On 31 March, 2016 a part of the under-construction ‘Vivekananda Flyover’, in the Girish Park neighbourhood of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta) city, collapsed.
This information, its visuals, and the damage to life and property, brought to fore extreme anger. KOLKATA, the city of emotions, as it has always been referred to, has lost its soul. It has become a rock!
The heightened emotional anguish that I experienced cannot be put in words. Apart from being my native city, it was the state of apathy of the human being that troubled me the most. So I chose to give myself the time to let my emotions settle, before I was ready to write about it.
Even after all these day, it is not clear as to who bears responsibility for what happened. The company constructing the flyover, the engineering firm that designed the flyover, or the government overseeing the project. We are seeing a classic example of buck-passing as no one is ready to bear onus for it.
Looking at the city, and its history, I wonder… for this is the city of landmark bridges!
Wearing the crown is the Howrah Bridge, a cantilever with a suspended span over the Hooghly River in West Bengal, India. A 73 years old bridge, that was commissioned in 1943, linking the two cities of Howrah and Kolkata. It weathers the storms of the Bay of Bengal region, carrying a daily traffic of approximately 100,000 vehicles and possibly more than 150,000 pedestrians, easily making it the busiest cantilever bridge in the world. The third-longest cantilever bridge at the time of its construction, the Howrah Bridge is currently the sixth-longest bridge of its type in the world! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howrah_Bridge
What is significant and noteworthy is that it was made at a time when technology had not advanced to the extent today. Yet that bridge has survived the test of time, weather and population. What is thus unfathomable is the case in question.
With the advancement in skill and technology, shouldn’t construction get more accurate, more safe and more bankable? Then what was it that fell short? Probably the ‘human’ aspect of responsibility?
In the aftermath of the bridge collapse, on 2nd April, 2016 our president, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, made a statement:
What did he mean? Why did he appeal to education institutions only? Why not others?
Because therein lies our only hope..!!
As a teacher when I enter a class and look at children, they are all alike. I can’t make out any apparent distinction, be it religious or other. Thank God for that! What a beautiful and homogeneous lot. Their innocent faces, pure smiles, and believing eyes can add life to any dull day.
But then over time things change. The education journey which is meant to empower, begins the silent work of disempowerment. Here is how. We begin to test our little ones. We mark their work… and grade them. And suddenly this homogeneous lot is divided, into excellent, the not so excellent, and the ‘others’. And under what criteria? Their ability to memorise and reproduce.
‘We’ divide them. This divide created in the foundation stages of the child’s life, is lasting. The child spends the rest of his/her life believing that I belong to this grade or that grade. Complexes of inferiority and superiority surface right at that stage. Now the class divide, quite like that of the brahmans and the shudras and everything in between, has crept in. These divides take deep root into the souls of the children. Very few are able to break free from these shackles. These children who up until now were free spirits and believed that they could fly and be superman or spiderman or anything that they wanted, are now questioning themselves, because ‘I don’t get the marks. How can I do it?’
And they begin to give up even before they have begun to find out their potentials. These discouraged children often grow up to be the adults who give up in the face of challenges and succumb to situations of bribe, corruption, malpractice believing, ‘What can I do? I can’t change it’ and that it’s better to flow with the flow.
The role of education is to foster faith, belief and confidence in the ‘self’. Yet it ends up doing exactly the opposite.
One might question, so is there no need of examinations or assessments?
Of course there is. But really let’s ask ourselves who needs this information more? Is it the child who has come to learn, or is it the teacher who is responsible for the learning? And what would be the right age to initiate them into taking their own responsibility?
If you observe the growth and development of a child from conception to the age of 18, you will be able to witness the entire pathway of human evolution right from being a unicellular organism to a fully grown adult with all its organs and faculties ready for use to lead a ‘human’ life. This entire process takes about 18 years. And so it is only at this age that legislation hands over individual rights and responsibility to these young adults by way of driving permits, voting rights, etc.
So we can safely assume here that in accordance with this growth pattern, the years that a child spends until it reaches the secondary school (about the age of 10 years), he is quite literally a little monkey(if I may say so) who is evolving and being groomed into being a human being. And so ‘monkeying around’ is probably it’s innate nature. Given this understanding, how can we then, even expect this little person to exhibit the maturity of an adult and take full responsibility of his or her own learning?
At this time I am reminded of a legend that I would like to share. One afternoon, Rabindranath Tagore was taking a stroll around his open school Shantiniketan, that had open classrooms under trees. The distant ‘gong’ announced the break time. Suddenly the silent expanse, came rife with children scampering all around shouting and screaming. Rabindranath smiled at this beautiful sight and music. Walking a little further, he noticed a child who continued sitting under the tree and kept working at his slate.
Tagore walked up to his teacher, and asked whether he had been punished. The teacher smiled and replied, “Oh no sir. He is the most responsible child of our class. He does not bother about play. He is so focused on academics.”
Rabindranth looked at the boy and said, “Then he is not a child any more. For it is the nature of childhood to want to play. We adults school them only to bring in decorum and stability into their future lives. But that should not be at the cost of childhood. For then the craving for this unfulfilled bygone period, will render them restless for their lifetime.”
This child was clearly an exception to the rule!
Institutions have to take it upon themselves to relieve their students from the stress of academics. At least until the age of ten. That does not mean that they are left to simply fool around (although that too is one of the biggest joys of childhood). They should have a balanced education that allows for fun as well as academic rigour without the demons of exams taking away their sleep. A happy and content child will be a more willing child, receptive to learning. It is during the secondary years that formal exams could be introduced to encourage taking onus of their own academics.
But more importantly, such a happy and stress-free child, will grow into a more responsible human being, who appreciates what he has, appreciates his community and appreciates life, not just his own, but also of others. A community that is built on play, faith, and human bonding.
Then what should be the focus during these initial years?
Values and virtues, ethics and principles can be ingrained into a pure and un-corrupt mind very easily. These initial ten years should focus on building these areas in the child’s personality. When children are not divided by academic grades and have opportunities to explore other talents, and discover the hidden wisdom in stories, life sketches and biographies, they have examples of ideals and role models. They get inspired. They also have the opportunity to develop confidence in themselves for all that they are ‘able’ to do. Faith in one’s abilities build strong characters, allowing them to stand by these virtues and principles, in the face of adversities. ‘This’ courage is the foundation of a strong and healthy nation.
A nation with such patient schools, creating such human beings, will be a nation with a conscience, a unified community and shared responsibility. Such a nation will not have to hang their heads in shame with incidents of negligence or compromise costing lives, such as the collapse of the bridge.
Do you hear your mind say words like radicle, impossible, dreamy, etc.? Well that is the mindset this article intends to question. Have we already given up?
Schools as Nation Builders
The formative part of a human being is spent in schools. The thought patterns of the ‘self’ and the ‘world’ are developed during these years. Perspectives take shape. Dreams are built. Visions of ‘my future’ are crafted. And it is only here that the understanding, that ‘my future’ cannot materialise without ‘our future’ being achieved first, takes root. Because they are entwined. And will always be entwined.
‘For the strength of the nation is the individual, and the strength of the individual is the nation.’
Mr. Pranab Mukherjee’s appeal was to the education institutions to work on this premise. Because once children move out of these institutions, they are almost already a part of the workforce, reaching specialisations. AND if the building blocks have been set well, if the foundations are deep and strong, and were given sufficient time to settle and secure, they can hold forth adverse climates and calamities. Greed, corruption, competitions, selfish ambitions, are the adversities that rock and often collapse the human spirit, and then we see the manifestations in the outside world.
So even if the vision of such a nation seems impossible and dreamy, it is better to be believers and operate out of faith working towards a better nation, than to operate out of fear and lead our lives as helpless victims of the failing nation, succumbing to all external pressures.
‘Tis better to have tried and lost, than never to have tried at all.
Here is a letter that a thinking, feeling and loving teacher in Texas, Mrs. Brown, wrote to her students a few days before they appeared for the state conducted STAAR assessments for math and reading.
A school is an extension of the home. In many ways it would be acceptable to say that the school is the child’s second home. At school, the teacher is the one who gets to know the children entrusted in her care, as individuals that they are, and not just a batch of students. The teacher-student relationship is a humane bonding that refuses to ‘objectify’ them as mere test performers who ought to function at the ring of the school bell.
This 'all encompassing' letter is a proactive move to safeguard the self esteem of students from 'denting', which is ever so often the undesirable outcome of standardised tests. Society today, in its ever-increasing urge of segregating and organizing, often ends up losing its ‘purpose’ in the process. A student, who is a human being, is so much more than just the grade or score that he/she achieves in a test.
Through this letter which was sent home, Mrs. Brown, personally communicates to the children that she recognizes the wonderful human qualities and attributes that they have, and appreciates them for the effort they make, at being an individual who impacts the lives of others. In doing so she successfully brings the ‘exam outcome’ to perspective in the larger scheme of life.
Alongside she also succeeds in reminding the parents of how precious their children truly are, and how valuable their contributions are, before they judge them based on the exam outcomes.
A truly thinking, feeling and loving teacher who will leave an everlasting and positive impact on the lives of each and every student she teaches.
With the sun bearing down on us in the middle of March the heat is really on. But I wasn’t quite referring to that. I am referring to the exams and the stress of it. With the exam season on, especially the boards, the stress in the environment is palpable. The panic calls shoot up and there is an increase in parental concern over their children’s performance.
The most pressing concerns and cases are where parents wish to know how the child can do better, which study technique might be of help, how can they get more marks and finally how they, the parents, can help. All very genuine and well meaning concerns, yet there is much to be figured out here. Ever so often it is the parent who is equally, if not more, stressed out and needs to be counselled in order to help the child.
Children need to be guided and assured of their preparedness and of their abilities so that they do well. It boosts their confidence. They need to be advised on sleeping well and eating enough. They need to be encouraged to de-stress by indulging in small breaks without feeling guilty about it. And finally, they also need to be reminded that it is just another exam. Yes, it is!!
But in most parts parents need to be reminded of a few things as well. This is the time when often the students are stressed out and edgy. The most well-meaning concerns are often misinterpreted. Often children may also become irritated and snappy. Bear with them. They are walking on tight rope. This phase will pass over. A few small but significant things that can ease out the situation are what you need to bear in mind. Particularly those parents whose kids are writing the board exams.
· Be the provider – Children due to appearing for the boards are generally preoccupied with their studies and often fall out of schedule. Do not nag them on that. Be tolerant and patient. Be around handing over stuff, remind schedules, wake them up on time, etc. Simply put, offer help but don’t be hovering around. Let them know that you are available 24x7 for anything they need. But otherwise, just let them figure out stuff for themselves. This is also a part of growing up.
· Trust your kids - Believe that your child understands his/her role and responsibility in life and are fully aware of what is expected of them. While it may appear that he is not bothered, it is not true. The environment that they live in is rife with discussions, revisions, practice papers, competition and more. There is no opportunity for them to forget what an important exam this is, so do not bother to remind them about it again and again. It stresses them out even more.
· Study skills – Most of the schools today impart study techniques and provide guidelines right from the onset of the final year at school or junior college. Children are pretty much conversant with them. If you really wish to participate in his/her preparation, begin early. Enroll the child into the idea of approaching you for certain aspects of his study preparation like orals, vivas, projects, etc. which keeps you involved, yet not really leading. Let the child lead as he is on a path to discover what works for him/her. Avoid jumping in at the last minute and downloading instructions as it disrupts their own study plans and puts them in a dilemma of following your instructions or not.
· Be the stress-buster – Bring a sense of easiness into the household. Let there be laughter and light moments in the house just like any ordinary day. Be the sunshine in his otherwise loaded day. Like any adult who returns home after a hard day of work, know that they too are working hard throughout the day. Let them have time to unwind and revitalise. The home is their haven. Let them be.
· Be positive – Even when the child is putting up a casual front, know that on the inside there is worry and fear. Avoid any kind of negative comment. And avoid threats at all costs. Refrain from passing your stress to them. It breaks their confidence in themselves. Be matured and handle your stress for their sake. Be confident that you have done your share of it right.
· Be realistic - Know your child and his abilities. Not everyone is meant to be an engineer or a doctor. Let your child be the best of what he/she chooses to be. Be realistic in your expectations. Know that this is all that I can expect of him. And be okay with that. In that context know, understand and appreciate your child for who they are and the effort they put in. It is not the marks or percentage but rather your belief and acknowledgement of their efforts that makes them achievers in life. Look at the larger picture.
Exams are indeed a very important part of children’s life. It sets them up for the challenges of the future. It paves the path that they will walk and often defines the quality of life they may have. As parents we wish the best for them and therefore wish they do well in everything.
But what we also need to remember is that while these exams are a significant part of their life, it is not life itself. Life, as we know it, will put forth many other challenges that will not be resolved by any of these qualifications. What they will need at those points in time is 'self-esteem', 'self confidence' and the 'ability to make choices and decisions', independently and rationally. These exams are also opportunities when children discover these qualities within themselves. So let them be.
Lead them on ever so gently into the path of discovering and embracing their individuality. After all that is what our role as parents is, isn’t it?
Language is the most unique gift of human kind. Beyond the sensorial world it is through this medium that we understand and interpret the world. Knowledge acquisition which is a huge part of our life, more so for the kids, is made possible because of language ability. Yet often this is the only reason children lag behind in their pursuit of acquiring knowledge.
India is a land of diversity with multitudes of languages and dialects. We have children of varied linguistic backgrounds in any given classroom. This is even more so in case of a metropolitan city. When children step into schools these days, as early as three years of age, they have hardly learnt the language of instruction that is most often ‘English’. Excepting the few who come from the conscious English speaking homes, most of the parents believe that being in school will make them acquire the language.
Learning nursery rhymes and simple compositions or answers by way of ‘rote learning’ is often assumed as language acquisition. Primary years are simple to wade through, but it is during the secondary years that the downfall becomes painfully evident. Poor communication and articulation skills steal away any possibility of performing well. Unfortunately it remains a mystery to the child as well as to the parents as to why he/she is unable to cope.
Often the answer is simple. Poor language skills become a 'barrier' to learning!
So how do we learn a language? To understand that let’s go back a few years. Look at the new born baby’s environment. The baby is surrounded with its ‘mother tongue’ language. Every person in the house speaks to the child in that language. Co-relating words with actions the child begins to create meanings and over time the child begins to speak the language, although in a very fragmented manner. At this stage too, the child receives a lot of love and support for the effort it makes. Family members are patient and correct the child with great joy and enthusiasm. With more opportunities to practice without being judged, and with unlimited encouragement, the child starts acquiring mastery of the language.
Back to the present! The child enters the school without sufficient tools of communication. At this time he is made to start talking in a language that is vaguely understood by him/her. Words, in the form of meaningless sounds, are created during the time spent in school. Even before the child has had the time to figure it out, the child has to also start writing alphabets in that language. And immediately then, they are pushed into two, three, and so on words most of which doesn’t make sense to them. Lack of command over the language is met with impatience from the teacher who is herself struggling to meet unrealistic annual academic goals. Now add to this the fact that when the child returns home he goes back to an environment that is without the language. Yet the ordeal continues at home in the form of home work.
Learning, which was meant to be a process of joy, begins to become an unending source of anguish. Over time parents become a baggage of expectations, and unknowingly add to the stress of the child. Being judged and often labelled finally breaks the child’s spirit and often they succumb to the idea that they lack something. The dent is made.
Language barriers can indeed have long-term negative effects on a student's academic performance resulting in low self-esteem. While this situation may not be true of the more educated families, it still is true of a majority who come from traditional homes in India where speaking in English is not a way of life.
So what is the cure to this problem? Well, to get different results one has to take different actions.
Schools need to choose alternative methods to teach language. Language is learnt primarily through listening. Being immersed in a language is the only way to acquire it. Writing is a function of language. How many of us know to write in our native languages? Yet that is the primary language of our thoughts. We hardly ever find it difficult to express ourselves in our native language. It is critical then that we model that process of language acquisition to the extent possible to support our tender little ones in acquiring the non-mothertongue language. This little gesture of patience on behalf of schools, parents and society will go a long way in changing the outcomes of the schooling years. Allow children to dwell in the world of listening for longer years before we trudge them into writing. Engage and entertain them with stories and songs and poems where they begin making meanings and developing vocabulary. Make the learning process less clinical. That is when children will engage in the process with joy. Introducing writing in an unhurried manner towards the end of these years will then show better results.
The pre-primary years in a child’s life is the time of weaning it away from the comforts of the unstructured ways of their homes to the structured ways of the outside world. Moving in to the realisation that the world does not really revolve around them alone is quite a task. The love, patience and faith that schools exhibit during this stage are actually then the qualities that they instill in them through practice.
Unless for reasons that are therapeutic, avoid assessing or evaluating them at that stage. Be an extension of the homes that they come from. The diversity and dexterity of the current day schooling process is pretty demanding on the tender minds. Being kind and patient, and also confident will go a long way in ridding this barrier.
Robert E. Slavin, director of the Centre for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, proposes that schools can have a powerful impact on the academic achievement and success of all children by viewing them as ‘at-promise’ rather than ‘at-risk’ and prepare them to reach their full potential. Because the former engages the student by faith, while the latter approaches the student out of fear.
Keep the faith!!
Sunday morning welcomes me with the following 'front page' article in one of Mumbai's leading newspaper, DNA.
I am torn between two emotions pain and joy. Pained by the realisation that it took so long, and for a foreign organisation to tell us what so many of us already knew and lived with helplessly. Yet joyous, because a few of us conscious educators did not take it lightly. For the number of years that we have been teaching in classrooms, we knew where we were heading. Until one day we decided it was time to do something about it. Little steps... relentless efforts... tons of patience, and 'SHISHYAA_a small school of eternal learners' happened. The dream was to have a world of eternal learners. The guidelines were simple, what not to do in a school. The outcome was also simple, create a small school!!
As an education counsellor I often ask parents why they send their kids to school? What is the purpose of schooling? Answers vary from ‘getting an education, qualification, to getting equipped to get a job, dealing with the world, and often ‘because everyone does!’ Very rarely does this question cross their mind. With ever shrinking families and working couples, rarely any thought goes into what kind of a school should the child go to. Often, choices are based either on proximity and fee structure, or on brands, facilities and amenities. To a large extent, it also is a social statement today.
But standing alone, unknown to all, featuring none of the above elements, is this inconspicuous school which is small, quiet and minimalistic. This is a ‘Small School’. There’s a lot more to this school than what is immediately apparent. When you unravel the mystery, you see a happy school; happy students, happy teachers and happy parents. And what’s the secret? Well, it’s the small strength of the student group.
Small Schools are designed to feel like a family unit, with closely knit members, all known to each other, having strong bonds. Children are not overwhelmed by the size of the school as it is small and comforting, quite like home. All the members including students, teachers, office staff, etc. know each other well. Students easily establish a sense of personal identity in the space and feel secure. There is a lot of freedom of expression within the class units. And most importantly, teachers have unadulterated time to give to their students as they deal with small number of students per class. Teachers remain stress-free as they have lesser workload and are therefore happy and cheerful. This cheerful disposition creates a positive environment in the classroom and students in turn respond likewise. The benefits of acknowledgement and encouragement coming from a teacher can never be sufficiently expressed.
Teachers enjoy absolute freedom to design their lessons, be it within or outside the classroom unleashing their creativity. Freedom to design lessons with inputs from enthusiastic students, results in unusual and path breaking learning experiences making students excited and attentive. Tryon Edwards, an American theologian, said, "The secret of a good memory is attention, and attention to a subject depends upon our interest in it. We rarely forget that which has made a deep impression on our minds."
But the less apparent yet long lasting and far-reaching impact of a small school is felt on the social, emotional and spiritual level of students. Students grow up to become more self-assured, self-aware and contented individuals. The didactic environment inculcates strong values of patience, tolerance, acceptance and compassion, something that is lacking in society today. The world is in need of schools that will allow children to remain children for longer years indulging in free play and natural curiosity. Children, who are the adults and decision makers of the future, need to develop in their own time so as to naturally awaken to the responsibilities of society rather than being pushed into it. Coercion hardly achieves any social goal. ‘Knowledge that is acquired under compulsion, obtains no hold on the mind.’ said Plato.
American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey argued that ‘The primary purpose of education and schooling is not so much to prepare students to live a useful life, but to teach them how to live pragmatically and immediately in their current environment.’
The formative years of a child’s life needs to be strongly founded with the right amount of the three essentials: self worth, self assurance and self confidence. In large groups, very often these core essentials get compromised, as the teacher is unable to connect personally with every student. The student who looks up to the teacher, unknowingly associates this disconnect with self worth, creating an irreparable crack in the personality of the child often leading to a multitude of other problems. John Locke, an English philosopher, physician and enlightened thinker writes: "The little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences." That is, the "associations of ideas" made when young are more significant than those made when mature because they are the foundation of the ‘self’.
In all aspects the small school comes to be the most appropriate place to educate the child socially, economically and academically. This format of ‘A Small School’, although less known in India today, is taking the form of a revolution in the progressed countries and is now looking east wards. The Bill Gates Foundation, US, and many such others are working towards creating such small schools to promote the benefits of the small teacher-student ratio. It is a wonderful time for us to do the same and explore this opportunity of being in a small school.
And so, I finally seek solace in the fact that as a conscious member of society and a responsible educator, I am able to be a part of the solution, and create a school that focuses on the human in the child. A school that will humanise education. A solution that might possibly be the beginning of a revolution.