Picture this; someone comes to you and asks, ‘I am planning to start a school. Which curriculum should I use?’ And I can bet you that most of you will suggest some curriculum which you think is a good one. However if the same person were to ask you, ‘I am planning to build a factory. Which machinery would be the best?’ You will never say, ‘Buy from Cummins or Wartsila, or Volvo, or Caterpillar.’ You will ask, ‘What is the factory for? What are you planning to produce?’
Think of a school like a factory. What’s the factory for? What’s the product? Everything in that factory depends on that single definition. What do you want to produce? How many of us ask this question before we talk about curriculum, syllabus, teachers, or anything else? That’s like asking, ‘What machinery should we buy?’ How would you answer that question?
So, I want you ask you, ‘What’s the goal? What does the final product look like? What must he be able to do? Do you have this defined for your school?’ If you have defined it, who knows this? How do you monitor results? What are your metrics? Because the reality is that what you don’t measure, you don’t know. What you don’t know, you can’t control or guarantee. What you don’t measure you can’t improve.
In the words of Mikel Harry, the designer of Motorola’s 6 Sigma Quality Program, “If you want to see what someone values, see what they measure.” Never were more wiser words spoken. We claim to value time and say, ‘Time is money.’ But we waste time but not money. What do we measure? What do we have a sense of loss about when we lose it? Time or money? Even though money is replaceable, and time is not. Do you see how powerful that is?
Any business has two players. Sellers and buyers. Suppliers and consumers. Providers and beneficiaries. Who are your consumers, beneficiaries, buyers? The success of the business depends on how well the beneficiaries like the service or products. Successful businesses constantly seek consumer/customer satisfaction/opinion. In GE we used to call it VOC – Voice of the Customer. These would be meetings where customers were invited to speak to GE executives about their experience in dealing with whichever GE business they were the customers of. The job of the executives was simply to listen respectfully, as questions to clarify, and solve problems. Never to justify or give excuses. It was a highly effective process and I believe it was one of the major reasons for customer retention and loyalty.
My question to you, school owners and teachers is, ‘Do you do this? Who do you talk to? When did you do it last? What did they say? Did you record it? Then what changes did you make? What was the result of those changes?
What you don’t measure, you don’t know. What you don’t measure you can’t improve. What you don’t know, you can’t control or guarantee.
Next question: Who is this (or any) school for? Children? Really? Then why do you have Parent Teacher meetings? Where are the children in these meetings and if they’re present, what’s their role? Let’s make our schools truly for the children. Not use children as an excuse for owners, teachers, administrative staff, and a whole host of others, to make money in a way that’s convenient and easy for them. Not necessarily for the children. Let’s create a system where the one who was getting paid to teach, passes, or fails for succeeding or failing to teach. We apply this rule in everything in life, except schools. The lives and careers of children are ruined because they had incompetent, disinterested teachers. But those teachers still get their salaries and increments. Is this fair or even moral? How can we sleep in peace?
Here’s a quiz. It is an easy quiz. What do you call a place where inmates come in and the gate is shut. They can’t leave until the gate is opened at the end of their time in the facility.
Inmates are segregated by age as if date of manufacture is the most important thing about a human being. They are seated in rows behind rows so that from the second row onward each inmate gets to look at the back of someone’s head all day long. How inspiring is that?
Inmates are not allowed to speak at will or to anyone other than the authority and that, only after taking permission. They are not allowed to disagree. Dissent is seen as rebellion and treated accordingly.
Every decision that affects the inmates is taken by the authorities and the inmates are not consulted about any decision even though every decision affects them. Any tendency to try to become independent, question authority, suggest improvements, promote responsibility is seen as evil and punished. In short, all life skills that are necessary to succeed in society, careers, marriage, like teamwork, conflict resolution, skills critical to scenario planning, communication, influencing, decision making, and leadership, are not taught and where they emerge despite not being taught, are eradicated. The time of the inmates while they are in the facility is strictly regulated with punishments for not following the rules, all of which are imposed upon the inmates without their voice or choice. What time they eat, sleep, play, work, are all regulated and have nothing to do with whether they want to do any of those things at the stated times. Inmates are not even allowed the freedom to go to the toilet without the humiliation of asking permission publicly.
Inmates spend specific periods of time in each activity and break, which they are informed about by ringing bells or buzzers. They and their teachers are not even considered responsible enough to look at a watch and go to the next class. Interestingly nobody objects. That’s the level of conditioning where the person doesn’t even consider himself to be worthy of being treated with respect. That’s great for all dictators because where there’s no dissatisfaction, there can be no rebellion.
Inmates are tested supposedly for knowledge, by their ability to random recall discrete disconnected bits of information during a specific time window. If someone is unable to recall a bit of information in that window but does that five minutes after the bell rings, he has failed the test. Depending on the level of this test, it can mean the difference between life and death. This is called a test of knowledge. But it’s a test of memory alone without any understanding about how the bits of information are connected or can be used. It’s an exercise in collecting dots, not in connecting them.
Finally, during this test, if any inmate seeks help or responds to a call for help from another inmate, they’re punished. Individual, even toxic competition is encouraged and rewarded, and teamwork is suppressed and penalized. What do you call this institution?
Our schools and our corporate organizations are the most totally autocratic systems in the world. Which is why we have oligarchies masquerading as democracies and nobody to question this. None of this is surprising because it all begins in the schools, which are run on the lines of prisons. Naturally all the oppressed therein have one single goal in life – to be able to give orders instead of obeying them. The only system they know is the autocratic prison model and they are all aspiring jailers. Talk to any corporate head about collaboration, employee participation in decision making, electing bosses instead of them being imposed top down, encouraging dissent and questioning and all such symbols of self-respect and freedom and you see a hunted look come into his eyes and if you listen carefully, you can hear a whirring sound interspersed with squeaks. That is his terrified brain desperately seeking escape routes from this highly threatening conversation. Incidentally, unless like me, you are also among the exalted ranks of the voluntarily unemployable, don’t ask such questions or you will learn the meaning of the ejection seat, perhaps too graphically.
What kind of schools do we really need?
To answer that lets look at society because schools are the birthplace for those who will mould, change, manage, and rule society. So, ask, ‘What kind of society do we want to live in.’ Factor yourself into the equation because it is about you.
Before we go there let’s be clear that education and schooling are two different things and not always compatible with each other. That is why Mark Twain said, ‘I have never let schooling come in the way of education.’ For those who understand Urdu, we have a word called Musaqqaf (Sahib-us-Saqafat). It used to mean noble, honorable, principled, learned, courageous, chivalrous, and all such qualities. Today it merely means literate. That’s how we have gutted the whole idea of education. We have reduced it to a means of earning a living alone. Whereas education was supposed to be for life, by creating responsible citizens. Not merely as a means to earn a living. The thirst for knowledge, the freedom to seek it, and understanding how to apply the learning are all not a part of what we call schooling. The results are painfully visible.
Education is not the responsibility of schools and teachers alone but must be a partnership in parenting between parents, teachers, and children. All three are stakeholders and must have a say in what happens. Parenting can’t be outsourced. You can’t pay someone to raise your children just like you can’t pay someone to diet on your behalf. If it is yours, you raise it. The school is your partner, but only you are the parent. The teacher is not your substitute. She/he is your resource, your help. But only you are the parent. Jannah is beneath your feet, O Mother, not the teacher’s. And you dear Father, are the door of Jannah for your child, not the teacher. If you want the privilege; you must pay the price. Comes with the territory.
Education must therefore create individuals who are noble, kind, compassionate, learned, principled, have excellent manners, courage, ability to think, analyze, communicate, lead by example, and aware of their accountability to the One to Whom is our return. Reading and writing and learning different kinds of information and so on is one facet of education. It’s not its purpose. We must give importance to it but only as one of the elements in education. Not to the exclusion of everything else.
Rasoolullahﷺ focused on only two things in the Tarbiyya of his Sahaba. Those two guided every decision and action they took.
1. Developing Taqwa. Taqwa is the concern to please Allahﷻ in everything we say or do, without exception. Taqwa is not ‘fear of Allahﷻ’ but the fear of displeasing the One we love the most. The more we love Allahﷻ, the more we fear to displease Him. That comes from knowing Allahﷻ, having a relationship with Him, and being aware of His presence in our lives at all times. How do we develop that in our children? How do we measure progress? And since only a lighted lamp can light another, what’s the situation with our own, teachers and parents, Taqwa? What are our metrics to assess ourselves? Just to give you one pointer, look at your income and what you eat. If these two are not Halal, it doesn’t matter what else you do, there’s no Taqwa to speak of. How can parents who earn Haram and eat and feed their children Haram, expect to raise children who are Muttaqoon?
2. Developing Akhlaaq (Character). It begins with how we treat children and those who have less power than we do. As they see, so they do. Children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say until they see what you do. If you treat them like they are incapable of being responsible, of self-regulation, of planning and executing those plans, of working together in teams they form and pick leaders for, that’s exactly what will happen. They will be incapable of all these things. By all means, guide them. But there’s a world of difference between guiding and directing. If you have a doubt, ask, ‘What happens if they decide not to follow my guidance but to arrive at the result by a different route?’ The goal is non-negotiable. But the route doesn’t need to be.
What happens if they ask why they should do this task or how it is likely to help them in life? If you can’t answer this question, then ask why the child should learn what you want him to learn when even you don’t know why?
Akhlaaq are tested in how we deal with conflict and difference of opinion. Can we disagree without being disagreeable? How do we treat dissent? Do we accept it, encourage it, use it as an asset, or suppress it, treat it as rebellion and treason, and destroy the dissenter?
2.1. Developing collaborative decision making. Majlis Ash-Shura. As we know Allahﷻ decreed this and Rasoolullahﷺ practiced it. We see evidence of this in major decisions like the battles of Badr, and Uhud. And we see how he took the advice of his Sahaba in Suleh Hudaibiyya (Umm Salama RA) and the battle of Ahzab (Salman Farsi R). There are many other instances in the Seerah, but these will suffice. The final culmination of this was in the fact that he didn’t nominate his successor. No matter our opinions about that today, the fact remains that he didn’t name anyone. In my view this was because of two things. He knew who they would pick and that was the one he wanted to succeed him. And secondly because he wanted them to come to that decision on their own, so that they would then support the successor. Sure, there was a risk that their choice may have been different from his, but that’s the risk that every coach takes, and which is a test of his coaching. The coach is never on the field. But no coach worth the name, will put untrained players on the field and expect them to win. And no coach will ever train his team in one game and expect them to play a totally different game which they never learnt and in which everything they learnt results in a penalty. Yet that’s precisely what we do in our schools.
We condition children to unquestioning obedience, to blindly obey authority, never to decide anything on their own but to bow in submission to whatever is imposed from on high, no matter how stupid, inconvenient, or unfair it may be, to value internal competition no matter how toxic, and distrust and punish collaboration and teamwork, to show up the faults of each other and snitch on our colleagues, friends and neighbors, and then we expect them to do the opposite of all this and create a society that’s compassionate, just, non-discriminatory, collaborative, kind, and caring. We expect them to stand up to oppression and to question authority. We expect them to vote good people into power and bad people out. In short, we expect from them the opposite of all that we taught and conditioned them to do. I know this is a sign of insanity. You tell me, on whose part.
Let me ask you what you think will happen if you give those who are affected by the rules i.e., children, the opportunity to make the rules? After all that’s what democracy and freedom is all about, isn’t it. When are children supposed to learn to use democracy and freedom, value it, deal with problems that may arise and practice it responsibly? You are saying to yourselves, ‘All this is very well, but where does this happen? Is this practical? Let me tell you a story. A true story. My story.
It was 1990 and I was the Manager of New Ambadi Estates in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu, South India. That consisted of two estates, two factories and a school. The Arunachalam Higher Secondary School was a co-educational school with 1200 students and 75 staff. The students came from poor families who survived on subsistence agriculture and any manual labor that they could get. In the evenings, the men would get drunk and domestic violence was a major social evil. When these children encountered discrimination and ill treatment from teachers also at school, you can imagine what that did to their confidence and enthusiasm for learning. Education was their only lifeline out of that society but sadly they were not getting it despite all the money that the Trust had invested in the school. The medium of instruction was Tamil, but English language was taught as a subject in the curriculum. The school was partially aided by the Government of Tamilnadu in the form of salaries of some subject teachers, while the Trust funded everything else, including all capital expenditure to build and maintain all buildings and infrastructure. When I first visited the school to take stock of what was in store for me, I saw that it was built on about two acres of land and had nice spacious classrooms with plenty of light and ventilation. But the walls were covered with graffiti and the grounds were like a massive garbage dump with paper, plastic, and trash everywhere. The children were in the dumps as regards academic work to which the Board exam results amply bore witness, but on their feet, they were very agile. A little observation showed me why. It seemed to me that the teachers operated on the principle that if you could get your hands on a child, you must beat him. You may ask, “Why beat the child if he did not do anything?” The answer is, “He did not do anything then. But maybe he did something that you had not seen, or he would do something in the future.” So, beat him. It is good for him. The relationship between students and teachers was almost adversarial. I spent a couple of days in the school trying to get as much data by direct observation as I could. Then I requested the Headmaster to call a Staff Meeting for me to address. That is another story which I will not tell you just now but after that meeting, I introduced the practice of a weekly staff meeting, which I would attend.
Strictly speaking this was not what I would have recommended to anyone in my position because it was the job of the Headmaster to get things done. But after seeing what the state of the school was, I decided that he needed strong support. We would meet every Monday in the last class period. I did not want to detain teachers after school as it would be difficult for them to take their normal bus home. The meeting was “work” and so we did it during normal working hours. They appreciated that and that made the meetings more productive.
Then I asked for a general student assembly and met the whole school. After the usual spiel about improving the school and so on, I did two things which got them to sit up and listen. I introduced myself and said, “My name is Mirza Yawar Baig, and I am the new Correspondent for your school. I want to know what you think about this school, so that we can make it a place that you love to come to. Tell me are you happy with this school?” There was total silence. They looked at each other. They looked at the teachers. They looked at me as if to say, “Do you think we are fools? Do you think that you can talk this stuff and we will believe you and tell you what we feel? Go fly a kite, Mr. Whatever your name is.” I could see all this in the faces of those sitting in the front row and knew that they represented the others.
I said to them, “I want you to elect a Class Representative who will be a member of the Student Council which I am going to set up. Your Class Representative will represent you, so do it carefully. I am giving you one hour of free time, starting now. I want the Class Representatives to meet me for our first Student Council meeting in one hour.”
It is amazing how many things, mostly negative, that we believe (or at least our teachers and other adults believed then) about children. I had not given them any instructions about how to conduct the election. I am not saying that it was done totally fairly or efficiently or that every child had a chance to exercise his or her choice. All I know is that whoever was elected in one hour was someone with innate leadership ability. It took a bit longer than one hour, but we had our first meeting.
I set the ground rules. “The Student Council”, I told them, “Will be comprised of Class Representatives from each class who will be appointed for a period of one term (4 months). This is so that as many of you as possible get to experience being leaders. Class Representatives can be re-elected for a second term but then must sit out two terms before standing for election again. The Student Council will also have three teachers as Honorary Non-Voting Members. Their role will be purely advisory to provide information and support for whatever the Student Council decides to do. You don’t need to follow their advice but be sure to ask questions to understand fully what they want you to do. Then if that still doesn’t make sense to you, ignore it and do what you think is the best way to get the result you want. These teachers will change every two terms, so that they can provide continuity to the new student representatives elected in each term. The Student Council will decide how this school will be run. Any questions?”
Hands shot up. I was very happy because questions indicate interest.
“Sir, what do you mean, “How the school will be run?”
“I mean start and end times, holidays, class duration, whatever you want. It is your school and from now on, you will decide how it will be run. Remember what I asked you in the assembly? Are you happy with this school as it is? I meant it, even though you didn’t believe me.”
Strange looks all around. Some teachers looked at me with pity. Some smirked. All looked highly doubtful. Students just deadpanned me. I knew what was going on as I had done other similar initiatives before. The first response to all change initiatives is suspicion. People find it difficult to believe that the people they have been dealing with for a long time can change their behavior completely. The solution is consistency and persistence. Announce what you are going to do and do it without worrying about reactions. Once people see you behaving in congruence with what you stated, they come around and realize that you are sincere and will start trusting you. But this takes time, and it is important for you as the change agent not to react to anything they say or do. People listen with their eyes. They do not care what you say until they see what you do.
In this case, the children had gotten used to being abused and treated without respect. For them to believe that teachers would not beat them anymore, that they would not only be treated with respect but here was the highest authority in the school telling them that henceforth the school would be run according to their wishes was simply too much to swallow. So, they waited and watched.
“Are you happy with how the school is now?” I persisted. “You can tell us. All of us, teachers, your Headmaster, and I want to know. And nothing will happen to you whatever you say. Nobody will get a prize, and nobody will be punished. You have my word for it.”
I got some tentative responses from the front rows. “No, we do not like the school as it is.” I did not push them to give me more details. I knew what they wanted to say, and I also knew that they would not say it. Not then. Not yet. That there was even this first response was not a credit to me but showed me the desperate situation that they students were in. That needed to change, and I was determined that I would change it.
“Good. Now you get to change that. Do what you think will make this school the best school in Tamilnadu. That is what I want. Do you want that? In next week’s meeting, I want you to suggest to me what you would like to change to make this school the best school in Tamilnadu.” I knew that for them, even to think of themselves like that was a stretch. But if they started thinking of themselves and their school as theirs, they would start taking pride in it. If that happened, the rest would be easy and inevitable. It all starts with a thought, which kindles desire, which produces the energy. Direct that into the channels of strategy and you achieve your goal.
I told them that I would attend their weekly meeting, but they could meet as often as they wanted and at any time they wanted. I set some ground rules. I told them that if they identified a problem, I also wanted them to think it through and suggest a solution that we could apply. I did not want them to become “professional protestors”. I wanted them to become problem solvers. Whatever problem they mentioned would be their problem and who better than them to suggest the solution? The second rule was that the syllabus was non-negotiable. That had to be completed. So, if they wanted to take time off one day, they would have to work extra time on another day to complete the syllabus. Finally, I reiterated that they would be treated with respect, but that they would have to treat teachers with respect. That meant that whatever they wanted to do, they would have to discuss with their teachers and get their agreement. I would be happy to facilitate that if they wanted me to, but it was their responsibility. We would not impose anything on them without their agreement. And the same courtesy would apply to the teachers. Everyone agreed. They did not know how it would work in practice, but it sounded nice. Teachers also looked happier after hearing this.
In the next week’s meeting, I produced a map of the school grounds on which I had drawn lines to divide it into squares. I said to them, “Each square is for one class. It is your Class Thotam (garden). Please pick the square you want and write your class name in the square. Every month I am going to have a competition and will give a prize to the best kept Thotam.”
Kanyakumari district is a fertile place, and these children came from farmer’s families. Almost overnight the school got cleaned up. All garbage disappeared and gardens were planted everywhere except the sports field, which was my responsibility to maintain. The teachers also bought into the new spirit and their skepticism turned to enthusiasm. Two or three weeks into the scheme, in the weekly meeting of the Student Council, they asked me, “We want permission to come to school on Sunday.”
“I have no problem with giving you permission, but why do you want to come to school on Sunday,” I asked.
“We want to clean up these walls. They look very dirty.”
“Great. Let’s do it. I will also come. I will provide you with lime-wash and we will clean and paint the walls and then we will all have lunch together. My treat.” They were delighted and that is what we did.
Things happened week after week. Change is gradual, even when it is driven strongly top down like I was forced to do it. Exam results improved dramatically because both teachers and students started to take pride in their work. The cherry on the cake was that in the Annual Science Fair, AMM Arunachalam HSS was placed in the second place in the State of Tamilnadu.
Let me answer the question which I am sure is in your minds. Did the Student Council create a revolution? Did I have a teacher rebellion on my hands? Did I get assaulted or even mildly abused? None of the above. The reality is that people in authority live in fear. They think that they need to impose authority by force or the whole house of cards would collapse round their ears. The reality is that if you take people into confidence and show them how following your method will help them to achieve their goals, you will have trouble holding them back.
AMM Arunachalam HSS’s teachers and students were no different. They wanted their school to be the best in the state. But they were caught in the cycle of negativity that a lot of us get caught into without realizing. My advantage was that I was new. I was not part of the morass of low self-esteem and deteriorating performance that they were stuck in. So, I could institute changes more easily. The good thing was that once we had broken the ice, I had everyone’s full cooperation and we never looked back.
Let’s ask what happens in our schools? As mentioned earlier, if you want to see what someone values, see what they measure. What do we measure? What are the metrics we use? Do we measure Taqwa and Akhlaaq? Do we even know how to measure them? Let me give you a quick sketch of how to develop these metrics. Take the value you want to measure, in this case, Taqwa. Then ask, ‘What are the behaviors which will show that the person is behaving with Taqwa? In which situations is Taqwa likely to be tested? What must the person do in such a situation?’ Then note these down. Ask children to maintain a journal and note down what happens with them, both internally and externally. What was the internal struggle they had and what were the thoughts, emotions, and inhibitions that they had to overcome? And what did they say or do? Finally, if it didn’t go the way it should have, what was the learning? And what is the damage control they did? Let the parents and you, the teacher, also keep notes. Then periodically, have a discussion with the child and his/her parents. Focus on the positive and reward the child. Use the negative purely as a teaching moment. Not to punish or criticize. Likewise, for Akhlaaq. Remember it is a collaborative effort which is worth the time and trouble it needs because we are talking about transforming society and creating a legacy of honor for all concerned. As they say in Africa, ‘It takes the whole village to raise a child.’ And it is worth it, because that child will change the path of destiny for the world.
You might say, ‘Is that all? Just two things? Only Taqwa and Akhlaaq ?’
I say, ‘Yes. Because values drive behavior. Behavior drives results.’ Taqwa is the core value. And Akhlaaq covers all behavior. The rest follows.
But what about exams? How do we know what the children learnt if we don’t test them? I didn’t say, don’t test them. I said, test them for knowledge, not for random recall. They’re human, remember? Not silicon chips.
Here’s how to test knowledge and not random recall. Instead of asking, ‘State Archimedes Principle.’ Ask, ‘Please give one example where Archimedes Principle is applied and one example where you would apply it.’ If someone has forgotten Archimedes Principle, let them look it up. That doesn’t matter because in real life they would be able to look it up. But how to apply it must come from them. Application is the real and only proof of learning.
Everything is possible if you want to do it. Ask, ‘Do I want to change?’
I rest my case.