Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A child-inspired education system

In an article about the National Curriculum Framework, Prof. Yash Pal writes in today's The Hindu:

    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 support Yash Pal's position, and I do think the stress in the class room should be on analysis and understanding, not on efficiency and memory.

Not every one is happy though, including several of our distinguished scholars. Romila Thapar wrote in The Hindu that

    there is some fear that the emphasis on pedagogy may erode the disciplinary orientation of the subject. Each of the social sciences has its specific take on knowledge and students should be made familiar with these. To pose normative issues in the polity such as equality, justice, and dignity as alternatives to developmental issues hints at avoiding the question of why poverty, illiteracy, casteism, and communalism have come about. How secularism, democracy, and human rights became a concern in Indian society are themes significant to the social sciences.
Romila Thapar's article is very insightful and she has several excellent suggestions regarding regular assessment of teachers, teacher training programmes, and revamping of the examination system. But I think our school education needs to move more in the direction that Yash Pal articulates in the paragraph that I have quoted. A great benefit of child centred education could be that kids find schooling an enjoyable experience. Drop out rates come down, and they learn slowly but steadily. Our text books talking about secularism, democracy, and human rights, hasn't really helped in inculcating those values in the students who mugged up those books. Whereas a seventh grade student comparing various news reports on a given day and a teacher encouraging her to discuss that in the class might help in bringing in more awareness.

Here's an old Frontline story on related matters written when the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) was implented in several districts in Kerala. Implementing DPEP faced a lot of protests, especially from the left leaning intelligentsia, in Kerala. Now many of them realise that their fears had not much basis.

Some of the stuff that I was supposed to learn in my school days, I never understood then. I never undersrood those later too, because I had read and re-read the relevant parts of the text book many times and the harm was already done. I think it's true that if you develop a distaste for something in your school days, it remains with you throughout. A child centred and child inspired education system doesn't do this harm at least. It keeps one's mind fresh and alert, and such a mind begets new ideas, welcomes new ideas, questioing those at the same time.

Update: "I am over 40, and they expect me to play 'aana' (elephant) and the 'frog in the puddle' before a group of second standard children!", said a teacher to the headmistress at a government primary school, wrote the Frontline correspondent, in his DPEP article. A widely circulated DPEP joke that I heard picturises the teacher bending over to pick up a piece of chalk that fell down. Several kids jump onto his back thinking that it's time to play 'aana'!


At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article is very interesting.

While a child centered education system is the need of the hour, I guess you could never do that without ensuring several other factors.

My mom is a a teacher and I know how things are.......the truth is the system is rotten.

1) Salaries not paid in time

2) Overcrowded classrooms

3) Corrupt Education inspectors

4) No clear instructions or help on proposed teaching methodology. A prime example - primary school teachers have been instructed that all students have to submit a project.....what the project is to be......no instructions.

In such a scenario - discussions on child centered education not only seem academic but also utopian

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anand, this is a subject very close to my heart - joyful learning - making education fun for kids. loved the post and the reads you have linked to.
As for what you say about curriculum not reaching the children it is intended for (which in turn maybe makes them develop a distaste for the subject later), this is one of my favorite lines by RK Narayan on his own school days - "Among fruits, we were familiar with the mango, banana, guava, pomegranate and the grape but not the apple (much less an apple pie). To our eager questioning, the omniscient one, our English teacher would just state, it must be some stuff similar to our idli but prepared with an apple. This information was inadequate and one popped up to ask, but what would it taste like? Sweet or sour? We were left free to guess……"

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Sunil said...

Two excellent links Anand. Thanks!

I too strongly want to see child friendly educational practices in India, and hope this happens sooner rather than later. But that doesn't mean there shouldn't be any disciplinary orientation in the subjects (like Romila Thapar puts it). I have seen some efforts here (in the US) where the stress is so much on the "child friendly" that education itself suffers......

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the first thing to do is to look at the language of education. when a marathi student learns in marathi - we expect them to do well. but what we don't realise is that the content is sanskritised marathi, and what is spoken is quite different.
It is the same with hindi.
at a certain level in the south - there was an advantage of desanskritisng the language. The moment the language of instruction is the language of communicaiton learning becomes easier.

Last year i had done this docu in Udgir - where the NGO had created Lahmani/marathi language textbooks for kids. so that children understand the language of educatoin.

I think that serious attention needs to be given to the medium of instruction. While it is necessary for a child to learn a language well, that cannot become the barrier to learning.
It is only when we achieve that, will the rest fall into place.

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Sujatha Bagal said...


With apologies for the longish comment that is about to follow....

As Charu says, this is a subject close to my heart. I can give you the perspective of the mother of a 5 year old who has just transferred into the school system in India.

By the time we moved to India, it was already 3 months into the school year. So from October to January, my son (then 4) basically spent all his spare time catching up to the "portions" already completed. He had 4 pages of writing letters and numbers and coloring every day and about 8 pages over the weekend. For Christmas break, he had 32 pages.

Can you imagine how a 4 year old must feel every afternoon having to deal with this kind of work after having spent three hours at school doing the same thing? And the work is repetitive, monotonous. No quarter given for letters going above or below the lines in the cursive books.

He, who loved going to school in the US, hated school within the first few weeks of coming here. Not that we wasn't worked at his US school. On the contrary, he did a lot of projects, (he was telling me about binomial and trinomial equations - taught at the most elementary level, of course, using colorful blocks) and tasks, he was reading 10-page books and he was being taught how to write the alphabet. He got a well-rounded view of how to function in a society (kids were responsible for setting out snacks, cleaning up the class room after class, putting up their own jackets on the hangers, etc.).

With the repetitive writing that is required here and the strict rules about coloring (colors should not bleed outside lines, the strokes should be uniform) where is the childrens' creativity? My son had non-matching strokes in his coloring book one day and his teacher said his work was "untidy".

The kids in his school are basically being trained to pass the entrance tests (yes!) for first standard. His teachers proudly tell me the kinds of schools their students end up going to after UKG. In the meantime, they don't have half a clue as to the damage they are doing to the kids. I do think the teachers are "threatened by the encouragement of individual passion." I'm reminded of the Pink Floyd video of "We Don't Need No Education."

I agree with Sunil that the "warm and fuzzy, child friendly" method with no emphasis on learning does not serve anybody, least of all the children. There are schools of that type here too, to which parents misguidedly send their children for a lot of money. But these schools are few and far between.

The problems lie more in the kinds of schools that do not take into account that children are children, that they do not all have the same strenghts, weaknesses, proclivities, or tendencies.

I can understand that there are severe infrastructural limitations in India. Believe it or not, that is the case in the US as well. Teacher are paid the lowest salaries, not all schools are well-equipped, etc.

But within these limitatins, what we need is a change in the approach to teaching, in the way teachers view children.

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha

Am intrigued. Since you grew up in India, and knew what the conditions, the nature of teaching/learning and so on in schools here are (even in the best urban private schools), trying to put your five year old through that was always going to be fraught with some amount of trouble, isn't it? Please don't misunderstand the question, I'm sure this you gave this a lot of thought before moving, I'm just trying to understand how this factored into your decision making process. I've felt for some time that if you have young children, it isn't really fair to move to India before they grow up and put them back in the conventional Indian schooling system, given the relative freedom of choice etc. if one goes through the US system, even if it has its flaws. I'm always curious to find out what expats with families think about this, and so on :)

In any case, since you're in Bangalore, one of the options in terms of schooling that you could explore (if you haven't already!) when your son is a bit older is the Centre For Learning (CFL). Do check out their website if you haven't already, and I have a friend who teaches there if you're interested in more information.

Hi Anand,

Very apposite post. There does seem to be a desperate need to rethink the way teaching is done in most schools, isn't there? Its not that there haven't been ideas (Jeevan Vidya, for example) or experiments (CFL, HSTP, etc.) with alternatives, but they've been scattered and have not been replicated on any significant scale, it seems. There are probably many other such efforts which have either petered out or are too localized. Parents who opt for these alternate models for their children either have to be fairly radical in their outlook, or be able to 'cushion' their children financially, because the alternatives really do not prepare you for a 'mainstream' career (starting with college entrance exams after high school). Its a knotty problem...and given the state and nature of the economy and global geo-politics, it does seem that this will be difficult to change! Wonder if the Scandinavians, Swiss etc. have done anything differently in these areas?

Anyway, long rambling post that leads nowhere ends here!

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Sujatha Bagal said...


Good questions. Yes, we did spend a lot of time thinking about various aspects of life in Bangalore before we moved.

When it came to the schooling, there were at least two mitigating factors.

One was that our son was only 4, and at the most, he would have to go through LKG and UKG before we moved back to the US. How different could kindergarten be from all other kindergartens in the world? At this level, we did not expect him to have to face a drastic change in the content or method of teaching. Afterall they are all still practically babies at that age. And teachers should understand that, right?

Secondly, we were very particular about finding a Montessori school because I did not want him to be pushed to work beyond reason. There are a number of them in Bangalore. Montessori schools are supposed to let children do the work at their own pace (with firm guidance and handling from the teachers) and with a lot of scope for children to develop their creative faculties.

We were wrong on both accounts. I find that schooling has changed a lot since the time I was in school. Even at the kindergarten level, it has become extremely competitive, what will all the entrance tests. The attention span of a 6 year-old is, at the most, 25 minutes before he needs a break in the activity, but at one school here, the entrance test is 2 hours long. Children are supposed to sit in one place for that long and finish a test. I don't expect all teachers to be child psychologists, but come on!

As for the Montessori part, it is pure sham. They have all the Montessori materials (I checked before admitting my son there), but the emphasis is on completing portions, which is anithetical to the Montessori method. Portions are completed at any cost - even if it means pushing the kids beyond their capabilities, by insulting them, calling names, even paddling. My son witnessed a few of these episodes with his classmates and was quite upset. I had a talk with his principal and she admitted that she was aware of these problems, "but what to do? The children have to face the tests." The Montessori tag is purely a moniker to rake in more money.

Furthermore, your questions assume that these problems are faced only by children who move from another country with a different school system. Wrong. A lot of my friends who have always lived here have children in the school systems here are very frustrated. They don't know where to turn. They have horror stories of their children suffering through school. It simply should not be this way. And the argument that we all went through this school system and look we all turned out good does not make it right.

It's correct that the schools are overpopulated here, the kids can't get individual attention etc. But you know what, if only someone tried, may be it would not take a whole lot more energy to run the schools just a little bit differently. To understand children, what they are capable of, and what gets them ticking, instead of going through reams and reams of paper until the swirls of the alphabet are scarred into their brains. Just imagine what a world of difference it would make to the children.

Of course, all this has implications not only for their reactions to and memories of school, but also for their careers and their ability to think creatively ("out of the box") in the workplace. Many MNCs are now beginning to realize that they have hordes of qualified graduates who do what they are told, to the letter, but cannot think or analyze for themselves to save their lives. But all this for another day, another post.

At 6:29 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

Sorry, this comment has more to do with some of the stuff discussed above than educational systems per se. I personally think that the best option for an educated parent would be to send their children to government schools where they don't learn anything, and then personally coach them at home. In case they are allowed to take exams privately, coaching them at home without sending them to school at all might be still better.

I agree it is cruel etc. to make children write so much of repetitive nonsense everyday. Also those points regarding "well-rounded view". But I seriously doubt if all those projects and coloured blocks are of any educational value. For all those equations they may learn that way, many US students who start with their undergraduate studies have confusions between "A = 0 and B=0" on one hand; "A = 0 or B = 0" on the other.

I don't know about schools in US, but the universities here give horribly repetitive assignments to students ( several copies of the same problem with values changed in the same homework set ).

Sujatha : Do you have any reference for the MNC stuff? For sure atleast the IT ones among them give only the dry debugging/documentation/maintenance work to Indians but that is not the fault of those professionals.

And is there that much contradiction between Prof. Yashpal's and Romila Thapar's view points? Letting someone learn at a natural pace need not mean sidestepping some of the issues.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Anand said...

Thanks Alex. You are right, there are problems of the kind you point out. Uma too has written about similar problems in her comment.

But the changes Yash Pal advocates are relevant nevertheless. The old system encourages mugging up, with or without teachers. This needs to change.

I studied in an average Malayalam medium Govt school. Our classes were packed with 60-70 students in one division. Though the desirable strength of a class should be much less than this, this was okay. Shortage of teachers wasn't an issue. But the curriculum and the teaching just encouraged us to score well in the exams. Frankly I've forgotten most of the stuff that I learned in school for the sake of exams. I still have a mental block as far as certain subjects are concerned. (But of course I was lucky in that the atmosphere at home was very refreshing and encouraging to think and to question. At home, I mostly read books which had nothing to do with our syllabus.)

Thanks Charu. Thanks especially for the RK Narayan quote.

Sunil, thanks. I do not know how much stress is too much. But from what I have seen in my school days I can't visualise the "too much scenario". Disciplinary orientation is all well as long as the weight of the school bag is kept to a minimum!

Thanks Harini. You are right. My medium of instruction was Malayalam, but it was tough to comprehend the language of some of our text books. Especially Physics. I think they translated certain English books word to word.

Many thanks, Sujatha, for the long comments. From what little I know, the US school education system is admirable. Especially the concept of school districts and children in a particular school district attending just that school. If we could replicate this model here, our school standards will go up, as in many school districts, middle-class parents can successfully keep an eye on the performance of the school.

Ludwig, thanks. I do think a rethink is needed. When DPEP was introduced in Kerala, I was a skeptic too. But DPEP has improved the general education level in Kerala schools. Less stress on exams is a good thing. At least that saves a dozen or two 16 year old lives every year.

Very insightful comment, Uma. I find it easy to buy your statement that in many places, the community is ready. The villagers, the poor, they do value education greatly. In the context of Kerala, the literacy movement highlighted this sentiment among the local communities.

Joyful learning is important in any case, don't you think? I think we need better infrastructure facilities, better student-teacher ratio, as well as a child-inspired approach to learning.

Perhaps I can give the example of my own school to further corroborate your stress on the role of local communities. In our locality (Calicut University Campus), there were two schools, when I was five. One, the school that I joined, a Malayalam medium govt school. Another, an English medium convent school. Needless to say a majority of the campus children attended the convent school. The govt school had mostly children from poor families whose parents were not much educated. My parents and a few others from the univ decided to opt for the govt school. When I joined the first standard, only 20% of the students passed the tenth class in a year. But the fact that some of the univ faculty were willing to admit their children to this school raised the morale of those teachers who wanted the school to do well. There were all kinds of problems that the school had faced including lack of space. Now that the PTA had more clout, it was easier for them to raise funds by donations etc. I saw the gradual progress of the school myself in my ten years. In my batch slighly more than 50% of the students cleared the tenth exam (from the 20% ten years ago). I think the crucial ingredient in this progress was the active involvement of parents and others in the community in the day-to-day affairs of the school.

We had enough teachers, at least by average standards. Our teachers were sincere too. But I do think the old style approach, where everybody wants to be the exam topper somehow, did a lot of harm. Implementation of DPEP a few years back brought in several positive changes in Kerala. Kids learn at their own pace and they learn better this way. Also, last year, Kerala changed to a grade system (instead of marks and ranks, which created an atmosphere of unhealthy competition, scores of students ending their lives in desperation.)

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Sujatha Bagal said...


Homeschooling is something that we did consider, both here and in the US, but both my husband and I feel that the social factor (of going to school, interacting with teachers and classmates, learning to work in groups, etc.) is not something you can replicate at home no matter how many home-schooling networks (there are many of those in the US) you belong to.

About blocks and other teaching materials, they hold immense value to a 4 year old. They learn to work with their hands and they are learning, right off the bat, a practial application of a mathematical theory (without even knowing the equation). I still don't know the practical application of a binomial equation. The children have to think in order for the block to fit properly.

The unfortunate thing is, this type of system (the Montessori system) does not continue beyond first or second grade at the most. After kindergarten, most children move on to the public school system in the US.

About the MNC references, right now, it's only anecdotal evidence. There are reports of call-centers and BPOs considering other countries, other locations, but I honestly don't know if it's because of the quality of the employees here.

The school district concept is admirable, except that all school districts are not created equal. So if you live in a particular locality, you are stuck with that school and cannot choose to send your children somewhere else. There is the voucher system (which you have to qualify for) that gives you limited wiggle room.

School districts, to a large extent, are responsible for administering the the schools within their districts and so parents and teachers feel like they have a little bit more control over what's going on. In our school district in VA, for example, the parents are completely involved in the school, they volunteer, pay a loooot of taxes earmarked for the school, etc. But as I said before, not all school districts are so.

School districts will also serve the purpose Uma is talking about I think. If localities have control over their children and their schools, surely they can ensure more attendance, better schooling, etc.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Froginthewell -- I think the "A & B" or "A or B" problem is pervasive. Not just in the US, I'm sure it's there in India too. No, there's no real contradiction between Yash Pal's view and Romila Thapar's view. To my mind, there's a difference in the stress though.

Sujatha -- Thanks.

At 12:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mine would not only be a comment but also a request for help:
The system has become wrotten by making the institutions just business insti. rather than education. So the importance is given for money rather than the service. Now the things in Kerala and I think in India, changed in such a way that if one can some how afford to pay 150-500 in a month, people are ready to send the their wards to Eng. Med. schools and they judge the schools with the home work given, notes given, test papers conducted etc. irrespective of the age and class. If any one opines other than this those will be considered ultra-modern and raise eye-brows. Govt. school teachers are more comptent, given adequate upgrade training some what well paid compared to their counterparts in Pvt. schools, but due to the over politicisation and lack of moral values , do not teach the children properly. It was not the case atleast some 15-20 years back. I read the comments of parents' involvements. As I mentioned already, now parents are lot confused. Most of them want their children to get what they didn;t get in their days. I am a Govt. of India employee, who expects transfer any time to anywhere India, now located at Alleppey, in Kerala. My first child did her LKG in Delhi and from UKG(4 1/2) and was brought to Kerala when I took a transfer to look after my old mother. Shw was put in a reputed school with CBSE scillabus, by paying donation irrespective of a central Govt. Employee, 'cause the school is pvt.unaided. Now my daughter is in 6th class, and she behaves badly and very bad academic records. She had and has lot of good qualities than other children of her age, but started behaving odd. She doesn't write notes in classes which she doesn't like. At home she has lot to write, since most of the notes she writes in rough book and unable to find time to read the text books. All subjects she performs poor and her knowledge is also less. She doesn't find any joy in studying or reading. She is not at all interested in studies. But she is very much interested in going to school, music,sport, dance etc. Now to evade my queries, she started tearing the papers in note books,lying, not showing teachers comments to me etc. What will I do to bring up my daughter and educae her? She has a small brother of 4 years old whom she claims borne with her prayers.
So please help.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anand on. I'm trying to get some 'child tax credit' advice. Do you know of any sites, like this one 'child tax credit' which might help me to do that? Many thanks.

At 8:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its interesting.
Your observations are right. I am a facilitator rather than a teacher who is teaching Liberal Studies. I learn with my students while creating an environment for learning. Its not a chalk and talk method that is opted for liberal studies. Its a holistic approach that started in early 1970s.

At 12:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ihave read the entire set of blogs that have been posted and ifind each and every oone of them to be case studies in their own unconventional and unique way.With most of us over the years it has become a herd tendency where we are following someone else's steps and we apply this tendecy in every aspect of our lives so how can poor old aunt education be left behind.When we stop identifying the niggling doubts or questions or even calling a problem a problem then we have an even bigger problem in our hands than we care to admit.At this point all i want to blatantly admit is that when the so called education system compels us to analyse our learning at every level of or lives and apply our analysis with prudence then we would have moved {ihope}step further.Our children analyse their work,play and situations very early in life and that needs to be extended very carefully to their academic life.When and how this analisis dwindles and and disappears is something every educationist thinks they are finding out or already knowing.This is where we are sinking in the our own quagmire while reveling in it as well at the same time.Where do we go from here?


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