Rethinking the school assembly

Vikash Sharma

Education is almost synonymous with socialization; it acts by passing on culture from one generation to another. Here pedagogy is seen as a mechanism to produce a product that fits into the existing mainstream structure. Foucault’s notion of power and discipline are accurate studies of the prevailing structures of educational institutions. Here the school is not merely an educational institution but acts as an authoritative and disciplinarian army camp or prison.

From the school assembly to the final bell – the routine activities are taken for granted and hardly questioned. The participants’ speech, body movements and gestures are all controlled by the school authority. That’s how the school environment is – that of total control and surveillance. Both teachers and students are constantly being watched, observed and supervised. This is not just a matter of discipline and rules but hierarchy and authoritarianism are found to resonate all around. And school assemblies are a classic example of this notion of power, authority and hierarchy that is exercised every day to manifest the all-pervading values of discipline and obedience.

School assemblies are a daily ritual in most schools. The bell rings and the children stand in a queue and start praying/singing the same song. And educational institutions find this process an important pedagogic device for the development of children. This process is mechanical and does not involve any meaningful engagement on the part of the children or the teachers and staff. The same set of prayers or songs are repeated every day, this has no active participation by the children nor is there any encouragement of their own creative agency. After this they move to the classroom in a queue cautiously. It does not reveal any true learning: it transforms the child into a passive product and hardly helps her discover her human potential. This process destroys the freedom and uniqueness of children and ruthlessly denies them their creativity and critical thought process. They begin to resemble a factory that produces thousands of similar products each year but seldom recognizes the uniqueness, the needs and aspirations of different individuals.

The whole ritual needs to be analyzed critically and an alternative that is meaningful and holistic needs to be explored. What is thus important is to rethink the process that exists. It is better to ask ourselves what kind of lessons we learn from this process and what relevance it holds for us as we grow and lead lives as adults.

To understand this whole idea of a school assembly, I conducted a research based workshop with class five students. These children were from both government and private schools of Delhi. They perform similar activities at school every day. The children reach school before the morning bell at 9 am and stand in a queue, and then they repeat the same prayer and ritual for half an hour each morning. For these children it was hard to recall the last time they did something else in the assembly or enjoyed this morning ritual. This was the time when the Creative Learning Team was also conducting a three-month workshop for the promotion of humanities and arts with these children after school hours.

assembly

So I began by asking them to come half an hour before the scheduled time of the workshop. They came the next day and we sat down with the day’s newspaper. We read a few articles and chose a topic for debate. They critically engaged in this debate and came up with insights that were unique and thought-provoking. It was impressive. The next day we did the same thing. This continued each day before the workshop actually began and on the fifth day I found a growing restlessness among the children. The next day I asked everyone to do whatever they wanted to or felt like at the moment.

I observed that only two children sat reading the newspaper, a few went to the garden and started removing the dried leaves from the plants while the others started sketching or playing with a football. Truly speaking, I was waiting for this moment. I wanted them to rebel against this uniform, structured, predictable and constricting notion of acceptable behaviour and discover how a little bit of space and imagination could go a long way in bringing out the child’s own sense of agency and her ability to find her own interests.

From the next day onward I became their co-traveller. I joined them in a game of football and gradually began discussing the mathematical concepts of angles and integers. I told them
‘If the point where you are standing is 0 then if you take one step backwards it is (-1) and if you take two steps backwards it is (-2.) Similarly, if you take one step forward from point 0 it is (+1) you take two steps, then it becomes (+2) and so on. Moreover, look at the various angles between yourself and the net, the angle that is created between the football and your foot when you kick the ball and so on…. Hit on 60 degree angle, now 40 degree.’

It was interesting to play with integers and angles. They seemed not only excited but also amused that learning could bring about so much of happiness.

The next day we again met half an hour before the workshop and I joined the children who were doing gardening.
I asked them to touch the green leaf, observe its stem and overall uniqueness. It was the perfect moment to discuss photosynthesis and the role of chlorophyll. It was a rigorous discussion. Their eyes gained the lost wonder.

Yes, the children were not tied down to the same interest every day. It was interesting to observe how the freedom to pursue their own interests had made them enthusiastic and brought back the eagerness to learn and grow. It was spreading from one child to other. The wonder and excitement that they still express while thinking of that time inspire us to evolve more pedagogic tools for innovation in education.

As a co-traveller I fondly recall my walk with their interests and creative potential. It is very important to maintain the flame of wonder, curiosity and all the humanistic approaches that make us complete. Today it is rare. We seem to have lost them because the existing system finds it irrelevant to the demands of a highly professional world that values mechanization more than individuality. This is a paradox of our education system that on the one hand destroys all human values and yet on the other makes subjects like moral science compulsory in the curriculum. This structure may fulfill one’s material desires but damages the real curiosity/wonder of a human being. I feel that these activities are avenues where an individual expresses herself, discovers the inner voice and unfolds her/his creativity. This is ultimately the key to any meaningful society.

The arguments and insights that emerged during the discussions reveal how creatively a child is capable of thinking when not under pressure of performance, hierarchy or judgment. This was a true expression of children, of their worldviews and if allowed to grow and mature, they have the potential to transform society.

I found that the pedagogical innovation that I introduced was successful because it brought out the inner light within each child which even several years of routine school assemblies could not.

The author is editor The New Leam – a magazine on education and culture. New Delhi. He can be reached at vikashsharma946@gmail.com.