I’ve been delighted with the proposed changes in our education system, particularly about doing away with the class 10 examination. It came to me as a complete shock when students themselves opposed it. Television interviews had students asking (inane?) questions like ‘how am I to know what subject I am good at if there are no exams’? It left me on the brink of a mild depression since for me that was symptomatic of a system that made the child completely disconnected with herself or himself. Shouldn’t the goal of education be to enable understanding of ourselves as much as we understand what is outside of us? We have utterly failed. Were people worrying? Yes they were. Kamala Mukunda’s ‘ What did you ask at school today?’ was ample evidence for this.
When I was asked to review the book, I agreed to it with little expectation that I would be struck by a storm! That was truly my immediate feeling on reading the insightful preface. The primary mismatches as outlined by the author between a child’s capacities and what the school expects was sufficient pointer to the depth of research and questioning that was to follow.
Having worked with the Waldorf curriculum (as indicated by Rudolf Steiner), I know that child development is central to our understanding of the growing human being, the curriculum that will ideally suit children and the creative methodology that goes with it. Hence it was heartening to read about the development of the brain. It is indeed a key to understanding how to approach the child as well as his/her learning. At the same time ‘brain development’ has been placed within the context of the whole human being. At a time when all kinds of educational practices are being commodified under the fad ‘brain development in the young’, the author’s concern if something can be accomplished in a less painful way drives home the point that teaching is essentially a human activity.
As I read and reread the chapter on ‘learning’, it became more and more clear that the activity of teaching is about owning responsibility – owning responsibility for their learning. As I finished reading it I relived the question – if something is not clear to children, is it their limitation or mine?
One of the primary reasons for me to question the typical school of our times is the abuse of memory and an assumption that memory based learning which is marked and graded is an indicator of intelligence. While there are general questions and concerns about memory overload, the author has painted an excellently researched picture of ‘memory’ – a must read not only for teachers and planners but also parents. The need to use memory as ‘a convenience to allow for higher order thinking to occur more smoothly’ wonderfully places memory in the right perspective of learning.
The chapter on child development questions how much we truly understand the growing child. I was reminded of my own child asking me (she was 5 years old then) why the sea water was salty. I might have jumped around and laid my hands on to a handsome looking encyclopaedia – only better sense prevailed in the form of my mentor who told her a fairy tale where a dwarf churns a rock in the sea. Her eyes sparkled with wonder – something that no scientific explanation would have done in a child that young. She seemed perfectly happy with the answer. Many years later when she learnt ‘neutralization’ – the question that was sleeping in her consciousness woke up again – only she was ready to put her hands on to an encyclopedia – with no coercion from me or anyone else. I am particularly moved when I see children whose development has been respected in terms of what and how they learn. I’ve noticed that they approach arts and sciences with equal enthusiasm. For them, scientific knowledge and mythical consciousness do not seem contradictory. Often an early intellectualization and pushing of formal sciences makes them either lose interest in literature and fine arts – or they begin to treat the latter as lowest in the hierarchy of subjects – a phenomenon recognized in the book too. The worst form of abuse is, of course, enrolling in arts and humanities since ‘they were not good enough at sciences’.
The discussion in ‘Nature vs Nurture’ once again throws up fundamental questions on the abilities of children – these to me as a teacher have long been linked with existential questions and I have found my answers that are much less tentative than ideas thrown open in the chapter. Nevertheless the asking of these questions is much more important than finding the answers. It is in the asking of such questions that education flowers into a human activity.
I must confess that I did not read the book sequentially – I first attacked the chapter on Moral Development since that to me has been a key question and not separate from any academic work we do with the children. (This is one of the few books that can be read sequentially or at random). The clarity between ‘conventions’ and ‘moral empathic reasons’ was starkly depicted with examples and the reader left thinking about our own methods of working around morality. The chapter concludes by questioning ‘competition’ which still seems to govern our way of education. Competition immediately places individuals in a situation of conflict. I believe any discussion on morality sounds hollow if we have not questioned whether competition has any role at all in learning… other than making people feel small or big – building images on which they begin to be dependent life long. It is a psychological addiction – much more dangerous than addictions of other kinds since it is not even recognized as one.
Questions about ‘what is intelligence’ on the one hand highlighted the narrow scope of IQ tests, and on the other hand truly explored what intelligence is. The chapter seemed to be a reminder to all educators to understand the word in its broad scope – I’ve often viewed the word as an expression of integrated thought, feeling and action. The way different psychologists have viewed ‘intelligence’ certainly needs to wake us up from the slumber of a non-intelligent understanding of the word.
The chapter on motivation summed up the shallowness of external motivation. To me it had always seemed that motivation in students had a lot to do with the enthusiasm of the teacher. Brings up the larger question we need to ask ourselves ‘why have we chosen this path? (Profession?)’ Measuring learning had ideas to make evaluation and assessment lively. I’ve always believed that if we view assessment as a means to ‘measure teaching’, we might have the right attitude towards students.
I was happy to see a whole chapter committed to understanding the emotional states of the child. The ideas about self-esteem seemed to be different from what I hold. To me, both Baumeister and J. Krishnamurthy seem to be questioning ‘self – image’ (which I think is harmful whether or not it is a good or bad image of oneself that one entertains). I’ve noticed that self-esteem is never a ‘conscious’ feeling. It seems to be an unconscious and un-self conscious state of emotional well-being or lack thereof – the latter needing intervention of adults.
At school we are constantly challenged by adolescents and their swinging moods – a trainer who visited us recently recommended ‘compassion’ towards the growing adolescent. Many ideas in the chapter seem practical in nature and we at school would perhaps read these aspects in our teachers’ meetings. Yes this book ought to be read in every school that takes education seriously; and read by every teacher who takes education seriously.
A feeling of gratitude filled me when I finished reading the book. For the author, for the book, a life filled with the meaning of ‘teaching’ and the good fortune of having met many teachers for whom teaching is a living dynamic relationship with the taught.
What did you ask at school today?
Kamala V Mukunda
Collins Pulishers, 2009
pp. 287, Rs. 199/-
The author teaches at Abhaya, a Waldorf school in Kompally, Hyderabad. She can be reached at