What makes work education ‘educative’

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

That human beings have an innate drive to seek and learn is evident when we leave babies to their own devices. That they utilize their five senses to explore and understand the world is obvious when we give a supine infant a toy. They immediately try to hold it, shake it, smell it, squeeze, and even taste it. Once toddlers are mobile, there’s no stopping their quest for new objects to investigate. As they grow more dexterous, they pour, roll, flatten, throw, jump on and mix various substances together, And, all the time, children are observing, absorbing, and categorizing the variety of experiences that bombard their senses.

Contrast this to a typical high-school classroom. A group of teenagers sit at desks, some upright, some slouching. A teacher stands in front trying to hold their attention by talking, questioning, and occasionally writing on a black or whiteboard. Students try to listen but a considerable number seem bored, listless. Any distraction from a bird chirping outside to a friend dropping a book is sufficient for them to disengage from the teacher. As most teachers are confronted with this scenario day after day, it’s understandable for them to wonder whether children are intrinsically motivated to learn.

Fortunately, schools recognize that passive learning is not conducive to growth. One way to deepen engagement and create active learners is through work education. The CBSE website defines it as “purposive and meaningful manual work” that results in socially-useful “goods or services,” and also imbues children with a sense of fulfillment. Further, the aim of work education is to help children imbibe “values and habits” that are essential to succeeding in the world of work. Another offshoot of this program is that students may discover their “real interests and aptitudes,” which can then pave the path for further study.

The benefits of work education are intended to straddle cognitive, psychomotor, and affective domains. Cognitive objectives include recognizing the basic needs of a community, acquainting themselves on locally-useful activities, knowing and procuring suitable raw materials, planning and problem-solving while engaging in a productive activity. Psychomotor competence involves acquiring various skills to actually create, produce, and innovate products. Learning to work as a team, cultivating healthy work habits and a sense of civic awareness constitute affective goals.

In a podcast of New Books Network, Sathish Kumar, founder of Schumacher College in the United Kingdom, says that a wholesome education needs to tap the “head, heart and hand.” The goals of work education, thus, meet his criteria. While chalking out goals is essential to any learning endeavor, we also need to ask the following questions.

How do educators ensure that work education meets these objectives? Are there certain conditions or criteria that need to be met for work education to result in authentic learning? Additionally, how do we define and gauge authentic learning in the context of work education?

Just because work education involves “experiential learning,” that does not automatically make it educative. As John Dewey reminds us in his classic book, Experience and Education, we cannot treat experience and education as synonymous. Experiences that thwart the growth of a child or promote “callousness” are clearly “mid-educative.” Rather than focus on giving children experiences per se, Dewey exhorts us to consider the “quality of the experience,” which includes two facets. The first is whether the child finds the experience agreeable, and the second, the impact of the experience on further learning.

Dewey also points out, “There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.” Every experience is a function of an interaction between a person (in this case a child) and the environment (which includes the task, materials and other people). So, we have to ensure that the experience meshes with an individual child’s skills and interests. An experience is agreeable when the child’s abilities and predispositions are a good fit for the task at hand. Providing children with choice and guiding them to make right choices that are consonant with their individual profiles as learners can make experiences agreeable.

The second factor that makes experiences educative is whether they engender further growth. Most importantly, what attitudes are fostered by an activity? According to Dewey, the “desire to go on learning” is often more critical than what is actually being learned. Is the child motivated to seek further and ultimately evolve into a self-directed learner?

Besides Dewey’s two facets of agreeableness and continual growth, what other factors do we keep in mind when we evaluate the effectiveness of work education? In their book How Learning Works, Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges and their co-authors, spell out research-based principles for effective teaching and learning. Though their book is written with academic learning in mind, some of the learning principles apply just as well to work education.

First, we need to determine what prior knowledge or skills children bring to a work education activity knowing that this may either help or hinder learning. Accurate, relevant, and activated knowledge or skills are conducive while inaccurate, irrelevant or inert knowledge may be counterproductive. Further, we need to ensure that students are making connections by linking their work education experiences to knowledge gleaned in and outside the classroom. A greater number of linkages suggests that the work education activity is truly generative, spawning new ideas and forging linkages with old ones.

As work education programs tend to be more skill-oriented, we need to observe if students are acquiring component skills and integrating and applying them in diverse contexts. Are students able to generalize their learning to other situations? How Learning Works also emphasizes the importance of targeted feedback, which in this context, would be from a supervisor or mentor. Are students able to absorb the feedback and improve their performance, which may refer both to the quality of a product or service and students’ overall understanding of the larger context in which they perform their work.

The book also points out that a student’s “current level of development” interacts with the sociocultural climate of the learning situation. Work education can play an elemental role in steering students to a more diverse array of careers that meld with their personal proclivities and profiles.

This is especially relevant in today’s globalized, capitalist world. Children’s career choices are often dictated by societal markers of status, where money and fame play disproportionate roles. When the pursuit of money becomes the be-all and end-all of career decisions, we not only jeopardize individuals from flourishing but also destroy our planet. Work education can indeed play a transformative role in helping children understand how a purely capitalist framework that disregards the environment is destructive for everyone. As Sathish Kumar spells out in the podcast, education needs to situate acts of daily living like cooking, gardening, and carpentry within an ecological framework that helps children think in terms of individual, collective, and ecological wellbeing.

Krishna Kumar says in his book A Pedagogue’s Romance, that if education is practiced ‘judiciously,’ it can spur a “society to regenerate itself.” By according undue emphasis to intellectual learning, we have eroded humanistic, aesthetic, and manual dimensions of learning and living. If work education plays a more central role in the curriculum and is reimagined anew, we may rehaul our current system with one that is more in sync with the natural rhythms of children and the larger ecosystem.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com.

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