I am writing this to share my anguish at what we are doing in the name of schooling. By ‘we’, I mean educators and the education system in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, South Africa and most of Africa, state schools in UK and America. That is more than 60% of the global population of school-going children. Those that don’t fit the picture that I have drawn below are to be congratulated. I hope everyone else can come on par so that one day very soon, this paper will be read as an interesting piece on how bad things used to be.
“Education is the art of making man ethical”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Let me try to define the problem:
We have managed to create a global society which is almost exclusively focused on amassing material wealth and possessions. A society where worship of personal desire is the predominant religion and selfishness its primary virtue. A society which defines success in terms of the ends without any thought about the means. A society where compassion, cost to others of our achieving our goals, cost to the well-being of the environment, hopes and aspirations of the less well-endowed; have all lost meaning and are not considered even worthy of passing thought. The reality is that we are burning our candle at both ends and are about to be plunged into darkness from which nobody can emerge unscathed. As someone once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth, is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ In this case, look in the mirror and meet both the cancer cell and its victim. In the words of J. Krishnamurthy, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ We are profoundly sick.
It is for this reason that we need to rethink education because our present education system which was stared during the Industrial Revolution in the UK and later America and was exported to the rest of the world is spectacularly successful. You may be surprised to read this, but it is indeed successful in creating what it was designed to create – unthinking, unquestioning, obedient workers.
Education was and continues to be modeled on the needs of the military-industrial complex with children being treated as raw material. Something to be altered to suit the need of the manufacturer, in which the needs of the raw material are of no significance. Standardization is the key, with conformity being the cardinal virtue. Individualism, imagination, curiosity, diversity, non-standard ways of learning are all seen at best as a nuisance to be ‘cured’ or at worst as a virus to be ejected. Standardized testing is the tool to convert oppression into a virtue and force all square pegs to fit into round holes. Questioning is treated as rebellion and dealt with exactly as questioning (also called rebellion) is treated in industries (suppressed by force calling it unionization and labor unrest) or in the world (suppressed by the military calling it insurgency). Scant if any attention is paid to addressing issues that led to the unrest because after all the need of bosses (read teachers, school authorities in collusion with ignorant parents) that ‘production’ must not stop, whatever the cost, is supreme.
What we need today to cure our potentially fatal global malaise is the opposite of what our schools are designed to produce. We need people who are thinking, questioning, positively rebellious leaders with the commitment to work for the benefit of others. People with the skills to diagnose, define, conceptualize, strategize, communicate and monitor. But before all that, the integrity, compassion and energy to continue to work in the face of disappointment, discouragement and opposition.
I submit to you that we don’t have an implementation or quality problem. We have a design problem. A railway carriage is not designed to fly. It is designed to be dragged along behind an engine. No matter how much power you add to its engine or how luxurious the interiors, a train will never fly because flying is first a design issue. A microlight aircraft on the other hand flies even with fractional horsepower because it is designed to fly. Our education is not designed to create leaders. It is designed to create mindless, obedient followers. Fancy infrastructure, using state of the art technology in teaching, high or low fee or teacher salaries will still not produce leaders because we are building railway carriages, designed to be dragged along behind an engine. We can’t build planes in a train factory. If we want to fly, we need to build a plane factory. We need to rethink our design based on our objective of taking to the air. Design dictates performance. We need to redesign. Not alter trains expecting them to fly.
In effect the focus must be more on tools of learning than on accumulation of random data. Focus must be on the spirit of enquiry, on asking the right questions with the best question being the one which has no answer; yet. So the search can continue and the student doesn’t sit smug like a bug in his rug, content that he has the answer and need not look any further. Real education is to deliberately put yourself into a state of positive confusion, of productive stress, where you are forced out of your comfort zone of certainties.
This thought, that confusion is good and pat answers are bad, is uncomfortable and even painful as it forces you to look at yourself as the start of the process of education. Real education is as much if not more, about educating the teacher as it is about educating the student. Both are companions and partners in learning. I know we educators pay lip service to these thoughts. Unfortunately, that is a sign of our hypocrisy as our every word and action gives the lie and exposes our inherent arrogance as being ‘people with knowledge’ who must teach the ‘ignorant’. We need to create an atmosphere where there’s a premium on questioning and teach the art of asking good questions instead of the mugging up someone else’s answers. This doesn’t mean that all answers that other people may have thought, are wrong. It merely means that the answer was right for that person. But you must arrive at the answer yourself independently for it to be right for you – even if it is the same answer. That makes you stronger in the end.
One reality that is clear from all this which takes us to the core issue of all learning is the importance of variety and diversity of life experience. Not standardization but its exact opposite – diversification. The question for us therefore is, ‘How do we help students to have a widely diverse menu of life experiences so that they have a sound basis for diagnosis and decision making?’
In summary therefore, real education is the result of the integration of academics with structured life experiences, helping students with the tools they need to derive applicable lessons. In my view this can’t be done while keeping our current so-called education system in place. There is only one thing to be done with our production-factory-style-robot-producing education system; which is to give it a decent burial. We have to start afresh, with a totally new approach arising out of accepting the reality about children that they are not little boxes to be filled and labelled, but living breathing, thinking human beings with opinions, likes, dislikes, differences in how they learn, what interests them and what doesn’t and above all, the need to learn how to apply the learning. We need to start by convincing ourselves (teachers, policy makers, parents) that children need not agree with us, need not share our priorities about their lives, can have their own aspirations and dreams and that our job is not to change them but to enable them to achieve what they want to achieve. This doesn’t mean that we have no role in guiding our children. Just that we understand the difference between guiding and forcing. Our role is to guide and empower. Not to force.
The biggest challenge and greatest resistance to this new philosophy will come from our own minds and hearts. Truly it is not easy to accept that we have successfully destroyed several generations, including of course ourselves in the process and to accept that we were totally, gloriously, shamelessly wrong in everything we did in the name of education. It will not be easy to accept that we – the educators of the world – are responsible for the totally immoral, greedy, toxic and suicidal society that we are now living in. But that is the truth. The beauty of accepting responsibility for a problem is that, then and only then, are you given the ability and strength to solve it. You can’t change what you don’t own. So, let us begin by being brutally honest and own responsibility for the problem and pray for success in solving it. The solution is Integrated Education.
I believe that education must achieve four things:
- Awaken and strengthen the conscience
The purpose of all education is to civilize. The hallmark of civilization is concern for others. That is why moral education must precede technical. People who know tools but have no moral bearings are people who can drop an atomic bomb on a city and sleep peacefully that night. People who are the opposite use drones to hasten medical aid instead of killing people by remote control. The distinguishing fact about human beings that differentiates us from other animals is compassion, concern for others and the willingness to stand up for another person who is oppressed even when that oppression doesn’t affect us personally. The Wildebeest herd doesn’t defend one of their number who is being killed by lions. Each one thinks about himself and as long as he is not affected, he doesn’t care. That is why when he becomes affected, others don’t care, and the cycle continues.
We humans are supposed to be different and our homes and schools are the places where we are supposed to be taught this cardinal differentiator. But how can that happen when we preach discrimination at home and teach individual competition and non-cooperation in school even to the extent that we punish cooperation and collaboration between students. The insanity continues because once our students learn non-cooperation and destructive competition and graduate from our schools and enter the workforce, we then spend a fortune doing team building, mutual collaboration, active listening, boundaryless working and all such kinds of training workshops trying to undo years of what we taught them at school.
Our challenge is to build a foundation of moral values, ethical behavior and good manners that give precedence to consideration for others and the commons. All this arising out of compassion, empathy and a total lack of self-centeredness. I don’t say ‘selflessness’, because I believe the moving spirit is what I call ‘positive selfishness’; which means to feel satisfied and happy when you see smiles on the faces of others. It is not that you are not concerned with the results of your actions but that you are concerned about achieving good results for others – not only for yourself. And you do this because you get true satisfaction from it and because you are aware that it is only in the overall good that your own safety, happiness and development lie.
Integrity, justice, freedom, honesty, courage, standing up for the unpopular opinion, raising a voice against the oppressor no matter how powerful he/she may appear to be, generosity, facing success and failure with equanimity, commitment and industry – all seem to be values which are not mentioned any more. Integrated Education must not only mention but champion them and teach them by practice. Success case studies where people have applied these values in their lives; stories of their struggle and the question of evaluating their success – not in conventional terms alone of whether or not they achieved what they set out to do, but in real terms of the number of others they freed and encouraged through their own struggle to take the unpopular stand for justice. All this must be done with the clear understanding that values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do.
- Create excitement for new learning
As I have mentioned earlier, the biggest problem with our current so-called education system is that we give answers, insist that there is only one right answer and shut down all questioning, enquiry and dissent. We not only don’t encourage but actively discourage approaches other than the ‘approved’ ones. I am speaking about our school systems. Strangely at the university level, in the West, this is overturned and there is great freedom to try different ways to reach the goal. The results are clear and obvious. What I have failed to understand is why the school system continues to work at cross purposes with the university system (in the West)? In India, the Middle East and South Asia both school and university are in the same pit of darkness. But at least in the West, where the two systems are opposed to each other, I don’t see why change hasn’t come yet, except in exceptional cases like Finland. The question is why the rest of the world is not following Finland even though the Finns have been successful for decades.
Be that as it may, the critical need today is to forbid the killing of imagination, rebellion, dissent, questioning and putting activity before reflection. Forbid, not only by word and decree but make it impossible, by making structural changes in what we teach and how we teach it. Imagination, questioning and reflection are all part of being human and don’t need to be taught. These qualities are what make us human and distinguish and differentiate us from other animals. They enable us to anticipate scenarios and plan for them. They enable us to dream and make our dreams come true. They enable us to successfully deal with a future that we don’t know about. They enable us to leverage opportunity, avert calamity and celebrate life. What needs to be done is to ensure that these qualities are not suppressed and killed because they are inconvenient and troublesome. This is what happens effectively today in our schools.
Who are we teaching?
We must realize and accept the fact that our challenge as educators is to prepare our students to face a future that we know nothing about. This means that we must teach them tools, not try to give them answers from our experience. Our experience at best has historical value and that too only if the student has the tools to conceptualize learning from the incidents and stories that he/she reads or hears from us. If not, they are at best entertaining stories and at worst a boring waste of time. So, teach tools, not answers. The most difficult challenge in this is to accept that we don’t have relevant answers since we don’t know the future, yet retain the confidence that from our experience, we can teach the tools they need to find their own answers from their experiences in life. But that means that we must first learn the tools to be able to teach them. Those who have understood this will tell you that it is an amazing relief to accept that we don’t have all the answers and frees us from the stress of always being ‘right’. You give yourself the permission to be wrong or to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Imam Malik bin Anas, the great Muslim jurist said, ‘I don’t know; is the shield of the scholar.’ This is potentially our greatest contribution, if we can make it.
Question our beliefs
For this to happen, we must examine and change our basic beliefs about children; that they need us to learn, that they don’t know what is good for them, that they must always be directed, ordered and if they don’t obey, punished. That they must be supervised and are not to be trusted; that they are incapable of independently handling responsibility and that their contribution is essentially useless which may be tolerated up to a point and then shut down. Every single one of these beliefs is manifestly and completely false, but we continue to act on them. All this may sound extreme, but this is exactly how we behave vis-à-vis students in our schools. If you don’t agree, please reflect on the following:
What do you call a place where when you enter, a gate shuts behind you and you can’t leave until the gate opens again? A place where your day is divided arbitrarily by others without any consultation with you and these divisions are indicated by bells or sirens, because you can’t even be trusted to be your own timekeepers? What do you call a place where you can’t speak without permission, can’t eat when you are hungry and must eat when you are told, whether you are hungry or not and where you can’t even go to the toilet without permission? What do you call a place where you can’t play when you want but must play when you are told, whether you feel playful or not? A place where you have nothing called ‘free time’, where ‘doing’ is everything and reflection is nothing? What do you call a place where you are segregated not according to interests, or talents, or your friends but by your date of manufacture (age) and are taught whatever the powers that be, think you need to learn, without any consultation with you about whether you want to learn that or not?
What do you call a place where regimentation is the name of the game, where compliance is the cardinal virtue; only obedience is rewarded; questioning, especially of the system is considered rebellion; and punishment is meted out publicly so that the humiliation overwhelms the pain? Finally, what do you call a place where what happens to you is not decided by you; indeed, you have nothing to say in it at all; but it is decided by those who own you and those who own the correction facility? No, I am not talking about prisons. I am talking about our schools. Although everything I said, applies equally well to prisons because our schools are poorly disguised prisons.
What is amazing is that we actually pay for our children to go there when we have ourselves been through them and should have realized the evil they do to the young impressionable mind. But we have been conditioned to accept the dominant narrative and have suffered enough punishment or seen others punished; to have learnt the danger of questioning. Finally, ask why we have an august body called the Parent-Teacher Association. Have you ever heard of a Parent, Teacher, Student Association? I haven’t. Ask why not; when schools are supposed to be for children, not for teachers or parents? The only answer is that though jails are for prisoners, it is jailers who decide what happens to them, not prisoners.
The amazing eye-opening research of Sugata Mitra (see appendix) proves that teachers are unnecessary to teach skills provided there is enough curiosity and desire in the students to learn and they are given research resources. The role of the teacher is not to enforce learning on unwilling subjects but to excite curiosity and ignite desire and then open the doors to resources. The last is the easiest because resources are available easily and cost free.
Our teaching today, barring exceptions, consists of filling boxes (children) with random information which they have no idea how to use or what to do with. They have no idea how one piece of information (geography) relates to another (history) and how that relation has relevance today (current affairs). The same is the situation with all other subjects including science and math. Having suffered this, their success in measured not by understanding of what they learnt but by their ability to regurgitate unprocessed data, in response to random questions in a specific time frame. Those who can do that are deemed to have aced the exams. What did they demonstrate? Memory. I believe that our current exams reflect our own admission that what we teach can’t possibly be understood and applied, so there’s no point in asking any questions about that.
During this time (exams), the individual destructive competition that we encourage in the entire system comes to the fore and any student who helps another is called a ‘cheater’ and thrown out and disqualified. What is his crime? Collaborating with another citizen, helping someone who needed help, sharing knowledge or at least information. Yet we insist on calling this education. And then we are surprised that the most highly ‘educated’ nations in the world are the most barbaric. That is why I say that the most difficult task is to bring about a mindset change. But sadly, without that nothing else will work. I have proposed solutions later so please bear with me.
- Make sense in terms of application of learning
As I have mentioned before, since understanding and relating what we understand in one area of knowledge to another is not even on our menu, it is hardly surprising that application of learning is not the most important thing on our mind. So, we have the completely incongruous situation of our brightest pupils landing in the field of life completely incapable of taking care of themselves or of applying what they learnt to anything useful, productive or remunerative. In India the situation is alarming to say the least. Education has been made into a business, a seller’s market where the customers are helpless, and quality is the last thing on the seller’s mind. This is not simply a rant. I am speaking on behalf of those who are suffering this injustice of paying for an education which delivers nothing valuable.
Data speaks volumes:
What do you call a system where 97% of the graduates of a professional course are unemployable? I don’t think calling it ‘education’ really fits. But that is the sad reality of our system. The tragedy is that the only people who suffer at the end of it all are the students. The college owners make money with the fees they charged which is not refundable if the student can’t get a job. Teachers get their salaries whether the student learns or not. If the student fails to learn, the teacher is not held responsible at all. I don’t say that the entire responsibility belongs to the teacher, but shouldn’t teachers at least share the responsibility of learning? But in our system, they don’t. Everyone walks free except the poor student who had no say in what he would be taught or how. All he/she did was to choose a subject. Everything else happened without his say. Yet he/she is the only one who pays a real price.
Solutions: What we must do to break out of this prison
Three things must happen in education which are all complementary to each other:
- Through the study of history, language, literature, poetry, art, culture and religion the student must be linked to the sum total of human knowledge, experience and development so that he understands his roots. Our roots and origins must be taught truthfully as being in the entire human race and not in our own narrow false interpretation of it in terms of some caste, nationality or race.
- Science, math or technology must be clearly related to its application in real life. This need not be restricted to how it is applied today alone but the door must be opened for students and teachers together to explore application possibilities in the world of imagination. Imagine solutions for tomorrow.
- Principles of citizenship: equality, universal brotherhood, justice, responsibility, dissent, dignity and diversity of belief and practice must all be taught and emphasized so that a feeling of personal superiority and arrogance doesn’t take root in the mind.
The purpose of real education is to prepare students to deal with life and to create and live in a society that is beneficial for everyone in it. What passes in the name of education today fails on almost all these parameters. It is true that if we’d had a society that reflected the best of these principles, our educators would have claimed credit for that and rightly so. Then where must we place the responsibility for the kind of society that we have ended up creating, which is the opposite of all these principles; except at the door of the same educators?
The idea is not to blame or condemn but to express the pain and anguish at the kind of global community that we have created and to raise the call for the need for urgent and sweeping change. As I have said before, the time for cosmetic or even incremental changes has gone, if ever it was there in the first place. It is now time to make transformational changes if we are to survive as humans. It is not a question of saving the earth but of saving ourselves. Today we have people agitating to save everything from tigers to the most minor beetle. I ask you, ‘Who is ready to agitate to save humanity itself?’
For humanity is in far greater danger than the tiger and the need to save it from itself is far more urgent.
So, what must happen? How is real education to be done?
I believe that what we need to do is to integrate education and teach children according to the ways human beings learn. What do I mean by that? Let’s begin:
- Citizenship is what schools must teach and inculcate before anything else. Citizenship means respect for one another and the willingness to participate in the good of one another. The way to inculcate this is to show respect for the students by involving them in all decision making that affects them. After all we consider this to be justice and practice it in all other aspects of our society. We must do three things for this to happen:
- Students Council: Create a Students Council to which representatives will be elected by students practicing the best principles of democratic participation. This Council will have the responsibility to discuss and decide on any matter that involves them and present their recommendations to the Principal (or Governing Council of the School). These may include the daily timetable, class duration, games to be played, school uniform, extracurricular activities, hobby clubs, sports, holidays, special interests and needs or anything else. The school must be a microcosm of life and society and students must learn how to engage in it and influence outcomes while ensuring that the main purpose of their coming to school – to study – is fulfilled.
- The Principal/Council will inform the Students Council about any non-negotiables concerning any matter and will in the normal course of things, accept the recommendations. Where they feel that the recommendations can’t be accepted, they will give reasons and request the Students Council to come up with fresh recommendations. No recommendation may be refused without giving reasons. That is the real meaning of respecting people.
- Teacher Effectiveness Appraisal: Teaching is not simply a job but a major responsibility with long lasting consequences on the lives of people. Assessing the effectiveness of a teacher is critical to quality. The purpose of such assessments is not to punish teachers but to help them to become better teachers and more effective in their roles. The assessments must be done professionally by an independent agency on internationally accepted parameters but one of the most critical elements of that assessment must be student feedback. This feedback must be sought with data and collated anonymously and fed back to the teachers as part of the post-assessment debrief so that they can know how they are viewed by their customers. Like all assessments and customer feedback results – these must also be linked to annual bonuses and promotional opportunities for the teachers. Only then will they be taken seriously.
- Humans learn from peers and together; not in segregated groups. Organizing classes by age is against human learning habits. After all you don’t forbid your older children at home from interacting with their younger siblings. On the contrary you encourage them to take care of them and teach them what they know. That way learning is accepted more readily by the younger ones and makes meaning to the older ones. Yet in our schools we follow the factory model and segregate children according to date of manufacture. So, this is the first thing to change.
- We must organize multi-age classrooms with children of at least a 3-year age gradient studying together. This is how human beings learn best.
- Class size must be reduced from what it currently is (in India) to not more than 20 per class.
- Teaching must become client based – not even answering questions, let alone dictate notes – but helping students to ask good questions and then helping them find answers. By helping I mean directing them to resources they can search for the answer, help them in the research if they need help as well as encourage them to explore new areas, hitherto unused for such answers. This will be an excellent way to show the relatedness between different bodies of knowledge.
- Learning comes from different sources, but the differentiator of human learning is the ability of human beings to take learning from one place and apply it in another completely different place with a completely different contextual setting. Tthe more variety of life experiences a person can collect, the bigger is his/her database to search for appropriate life lessons to apply when he/she needs them.
One of the finest examples of this is the ‘training of prophets’, through the shepherding of sheep. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be on them all) were all shepherds of sheep. And through this activity they learnt the fundamentals of leading flocks of people, caring for the weak, standing between their flock and the wolves that always stalk the unwary, leading them through the easiest paths through potentially dangerous territory. The shepherd puts his flock and its needs ahead of his own. He stakes his life to protect them. He is awake while they sleep as he looks out for them. His primary concern is for them. And he does all this because he understands that his role as a shepherd and its success depends on one thing only – the welfare of his flock. If he wants to be a considered a successful shepherd his flock must ‘speak’ for him.
The Prophet Muhammadﷺ was a shepherd in his childhood, thus taking responsibility at an early age and being alone all day and sometimes even at night while he was still not even a teenager. Then he started accompanying his uncle on his cross-country trade caravan journeys traveling through hundreds of miles of desert and sometimes hostile territory. There are no passengers in caravans. At least not men. Everyone has a responsibility and that for first timer youth is usually to take care of the animals. The two most difficult animals to take care of, are camels and horses. But that is what the Arabian trade caravans consisted of. Then was the wealth of learning in the great trade centers of Palestine and Damascus of meeting and dealing with people from different nationalities and races, speaking different languages and following different religions. Here came the learning of pluralism as well as the importance of being able to deal with people in an environment where you are the stranger who has no power or authority, yet you must strike the best deal for your trade goods. You need to learn to communicate across cultural boundaries, learn other’s ways, learn to handle conflicts, negotiate, take risk both personal and financial, make mistakes and learn from them and deal with success and failure with equanimity. This is where reputations get built and so it was in his case.
Muhammadﷺ used to spend long hours in isolation, in contemplation, meditation and prayer, alone in a cave of the top of a high rocky hill near his hometown of Makkah. Once again, a very different type of experience of being alone, especially at night, watching the world at his feet and the sky above. What was in his mind? What did he feel? We don’t have a diary of those days but from my own childhood when I used to spend many hours on top of a rock in the wilderness, several miles from my home, outside the city of Hyderabad, I can try to imagine what it must have felt like. My only companion most times was my Labrador Ben who would clamber up the rock with me and simply lie by my side, the symbol of living happily in the moment.
The point I am making is the value of diverse life experiences which all lead to overall learning which can be applied to all sorts of leadership challenges in life which are contextually very different. I am not saying that all children must necessarily become shepherds or sailors but connecting with the earth and nature and being given responsibility at an early age is a great advantage.
Schools need to create a way to give a wide variety of experience as part of the teaching curriculum. I have suggested ways to accomplish this later in this paper. Parents and schools that shy away from this are doing a great disservice to their wards. Each school can do whatever is practicable for them but diverse learning – not merely sightseeing excursions – must be an important part of the curriculum.
- Make the classroom exciting: I can perhaps guarantee you that barring exceptions, if you ask a student of any school or Madrassa today to name the top three exciting places that he would love to be in, he/she will not name his/her classroom in that list. If you ask for the top thirty also perhaps, the classroom would meet the same fate. The reason is because our way of educating is a burden to be borne and endured until we come to the welcome breaks during the day and eventually the final break at the end of the school term. It is interesting that we use the same word that you would use for a sojourn in prison – term – for schooling. Very appropriate indeed. That is the reason why I have yet to find a child who even looks at a school text book at the end of their schooling. If they are smart they sell them at a discount and make some ice cream money. If not, they simply trash them. What more do we need as an indicator of what our clients (students) think of our service? What amazes me is that even though we all went through the same process, we continue to perpetuate it and pay for it. Why?
How do you make the classroom interesting? By understanding that discovery is interesting. Being told things which you must memorize and regurgitate is not. Make the classroom a place of discovery. As I mentioned earlier, don’t give answers. Lead them to ask interesting questions (best question is the one that nobody, including the teacher, can answer right away). And then lead them to places where they can discover the answers for themselves. Teach them that not to know, to be wrong, to be lost and confused are all acceptable and signs of being engaged, interested seekers. That is the essence of being a student. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer. Teachers must also believe and accept that they are students and seekers. This must come from within, not lip service. Only then can you really add value in class. I am always amazed at the difficulty that most schools (Indian) have in organizing teacher training. That educators should resist being educated must tell us something, right? But apparently it doesn’t.
Project Based teaching
The way to achieve the above is not to teach discrete, distinct subjects unrelated to each other but to take up Projects and then use them to teach all the subjects you want to teach. In this way teaching gets inter-related, interactive and collaborative. Students own responsibility for their own learning and take initiative to seek answers to questions that they generate themselves. Educators learn to respect the intelligence of students, appreciate their struggle and share in the joy of their discovery and above all, learn new things about the subject and more importantly, about themselves. Let me illustrate with one example:
- Geology: Isostacy of mountains: Stabilizing effect on tectonic
- Chemistry: Minerals, rock formation, volcanic activity and its effect
- Geography: How do mountains effect climate and rainfall?
- Biology: Mountain flora & fauna
- History: How did mountains affect the history of nations?
- Culture: How do mountains influence the culture, traditions and beliefs of people who live among them? What has changed today thanks to technology and connectedness? What do these changes mean for us in modern society?
- Literature: Poetry, prose, drama, allegorical reference to mountains
- Mountaineering: Physics of balance, load, atmosphere
- Trips to mountains, mountain climbing, camping on mountains, photography in mountainous areas
- Time for reflection, introspection, journal writing: Let the mountain talk to you then ask, ‘What did it say?’
- What values do mountains symbolize and how this can be applied in our daily lives?
Add your own.
A typical class for this, as mentioned earlier would consist of children of multiple ages with several subject teachers in the classroom, not only one class teacher. This is to ensure proper supervision as well as to help them in different ways from their different subject expertise. Some of these teachers can be (very easy to do this) international subject experts who come into the classroom on invitation, personally or virtually. You can have someone from the International Space Station send photographs taken from space of whichever mountain range you are studying. You can have scientists from different areas who will gladly give time to teach students. So also, geologists, mountaineers, expeditioners, magazine editors, TV show hosts, you name it.
You can work interactively in real time with classrooms across the world, collaborating with teachers and students from different cultures, working on the same project. Remember that it is children who must do all the learning, taking initiative to connect with people and experts. All that teachers or the school need to do is to provide the infrastructure, which in today’s world is increasingly easy and cheap and then sit back and learn as well. All you need for most of what I have said is imagination, a simple high-speed internet connection and a computer. You can upscale to smart boards, personal iPads and so on, but all that is optional and not essential. Nice to have but you can still do what I have mentioned with much less than that provided you have the willingness to try. The results will energize you and there will be no looking back.
Your children/students can publish a newspaper of lessons learnt during their project. They will learn the fundamentals of research and publishing. They can publish books at the end of the project. They can make films and have TV shows (YouTube) about their excursions and experiences while working on the project. They can publish or broadcast interviews with subject experts, astronauts, scientists, practitioners. They can take on developmental projects locally or internationally and experience the joy of helping others in need; not by donating money alone but by living and working in those communities. To travel with a mission is the best way to see the world and learn about others but even more importantly to learn about yourself. It is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that learning takes place. That is what happens when we work in societies where their realities are sometimes the stuff of our own nightmares. It is when you live through that, that you wonder how they can still find it in themselves to smile every morning. That tells us more about ourselves than anything else.
The possibilities are endless and their potential to produce young people with real, experiential knowledge of the subject is something that makes me wish I could be born again to study in a school like this.
The same process can be repeated with different projects generating different things that you can and need to learn from each of them especially how each is related to the other. For example, oceans, cities, wars, food, agriculture, animal husbandry, IT, classics of literature and poetry, film making, insects, disease, politics, government, health care, ecology, space, rivers and riverine systems, animal and bird migrations, entrepreneurship, money, economic systems, pollution and its effects on global warming, energy use, carbon footprint, mutual responsibility to all humanity and all creation. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do. That is why we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t kill it, as ours does so effectively and early. The benefit of this system of teaching is not simply that it is exciting but that it directly links with practical application in life and opens doors for lifelong learning. Our students will no longer be unemployable. They will become employers with a conscience.
- Social Skills Basket
I believe that entrepreneurship is the best way to teach both leadership and citizenship. When people learn to take responsibility for themselves and their output and move mentally from ‘entitlement’ to ‘contribution’, they become valuable members of society. That is when they start thinking outside their selfish interests and think of others because they realize that their own benefit it is linked to that of others.
- Start a Vocational Training Centre in every school. This must be done in every Government and private school and Madrassa. Every child must learn a skill. Products can be sold, and the income can be used for the Center. This will also provide employment opportunity for artisans/professionals who are unemployed at present. Parents and community members can be encouraged to participate in this venture by lending their time and skills.
- Working with the hands is instructional, therapeutic, engaging and teaches the dignity of labor. It teaches people that simply throwing money at some service provider doesn’t solve problems. It teaches them to value the services that they are now accustomed to receiving without a thought to what makes the service provider valuable.
- Funding can come from CSR of companies who I assume, will be happy to fund such ventures. Other sources like Government grants, private philanthropic agencies and philanthropists can also be explored. The funding needed is only to start up. Running expenses will be generated by the center. No fees must be charged to the students. This is important to encourage them to participate.
- The building infrastructure already exists. If the timetable is an issue (usually there is enough time in the normal day itself) then the Vocational Training can be done after school and on weekends. In my experience children get so interested that schools will have a task to have adults to supervise on holidays and weekends. But that is a good problem to have.
Entrepreneurship Development Training
Simultaneously an Entrepreneurship Development Training Plan must be established teaching students of the Center how to turn the skill into a business. This will ensure interest in the Vocational Training Course itself as people will be interested if they see how they can make this into a viable business and career option.
I suggest opening both the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship Development Training to local communities also to help everyone and gain popular support. The Entrepreneurship Development Training course must consist of the following skills to be taught in a completely practical mode. NO LECTURES except as initial explanations. All teaching by practitioners.
- Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
- Budgeting and P & L Accounting
- Hiring and Team building
- Selling and Service Orientation
- Leadership Development
Leadership education is a field in itself and I don’t want this article to get too long. But suffice to say that the school must devote time and space to this. One of the good ways to do this is through team sports and outdoor challenge activities. Sailing, mountaineering, abseiling, social work, working with people with various physical challenges, visiting hospitals, hospices, old people’s homes. Taking leadership roles in raising funds for civic projects, working with police in crime prevention, drug abuse and other areas, working with journalists on current political and democracy issues; all these and more are places to learn to lead and demonstrate leadership. Parents and schools must encourage, enable and support all these initiatives.
Communication, public speaking, presentation skills, active listening, cross cultural, cross religious, inter-community interactions. Making others welcome. Neighborhood service. Exploring your prejudices about others and shining the light of reality on them. Meeting people face to face to break stereotypes. Participating in parliamentary proceedings, hearings, court cases and public issues as observers. Teaching children from deprived backgrounds, adult literacy programs, working with craftsmen on different handicrafts to appreciate their work and help them to preserve and promote those arts. Special attention to the work that women do in our society, unsung, unappreciated and unremarked; yet absolutely critical. Schools must inculcate respect for women and the underprivileged; not create yet another elitist class.
- Physical fitness & Survival Skills
Team sports, horse riding, archery, swimming and anything else that promotes physical fitness. Special consideration must be given to endurance activity because that teaches the most important lesson about the need for perseverance in life. Long distance running, hiking, wilderness survival, tracking and hunting with a camera instead of a gun or bow, orienteering, camping with all the skills associated with it, kayaking, trail riding and all such activities which teach survival skills must be done. Interschool competitions, participating in national tournaments, sports reporting, organizing sporting events and using sporting events to tell the wider, more important story of human enterprise. Use sports to teach personal courage and teamwork.
- Connect to the earth
Agriculture, animal husbandry and gardening. These are therapeutic and healing. A connection to the earth is something that we have lost to our great detriment. We need to regain it. The feel of good earth dribbling through the fingers as you plant a tree is something that I can feel and taste to this day. This is what we need to teach. The earth will be saved only by those who love the earth. And only those who are connected to the earth can love it. There is nothing that does that better than agriculture. Agriculture must form a part of all schooling. Children must get their hands dirty, work with water and soil, create compost, use it, plant crops, ornamentals and trees, learn how the entire ecosystem works, learn what is beneficial and what is harmful and feel the joy of a good harvest. They must learn about and practice water conservation techniques and invent new ones. They must work with and use alternate energy. They must learn about and use alternate sources of fuel. They must live in villages without toilets, running water, electricity and learn to regulate their lives according to the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, cook on open fires using animal waste briquettes and use hygienic self-made toilets.
They must learn to handle animals. Learn how to take care of them, treat them when they are sick and feel the joy of their companionship. They must spend time in the forests, learn jungle lore, drink from a jungle stream, sleep under a tree, learn the sounds of the forest and what they mean, learn what is dangerous and what is not, learn to read sign for it is reading sign that leads to a life of happiness. All these varied experiences will build their bank of knowledge which can be applied cross context all through life. Conservation and wildlife protection must be core school subjects taught in theory and practice. They must be taught in class and experienced in the wild. It is only when the new generation learns to love the wild that we can hope for the protection of our earth.
For anyone who thinks that this is all too much, let me tell you that I have done every single one of these things; some in school and some outside on my own and I did them all while having my normal education. I can assure you from personal experience that this is all possible provided you have the will for it. To read about this please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’ Kindle http://amzn.to/2bQaE99
In conclusion I would submit that the goal of all our basic school education is and must be the building of moral, ethical, courageous people with open minds who are accepting of others and their differences. Citizens conscious of their role in society, able and ready to contribute in multiple ways to build a world that is holistic, compassionate, intelligent and healing.
I think we have all had enough of the highly toxic system that we have built and inherited. It is time to end this. Before it ends us.
Our present methods of teaching which are inflicted on by far the vast majority of children the world over are the single biggest cause for killing the imagination that every child is born with and making them into square blocks which fit our own frightened, constrained and slavish worldview. Those who comply we ‘pass’ and those who challenge it and refuse to succumb, we ‘fail’. The occasional among those we ‘fail’, go on to great fortune. The vast majority disappear, never to be heard from again. Destroyed by the education system they didn’t deserve or ask for.
I recall the story of young Tommy; one of the stories that do the rounds on the internet. It is said that Tommy’s teacher asked the class to write an essay about their dream. Next day all the children brought their essays to class. The teacher read them all. But when she came to Tommy’s essay she was astounded and even angry. She wrote a big 0 at the top of the essay and handed Tommy his book. Naturally poor Tommy’s face fell when he looked at the teacher’s notation. He took back his book and silently walked back to his seat. The teacher saw the look on the little boy’s face and took pity on him. She called him back and said, ‘Tommy, your dream is ridiculous. It is fantasy. It is totally unrealistic. That is why I failed you in the test. However I will give you another chance. If you re-write this dream and bring it back tomorrow, I will give you some marks.’ Tommy listened in silence, nodded agreement and returned to his seat. The eyes and smirks of all those who had ‘passed’ were on his face. They were the ones with realistic dreams which the teacher liked.
Next day Tommy handed in his essay to the teacher. The teacher scanned through it and was astonished to see that there was no change. She called Tommy to her desk in an injured tone and said, ‘Tommy, didn’t you understand what I told you? I said I would give you marks if you changed your dream. You have done nothing here! So I am sorry I can’t give you any marks.’
Tommy looked at her and said, ‘Teacher, I thought about what you said and decided that I will let you keep your marks and I will keep my dream.’
It seems strange to me that if I were asked to define the biggest challenge of the teacher, I would say, ‘It is to teach children how to deal with a world that we know nothing about.’ In such a world, imagination is the key resource that they will need. Without imagination they would be floundering trying to find answers in history or ‘facts’ that they had been taught. But they would never find those answers because they simply aren’t there. Yet the thing that most schools do with amazing efficiency is to kill the child’s imagination as quickly as possible. And sadly they are very successful in doing so.
Take for example how science is taught. It is taught in a way that is no different from history, for example. It is taught as a ‘fact’ course. Whereas science is not about fact at all but about constant discovery. Science is about constantly discovering how little we know. Science is not about answers but about learning to ask the right questions, learning to analyze data with a willingness to be proved wrong, learning to design experiments to disprove our most dearly loved models, knowing that only if the experiment failed could we say that our model is actually correct. Not forever, but until we come to the next discovery.
Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions – opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine. Teaching is about teaching them the tools of learning which will enable them to pursue learning all their lives. Not answer questions – end all discussion and pass exams. That is the reason why the vast majority of children never open a science book once they finish with school. That is the reason why there is a serious global shortage of scientists. The whole approach to teaching must change – from teaching solutions and answers to teaching tools to pursue lifelong learning. Even when we teach what we know – the answers – we need to teach them how we arrived at those answers and then ask them , ‘If you faced this issue, what questions would you ask to find an answer.’ We need to focus far more on derivation, problem solving methodology and analytical skills than on actually arriving at some formula or solution.
The same malaise plagues other subjects as well. In history we concentrate on dates and places far more than on lessons learnt and ways of applying them in today’s society. When was the last time you heard a history teacher ask questions like: ‘What did we learn from the history of the Mughals the reflection of which we can see in today’s society? What can we learn from that period of Indian history which we can apply to our lives today? What can we learn from that period which will help us to find solutions to our problems today? Which problem? What is the solution?’ Instead history question papers will ask you for the date on which the first Battle of Panipath was fought; who was fighting whom; not why; not what did that indicate about that society and its implications in today’s society. So children hate history. We don’t relate what we teach to what is happening currently and how learning what happened then can help people in today’s world.
Children hate math, algebra even more. But when did we ever hear of a teacher teaching math as a problem solving tool? Or of teaching algebra as a tool to plan a party? Math enhances ability in reasoning, intelligence, decision making and abstract analysis. But we only teach dry numbers. Math enables budgeting, judging and assessment of business enterprises; it is the basis behind computer programming, music, art, graphic design, aeronautics – and a million other highly interesting things. But the way we teach math – the majority of students hate it, never use it to any advantage and trash 12 years of learning it as soon as they complete their final exam. So why should you study math at all. See the answers of some students to this question which their professor asked them:
Another very interesting article which turned up on Google on math is here:
Our education system stinks. It is designed to create mechanics – not learned people. So one can become an engineer without reading any book other than his course books and without any understanding of anything except the little machine that he works on – as if the rest of the universe doesn’t matter. All the treasure of human thought, ideas, discoveries, experiments, reflections and imagination are closed to him. He doesn’t even know that they exist. He lives a life of stress, doing his best with his very limited understanding of life, trying to reinvent the wheel, to discover solutions which others, far more gifted and learned than he could ever be, have already discovered and written about. But then how would he know about them when he doesn’t read?
That is why we have idiotic product design because the designer has no concept of relating his design to the actual user. He is thinking in terms of his narrow area of knowledge, not of the vast area of application. That is why Haleem makers in India use washing machines as kitchen mixers. Saves them a lot of labor stirring the pot when they can have the pot stir itself. Ask the washing machine designer what he was thinking of when he designed the machine except dirty clothes? But great opportunity does not lie in customer demand. It lies in areas that the customer didn’t even know he needed.
The biggest problem with teachers is that they teach. That is the root cause of all ignorance. So I titled this essay, O! Teacher, stop teaching. Start discovering, learning, enjoying. Start appreciating that the child is the best thing that happened to you and every single day try to become the best thing that happens to him or her. Teachers must never teach. They must be like ushers in a vast museum, walking quietly with their students tiptoeing behind them, opening one door after another – letting them take a peek – and then handing them the key to the door so that they can come back in their own time and explore in detail. The teacher then takes them to another door for another peek and another key. See?? Imagine how exciting that is for the child! The teacher’s job is to give them the keys.
Teaching is about asking questions – and teaching them to ask questions. The teacher who gives answers has failed. So never do that. Teaching is about keeping the excitement of learning alive all life long. Teaching is about taking the hand of a 4 year old and leading the whole group to a tree. Then sit down under the tree and tell them, ‘Let me see who can get me a perfect leaf of this tree.’ Actually do this and see the fun. When they all come back, brimming with joy at their perfect finds – ask them if all the leaves are the same, even though they came from the same tree? Let them marvel at the fact that they are all leaves from the same tree but each is different. Ask them, ‘Why do you think this happens? What is Allah saying to us?’
Then pull out a seed of the tree you are sitting under from your pocket. No it didn’t grow there, you prepared for the class, remember? Then show them the seed and let them all (every one of them) hold the seed in his hand and explore it, texture, shape, color and so on. Give them crayons and paper and let them draw the seed. Give them a few more so that everyone has his own seed. When they have drawn the seed, tell them, ‘Now look at this tree. Do you realise that this tree was inside this seed? Can you draw the tree inside your seed?’ Let them do that. Every drawing must be made much of and draw breaths of amazement from you – and indeed, if you have ever taught in this way, you will realise that being amazed is the default setting. It is only when we kill the imagination of children that they become like us.
Then tell them about genetics – yes to four year olds – and explain how the tree was inside the seed until Allah ordered it to come out. Explain the whole process of germination and growth. Draw lessons from each step and show them the glory of Allah. Of course that will make your own role as teacher much harder but also much more fun. To be on top of the game you have to read and prepare @ 1:4 – one hour of teaching to 4 hours of preparation. The kids will come back with answers to the questions you planted in their minds. You will need patience and tact and wisdom to deal with some of them. But you will have the joy of learning, of having doors opened for you where you didn’t know there were doors. Teaching is about learning.
I learned some of the best lessons in my life from someone who was knee high to a jack rabbit (as the Americans put it).
Teaching is not a job. Anyone who considers it a job must do one of two things: re-think their vocation or become a cigarette salesman. That is a job. Selling cigarettes to people to hasten their demise. Teaching must be a passion. A teacher is someone who simply can’t imagine doing anything else. A teacher is someone who will teach not only for free but also if they had to pay for it. Only then can you light the lamp of the love of learning in the hearts of others. Teaching is to light the lamp of knowledge and dispel the darkness of ignorance. Do you, Mr. Teacher, consider what you are doing in these terms? I often ask people to think of a role model and then ask for how many of them it is a parent or a teacher. I have never had more than 10% of the population, across nationalities, races and genders, raising their hands. That means that for 90% of people their role model is neither a parent nor a teacher. What a tragedy, seeing that these two roles have the maximum face time with children. Yet they seem to do their roles in such an uninspiring and dull way – if not in a positively harmful way – that most children are glad to be away from them as much as possible.
I ask teachers to consider this. Every morning a strange thing happens at the gate of your school. Parents come and hand over their most precious assets to you without asking for any guarantees for anything; for you to do as you please with them for the next 6 – 8 hours. Are you conscious of this responsibility in quite this way and do you plan for those 6 – 8 to become the best 6 – 8 hours of that child for that day? Do you actively plan this? What would you say if the teacher, who you send your child to, planned to make those hours the best hours of your child’s life? Do you believe this is worth doing? If not, what are you doing here?
So when a child asks a question, ‘Mr. Great Crocodile, what does this mean?’ You say, ‘You tell me.’ And then let him go away and search – watch what he is doing, give him a hint or two but never make it easy for him. If it looks like he is getting too close to an easy answer, bowl a googly. Ask a question which will lead him to dig deeper.’ Then when he comes to you with his answer, listen very carefully and be prepared to be astonished. Don’t put any limits or boundaries on what he can or can’t say, what he can or can’t question. Then listen very carefully and take notes. That will do wonders for his confidence as well as for your own learning.
And another thing – abolish exams. Or at least have only open book exams. Exams are the worst evil that ever happened to learning. They are the final nail in the coffin which ensures that the child hates learning forever.
May you be the one to illuminate the world by igniting minds.
First of all your own.