It would hardly take much imagination to visualize a digital classroom, with a teacher transacting a lesson from a textbook or an e-textbook to a class of students, sitting remotely in their homes, which has now become a sort of a confinement in disguise.
Staring at their laptop screens or mobile phones, eyes drooping with tiredness, students look on with a half-hearted feeling of gratitude that they at least have the opportunity of learning at a time when so many children across the country have had to drop out, owing to lack of resources, something that their parents, teachers and elders keep reminding them of. Despite this realization, it is difficult to feign the distress they feel at not being able to be ‘out’ there in school, to interact and learn.
Quite amusingly, I observe how the same faces (and I have noticed the same behaviour in my four-year old nephew too) brighten up when it comes to playing video games, or exploring social media and chatting with friends online. These are the same faces that often yawn in online classes, with shoulders slouching and a fleeting concentration probably because they too realize that learning can never be about sitting in one place for long hours.
To understand, therefore, what learning entails and how education can be made relevant to life, I got in touch with other educators. Thankfully, when I was approached for this interesting exploration, I had come in contact with a group of teachers across the country, through a course on reflective teaching that I had enrolled myself for. It was being led by Dr. Neeraja Raghavan (founder-director of Thinking Teacher) who has written extensively on the role of action research and reflective writing.
Thanks to our online interaction, I received insightful responses from these teachers, who teach different subjects to students of varied age groups, in schools that are unique not just in their demography but also in their avowed philosophy and aims of education. Despite their varied pedagogic experiences, all the four teachers related education with the concepts of freedom, fostering students’ choice and voice, and encouraging a symbiotic relationship with nature and the student’s environment.
‘Education that infuses life into education’
Madhushree Dutta, a senior school educator at Vidyashilp Academy (Bangalore), finds learning pertinent if it encourages the seeking of knowledge “from our surroundings.”
Echoing the essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s argument in Basic Education (NaiTalim), she argues for an “all encompassing” education that motivates students to:
- learn basic survival skills like creating fire, farming, masonry, carpentry, cooking which will make them self-reliant and teach them to care about natural resources and appreciate life.
- relate education to personal family stories that could be a treasure trove of history, genealogy and other stories which can be related to a wider range of subjects.
- engage with community and peer-based learning to foster team spirit, values of empathy, appreciation, and respect for others.
For someone like Sai sir, on the other hand, the response to how we can make education relevant seems incomplete without a conceptual exploration of – what is education? A passionate mathematics teacher at Step by Step World School, Noida, he writes:
Based on individual viewpoint, there could be different ways of perceiving the meaning and relevance of education: it could be seen as a means to making the next generation future ready for the mechanics of human civilization; or it could be seen as a way to foster harmony and peace in our world. For some, it could simply mean an exercise in indoctrination – conditioning impressionistic minds, so the existing machinery runs smoothly, undisturbed.
Irrespective of the form and nature one may appropriate, freedom and open-mindedness, for Sai sir, should lie at the core of education:
One should be given the freedom to pursue a choice of philosophy. If the educator is given the freedom to educate based on the philosophy that he/she believes in, the educator can make the maximum impact and would educate passionately. Having said that, human beings change with age. With experience we may move from one viewpoint to another and to yet another, over longer periods of time. Rather than change one’s perspective forcibly, one should be given enough avenues to explore and learn.
The student, similarly, should also be given the freedom to explore the philosophy he/she would want to pursue, with appropriate education.
This combination of freedom to teach and freedom to learn can lead to the most efficient learning that is, at the same time, most relevant to one’s life.
Education that relates with the world as students see it
In my own stint with online classes, what I should have perceived as a genuine response to the pandemic from my students, literally came as a surprise. I felt guilty for being surprised when a significant number of my students chose themes like COVID 19, online classes, gratitude, nature, and family for a unit on spoken word poetry, to pour their heart out on issues that had affected them personally. When I look back, I feel that the online nature of classes, which made the interaction more distant and matter of fact, was partly responsible for my guilt.
Like many of my colleagues, I was apprehensive about how we would teach poetry and make the students analyze spoken word poetry. It appeared to be too daunting a task. I would often sulk about not being in a classroom where we could have made full use of the space to perform poetry in front of each other in a well-lit class, with students, sitting in a semi-circle formation, and the atmosphere resounding with their laughter, admiration and chatter.
Amidst all this concern and apprehension, what I had not anticipated, however, was the enthusiasm with which this unit would be received by the students. With every performance poem that we viewed in the class, discussion around what we thought and felt about insensitivity, bullying, our own sense of right and wrong and building stress owing to online classes became more intense and personal.
After a few sessions on analyzing language, form and performative elements, when students were given an opportunity to compose their own poems, I was unprepared for the intensity with which students would engage with the topic. Through their compositions, they poured their heart out in such innovative and poignant ways that it would make their own teacher reflect on one of the fundamental questions that Professor Krishna Kumar uses as a lynchpin for his most seminal work on Indian Education system: ‘What is worth teaching?’
When I think about what triggered my students to engage with this unit with such vigor and energy, I realize that it was perhaps the liberty with which they applied their understanding to produce a creative work of the world, seen through their perceptive eyes. In a way, we were consciously trying to refrain from controlling “the contents of their minds”, something that John Holt unequivocally talked about back in 1958 as a teacher.
The value of reflective assignments that bring about creative participation and facilitate a better understanding of the world they live in.
In my interaction with Anita Butani, a dedicated and passionate counsellor, who has a master’s in clinical psychology as well as school psychology, she talked about the importance of giving hands-on learning experience to students, along with reflective exercises to make education relevant for life. Recalling an incident with a class of 10 eager and energetic students of kindergarten, she writes:
There was a time when I needed to teach about leaves. So, I started by taking them (students) for a walk through the surrounding wooded area within the campus. As we walked, we could feel the twigs and the leaves crackle beneath our feet, so we would pause, pick up, examine, and try to locate where it fell from. We would often examine the bark, view the height, and notice all the details of the tree. I took a few pictures of the trees too.
Thanks to this real experience in the lap of nature, the discussion around the varied attributes of leaves and trees that we had observed took a life of its own!
The following day, I played a documentary on leaves and trees so we could connect the dots further.
This helped not only in vocabulary building but also in building a sound knowledge of the relevant, practical aspects of nature, the types of trees, where they could be found, why they grow where they do, and what would happen if we exchanged the location of the trees.
The students could understand the concept to the core. This meaningful activity also helped in their communication and public speaking skills. Even the most shy students wouldn’t want to let go of an opportunity to declare and share their findings.
Ratna Kumari (who is fondly referred to as Ratnaakka by her colleagues as a mark of respect for her experience and zeal to learn) has been working at Peepal Grove school (Andhra Pradesh) for the last eight years.
Being a social science teacher for the past three years to middle school students, she echoed what Ms. Anita related through her example of an inductive approach to teaching. For her too, assignments should aim at practical application and an integration of different disciplinary knowledge. Travel journal, for instance, is a case in point. This could be an excellent example of an interdisciplinary assignment, wherein students put together their knowledge of different subjects by giving a detailed account of different places of tourist attractions from their own experiences, which could also include their knowledge of geography, language, food, lifestyle and different cultures.
Madhushree too stresses on application-based assignments. In her response to my questions, she recounted how with the help of a group of farmers, she and her colleagues involved students of grade 9 in a project that aimed to give them a hands-on experience of growing basmati rice in their school campus. Its purpose was to give an experiential learning exposure to students, who were learning about the variety of Indian crops in class (geography) and about plant life in another (biology). She writes:
This exercise created a lot of excitement among the students as it was a completely hands-on activity where they (students) didn’t mind getting their hands and feet dirty to sow the seeds. The day the harvested rice was served in the lunch menu, not a morsel of rice was wasted as the entire school community took pride in the ownership of cultivation!
Tasks (not assignments) that provide agency
For a philosophical and critical mind like Sai sir, the word assignment, however, connotes an “invisible” hierarchy. In this hierarchy, a teacher is seen superior to a student, which for him is reflective of the ‘employer-employee status’. Students, he argues, shouldn’t ideally be expected to explore this relationship in a school-space. This is probably why he thinks that assignments “work contrary to the purpose of education”.
Additionally, he believes that uniform assignments work against the concept of equity, and “associating them with grades promotes plagiarism and cheating.” For him, tasks should rather be about encouraging students’ choice and voice. He writes:
The classroom pedagogy should be strong enough to enable the students to acquire the knowledge, understanding, skills and disposition to perform well in life. If the classroom time is not sufficient, the environment created in the classroom is not appropriate. Effective pedagogies can lead students to work beyond the classroom by driving the passion, rather than assigning the tasks. And such driving of passion is what is required rather than assignments.
In the end, Sai sir concludes his interview with something that somehow stays with me for the sheer depth of the statement –
Inspiration is the key. If the educator can inspire the students to become responsible for their own learning, the necessity of assignments (not tasks) vanishes.
- Holt John. “How Schools Fail.” How Children Fail, Perseus Books Group (4 September 1995).
- Kumar Krishna. What is Worth Teaching? Orient Blackswan Private Limited – New Delhi (1 January 2009).
The author teaches English (IB curriculum at Pathways School, Noida). A recipient of the Junior Research Fellowship in Education, she holds a double masters in Education and English Literature from Delhi University. A teacher and a life-long learner by choice, she is fond of writing poetry and reflective pieces. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.