Small school in COVID times… ‘to sit beside’ again…

G. Gautama

Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st centuryS. J. Perelman

The horses are off the block and these are thoroughbreds, rippling muscles under shiny coats, oozing power, range and capacity. The Internet is replete with solutions and there is the buzz of rumours about security and unexplored possibilities. Risk and adventure have always been a heady mix. Just as the adventurers travelled far, across continents, racing with speed, dexterity and courage to meet untold dangers, today the world of corporations straddles the globe, evoking opportunities, shaping the discourse, and offering the excitement of adventure.

But adventure on horseback is vastly different from the slow walk over long miles. Under the blue sky with the smell of dust in one’s nostrils, not looking for conquest, speed or loot, one may be in touch with the sanctity of creation, earth and life.

COVID 19 and disruption
Our way of life has been disrupted, certainly educational approaches on this planet. Private urban schools have taken shelter in the Internet. Students and teachers alike, stay confined to their homes with gadgets – small, medium and large. All are wondering at this sudden turn of events. Of course we worry about unsteady Internet and call drops. But otherwise there is no dearth of material, videos and support for academic learning.

There are questions – what happens to physical activity, art, interactions? And was there a value to physical school and teacher presence? Is it only habit that takes one to school? Some states have worked guidelines to assuage the feelings of people who think excessive screen time is bad for children.

There is a large population that does not have Internet, for whom school was many things. It gave them the company of friends, lessons, uniforms, notebooks and also daily lunch. How is this group to manage? Sitting at home is driving children into a lethargy of waiting and their parents are anxious. Some people wonder – is the reopening of schools – with social distancing – a risk worth taking? Governments are mulling the option of using TV to deliver lessons.

A large and flourishing institution in which hundreds of children are educated together, with all its accompanying show and success, can turn out bank clerks and super-salesmen, industrialists or commissars, superficial people who are technically efficient; but there is hope only in the integrated individual, which only small schools can help to bring about. That is why it is far more important to have schools with a limited number of boys and girls and the right kind of educators, than to practise the latest and best methods in large institutions. – J.Krishnamurti

Some questions remain after NEP 2020
NEP 2020 was approved by the Cabinet on 29 July 2020. What will be the same as it was earlier, and what will change? Is the structure of school designed to deliver capacity, or demonstrate a new set of activities and tasks completed? How are a large number of teachers going to absorb the vision behind a different way of doing things?

How will society learn to accept vocational work as honourable, not inferior to white collar? Is an efficient work force of blue-collar jobs, a Modern-Times scenario of cogs in a gigantic centralized wheel envisaged? Or will AI machines take over most manufacturing? These are questions that schools, school teachers and the government need to answer clearly.

New form
The modern corporation has understood what tribal societies always knew, that knowledge building is a social process. COVID 19 is putting us in touch with this wisdom. Isolated individuals will not manage the harnessing of their individual and collective potentials.

Schools and government, caught between safety and a desperation to restart business as usual, are floundering, and tech seems like a good solution. The biggest opportunity has been for tech and Internet companies. Schools run thanks to them. And teachers and schools are grateful to them for education-at-a-distance to happen. All teachers have been coopted to make this happen and just as apps ask for feedback for improvement, teachers are testing the usability, flexibility, robustness of these apps so they can further become strengthened. The teachers, who till yesterday, were speaking about the harmful effects of technology and excessive use of the computer, are today hapless workers of the tech universe, almost employed by the vast internet companies. It is a sobering thought to recognize that we, the teachers, think we are using technology. But in fact it may be the reverse – technology, large companies may be using us! The enabling conditions were created by COVID 19 – people had to be frightened enough and normal life restrained.

This entrenchment of tech in a country with 1.3 billion is a sign that people are now data; this has always been so for the centralizing forces, political parties, government officials and ministers. Now it is established, the trends matter, the person does not. The individual is digitized into measureable parameters, feeding the data banks and being looked at from many different points of view.

What if other solutions exist
What if there is a solution like a yellow crow perched on the branch and we don’t see it because we are used to seeing only black crows!1 Will a small school of 10 to 20 children with one teacher or two,with no travel or infrastructure, educate better, particularly if a computer is available and information is freely available? What if we could have groups of children, 8 to 15 in number, assembling close to their homes, on terraces or in open spaces, all at two metres distance, wearing masks? What if they can smile at each other, eyes if not lips, and be of different ages, what if the ‘teacher’ could speak to them and oversee their study? What if the younger ones start learning from the older ones and vice versa, what if the teacher answers one child’s questions and another learns? What if ‘to sit beside’,2 of course with social distancing, was again possible as it was in ancient times?

The teacher can be from the same area, who works as a volunteer or is paid a nominal sum! Two hours a day, some learning, some reading, some writing and some speaking! Some stories about science and history, literature and some singing! Will this not be far better than children cooped up at home, not knowing when they will go to school? Just because the school building is closed it does not mean learning cannot happen, or people cannot engage! It also does not mean that learning needs a computer! We have discovered that a lot of learning can happen at home. Can a home or garage be extended to a small school of 8-15 children for learning that cannot happen alone? Of course safety is vital and in such a school, parents can participate.

One may ask how can an unqualified adult teach? One may also ask who qualified teachers in the India of the 18th century that had a quarter of the world’s GDP? One may say, “What kind of a proposal is this? It sets back the clock!” Could it be that the clock was set back in the British era and has been behind ever since!

Entrepreneur-teacher and employee-teacher
The schools in pre-British India were anchored by entrepreneurs, people who saw it as an honourable vocation. Their viability did not depend on dole, or someone with capital, but on the value that their clientele saw in them. The ubiquitous tuition teacher comes closest to this in our world today. The entrepreneur teacher of that period was supported by people who wanted him/her to continue with this important work since it fuelled an autonomous, thriving small community. The British records bear testimony to a little recognized fact. These schools were run by individuals across the caste spectrum and not only by higher caste individuals.3

Learning is what adults will do for a living in the 21st century
From early times learning has been purpose-driven, for doing a task, fitting a role required by society. Rulers have tried to give contextual definitions when they set up or supported learning institutions. The British wanted clerks for the empire. However, learning is not merely extractive, acquiring utilitarian skills or for building economy or serving a master. Learning is not just meant for a purpose. As insightfully pointed out by S. J. Perelman, “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.”

The question before creators, entrepreneurs, discoverers, and governments is whether they can glean things that their past learning of two centuries does not permit. We know that the processes of the modern school don’t privilege quality and egality in learning or wellbeing.

If learning is the main work in the 21st Century then we need to have a completely different orientation. Directed, coerced, funnelled learning or teaching is not learning or teaching. Are schools preparing the young for a life of learning, where learning will be the main work they will do?

Is it riskier to continue or riskier to change?
For the emerging period the greatest risk is a false sense of continuity. Holding on to models of the past will not be wise. The COVID period has shown that a different kind of education is emerging and bypassing the edifices of education. For nearly 500 million below 18 years of age, India has about 3 million teachers. Parents, nearly 500 million, in rural and urban India, have participated more in their children’s education, over the past six months, than ever before. Surely this fact makes visible both the risks and the possibilities.

We need to separate education and learning from the edifices of education. If we could legitimize education everywhere, anywhere, if there could be support, not for the employee-teacher but the entrepreneur-teacher, we could see a turnaround. Without this spirit embedded in the teaching learning process, there will not be the diverse innovation that is needed for the India that the young deserve. Employees seek jobs and continuity with responsibility located elsewhere. An entrepreneur seeks viability and finds his/her niche, and assumes responsibility for his choices. We need to do less and not more.

Like we need to think beyond the practices of the past two centuries for the processes and forms of school education, we need to think beyond conventional models of teacher training for creating space for entrepreneur-teachers. We may ask, a trifle irreverently, if anyone knows how to train teachers for the post COVID, AI saturated era where machines talk to machines? One may think this is risky. But is it riskier to continue with a high inertia system with 150 years of momentum? Is it riskier knowing that the existing centralized system cannot unleash the creativity and versatility of a billion people, and still continue on that course?

But does India, confined by corona, wish to ruminate this possibility, and knowing the limitations of the current approach at least try experimentally a new approach? Will India continue to pursue only capital and infrastructure based education? Or will India again make space for the banished teacher-entrepreneur?

If India is to ride out the COVID crisis doing justice to its young, it needs to legitimize the small school, the school free of regulation, the school that does not depend on infrastructure and capital, but only the teacher-entrepreneur.

  1. Henri Poincare, the French mathematician, points out in his famous work Science and Hypothesis that when we look with inherent definitions, or unconscious bias, we may miss significant data.
  2. Upanishad means to sit beside.
  3. Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree.


The author, an Educator-Learner at Pathashaala, a young residential school under Krishnamurti Foundation India, has worked in KFI schools for about 30 years, of which 18 were as Principal, The School KFI in Chennai. He can be reached at [email protected].

This is the first of a two-part article. The second part will appear in January 2021.

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