Give children the freedom to learn

Written by Vijaya Subramaniam | Updated: Dec 1 2009, 04:06am hrs
Post-Independence, we have progressed from teacher-driven methods to learner-centred classroom techniques and learning-centred pedagogy. We cannot say we have not kept up with the changing needs of education. However, as civil society, we still seem to be highly dissatisfied with our educational system. Most of us feel that it has failed to meet the demands of our fast-changing society. What explains this contradiction One reason could be that adventurous initiatives and innovative practices are taking place, but in isolated pockets and not in the country as a whole. These practices are being adopted only in the classroom and not in the whole educational system.

Without going into the bureaucratic and political angles of the educational system, the one absolutely non-negotiable aspect of education, I think, is the freedom to learn. When there is a nurturing atmosphere in the classroom, where children can express their joy and excitement, anxiety and fear, where a child can choose from a wide range of options, where the teacher and the children experience the wonder of discovery, where the teacher is more of a facilitator, there will be more meaningful and long-lasting learning. To teach has always been easy, but the let learn aspect is not so easy.

Cautionary tale

An old cautionary tale illustrates this point. A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it. He wandered far and could not find his way back. Then he realised that a wolf was following him. He ran and ran but the wolf kept chasing him until the shepherd rescued him back to the fold. Everyone told the shepherd to cover up the hole in the fence. They talked about the safety inside and the dangers outside. They also told the shepherd how convenient it would be to look after the sheep when they wouldnt be allowed to cross the fence. But the shepherd refused to fix the hole in the fence.

This story brings up lessons for the teaching profession.The primary task of the teacher is to permit the student to learn, to help the students learn how to learn. Formal education begins and ends at a certain point, but learning goes on until our last breath. By learning, one definitely does not mean the rote learning of facts and gathering information about meaningless, trivial stuff, memorised for the purposes of clearing examinations, but the insatiable curiosity that motivates a student who would say I am discovering new things on my own. When this eureka feeling is experienced, the gleam in the eyes of the student is a reward in itself for any good teacher. We need caring and nurturing classrooms and full-blooded, not lifeless, teachers. We also need exciting textbooks that open new worlds to be explored and discovered. We need opportunities to freely express ones views, discuss and arrive at ones own conclusions, make and learn from ones mistakes, learn by helping others, take decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions, and to experiment without being obsessed about being right all the time.

This is a very natural way of learning. Why is it then difficult for us to follow it in our schools and colleges

Let us look all around. There is cut-throat competition everywhere. It begins very early with baby shows in pre-primary schoolsmy child has to win. When literacy begins, and it is my child has to come first. Then, its time for extra-curricular activities both in and out of the schoolmy child goes for swimming, mine goes for karate and mine to dance classes. Add the reality shows on offer on TV, and the list is endless. Then, its the entrance tests for variousprestigious courses. We want super kids! How fair is all these on our children Do we adults have the right to rob our children of their childhood

Its time for all of us to wake up and return the rightful joys of childhood and growing up to each child. Otherwise we too may carry a burden on our souls like Zorba, the protagonist of the novel Zorba, the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, after he tried to hurry the natural process of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon:

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.That little body is, I believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realise today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.

The author is former vice principal, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, New Delhi