Attitudes to learning

As long as we look for reasons not to learn, education will elude us.

February 22, 2015 03:28 pm | Updated 03:28 pm IST

Participation in activity without reference to outcome is key to learning. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Participation in activity without reference to outcome is key to learning. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Recently my daughter asked me, “How come we never thought about bunking classes at our school?” She observed that it would have been really easy to skip out on some of the extra-curricular sessions, particularly music or craft, which were handled by part-time teachers. The structure and layout of the building also would have made it relatively easier for truant students to go undetected.

This made me stop and wonder why it was that so many students in college routinely look for reasons not to attend class.

“Well,” said her father, “Maybe that’s because you enjoyed the classes, or that you had a good bunch of friends you were happy to be spending time with — in class or outside.”

Hmm, I thought. So did that mean that in college, students did not enjoy their classes? Or that the nature of the peer influence is different? (I admit both are true to a large extent.) But it was also something more than that. It was that the school had fostered a culture of respect for learning spaces of different kinds, a culture where even if a child was bored or uninterested, she/he was never disdainful. All this was done without the usual preachy righteousness that often accompanies the imposition of “discipline” in schools.

Shanta Rameshwar Rao

One person who was had nurtured such a culture was educationist Shanta Rameshwar Rao, who passed away last month. This column has not usually been about people, and even less about institutions. But Mrs. Rameshwar Rao’s influence on the children who spent their childhood in her school has been significant in ways that have transcended those years. Unpacking the nature of this influence tells us something about how attitudes to learning can be built.

Shantamma, as she was addressed by children and most others, was not a typical principal (whatever that might be). She was tough, she was uncompromising, and she dared you to enjoy school. She and her band of teachers valued children, and, by extension, the work they did. This translated into the children (for the most part) valuing their own work, and, themselves, as individuals. Of course, as children neared the higher classes, they did become more focused on the outcome of their work (marks), but this could not completely undo the attitude that had been built over the previous years.

Children learnt to respect each other and their teachers not because of the position they occupied but because of who they were and what they did. They learnt not to place any one form of knowledge over another (history was as important as math which was as important as classical music or art).

They learnt to question the text, their teachers, and each other, and then defend their reasons for such questioning. And, most importantly, they understood that they had to take some responsibility for their own learning.

Lessons for life

Clearly, these lessons were not learnt by everyone in equal measure, and I grant that there are a variety of factors that might influence just how much each individual draws (or does not draw) from such a system.

But those who did take away those essentials from the school that Shantamma built, have been those who found it easier to continue learning as they went on to pursue higher education. Schools where such attitudes to learning are built are a rarity. But perhaps it helps to recognise what these attitudes are, so that we can help cultivate them even outside (and despite) school. As long as we continue to look for reasons not to learn — teachers are boring, texts are too long and complicated, assessment methods are irrelevant, classrooms are stuffy and uncomfortable, etc. — education will always elude us. What we need to do is to shift the equation a bit, add weight to our role in the process, take charge of the texts and the other paraphernalia…and then the learning seems to follow. That was perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Shantamma. It’s all about being at school, about participating in the activity, without reference to the outcome. That takes care of itself.

Maybe that’s why the kids didn’t bunk classes even when they could.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine. Email:

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