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The big question: To fail or not to

Schooling is a joyful experience for the child. To bring in the fear of failure to motivate them, is sad evidence of a system that lacks imagination and a heart

[M]ore pernicious is the burden of incomprehension.... a significant fraction of those who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension — they are potentially superior to those who just memorise and do well in examinations.

— Yash Pal Committee report (1993)

Would you and I be willing to support potentially superior children, those who refuse to compromise, or would we through sheer inaction and doubt foster adjustment, compromise, and a deadening of the spirit?

The new education policy attempts to reverse one of the rights of the child that was provided in the last version of the Right to Education Act. No child is to be held back in school till Class 8 on account of academic performance. For a nation attempting big challenges, to again start failing children in Class 5 is draconian and retrograde.

Rights of the child

In a nation where the rights of individuals are not respected enough, speaking of the rights of a child may seem odd. But the child is named Tomorrow and the nation needs him / her; so does society and the marketplace. This child cannot be disempowered by snatching the right to dignity by an act of public shaming. If the system, knowing its limitations and needs, cannot provide the child what he / she needs, the least that can be done is to acknowledge the incapacity. Punishing the child with a public reprimand and exclusion is the worst tyranny the system can display.

The incentive to attend and learn in a lecture-filled classroom has ceased. The onus is now on the teacher, and this is tough. To again bring in the fear of failure, to motivate children to attend, is sad evidence of a system that lacks imagination and a heart. Unable to find cheer in the ebullient energies of children, it wants to bring back fear as a motivator.

Not only will this breed defeat into a little 10-year-old soul, it will be a poor test in the crucial areas of governance and wisdom for a nation such as India with a hoary tradition of education. We had education before the modern education system descended on us and embraced the globe in its colonial-minded grasp. And it could educate all men, women and children so they could read, write and do arithmetic as Robert Clive wrote to Queen Victoria. And there were no failures in the Indian Education Model. The monitorial model adopted by England in its public schools was a tool of pyramidal control, and not of egalitarian sharing and caring.

Model of school

The only option to the impersonal large-school model is to find a system that values the relationship between child and teacher. If we set up large systems, control will have to be maintained by centralisation and authority. If we have large systems, tolerance for aberration would have to be small. Schools in the United States, after various violent episodes, have tried to establish “zero tolerance” systems of functioning. However, there has been an outcry against the inhumanity of such a system. If we do not want heavy centralisation we must have small systems, systems where the web of relationships can be self-ordering, self-correcting and organic. We need to shift from the mechanical model to intelligent system models.


The existing pedagogy, by and large with very little change, is what schools followed 100 years ago. There is the classroom, the blackboard and the teacher in the front speaking to the class. Children are expected to largely listen for hours on end. If you wish to find out what this feels like, go to a school and ask to sit in a class.

The teacher teaches, occasionally asks questions, and then there is work. Except in a few States, it is not legitimate to consult classmates. In senior classes, the situation is worse. Repetition and rote learning rule.

The classroom process is not conducive to learning. If you can be a model student in such a classroom for a week, with joy and happiness, you can expect a young student to find it meaningful. If an adult cannot find it meaningful, to expect this to make sense to a child is unreasonable.

Educational institutions have no choice but to move towards Active Learning, away from passive presence in the classroom. Schooling is an experience, and a joyful one, for the child because of the company of other young ones, a context where one hones one’s emotional and social skills. The educational processes of Active Learning can enrich this context for the system and for the child simultaneously. Without sustained effort, to again start failing children is to go back to an outdated system.

The other name of adversity is challenge. We are being challenged in our thinking. The existing arrangements are not working. Surely we can rise to the challenge and reorganise. Surely we can find solutions that do not injure the spirit of children and thus sour their tomorrows. The solutions are not easy, as adults will need to learn new ways to build excellence into the educational process. And changes do not happen painlessly. Transferring the pain of our problems to the next generation is no answer. We cannot start failing children and infect them with dread.

With growing intolerance in public spaces, fear is spreading. Freedom of speech is suffering. Fall in line or else… seems to be the ruling metaphor of governance. So it is not surprising that the state wants to teach children fear of not falling in line. It must believe fear will bring order and all will be well. Where are we, in Orwell’s 1984, in 2016, or in the third millennium?

(The author, who was Principal of The School KFI, Chennai, from 1991 to 2009, is now Director of Pathashaala, another school run by the KFI.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 11:45:32 AM |

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