March 2017 By Punya Srivatsava Can education equip a child to build his character, acquire self-esteem, pursue happiness, and find his perfect calling? Punya Srivastava profiles a few progressive schools pursuing this ideal with passion and dedication Swami Vivekananda, that great Indian philosopher and venerable sanayasi, once said, “Education is the manifestation of perfection already (present) in man.” The observation is both profound and pithy. What is education if not growing into our highest self and reaching our fullest potential; delving deep within and exploring the purpose behind taking a human birth? Education ought to be the compass that guides us along our life’s journey. It ought to be the process which enables a person to lead a successful life, which would mean being able to cope with its viccisitudes, to build healthy relationships, to find a meaningful calling, to develop one’s creativity, build one’s self-esteem and find happiness. It ought to enable a child to blossom into a well-rounded, healthy, wholesome adult who can contribute to society. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that our education meets few of these parameters. Present-day education is largely about equipping a student for a livelihood, and not for life. Over the years, our schools have turned into factories which compete with each other to churn out batch after batch of students who have perfected rote learning; kids who go on to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, and CAs. They take one exam after another; collect degrees and apply for jobs only for the sake of earning money. Kids as young as three are being admitted to pre-schools, and by the time they reach standard eight, are cautioned by teachers, parents and society alike to start preparing for the tenth standard board exams, whose marks will determine their lives. From this perspective life becomes a succession of hoops a student has to leap through until he arrives at the Holy Grail of a well-paying and prestigious job. In the process the life journey becomes compressed into academics and marks-chasing, while the development of other innate talents and skills are given less weightage, character development is bypassed and the simple joy of living in the moment tarnished by the constant focus on passing exams. Children are taught to compete, and are then categorised into boxes – winners and losers, above average and below average, intelligent and dumb, bright and dull. All these labels curb their innate creativity and sensitivity, not to mention uniqueness, and they grow up to be dysfunctional adults unable to cope with the many challenges life has in store. Society pays a huge price for the damage and destruction these adults may cause to themselves and others, starting from addictions to lawlessness and more. A class in progress in Ukti Waldorf School, Noida “A sense of competition comes from a very narrow space of identity,” says Harvinder Kaur, Director, India Council for Integral Education (ICIE), Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, adding, “and identity comes from outer sources like religion, race, or country, which serves to segregate people.” Hence, at Auro Mirra International School, Bangalore, which Harvinder founded, competitiveness is not considered to be a virtue. An alternative perspective Our present evolutionary times demand a revolution in the way education is perceived and imparted today; an overhaul where the child is treated as a human being born to grow and evolve, rather than a human resource to fit into some corporate house. As African-American social reformer and statesman Fredrick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Swami Vivekananda wisely observed, “What is education? Is it book-learning? No. Is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education.” Thankfully, quite a few people have heard and responded to his rallying cry. As always has been the case, when the conventional system becomes faulty, an alternative approach starts sprouting its wings. The beautiful Shikshantar school. Inset: Manish Jain, Co-Founder of Shikshantar Aparajita and Saloni Zutshi are two such individuals. Sisters, they both started Ukti Waldorf School in Delhi some six years back, based on Waldorf education. Steiner-Waldorf education is based on an understanding of a human being as a triumvirate of body, mind and spirit. Aparajita Zutshi says, “Holistic education is that which educates the whole child by bringing him the right knowledge at the right time. Conventional educational methods amount to little more than intellectual stimulation, in which the physical aspect of the child is considered secondary and the emotional aspect is largely ignored.” She also points out that conventional education ignores the importance of teaching children in developmentally appropriate ways. There is a huge difference between how a four-year-old should be learning versus how a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old should be. Waldorf education recognises that a human being is a combination of thinking, feeling and doing. It also recognises that these qualities develop differently in a child over time. “Therefore, appealing directly to a preschooler’s thinking, as is done by conventional educational methods, has unhealthy consequences. Young children like to do things. They like to be active in their bodies and explore the physical environment around them. Therefore all teaching in early childhood appeals to the ‘hands’ or physical aspect of the child,” she says. After the age of seven up till around 14 years, the child enters a second stage where they get a sense of their feelings; hence education in this period proceeds by appealing to the child’s feelings or ‘heart’, by kindling an interest in the subject matter through stories and other emotive approaches, and through that bringing the child to dry and abstract intellectual concepts. Finally, after age 14 or so, the child is considered ready to be taught intellectually. “This approach forms the basis of the curriculum at different grades and the manner in which that curriculum is brought to the child. Appealing to a child’s feelings or thinking before they have ripened, as is done in conventional schools, hinders learning and can even be detrimental to a child’s health with lifelong consequences,” says Aparajita. The haves and have-nots Aparajita does have a point. I have bitter-sweet memories of my schooling. I remember sitting at my desk in standard two and crying copiously, because I was unable to solve simple division sums. Just that they didn’t seem simple to me. The whole class was wrapping up its work and queuing outside for the next period, while I was struggling with my divisions. The feeling of utter failure, probably felt for the first time, lanced my confidence and penetrated my psyche. I also remember feeling elated when in the eighth standard, my language teacher praised my essay and my writing skill. Languages were my favourite subjects, and I flourished during those classes. And yet, I had to study science and maths till standard 12th, just so I could make something out of my life. I remember feeling a gradual sense of dejection in my 11th standard as suddenly, from being deemed an above average student by my teachers, thanks to languages and social sciences, I was considered a dismal performer in the science stream. By the time I could build some confidence and do away with a fear of failure, school was over. I have spent around 13 years living with fear and lack of self-worth. Even today, I have to work on my confidence before making a point before someone else, as the fear of saying something wrong keeps lurking just beneath the surface. At such times, the words of Dr Geetha Narayanan, renowned educator and founder of the Bangalore-based Shristi, come rushing to my mind. Speaking at a conclave two years back, she decried the present education system that only strives to produce winners and has no place for poor performers, and does not provide holistic development to a child. “At Auro Mirra School, we are not obsessed with marks and competition,” reiterates Harvinder, who founded the school with an aim to provide deeply transformative education to kids. Started in 2012 by Sri Aurobindo Society – Puducherry, Auro Mirra School has a student-teacher ratio of 20-25:1 which delivers a better and more comprehensive attention to a child’s growth. “There is no pressure on kids to perform in a specific way,” she says. Ankit Modi, parent to a nine-year-old Aviansh who attends the Ukti Waldorf School in Noida, (Delhi – NCR), lauds the joy that the boy radiates after migrating from a mainstream public school in 2013. “We feel totally blessed that our child is in Ukti’s hands. We see our son enjoying his childhood every single minute, just playing and doing things which he likes doing, without any pressure or stress. We always dreamt of our child being free, and at the same time acquiring good knowledge, being close to nature, and most importantly becoming a good, beautiful human being able to impart purpose and direction to his life,” says Ankit. Prior to this, both parents had to sit with six-year-old Aviansh every evening and make him mug, turning him dull and irritable. He stopped drawing, a subject he was good at and enjoyed a lot. It was this downturn that prompted them to look for other options. “The same child, when given the freedom to blossom and live his childhood, has regained his creativity and sensitivity. He learns flute at school, draws to his heart’s
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