A vision for reviving an adventure

G Gautama

We are being overtaken by the second educational apocalypse. The first was the proliferation of schools during the Industrial Revolution. The second is the existence of a huge number of schools where few can/are willing to teach. And if there are individuals who can, they don’t have access to the resources they need to teach. Schools are forbidding places in the Internet era, a testimony to how little we use the knowledge and wisdom of other people and the ages gone by.

Looking closely at the daily life of students and teachers, several perceptions surface in one’s mind, as also several questions.

  • What would school be like if there were no academic subjects, no disciplines? What if school was only about making sense of the fragments of knowledge, bits of information that come our way?
  • What if we understand that the connection between learning and teaching is quite ephemeral! So much teaching happens in schools, and so little of the intended learning gets across.
  • Is school a place where the human community is waging a losing battle over decency, common sense, and respect? Is it a place where children gather the subliminal messages of power, inequality, and might over right.
  • Where is the emphasis to be placed in schools? Is the old mandate of efficient learning of the basic subjects still the right direction? Is the emphasis on not shifting towards “making sense of information and making responsible choices and decisions”?

comment-1 In this landscape we are finding fewer people interested in being teachers in school. The attention of students is in directions that are different from the straitjacket of early 20th century requirements. Teaching students has become that much more difficult in the 21st century with Internet and mobile phones offering communication possibilities that were hitherto unknown.

The role of the teacher has shifted. In fact that word ‘teacher’ should be abolished and replaced by ‘facilitator’, ‘contextologist’, ‘contemporary educator’, ‘teacher learner’ or ‘educator learner’. Without this re-definition in our minds and functions, we will be clinging to an idiom that is not relevant anymore.

What is the teacher expected to do today in school? He/she has to go to the appointed classes, and “teach” the subject required for that class. The teacher is given a group of students, all within one year of each other in age. It has been assumed, for the past 150 years, that this would be the best way, the most efficient way of communicating knowledge and skills to students. Every teacher and school official worth their salt knows that this is a false assumption. No two students are alike, leave alone the entire class. Students grasp things that are said by the teacher or from books with great rapidity. Many others grasp something, are vague in their contact with words and connections. Some remain strangers to logical – linguistic capacities through their schooling, not finding the bite for other modes of engagement. Great potentialities remain submerged in the classrooms, enduring the content and the dominant process.

The teacher is required to breathe order into this heterogeneous group. The teacher is also expected to do justice to each child. A formidable task is made even more formidable with a choice of structure and content. Living in an environment of television and media, children’s minds receive inputs from sources far beyond their age and understanding, far beyond the minds that the industrial revolution schools were designed to teach. All this is testimony to the times we live in. The grown-ups do not seem to care very much for the young. The age of reason has given way to the age of questioning, and grown-ups, disoriented by the pace of change, searching for their own values or experiences, seem to vacate the valuable spaces from where social values transfer.

Children are growing up in this cultural vacuum, abandoned to the market forces. And these children, pampered, bruised and unclear, are the ones every teacher meets in a class.

To function in this situation one needs extraordinary social skills, compassion, and clarity. There are no barriers or desks to hide behind when one experiences doubt, confusion, or inadequacy. This is the lot of each teacher. There are some things that are quite clear. Students do not have the same thing on their minds as the teachers. Therefore, the role of the teacher becomes extraordinarily complex and an intuitively loaded one. The student needs to experience meaning at school. The school, as an organization, must make the engagement between the teacher and student contextually and morally meaningful. The teacher also needs to find the work at school true to a fundamental humanity which is a tall order. It is not difficult to see why only the bravest of the brave will be wandering into these professions in the future. Rather than just lament the way things are, we need to see that the kind of solutions that have been tried so far have been ineffective. We also need to see that this is so because some fundamental assumptions, the grounds of modern mass schooling, have not been challenged through effective solutions.

Having said that let me explain what I call effective solutions. All solutions have some shortcomings. Good solutions are those that fulfill many requirements, some visible at the time they’re created, others that show up in time. Some of the characteristics of a good solution in school education would be the following:

  • All students cannot be expected to do the same thing at the same time.
  • “Do more” as a solution for the student or teacher needs to be juxtaposed with “do differently”.
  • There must be a shift in what the school is consistent about for the student, teacher and parents.
  • Knowledge of things and capacity to use knowledge will be secondary to ‘respect’ as priority.
  • It must not require the use of authority.

comment-2 Unfortunately, the system is in a jam. The teachers we train are trained for the schools that exist now. We do not train them to bring a new order to life and an order which will be distinctly different from the present one. We don’t have a conception, broadly agreed by many, of such an order and so what we communicate is merely ‘more of the same’, the old order. This situation makes the existing school unsatisfying for a bright and perceptive teacher.

There is no way except to give humanity greater importance over accomplishments.

The teacher, the conscientious teacher has no escape, but to become a rebel. Then, on the other hand it is not difficult to conceive of a new genre of teacher training based on principles that are quite evident right now. Teachers will need to be trained with the following priorities:

  1. Children in the future will construct knowledge of all that is happening around them. Empowering them to find multiple solutions, multiple perceptions is one of the main purposes of education. Schools must model this.
  2. Human beings are diverse in their capacities and their understanding of things. This has always been so.
  3. Moving away from the single solution, the single dominant view requires that human beings appreciate views that are different from their own. This requires not merely tolerance, but a deeper appreciation, and space for other human beings. Respectful engagement with people irrespective of their inclinations, perceptions, conclusions is a vital need for human beings. Schools and teaching must model this.
  4. Persistence, hard work, doing things many times over are unavoidable features of our life. The attributes of a lifelong learner requires re-examination of solutions we have chosen, far more often in the future than we have ever done in the past.
  5. The readiness to see and accept that positions we have held earlier may be suboptimal in the light of later knowledge and information, is a very important attribute of a resilient and empowered citizen. Schools in their structures and processes must model this.
  6. Knowledge is based collectively and socially, and not just individually any more. Therefore right relationship to knowledge, as something that we participate in sustaining, examining, recreating, reshaping, is of great importance. More than knowledge, the manner in which we participate in creating it and taking it forward is of paramount importance.
  7. Questions are at the hub of exploration, discovery, and shared endeavor. Raising questions, refining them, pursuing them are important attributes to live and work. Schools need to model this complexity with sure and deep processes.
  8. The age of the student is less important than his/her developmental stage. Schools will need to move from stratified same-age classrooms to groupings that enable cooperation and sharing as virtues rather than competition and climbing over as the main attributes.
  9. Teachers need to be informed and invited to join the ranks of the lifelong learners they are going to nurture. It will be made clear to them that the journey of a teacher will require them to learn new strategies, to expose themselves to different perspectives, and see structures which they have known in their childhood collapse. Schools in their structures and processes must model this.
  10. Last but not the least, teachers must be invited to participate in the creation of new systems, structures, and processes. This would mean unavoidably experiencing the discomfort of change too slow or change too fast. This is not going to be easy to do. However, there is no way of avoiding this. School processes must model this.
  11. The certainties of near-at-hand results will no longer be easily available. It will be in the children who feel emotionally whole and rightly empowered that the teachers will find their sense of contribution. In other words, ranks and rewards would definitely find a reduction if not completely vanish.

An approach such as the one outlined above will rise above the traditional vs modern, information vs skill conversations and keep the focus on the children and our responsibility to offer them not only livelihood opportunities but hope that living with wisdom, diversity, plurality is a viable dream. Hopefully, with such a direction, consistently held, schools will do justice to the young.

The author works as Director – Secretary of Palar Centre for Learning (PCFL – KFI), (formerly The Chennai Education Centre – KFI) is responsible for the development of the new residential centre with a small school, an educational outreach programme and a Krishnamurti Study Centre). He served as Principal, The School, KFI from 1991 to 2009, where he guided several educational initiatives such as Mixed Age Group Learning in Junior and Middle school and a dynamic and wide learning programme for high school students; during this time an active outreach programme was initiated with TN SSA that led to ALM in all state middle schools. He can be reached at gautama2004@gmail.com.