Environment versus Education


This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Recently, I had the good fortune of interacting closely with children and educators alike. The interaction was rather involved and I enjoyed the hours spent with the young students. Some of them grew attached and I enjoyed being included in their private world. This was an “alternate” school and hence, “teacher”-student interaction was not regulated beyond a point. This article is not about this school but about how many of us have misunderstood education by oscillating between extremes.

This school was proud of establishing a “system” where there was complete freedom given to children, fear was never used as a tool to achieve conformance or educational progress and finally, competition was not encouraged. On the face of it this is the perfect approach to educating someone. Wouldn’t we all want our children to be educated in an environment devoid of fear, full of freedom and without the oppressive burden of competing? I suppose the answer would be yes.

While I was sitting on the lawns of this school, I was surrounded by some students from the 7th and 8th class. These young girls were curious to know who I was and what was I doing in their school. The typical questions started with enquiries into my height followed by my occupation and went into who my favourite actress was. I answered them patiently and enjoyed the company of these kids. I had the task of remembering all their names and they had very unique names (gone are the days when girls were simply named Priya, Sindhu, Rekha and so on). Once they were quieter I started asking them questions.

“Do you like studying here?”
[Chorus] Yes!
“Wow! Sounds like a good school. Why do you like studying here?”
[Sneha] Sir, because there is a lot of freedom for us.
(that would be an incorrect construction, but I didn’t want to go down that path)
“Is that good or bad? I mean the freedom given to you.”
[Chorus] Very good, Sir.
“Oh! Good. And what do you do with that freedom?”
[Silence]
I waited a while hoping that they would have something to offer and some of the braver ones attempted explaining the possibility of playing games and studying whenever they wanted to and whatever they wanted to. Turns out that most of them simply play games. We moved on to other matters.
“I am told that competition is not encouraged here.”
[Chorus] Yes, sir.
“But then don’t you guys compete in your games and have fights when someone cheats or feel hurt when you lose your bets and challenges?”
[Swati] That we do, but that is not the same as competing in studies, no?
“No? How?”
[Aparajita]In studies when we compete we aren’t really learning anything but only mug up to score more marks. That is not good.
“And in sports you aren’t really learning the game but only want to somehow take the ball to the goal and score that point so that you can stick out your tongue to the opponents. Is that good?”
[Silence]
We moved on to other topics which kept them interested as well. I got the sample I wanted and I had to interact with more to understand what these students had understood about the Utopian ideals of this school.
I spoke to the teachers and watched several of them conduct classes. Without much surprise I observed their falling back on “old” methodologies of scolding and silencing the children. Some teachers went to the other extreme of just hanging in there without consciously guiding the class because they didn’t wish to be forceful or strict or contrary to the ideals of the school. Hence, they gave the students freedom to do whatever they wanted.
This school, like most alternate schools merges with mainstream schools from the 9th class. The CBSE or ICSE syllabus is followed and exams are conducted. Children are prepared for the board exams and other entrance exams. Life for a child from the 9th is like in most schools except that there is no crazy stress in the air. Children are rather comfortable with whatever they study and some of them score well and others don’t.
Mainstream schools have results, pass rates, rankings to be proud of and the alternate schools have their ideologies to keep them contended.

In the individual stance adopted by each school, the child seems to be entirely forgotten. The child does not know what to do with freedom because the child is not aware of the power of freedom. Children believe they should condemn competition and use such notions to justify laziness. In a sense, mainstream schools at least are clear about what they represent and deliver what they stand by. Alternate schools neither produce deeply insightful or thinking youth nor do they produce excellence. The biggest problem with alternate schools is that the children are raised in a cocooned environment and after their 12th class are let out into the “real” world without much guidance or assistance. They enter the world assuming that everyone will readily give them freedom and that no one will try to employ fear and such base tactics to realise ends or that no one wants to compete with anyone else. There is a huge disconnect between what they see in school and what they meet in the “real” world. Finally, here is a snippet of the conversation that was started earlier:

“So all of you love this school?”
[Chorus]Yes, sir.
[Snigdha]I will feel very sad to leave this school.
“Oh! That’s sweet. So how many of you plan on completing your studies and returning to this school?”
[Silence]

I personally believe that schools, educators, parents and the media make too much of the environment in which education should take place and often believe that attaining that environment is sufficient condition for calling a particular school a good school. Undoubtedly, the lack of such an environment makes true learning and education extremely difficult. All of us were raised in such mainstream schools and it is us who have gone ahead and created industries, NGOs, civil movements and alternate schools. The proportion of alternate school students who entered the world and mobilised something vital and passionate is negligible (based on whatever quick research I did). The IIM and IIT finish is quite starkly visible in most of the cases. When one meets a graduate from these institutes and discusses a particular topic with them, they do demonstrate the ability to go into them deeper and reflect on them. I can never recognise the product of an alternate school. The reason might be that the alternate school effect is lost in college. Then what is the point of having gone to an alternate school? I asked a senior teacher a similar question: “If I meet 2 gentlemen, aged 35, in an airport do you think that one of them from your school would have conducted his life differently and present himself differently from the other? If they are most likely going to be alike, does it not convince us to rather conform than confuse the child with notions of ideals at a younger age and have them all confiscated over time?” The teacher admitted to the higher possibility of finding them alike in their career choices (not the exact job but in what might have guided them) and in other ways. He nevertheless felt that the seed that was dropped earlier might grow and thrive in his students.
“How many students ponder over deep things that haven’t been encountered in their life?”
“Very few”
“Safe to say about 1 per batch of students?”
“Too pessimistic.”
“But accurate enough? Shall we settle for 2?”
“Numbers are irrelevant unless that is your point.”
“Numbers are relevant once we realise that eventually at the age of 30 nearly the same number of students from mainstream schools would also be pondering over life and other matters. Hence, if the effect, over time, is the same then how has an environment helped?”
We left the matter there as there was nothing to say. He did raise a valid point that the success of a methodology doesn’t establish its rightness. I agreed with him as I believe in it too, but if a methodology is being picked to influence someone else’s life entrusted in your hands to be transformed into something beautiful, then the success of the methodology matters. If it was merely a lifestyle I chose for myself, then its success doesn’t matter. I can pick up bitter gourd soup for myself and control my nauseous urges, but I cannot recommend the same to another person without understanding that person and the responsibility that we owe him.

Hence, environment, though vital, is not a sufficient condition for holistic education, or as Sri Aurobindo says, Integral Education. I prefer conscious education. Conscious education is where the child is placed at the centre without giving her the feeling of being important.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti hints, the teacher is possibly the most vital element in a school. A school is the most vital component in the education of a child. Schools that hire teachers merely to fill positions can never do justice whether they are alternate or mainstream schools.

Let me break the issue I wish to discuss into 3 parts:

1. Environment suitable for conscious education
2. Participants suitable for conscious education
3. Education techniques suitable for conscious education

I will discuss the 1st in this post. A good environment is one where the child continuously learns, assimilates, connects and applies. Continuous learning can only happen in an environment where the child can enquire and seek an understanding of the world around her. For a child to be able to enquire he must be interested in the various phenomena and relationships human beings share amongst themselves as well as with the various entities that surround them. Without interest, no amount of freedom and fearlessness can help. When a child possesses the interest the environment shouldn’t introduce reasons to be afraid. When the child is assured and often that she can explore and enquire into anything then the child will learn. To make that learning continuous, it is vital to have the environment provide interesting opportunities and challenges to better understand the world that surrounds the child. This requires guidance and not indiscriminate freedom. To let the child lose and then claim that they have been given their freedom is as silly as handing over the keys of your Mercedes to your 4 year old. Would you do it without joining him in the passenger seat? Freedom is senseless without guidance and careful support. When the child is guided carefully the child can learn continuously and assimilate in a coherent manner.
Connecting information, observations, insights and conjectures requires an environment where the child is encouraged to return to the birds-eye view of the world. Often one is lost in the details of what one learns and forgets that all this learning is primarily to make sense of the world around us. To connect physical phenomena (like the flow of fluids from points of high potential energy to those of low) to their instances in life (human body, rivers, cyclones, etc.) is what makes the learning and assimilation relevant. An environment must provide support to identify various aspects of daily life and repeatedly and continuously connect them with what the child has learnt and back.
Finally, the child should be encouraged to take this learning one step further and apply them to demonstrate, solve and modify circumstances and situations. This is where creativity (from the student) is nourished. An environment which doesn’t facilitate creativity can hardly ever produce a thinking man. Creativity is not merely the “aha” but also the “Oh”. Often people misunderstand creativity especially when juxtaposed with the need for repetitive tasks and seemingly mechanical activities (this article in The Hindu is one such example of a rather misguided POV. E.g. I couldn’t understand how she went from standardised tests to blood tests. One helps assess the familiarity with a subject and the other helps identify based on standard responses to discriminatory procedures. None of her anecdotes seemed to represent creativity!). Children like games but hate having to be creative in solving a problem which they are not connected to. This is where the environment comes in by encouraging creative extrapolations to every single task. Simplest example is to imagine that we are all trapped in a spacecraft and we have to come up with some games based on the props available.
If we are to break this understanding into rudimentary parts, then we could come up with a list of “traits” as follows:

  1. Fear not a means for educating
  2. Creativity not a nice-to-have but a vital element in every activity of the day
  3. Guided freedom
  4. Keeping the big picture (understanding the world around us) in mind
  5. Continuous learning, assimilation, connecting and application

In addition to this, striving for excellence has to be encouraged. Those who say that “it is sad that this world only rewards performers” are missing the point. Performers will be rewarded and will be worshiped. Performers didn’t get there by chance or by craft. They have surely put in several hours of disciplined practice to improve and better themselves. That doesn’t make them a vile bunch. That doesn’t mean striving for excellence is something cheap and only done by those who wish to be worshiped. Striving for excellence is a noble trait like having the courage to be honest. An environment for educating a child must inculcate the same in them. Sloppiness is not what a child should be educated in. Hence, it is vital to educate the child in the rightness of excelling oneself and continuously and organically striving to do better.
A recent CNN Money article brought out some good points about the path to greatness and success. I was reminded of a HBR article about Making of an Expert. Not surprisingly, the researcher in both of them is the same K A Ericsson. Both of them highlight the need to strive for excellence. In such an endeavour, competition takes on a very different expansive meaning. Yoshio Tanabe is one such example of excelling without being driven by competition. An environment which can balance this is most suitable for education. Those at either extreme are missing the point and create non-performing debaters or hollow achievers. Mere unplanned striving for excellence is defeating. What one needs is an environment which can help the child reach the heights by continuously developing the base. The child should realise the seriousness that is due to a subject and consciously attend to the learning and betterment of the understanding of the subject. Hence, the traits now become

  1. Fear not a means for educating
  2. Creativity not a nice-to-have but a vital element in every activity of the day
  3. Guided freedom
  4. Keeping the big picture (understanding the world around us) in mind
  5. Continuous learning, assimilation, connecting and application
  6. Structured and planned striving for excellence
  7. Seriousness about learning
  8. Communion with the “outside” world

The last point is vital in ensuring that the child doesn’t feel helpless when encountering the world outside school and home. Education is a never-ending endeavour to understand the world. To make it applicable only to one locale is immature. To make it binding (e.g. the child rejecting the world in favour of his comfortable and idealistic school) is dangerous. To be totally unprepared for the world (because I know physics and math but can’t compute things of daily relevance) is a waste of time and most importantly, of a rich childhood.

Though these are vital elements one cannot forget the simple element of genuine caring and Love (for the subject, for learning, for the world). The reason I don’t include it is because it is not merely a trait of an environment for education alone but of life itself. In the absence of genuine caring and Love, any extent of education is pointless.

These are the main points I wish to bring out about the environment in which education should be realised. These do not bring about education. Schools which believe that providing these should suffice, are mistaken at best and lazy in all other cases. The environment is closely tied in with the participants suitable for conscious education. Please note that the environment mentioned here is not merely in a school but the environment in which a child grows and hence, includes any and every place where she dwells. Hence, education becomes the responsibility of the world and not merely of the school.

I will discuss the other two parts in later posts.

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2 thoughts on “Environment versus Education

  1. Comprehensive and complete in its fundamental thoughts and hence quite a beautiful post. Cannot refute any of them, I suppose.

    The latter half appeals more to me than the former, mainly because it is positivistic and objective while the former is just a ramble of conversations to prove a simple point.

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