Introspection and reflection: What’s education about?

Mounik Shankar Lahiri

On a busy Friday afternoon, I, a product of conventional education set out to cover and participate in a conference that was to explore the present and future of conventional school education in India. It was an event organized by iDiscoveri and quite suitably titled ‘Schools of Tomorrow’. Now, we all know deliberating on school education is no mean task, especially in a country like India which is at the crossroads of intensifying westernization and domestic resource constraints coupled with political and religious prejudices.

It was encouraging to see eminent educators and school leaders starting out on the premise that educating children in Indian classrooms is certainly no child’s play and one that needs introspection at every stage. The opening address by Dileep Ranjekar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, set the tone. He presented a reality check on how many schools place emphasis on textbooks and rote learning as opposed to critical skills of analysis and comprehension. He also explored the constituents of knowledge and the extent to which schools are able to decipher that correctly for students.

For a balanced and effective transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student, he said that the teacher should not miss the social orientation of the student group. This has special relevance in our country, where there is a huge diversity in the type of classrooms if we compare an elite urban private school to a government school in a remote village with severe infrastructural constraints. This diversity is not just at the level of physical infrastructure but it also manifests itself in different predispositions of the student to the teacher and to the delivery of information and knowledge.

Parental attitude in urban areas was a key aspect that was touched upon especially where the parents felt that they have sub-contracted their work to the teachers. I felt that this was something that teachers could relate to easily as they are under increasing pressure to perform. In today’s world, there is rarely as thankless a job as teaching where the teachers do not just manage the classrooms but are forever balancing the rigorous demands of the curriculum with their individual notions of holistic education.

A panel discussion that followed explored whether better resources or improved teaching methods actually determine quality in schools. The panel was moderated by a media professional and comprised eminent personalities and even though there was no real consensus on what mattered more, I concluded that basic physical infrastructure in schools is a pre-requisite to leverage improvements in processes and pedagogy.

There were two very pithy case studies that showed how relevant and forceful learning experiences can be created by schools that adopt alternate curriculum approaches within the existing syllabi. This also brought to the forefront how existing school resources can be redeployed for better educational effectiveness. The story of Vidyaranya High School and its success as an alternative school was a case study to behold as educators and other intellectuals soaked in alternative strategies to meet conventional goals of education.

The case studies were followed by a presentation by Ashish Rajpal, Founder and CEO of iDiscoveri Education, wherein he introduced some concepts that he believed empowered the learner or the child in the learning process. In this context he coined the term ‘Destinic Skills’ by which he meant – skills that are destined for application, later in the learner’s life. He further categorized these skills into:

  1. Basic Skills – such as language and arithmetic,
  2. Profession Specific Skills – those that would have relevance in professional life
  3. High Order Meta competencies – by which he meant the cognitive awareness of education
  4. Character – this was defined loosely as something that allows one to make judicious decisions in life

As everyone in the crowd grappled with these pedagogical hints, the conference moved to the most interesting stage. This was the keynote address by Prof Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She has been extensively researching children’s learning and development and has authored several books, including “The Scientist in the Crib” and “Causal Learning”. She shared interesting insights on how the conventional school mostly achieves the opposite of what it sets out to.

Prof Gopnik stated that children are much more intelligent than the average scientist before being touched by conventional education. To validate this, her address comprised videos of interesting experiments to understand child behaviour, one of which showed that if a child is allowed to unravel a complicated toy spontaneously, the child ends up exploring more as opposed to being told the use of the toy and how it is to be operated. The latter restricts the discovery of alternate possibilities by the child. This was to advocate more power to the learner in the process of learning where the teacher needs to be a facilitator as opposed to traditional modes of educational delivery rooted in transfer of information.

Finally, though the extent to which such measures can be implemented depends on the extent of autonomy given to teachers by the syllabi and the aims of education agreed to by the policy makers, there is no substitute for innovation in the classroom.

The author is pursuing a Master in Business Laws from National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He can be reached at themounik@yahoo.com.