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Too much, too early?

If one were to consider the inputs from the existing school system into a child's scientific thinking, felicitous use of language, competence to search for information and to work out solutions, one would find them too little and too late. On the other hand, if one examined the curricular load, it would be too much, too early, says S. ANANDALAKSHMY, in a commentary.

The top heavy educational system can be improved in easy ways.

HEARING from a friend I met two days ago, that Ivan Illich had passed away almost a month earlier, was a shock. I thought that I had missed the news item, as no one delivered an English newspaper in Spain, where I was at a conference at the time. But, I was told, no Indian newspaper or magazine had carried the news. I had met Ivan Illich in the 1970s, when he had been lionised by academics and others. I was saddened by the frailty of public memory. One may agree or disagree with his views, but it is impossible to forget them.

One of his earliest books, Deschooling Society was a path-breaking critique of the way that schools functioned. He held that "education" could be transacted more felicitously at the home and in the community. His was a radical view: that one could, without endangering the child's learning opportunities, dispense with the current educational system, which holds the child to ransom. As may be expected, the book created a wave of admirers, who felt that basic issues needed to be challenged, and a counter-wave of critics, who rejected his premises and arguments outright. It is more than three decades since the book was first published, long enough for his thesis to be revisited. In this span of time, Indian schools have, on the whole, got worse. If one were to consider the inputs from the school system into the child's scientific thinking, felicitous use of language, competence to search for information and to work out solutions, one would find them too little and too late. On the other hand, if one examined the curricular load, it is too much, too early.

The undeniable reality is the top-heavy curriculum for the board examinations, at the end of 12 years of school. This, in turn, is determined by the admission requirements of the "prestige" institutions (IITs for instance) and disciplines (engineering, medicine, computer technology). The recruitment rate from these institutions to the gilt-edged positions in IT and the multi-national world of commerce is an important factor in establishing "prestige". (This is beginning to sound like the old English rhyme, "This is the house that Jack built"). But that may well be a suitable metaphor for the educational system.

To illustrate, children of two years of age are given training to take the entrance examination for nursery school admission, where the children are again put through their paces, to qualify for the primary school entrance tests. How do the administrators of the different levels decide what constitutes the curriculum and the methods for a particular age? That is easy! Merely, including what is needed to cope with the stage above it! Developmental norms and the psychology of childhood are passe. They have no role in this scenario, not even as extras! Every level of conventional schooling provides only that which is necessary to mould the student into the required shape, pushing, punching and polishing for the right fit at the next level. Inability and unwillingness to conform are the recognised cardinal sins of such an educational system.

Once the ultimate goal is fixed, the system operates on a trickle down theory. Since students who later enter the gilt-edged courses (MBA, for example), are not required to be able to sing, or dance or paint or create anything artistic with their hands, all the educational stages below them have simply removed the subjects from the curriculum. It follows that in mainstream education, there is a noticeable neglect of right brain functions: imagination, intuition and aesthetics. Likewise, the development of emotional intelligence: compassion, cooperation and conviviality, among others is sadly neglected in our schools.

I can still recall that in the school in Madras that I attended, not only was there a music class every week, there was also a music appreciation class every month. We were taught songs in the different Indian languages and musical styles. Which school today offers even a tenth of that kind of exposure? Other subjects like craft work, carpentry, painting, drama and poetry were included in the curriculum and were taught in a way, that students could pick up interests and skills, without feeling competitive and without being ranked for performance.

This is not just nostalgia for the good old days! I mention it here only to remind school administrators that education can provide for a variety of competencies and skills. Even the top-heavy system of today can be improved in very easy ways. The acquisition of taste and skill in painting or music need not be relegated to a "time-pass" category.

I conclude this brief paper with a few suggestions to enhance the quality of schools, even without going through Illichian suggestions of radical change.

Drama and theatre work can be a part of the regular schedule, not relegated to the horrendous "Parents' Day", when the "stars" are paraded, with tinsel and glitter, while the majority of students have nothing to do. Classroom drama or puppetry can be valuable for team work, language usage, culture, and understanding relationships. A story or poem in the text-book can serve as the source of a variety of activities, giving each child the chance to participate, without being in the limelight. Display is not essential, though it can occasionally be used with flair.

Choral music or group singing is most enjoyable for children. Those of us who have seen David Horsburgh's "Neel Bagh" in its heyday, will recall the marvellous musicality of the songs in several languages, rendered with elegance by rural children. Today's children, both rural and urban, grow up only in the common culture of cinema music. Some years ago, M.B. Srinivas had demonstrated, in the city of Madras, that large groups of children could be taught to sing authentic folk and classical music from different parts of the country, tunefully and with enjoyment. This movement needs to be revived and supported. We must make a more concerted effort to persuade schools to rethink the inclusion of music, as part of the routine schedule.

Instead of making children write down sentences from their selected readings as part of homework, we can have them interview a grandparent. There could be variations of the exercises, depending on the age and maturity of the children. A shopkeeper or a driver of an auto-rickshaw could also be interviewed. The same information can be tabulated by the whole class, for a composite picture of a trade.

It could be supplemented by photographs that the children take. And suddenly, there will be a live and original project that the children can own with zest. The insights that children get into the lives of other people may be a revelation for them. The assignment, like the others mentioned here, will have implications beyond the circumscribed objectives of language and cognitive development in the class room.

The writer is a consultant in child development and education.

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