has his agenda of making education stress-free, by making examinations optional. Exams or assessment are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. You have to address what lies beneath. The more fundamental question of what is the purpose of formal (or non-formal) education needs to be understood and communicated clearly. Why do we send our children to school at all? To teach them to earn a certificate which can be traded with earning a livelihood? To keep them out of harm’s way? To learn to read and write? To socialise? To learn values? To develop faculties and skills? To gain plenty of information? All of these, I can hear most say! But before you go forward, if you had to choose one reason, which would it be? What do you want schools and colleges to do for your child the most?
Talents and abilities
Formal education needs to make space for different talents and abilities which can be taken right up to the university level. Today, if I have a child in my school who is extremely talented in dance or sports, there is yet the pressure of doing maths, science, languages and other subjects, because the parents ask me what after grade ten? So, talent development is often reduced to a hobby and is not a serious option. Although the number of different courses that have come up in the past decade in higher education institutes is significant, it is not enough. If a student doesn’t get admission in a regular college due to overwhelming competition, he is often regarded as a failure.
In India the education system has been suffering from several ailments: the government-run schools lack amenities and accountability, the private-run schools are too few and out of reach of those with light wallets. The teacher-student ratio is an issue, as is the need for more creative, vibrant, and trained teachers. What seems to plague all schools is the need for a more holistic and meaningful education, meaningful to the child. My students often ask me, “Why do we have to learn valencies in chemistry, or calculus?”
|“Why do we have to learn valencies in chemistry, or calculus?”|
India has a strong hold over maths and science, because of its aspiring middle class that push their children to these fields – something which has come under fire – and should! But a majority of our children can’t analyse, or practically apply concepts they have diligently picked up, or crammed, even in maths and science. A survey conducted by Wipro and Educational Initiatives which involved testing 32,000 students of grades 4, 5, and 6, from 142 schools had revealed the students scored low on application and understanding. As time is used up in schools, to race over a vast syllabus, which is skewed to accommodate mountains of information, a thorough understanding and assimilation of concepts is lacking. There is little focus on skill and talent development and more importantly, the skill of learning how to learn.
A word of caution here. It is important not to get carried away, and dismiss information as superfluous, even redundant. The information dominant system has its pros and cons, like other systems. Some time back, I attended a meet where the heads of American schools came to Mumbai to interact with heads of Indian schools. The aim was to initiate educational interaction and for American educational leaders to understand Indian education. The sponsors requested that we share the ‘secrets’ as to why Indians are so good at maths and science. However, education needs to be balanced so that it gives space for a child to discover his or her talents and develop them. It needs to address all the facets of a human being, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. This is a time when the different nations and cultures of the world need to learn from each other.
I teach a course which develops critical thinking skills in teenagers. While they find it a splash of cold water after a drowsy day; awakening is a sweet experience in the long run. A person who cannot think independently, and question the world around him or her, will become a slave in one way or the other. We need to teach our children to research information, to think creatively and critically, and not to just memorise (though to a degree this is important), to apply what they have learnt, instead of forgetting it after the exam, to think and question what they are exposed to, rather than be blind sponges.
The good news is that this is being realised by more and more educators and parents, and genuine efforts are being made by more aware institutions and individuals to address this. The concept of ‘integral education’ promoted by Sri Aurobindo (also by Rudolf Steiner) has inspired several institutions. The organisations that promote this – SAICE, Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi, and Gnostic Centre , Delhi, – help organisations and individuals to operate on the principles of holistic development and integral education through online and onsite courses, workshops, and conferences, which reach out to mainstream schools and teacher training institutions. AVEHI, an organisation set up in 1990, believes in offering integrated education rather than dividing it into subjects. It has been working with the municipal schools in Mumbai, also bringing in the use of audio-visual material to the classrooms of a marginalised sector of society. While private groups with a sound philosophy, like institutions based on Aurobindo and Krishnamurti’s notions, have been doing work in holistic education for decades, changes are now seeping into mainstream education. Foreign boards and educational set-ups that encourage a critical approach and more flexibility, though still expensive, are finding acceptance in India with many schools affiliating themselves to the IBO (there are no one-time exams in this system for the primary and middle school programmes) and the Cambridge International Examinations (IGCSE, A and O levels). CBSE has finally had the courage to move to grades instead of percentages. Continuous and comprehensive assessment is being seriously explored in CBSE schools now, and efforts are on to bring in application-based projects in the larger curricular framework. Many schools have moved away from two or three term exams, to consistent assessment, which is often varied and includes oral examination, presentations, projects, teamwork, and regular class tests. Activities such as sports, art and music which were considered a waste of time or sidelined as ‘hobbies,’ are gaining more attention and are considered ‘co-curricular’ in several schools, though several government schools still need to work on this. Project work which looks at knowledge holistically, rather than subject-based topics alone, is being practised in many mainstream schools.
While there is a long way to go, and the world of formal education is often slow to execute change, change is happening. Several initiatives are trying to catalyse a change, to make education a holistic experience for the child, one that helps our little ones to discover their worth and grow up as balanced individuals. Overall, there is much to look forward to.
Harvinder (Harry) is a crazy person who tries to be a teacher! If you have any doubts, challenge her!
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