If you are a parent of a child studying abroad, you get used to your child being too busy to talk to you.
So what a surprise yesterday, when my son Karamvir didn’t just call, but spoke to me for an entire hour about how everyone in university should really be talking across disciplines to each other, because cross-disciplinary conversations could lead to the most amazing insights. He said this because he lives with 5 other students, none of whom study the same thing as the other, and they fire up each other’s thoughts when discussing what each of them is studying. The excitement in his voice as he said "There's just so much to learn!" It warmed my educator-mother heart. It is this sense of wonder that I would want for every child, everywhere.
Just as my son has discovered, knowledge is indeed interconnected when you look at it at a meta-cognitive level. Everyone is studying a part of a whole, the whole being the world we inhabit. If you study a part of the human body, it would be natural to realize that it is connected to the other parts of the body. If we study the carnivore in the forest, we know that the ecosystem of the forest connects the carnivore to the rest of the forest. Yet, in most schools, we are taught "topics" or "concepts" as though they were not, at all, connected to each other. Sometimes, not even within the subject discipline.
Years ago when I set up Shishuvan for a community organisation in the heart of Mumbai, the management was initially wary of how I was structuring learning in the early years, primary and middle school. They had never heard of a theme-based curriculum. Further, the idea that a unit of inquiry determined what and how mathematics and language would be taught was almost terrifying for parents who were expecting a "regular school" with text books and examinations. The activities, rubrics, experiential learning through field visits was new to the teachers as well, most of whom were just as dependent on a textbook and rote learning the right answer to every question. It took a fair amount of time for the accounts department to understand why a reconnaissance of the place to be visited was a must-do and not at all unnecessary. Starting an inquiry with students identifying what they already knew and articulating their questions with "I wonder…." led to unbounded learning, with research by students beginning in grade 1.
Teachers who were initially frightened by the lack of a textbook, learned to listen to and understand what students were curious and thinking about. They learned how to create a safe place in their classrooms, to ensure everyone listened to each other without ridicule and humiliation. They taught each other by swapping experiences, how to enable each student to contribute to another’s ideas and construct knowledge together. And how to "let" their students express their insights and learning to their own and their peer group’s parents in their own words. All of this took time, effort and constant energetic discussion in the staff room and the weekly reflection meetings that over time, turned the teachers into collaborative educators. Educare, the root of the word education, means to elicit (from students). Educators do not indulge themselves in "tell". They create the environment for discovery and learning.
It is interesting therefore, that the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP) is gaining popularity in India. The PYP absolutely swims against the tide of Indian schooling. The IB rejects the idea that learning needs to be put into conceptual boxes and that time tables must follow the structure of 52 weeks in a year. Currently, the PYP is deserving of being called the most child friendly curriculum in the country because it believes in a unit of inquiry that must be interdisciplinary. It is therefore gratifying to sit in a PYP classroom with a skilled teacher deftly guiding the discoveries of her students with minimal intervention and maximum peer learning. Yet the schools affiliated to State, CBSE and ICSE Boards, hesitate to embrace this format of teaching and learning, on the plea that their students’ chances of success will reduce. Priya, director of a State Board school is keen to prove her own strong sense that her teachers must re-examine the idea that Board exam success is based on rote learning. She is on the lookout for teachers who can engage students in their own learning.
What does it take to be a teacher who keeps the flame of curiosity burning in her students and helps each one to be the best they can be? Every teacher who did not grow up seeing the world as a whole will tell you that it takes a lot of unlearning and re-learning. School leaders Vishnu Kartik from Delhi, Nita Row in Mumbai and Padmini Sankaran in Chennai, unanimously say teachers struggle the most with approaches to learning and the teacher’s role in inquiry-based learning. The difficulty faced by most teachers is that they are expected to teach in a way that they themselves did not learn. This is cognitively difficult and also emotionally challenging. An experienced head of a school in England, when sharing how he receives in-service training that suggests he should change his approach, confessed he found himself "slip back" into the familiar didactic lecture mode, even though he knew it bored some of his students!
I and my colleagues often recommend that school leaders invest an entire school day in the last bench, to assess the learning experience of the children in that class. The few that actually do, as well as those who are part of the professional learning community of assessors that we are developing, know that engagement of students in classrooms is every teachers’ challenge and opportunity! Children lectured at for 6 hours a day, in short subject periods regulated by a bell, often find themselves disconnected from what they are studying and consequently lose interest. They are constantly under pressure to focus on their performance on tests. They are never assessed on their level of engagement in their learning or their mastery on comprehension and expression. They are expected to listen, read, watch and rote learn. In an age when their senses are alive and their ability to learn is at its peak, they sit for hours in classrooms, doing what they are told. They rarely get a chance to meet, touch, feel, taste, speak, experience and reflect on the world outside the school compound.
Every child has a right to experience delight at how plants grow, how birds fly, what the planet is made of and how people invent things. Learning experientially and holistically is what makes us love the planet and everything on it. Karamvir’s joy at being a learner connected with other learners, tells me how important it is to infuse our schools with a culture of peer learning such that every student learns to share with, respectfully listen to and appreciate the contribution of colleagues by design. We would be able to gift every child, rich, poor, rural, urban, irrespective of ethnicity, a childhood rich with discovery and the sense of responsibility for the world that must accompany being human.
This planet and our children, deserve schools that present the world as a coherent, complex, fascinating, interrelated system. Is yours one of them?