In my last article, I responded to the indignation against an elitist school refusing an underprivileged kid admission on grounds of social disparity. My response was focused on considering the impact on that kid if he were to get admitted into such a school. Many people who responded to this article were concerned about my choice of focus, and made suggestions towards a solution.
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While some people stated that they wanted a solution, and we should not let such social discrimination remain in schools, others went on to suggest means to remove such discrimination. They claimed that by measures such as introducing poorer children into ‘rich-kid’ schools, through government intervention or other means, and by requiring children to ‘normalise’ themselves by eliminating the elements of economic disparity (such as “uniform clothes, ban on mobiles and fashion accessories”).
While such measures may make some difference, I still worry that it is inconveniencing the children (both rich and poor) unnecessarily. I also believe that the chances of success and failure in effecting true social acceptance at a significant scale are even, even under the most favorable conditions.
I will start with the assumption that the real problem at the bottom of this issue is wanting to give every child the best possible education. I do agree that the socio-economic discrimination is a deterrent, but only if we equate it to the problem of providing the best education. What if we can provide every child the best possible education not only independent of social or economic status, but also independent of related problems such as discrimination? I believe it is possible, and can be done with little (financial) cost, though it requires a change in perspective around education.
Common mindset about education
The current thinking about education amongst parents, teachers and caregivers typically involves the following kinds of ideas:
- We should get our children into the best possible schools.
- We should encourage our children to compete to get the best possible grades in school
- We should get our children to learn this subject or that (and the subject of choice has changed over history, but among the current favorites are math, computers, finance and management) well
- We should build in our children a spirit of competition, to learn to compete with each other
- We should supplement our child’s education with classes in sports, arts and skills
- If our child is unable to perform well in some subjects, we should supplement their education with after school tuitions in these subjects
- Towards the end of school, children should aspire to enter the best colleges
- Since competition for the few top institutions is heavy, if a child is unable to get into the best schools through merit, he should be put into the best paid college to do engineering, or finance, or some such course, so he can earn a degree that will ensure a good career.
And additionally, specifically among the class of Indian society, typically economically and socially discriminated against, that perceives itself as poorly educated, but sees ‘other’ educated peers earning more and doing better, a few other ideas are common as well:
- The best schools are the more expensive ones
- The best schools for my child are the ones that can provide access to the ‘hottest’ branches of study within my economic means (or in a variant, I will sell the skin off my back to get my child into the best branch of study – computers seem to be hot, get them into computers if I have to pledge everything to make it happen).
And a small, but growing breed of alternate thinking financially secure parents may think outside the box:
- Schools suck, so I will educate my child through homeschooling (or unschooling or natural schooling or culture-oriented schooling or religion and moral slanted schooling, or other such movements)
- I will teach my children the areas I love so they can have a similar path to success as I do
- Or, I will put my children in a common school, so he learns to ‘rough it.’
- I will discipline my child to learn things through force, so they can get the skills needed to survive in the world, based on what I consider important.
Now, none of these ideas are entirely without merit. Each of these ideas, under certain circumstances are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, many of these ideas can be shown to correlate with some measures of success and survival of the child. However, in the current turbulent landscape of education as a culture, business and ideology, these ideas are at best weak attempts towards fulfilling a noble goal — the goal of empowering my child to survive in the world.
In order to understand some powerful ideas towards education, we first need to acknowledge some facts that underlie and deeply affect the problem of education:
- Most children today consider education (or school, or learning) as a thing that they have to do, not something they want to do. Given a choice, most children will prefer to watch television shows, play video games, or play with their toys or with other kids than go to school or learn. Children, from a very early age, have learnt to secretly or openly hate learning. And our attitude towards education, as parents, school people (teachers, curriculum creators, teachers of teachers) are fueling that hatred through current processes.
- The child will, however, usually not dare profess their hatred for education to parents in most households, where parents are already pressuring children based on the previous list of ideas to go to school, get good grades, take tuitions, prepare for premier institute entrances, get good at this or that subject, etc.
- Some children will, instead, in their natural process of child development do whatever it takes to satisfy their parents, which involves aspiring to meet their parents’ criteria of success. Some other children will try and give up the fight, and go on to perform poorly, and bear the brunt of anger and pressure from parents and society throughout their lives.
So, to summarise the problem, parents want their children to succeed by going to the best schools, get best grades, get into good branches of study and premier institutions, or at least the best they can do. Children are usually conditioned to hate education by an early age, and then cope either by working hard to meet goals set by their parents without a personal understanding of its relevance, or giving up and beginning a path that avoids learning as much as possible, leading to lower than possible life quality in their adulthood.
The key step towards a solution is to avoid getting children into that state of open or secret hatred towards learning. In other words, get children to want to learn. I would go further and say, let children want to learn. For, after all, children are born with innate curiosity about everything. The simple evidence for this claim is that children learn a lot in the early years, they learn to identify people and objects, they learn to walk, talk, create complex grammatical and semantic structures in their speech and writing, all by themselves. All we need to do is to retain that natural curiosity, since if that curiosity remains, the child will learn at an astoundingly rapid pace. How can we do that, as parents or schools?
Creating a culture of asking and exploring
One approach to consider is suggested by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their fantastic 1969 book, ‘Teaching as a subversive activity’. Their solution suggests that schools should teach children to inquire about and discuss (amongst themselves, with very minimal adult/teacher intervention) everything that matters to them. They claim that children in a school come from varying backgrounds and with different problems. Unless the child sees the classroom as a place where their individual problems are considered important, they will see education as a ‘have to do’ activity and not a want to do – their enthusiasm, passion and interest in learning will increase or decrease as they get insights into their areas of trouble.
Children do not consider going to school, grades or subjects as important – these are all artificial constructs thrust on them. What they want is solutions to their problems. Insofar as the student feels that their problem is addressed, they will be open to receiving new ideas as well from that environment.
This approach also implies another thing to consider. We could treat our children more like adults – most of us, as parents, worry about exposing children to the ‘ugly’ or ‘adult’ parts of life, stuff we would like to reserve for their adulthood, often with good intentions. However, if a child has a concern in his mind, deferring it to adulthood, while filling their childhood with false pretenses of beauty, in words the child cannot yet quite articulate, insults her intelligence.
I am not suggesting we have to talk about everything in all its detail. I am only saying that there is an age appropriate response to any question in a child’s mind that balances honesty with complexity. If a child asks us what happened when their grandfather died after a long drawn illness, instead of saying that he went up to become a star in the sky, we could say that we are all happy that his suffering ended, and that everyone dies, but usually after a long time. In other words, let them open up their feelings about it, rather than shutting it out.
If a child asks us why she should go to school, it is better to explain the reasons we send her to school as best we can to her at that age – rather than put that question is beyond question. Why should I memorize the multiplication tables? Why do people die? Why do other kids bully me? Why should I not hurt other kids? What should I do if someone hurts me? Why do my parents fight? Do my parents really love me? Why should I learn math? Why is the ‘p’ silent in psychology? Why does that child believe in a different God? Why do some people fast for a month every year? Why do we burst firecrackers? Why is there war? Why do people kill each other? All these, and many more questions arise in children’s minds at various times, but are often shut off using mythology, imaginary plugs (like stars in the sky) or anything else that shuts that question off in the child’s mind. And as children, who are much smarter than we give them credit for, find that most questions are shut off with unsatisfactory answers, they will stop asking – and before you know it, they begin to hate school, learning and all that.
The central point is to let children find answers, even partial ones, to the questions that arise in their life, rather than impose on them questions we know about and answers to those questions, in the form of their school curriculum, which they have no idea why they need to learn.
Children do not begin to question learning until they find things that they are asked to learn that do not make sense to them. Conversely, most children stop wanting to learn once they give up getting good answers to the questions about why they should learn something.
Unfortunately, most parents believe (and children can sense it even if parents don’t say it out loud) that the primary purpose of education is a higher chance at a successful career, induced by high grades, ‘good’ colleges, etc.. That may (or may not) be the case, but as long as that is the primary driver for educating children, they will lose their interest in learning long before they reach the end of their formal education.
I am not advocating a learning process that completely avoids subjects of learning, or a curriculum. I am instead suggesting a process that justifies what they are taught alongside teaching it.
So, what should we teach our children?
We should inculcate in them the spirit of wanting to learn. We should remove the barriers to learning such as fear of not succeeding (in the form of grades, etc., but also that the sincerity in the process of learning is more important than how well you do ‘in the end’). We should expose them to the diversity of viewpoints, beliefs, faiths, nationalities, economic strata, areas of study, complexity, kinds of skills, etc. We should teach them to respect these diversities, while understanding that each of these aspects in an individual is not something to be judged, but a consequence of his own circumstances and background. We should encourage them to develop their viewpoints with the full knowledge that there will be others with conflicting views, and that is ok.
We should teach the children the joys of creating – writing, arts, crafts, skills, solving problems, playing sports and games, answering questions. We should emphasize the importance of the process of solving things as opposed to getting to the result. Some of the best math and science teachers I had encouraged us to solve the same problem in multiple ways, and gave little importance to minor errors in results. This combination of curiosity, respect for diversity, exposure to various areas and the joy of the process of creativity are the primary tools needed for survival.
These tools are sufficient to give our children the best shot at succeeding in life. You may send the child to the best school, or a mediocre school, or homeschool her. You may expose them to career paths involving premier institutes, or let him be a nature photographer if that is his passion. The child may go through phases of intermediate excellence and pitfalls – but these values, if instilled early enough and developed in children, will help them move forward effectively, and get out of setbacks much faster without much emotional baggage. And money, career and other measures of success will follow, especially if the child is fearless enough to create effectively. If I ever admit to blind faith, it is in this process and value system being a direct driver to the child’s success.
Parents should inculcate these in their discussions with children – not only does it make the child better equipped, but it also builds the bond between child and parent, which is crucial for children to open up to their parents when faced with tough choices. In such an open process, parents will also inevitably learn from their children (and we do have a lot to learn from them, if we can get them to express themselves openly). Teachers and schools could incorporate these too, at no extra ‘cost’ and reap the same bonding and learning benefits. Finding creative ways for children to learn the motivations behind their curriculum alongside the subject itself is a good start in schools (and definitely a responsibility of parents as a supplement or substitute for school).
The point of all this in the context of ‘solving’ the education problem, is that the processes and tools needed to educate our children lie much more in relatively inexpensive techniques, that are independent of schools, educational policies, discriminations, grading systems and curricula. Children brought up from early on with this mindset of curiosity and acceptance will be better equipped to cope with discrimination. They will also have enough to learn and create that such social hurdles will cease to matter and affect them less. And if such children grow up into the discriminating societies, they will have a tolerance that will reduce if not eliminate their tendency to discriminate.
Finally, fueling all parents’ hopeful fantasies, there are nowadays a few but growing number of success stories of young kids creating stuff (like software or art, for instance) that enables them to be financially content from very early ages, independent of their academic qualifications. Kids have several resources available to learn (such as the internet) where learning can be at their own pace of interest and capacity. Perhaps in a not too distant future, most kids will learn and create stuff much sooner than the education system equips and certifies them to be fit for creating.