For a child-inspired education system

September 06, 2005 12:00 am | Updated 12:00 am IST

Children's questions do not respect the insularity of disciplines normally taught in our schools and colleges. Creativity often resides at the boundaries of disciplines.

Yash Pal

BESIDES SEVERAL other points of difference, I would like to give some examples of the wonder and curiosity children can bring to the attention of teachers and schools in general that is not covered by our courses. Giving respect to children's questions does not mean blindly accepting what they say. They do bring some knowledge that after critical examination can enrich the curriculum. But more often they bring questions. The mere existence of questions among the young is a precious thing. They often reflect independent perception and exploration. Many a time children discover these questions themselves. The occurrence of these questions is more important than a densely packed slate full of answers given by grownups and scholars. At least for the children they represent important footsteps towards a creative life. And if such questions are often discussed in class they would benefit all the children and, I dare to say, also their teachers.

Children's questions serve another important function. They do not respect the insularity of disciplines normally taught in our schools and colleges. That might be the reason for many discipline-imprisoned scholars feeling uncomfortable with them. Life is seldom, if ever, contained within any one discipline. Surely we cannot stay within a culture where life as it is lived is considered to lie completely outside the hallowed grounds of schools and universities. This is not to imply that we do not get into the depths of various disciplines. But it has been found that creativity often resides at the boundaries of disciplines. You do end up worrying about geology, archaeology, sociology, biology, chemistry, physics and cosmology. But such connections are seldom made in organised disciplinary courses. Children's questions keep reminding us that interconnections are necessary for the human mind. To the extent we deal with these questions we end up enriching the ecology of knowledge in our brains. That is often the real source of creativity. I take it for granted that one of the major objectives of education should be to encourage the emergence of creative individuals.

When one talks of individual creativity, one might be accused of "neo-liberal" tendencies. I do not know what sort of abuse that implies, but I cannot accept that any society should feel threatened by the encouragement of individual passion to understand in preference to voluminous short-term memorisation. Long sermons to avoid communalism do not go very far; a deep understanding of the inevitability and value of cultural diversity is far more effective. It is no one's case that there should be complete absence of information. But information and misinformation without understanding is best used for advertising or brainwashing — or for filling up the limited storage space of the brain with junk in which every new idea gets stuck. I fail to understand why I should be deprived of marks if I do not remember the name of Mussolini's mother.

One is thrilled by several examples of engagement of students with the land and cultural life around them. An effort to understand local history should not be ridiculed. Scientific exploration of flora and fauna around otherwise familiar environs surely cannot work against a similar understanding at the State and national level. A National Framework should not try to erase your knowing relationship with the sands of Rajasthan, or the vibrant beaches of Kerala, or the snowy hills of the North, or the majestic fury of the Brahmaputra. Everyone has a right to feel that they live on top of the globe; what we need to foster is the understanding that you have that right only if you grant it to every one else. This is a requirement for us and for the world as a whole. This is global consciousness and not globalisation.

A comment has been made questioning that knowledge can be provided by children because we do not have it encapsulated in our genes! Yes, our genes have no knowledge of our culture, our religion or caste, no subjects such as physics or algebra, no history or geography. But there is immense capacity to experiment, to learn skills — sitting down, crawling, standing, walking and talking. We learn more during the years before we enter school than through the rest of our lives. Such capabilities of observation, perception and urge to experiment dim with age. Some of this dimming is the result of how we try to educate our young!

I have received thousands of questions from the children of this country. While answering them I have made it clear that I am not a data bank, that I would entertain only those questions they have themselves discovered. Furthermore I also state that I would like to share my way of addressing their queries but there might be other ways of doing the same. I have not been overwhelmed by bigotry, though there are questions about astrology, vastushastra, and modes of worship. But they are all questions and none of them is useless or insulting. Quite often they come because they are not captured in any single discipline. These questions come to me because they are usually not entertained in school. I wish they were and I wish we would learn not to avoid them. We should not only learn from children what to teach them but our education should also become child-inspired.

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