How relevant are schools today?

Neerja Singh

First there was the digital landscape and now it is Covid 19. Are schools all set to disappear to make way for a new template better suited to the needs of this era? There has been quite a buzz lately around the new phenomena of school refusal and home schooling for one.


Other, bigger questions are picking up volume. Are schools outdated today? Is school the same as education? Is Internet not capable of providing knowledge and skills? Why is education equated with a learning and teaching process that takes place in an institute when it actually is about learning anything in life?


Education is usually equated with school education, a structured way to provide the skills of literacy, language and mathematics to the masses. But what happens beyond these essential skills? Rather than continue to be about learning, it stops at schooling which is more about school buses, administrators, budgets, dress codes, rules and orders, buildings, etc.


The two factors that encourage learning – curiosity and a pro-active search for information – are rarely cultivated in the classroom. Schools are beneficial in many ways, that is not to be discounted. They provide a safe environment where children learn academics and essential life lessons and develop their talents and explore various fields. Teachers are like second parents and there are the friends that add to the fun.


However, more significant than any of these is the certification role that schools play today. And that stamp is beginning to lose value given digital technology and the Internet. Everyone has the same access to tools and information. In the information revolution, it is abundantly clear today that while the schools were designed for one thing, they are now required to deliver something else.


The classroom today for instance looks no different from the classroom of 1890. The employment horizon has transformed in fundamental ways, but schools continue to educate students for jobs that do not exist anymore. In fact, most of the syllabi is outdated. The books are rarely updated and nor is an attempt made to refresh material with supplements from the Internet and additional reading. As a matter of fact, most of the regular work done by students in the classrooms is low-end cognitive work while out in the labour force, skills that are required are largely creative thinking and collaboration,which in turn are based on cognitive, non-routine tasks.


How about the “flipped classroom model”? A student watches a short video on a math concept, she solves some examples herself and then takes them to the teacher for feedback and inputs. Leveraged and fine-tuned enough, technology can transform the teaching-learning experience for both the teacher and the taught. What is happening instead is transference of a system on how to be an employee and obey. A student that writes precisely as is expected of her in an exam will grow to be the subordinate who will do only as much is demanded of her by the boss, no extra initiative, no taking ownership.


What we are seeing around us is the greatest, deepest, most rapid expansion of human expression in all of human history. Nobody need be stuck to a writing table or an office anymore. That device in the pocket can do it all. But schools continue to perpetrate and cultivate a consumer mindset rather than a creative one. The Internet, for instance, is a place where we pull down some content put up by another. It is, in fact, a highly participatory space, social and interactive. It is a landscape to be doing in and making and creating upon. What is taking the schools so long to realize this?


In today’s world where everyone has a voice, it is tragic that schools do so little with the normative sciences that will give students a unique world view. Just the subject matter and homework leaves the students little time for personal growth of any other nature. With most knowledge having been committed to memory; students feel lost after school. There have been only exams that are focused on results, nothing resembling continuous learning. At that tender age, it is not unheard of some young children going astray or having been so affected by favouritism at the hand of teachers that they grow up feeling worthless and incompetent.


In the current wake of the pandemic, WHO declares India as the most depressed country in the world. One in six children and teenagers between 10-19 years of age suffer from depression. There is said to be one suicide attempt every three seconds and one death by suicide every 40 seconds by our youth.* School education clearly causes a whole lot of stress in students who seem unable to cope with pressure from parents and teachers to excel at studies. One major reason for this is also the fact that the children’s emotional and social development is ignored by the educators. The theme song remains “survival of the fittest” and the young minds are brought up to be competitive from their earliest years. It is quite common for Indian parents to flaunt the marksheet of their child. But what about those who are not able to score well in exams? There are feelings of frustration, depression, anger, sorrow and acute resentment at times with no skills to manage them.


Ideally, the school ought to focus on growing and strengthening the personal and problem-solving skill of their students. How wonderful it would be if students did not feel forced into subjects and instead could explore several possibilities. Practical and professional skill-based education would help the students be clearer on their career goals.


It is possible today to thrive in communities of mutual interest rather than just geography. Rather than teach them to regurgitate, schools ought to prepare students to be adaptive. But the bigger picture is not something school leadership is looking at. Perhaps it is parents too who need to unlearn their experiences of school which fashions their expectations of the teachers and principals.


This is the time for uncomfortable conversations on how the world has changed, the transformation in education and what our children will face when they leave the main gate of their schools. Teaching has to be for growth. Education has to address the employment sectors. It is imperative to take risks and manage them. School leaders must be knowledgeable about the technologies and employment forces out there.


What is happening today is that students are participating as content producers in the world but then they come to school and are asked to maintain silence. Schools need to give them appropriate tools, guidance and resources instead.


How relevant is it to still their voices?

*https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/mental-health-issues-that-students-are-facing-today-1787663-2021-04-13

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational empathy with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at
[email protected] and https://neerjasingh.com.

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