It is not easy to decipher at what point in the history of education schools became what they are today. It is not easy, because it is painful to think about it. At least for the past 100 years educators, scholars, philosophers, psychologists as well as people interested in the common good and in individuals have been trying to take administrators, teachers and parents associated with schools back to the original intent and idea behind institutions of learning. They have stopped shy of climbing on rooftops to shout out loud that we need to let children blossom on their own, allow children to learn through experience and not just through textbooks which end up creating robotized clones aiming to do identical things with their own lives as well as with those of others.
Education in ancient civilizations was most certainly focused on skill building of various kinds. However it did not stop at that. It was about learning through experience, about learning patterns of behaviour, learning about relationships and respect. More than that, if we look around us at anything that dates prior to the 20th century, learning was about understanding and creating beauty.
It has been over a century since we were hit by the manic machine and it is about time that we stop turning into one as we are certainly far more aware than we were then. Twenty first century skills are a series of higher order skills, abilities and learning dispositions that have been identified as necessary for success in society. Material success is the primary focus and developing skills so that one is able to leave the others behind is the driving force. But in the process, what is happening to this matter of culture?
Despite all the good intentions, most schools today are striving to churn out individuals who will be able to achieve material success in life. This in itself might be a good intention. Nevertheless to make people believe that there is something like good competition that makes one achieve the impossible, that one can compete with oneself in order to become perfect at what one is doing are delusional ideas. What they are hiding behind their masks of successful happy people is in fact the need to be single and narrow minded, ambitious, focusing on the highest grades, memorizing, rote learning to surpass the masses, to trample over them and go beyond.
But what happens when one ends up alone at the top? No matter how many team building workshops you do and trust games you play, one intends to move forward alone, without sharing, without being humble, without wondering about the infinity of this cosmos, without noticing or spreading beauty. One passes through life without comprehending the true meaning of freedom, of affection, of sorrow, of listening, of introspection, of one self. One floats through life without pausing to observe or note the light blush on a white flower which represents innate and absolute beauty.
Schools are coercive institutions and if the people involved in the process of education set their minds to it, they can produce individuals who are inherently aware of the beauty and culture around them. Aesthetics involves ways of seeing and perceiving the world. One’s values, sentiment, taste and reflection on art, culture and nature is carefully cultivated as we grow up. Our behaviour, our view of the world and ideals develop while we interact with others. Schools play a major role in this cultivation. In the classroom and outside, the teacher and the management are central to the growth of the child’s mind. The intent of the school shapes these ideas that take root in the children.
There is an exchange between a student and J. Krishnamurti which can be looked upon as the core of this idea pertaining to what schools can do while shaping children’s minds.
“Questioner: Why must we read?
Krishnamurti: Why must you read? Just listen quietly. You never ask why you must play, why you must eat, why you must look at the river, why you are cruel – do you? You rebel and ask why you must do something only when you don’t like to do it. But reading, playing, laughing, being cruel, being good, seeing the river, the clouds – all this is part of life; and if you don’t know how to read, if you don’t know how to walk, if you are unable to appreciate the beauty of a leaf, you are not living. You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand; for all that is life.”
When the teacher has this insight and this broadness of mind, she is able to share with the children her views on life and learning. The school that trusts the teacher to work with experience, with ideas of freedom and responsibility, to go beyond the straight and narrow empowers the child to become his or her own person. Children learn best through emulation and experience. Rather than a direct or didactic approach to learning, if the school is structured in a way such that the children are immersed in an environment which nurtures culture, the child inculcates these ideas and ways of thinking in a more natural manner.
Not everyone has the opportunity to be prompted to think of such things by someone with this kind of clarity. What they certainly can have is a school which is set in nature. When children are surrounded by trees, sounds of chirping birds and twittering insects, when they rise with the sun and spend some time alone with themselves at dusk drowning in the sunset, they become alert to the beauty around them. When they can have immense space to run around, and can lie on the ground and stare at the star studded sky, they are able to comprehend what space is – that around them as well as that between them and others. When they stain their hands with mud while planting trees or strain their eyes counting birds, they understand what it means to care and to be completely still and observe. They learn from nature what it is to respect and what is patience as they leave alone strikingly beautiful butterflies and wait for the rain to drench the vegetables they have planted.
Often residential or part residential schools find it easier to work with children as they spend a large part of their year living together in an environment which encourages progressive and democratic schooling or which insists on the lack of competition and works with experiential learning. However more and more alternative day schools are trying to wrench children away from gadgets and closer to a more natural and aesthetic way of living. There are schools where children are able to choose what they want to learn and when they think they are ready to learn something new. They have the agency themselves and at the same time the idea of what democracy is becomes crystalline.
Schools can be happy and caring communities that recognize the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. When there is a general openness and honesty among the community members, when staff do not use adult authority to impose values and solve problems; these can be solved by the individual with the help of friends or by the community in a more organic way.
Through regular exposure to art, film, literature, music and performing arts which are not usually part of the curriculum but disseminated in a more natural manner through discussions, talks, hands on work and performances in which the students themselves participate; the school gives access to a rich world that the child could otherwise have been deprived of. The children become aware that these fields exist not merely as secondary subjects but as part of their life and what could be their future. Working with the environment, understanding how we create waste and becoming conscious of the ways of disposing it, remains imprinted on their minds for many years to come until they can imagine a place without waste. Such schools do not kill creativity, they nurture it.
Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, examinations and qualifications. It seems as if assessment and qualification define education. Making mistakes becomes the greatest flaw of the child. Schools that encourage mistakes allow the child to experiment with knowledge. Fear of math or abstract sciences disappears when the child learns by understanding concepts based on life around them. What is more, they understand the beauty in these fields, the miracles that human beings in the past were able to experience when they suddenly had an epiphany and understood what numbers and natural laws meant.
Howard Gardner, whose theory of Multiple Intelligences gives equal significance to various human abilities, says:
“We have schools because we hope that someday when children have left schools that they will be able to use what it is they’ve learned. There is now a massive amount of evidence from all realms of science that unless individuals take a very active role in what it is they’re studying, unless they learn to ask questions, to do things hands on, to essentially recreate things in their own minds and transform them as needed, the ideas just disappear. The student may have a good grade on the exam, we may think that he or she is learning, but a year or two later there is nothing left.
I want people at the end of their education to understand the world in ways that they couldn’t have understood it before their education.”
Sensitive and cultured education is that which involves seeing each child as a unique and whole human being, concerned about how one thinks, feels and learns. We live now in a world gnarled by many problems and with very few creative solutions. What the future requires is innovative educational approaches where young people are given the freedom and support they need to experience deep and varied multisensory learning. Only such enriched forms of education can help our children become multi-skilled, ready to collaborate and communicate well with others, comfortable with their bodies, with a genuine interest in the arts and literature. These imaginative and sensitive individuals will not only know how to learn from printed texts but also how to apply that knowledge creatively, to build things and learn from their life experiences, to pause and listen. They will be able to appreciate and nurture the beauty of this world in all its forms.
The author has been involved in learning and teaching for the past two decades. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.