Schooled and Deskilled

— Anil Bhattarai

Present schooling system has been the most effective mechanism of creating millions of de-skilled, confused and perennially dissatisfied citizens. This is sad because at present we need citizens who can be creative in many ways to deal with not just the social complexities we are enmeshed in but also the ongoing and intensifying ecological challenges. Schools could do a lot more than what they are doing to cultivate skills, attitudes and wisdom in students, teachers and larger community for effectively dealing with social and ecological complexities. For that they have to be organising the whole teaching-learning system a lot more creatively than they are currently doing.

This means doing four things: a) reorganising their physical places in schools into diverse and creative landscape that foster curiosity and learning; (b) transforming skills of teachers so that they are adept at fostering creativity and inculcating the values of openness and exploration in their students; (c) creating innovative curriculum that are relevant to the immediate experiences of students but at the same time that could show the way local and global are connected; and (d) integrating lives outside the school boundary into the process of teaching and learning itself. Beyond schools, parents in particular could play very crucial roles in generating innovating learning process.

“I did not see you all these days,” I said to my neighbour’s daughter. Every time I came to Chitwan with my son to visit my parents, she used to come and play with him. I thought since my son was not with me, it must have been quite uninteresting to come and say hello to a grown up like me. Something else was at work, too, I later realised.

“Have you been busy?” I asked her. I have not yet asked which grade she is in at the nearby ‘boarding’ school she goes to. She nodded. Cool air blew on my face, the leaves of the nearby mango tree a-ruffle at the edge of our small front yard.

“Busy studying?” I asked again. She nodded back to me.

“What have you been studying?”

“Science.”

“Oh, you could have studied science by getting out to the garden,” I said casually. She looked a bit shy. “You could have learned about leaves. You could have discovered insects. There are plenty of birds around. You could have learned about soil, about seasons, about water, and about rain.” She stood still, incredulity writ large on her face.

“Do they take you out to teach science in your school?” I asked. She did not respond. I already knew the answer, though.

Immediately after I arrived at Tandi, I began to get in touch with friends only to discover that so many of them have been into schooling business. Many have started their own private ‘boarding’ schools. Some have added ten-plus-two in them. A few even have started undergraduate programmes (bachelor’s as is commonly referred to)—mostly in science and management.

The day following my arrival, I visited a friend at nearby private school. Many told me later that that school was the most successful one in eastern Chitwan. When I reached the school, that friend was not in the office. I waited for him at his office.

The adjoining classroom was full of 5-6 year olds, uniformed kids. I could hear the teacher telling them about plants and leaves. I was curious and got out of the office room and slyly went to the door of that classroom. There were a few drawings—of plants and leaves. He had also indicated different parts of them. He would shout out what a particular part was called. The students, the 5-6 year olds, shouted out loud back to him. I saw a few kids a bit restless in the bench. The cement-concrete floor looked dank. The fan was blowing some cool air but was making it difficult for kids to hear their teacher. Their necktie must have added to this discomfort.

As I watched this for a few minutes, I was thinking how I would have done the same thing differently. Outside the classroom there were trees—different kinds. There were different plants of grasses and flowers. Monsoon crops were growing all around. Some of the leaves and plants were in the process of drying up. Some new ones were growing. I would have taken the kids out to the gardens and fields and asked them to collect leaves and plants. Much of Chitwan is still agricultural economy and they all must have come from farming or semi-farming families. Kids see many plants everyday, touch them, and they also eat some of them. Essentially I would make the whole landscape as sites of learning, not just the dank, cement-concrete classroom. I would not shout out the names but ask them to write them down with a variety of leaves at their hand. I would ask them to draw the picture of leaves at their hand. I would then ask them what they do with these leaves. Are they edible? Do their parents use them for other things? If they did not know, I would ask them to find that out as their homework.

In this simple act, we could transform the learning-teaching system thoroughly. This will cultivate a sense of curiosity in kids as they venture out into the larger world for learning. Learning is about discovery. This will also cultivate a feeling that learning is an active process. This could make the living landscapes meaningful to learning process. Most important of all, this will cultivate self-respect among students—they will be valued for their curiosity, and not for their rote memory.

As I was thinking, my friend arrived. While I went outside the village in search of knowledge, wisdom and other things, he took his school on sharp growth chart. There are over a 1,000 students in 40-plus classes. They have added new school building. They now employ many teachers. I am sure they also earn money.

As we parted, I told him how the way he organises his school could impact so many students and their families’ lives. I shared with him some of my ideas. I am not sure if he shares the same views about learning-teaching process. For next week, I will write about how parents could convert very simple act of taking/walking their kids to school into productive learning moments. Until then, please look around your own learning landscapes.

[Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, August 2010.]

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