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Learning How to Learn

In a world where what is known is changing at an incredible pace, renowned Indian educationist, Arun Kapur is keenly aware that passing on verified content is no longer good enough.
Arun Kapur is Director of the Vasant Valley School in Delhi.  

Director of one of India’s leading private schools, Vasant Valley, Arun Kapur has over 30 years of distinguished experience in the field of education including as a teacher at The Doon School, Dehradun, as principal at the British School, Delhi and as head of an educational NGO, Ritinjali, aimed at taking quality education to the unreached.

He is also author of two books on education including “Transforming Schools: Empowering Children” and “Leading Out”.

Braingain’s Rajyasri Rao spoke to Kapur at the One Globe 2012: Uniting Knowledge Communities conference and asked him why process based learning is so dear to him; why he wants to remain perennially ‘unsatisfied’ with what his school has achieved and how he prepares his students for the tight competition awaiting them in the race for university admissions after school.

You talk of the need for schools, educators to move from content based education to a process based education. Can you tell us what you mean?

The world over we try to get our kids to understand concepts and in that process we hope they are learning how to learn. Given how fast content is changing in the modern world, this method is obsolete because we can never keep up with the speed at which what we know is changing. And that is what I mean when I say we need to move away from that– to actually help them learn how to learn.

And how do you do that?

I’m a teacher, I go into a classroom I teach for two hours I have a great time but no one learns anything. But my job as a teacher in the classroom is to help children learn how to learn – and to be able to do that I need to be in a ‘learning mode’ myself.

“We allow students a lot of flexibility in choosing the subjects they would like to study and do not restrict them to any specific ‘streams’. So it is possible for students at Vasant Valley School to study Physics with Psychology and Applied Art.”

Teachers need to be given opportunities to learn from within, question what they are expected to teach and thereby internalise what they are teaching – rather than just blindly accept and repeat content.

Another thing that is often not given much thought to is that we are often giving subliminal messages in the way we teach. Take the concept of steam – the world over, when steam is being explained you are taken into a lab and there’s a kettle and a Bunsen burner – the water heats and steam comes out – but what is the other message you have received? That steam is manmade – that it is the product of man conquering nature – and that notion is the source of a lot of our problems.

We need to learn to live in coherence with nature – the stories and analogies we use to get concepts into minds have to be thought out very well - and this is what I mean by the process of learning – are you just shown something and expected to accept it the way it is? No, you need to question it – as a teacher first and then together with the children – then they will learn to question as well – and learn how to own their learning.

So as a teacher I need to discover and get comfortable with my style of teaching while understanding that there are multiple styles of learning - that combination is crucial – and it’s not difficult – however jargon-like it may sound.

Given the paucity in the number of good quality institutions of higher education in India, how do you prepare your school’s students to gain a place in a stream of their choice nationally and internationally?

“As admissions internationally are based on several factors apart from academic excellence such as how actively the students engage inside and outside their classrooms, our teachers encourage active debates in class and the school offers opportunities to students in a wide range of activities...”

As we believe that the basic purpose of education is to help each child actualize their unique potential, it is our endeavour to encourage our students to identify and then nurture their strong aptitude areas, and on that basis choose the subjects they would like to pursue in classes 11 and 12.

Having chosen to study subjects they are ideally suited for enables children to excel in their chosen subjects. We also allow students a lot of flexibility in choosing the subjects they would like to study and do not restrict them to any specific ‘streams’. So it is possible for students at Vasant Valley School to study Physics with Psychology and Applied Art.

As a part of our curriculum students are not only made aware of the institutions of higher learning in the country but more importantly, encouraged to pursue their unique passion and carve a path of study for themselves. They go on to study in the best educational institutions of their choice in India.

As admissions internationally are based on several factors apart from academic excellence such as how actively the students engage inside and outside their classrooms, our teachers encourage active debates in class and the school offers opportunities to students in a wide range of activities outside the classroom as well – both academic and non academic.

Students can choose from: Debating, taking part in the Model United Nations, Quizzing, Sports and Exchange Programs, Outreach and so on.

In fact all students take up an area of specialisation in the Visual Arts or Performing Arts in addition to Physical Education. Students are also involved in several outreach and environment related initiatives within and outside the school.

They are thus able to explore their interests in diverse areas and present a very competitive application to the universities abroad. Students from Vasant Valley School have been offered admissions at some of the top universities of the world.

Your book - Leading Out has been recently released – can you tell us a little about it?

The Latin word, educo means to lead out – to lead out what is best within – to actualise your potential – and that is what schools should be about...because if they are able to equip you with a sense of self, then why, the whole world is at your feet.

How satisfied are you with your school?

“Students from Vasant Valley School have been offered admissions at some of the top universities of the world.”

I hope I’m never satisfied. And that’s a problem with a lot of people – we just get very complacent. If any of the government schools in the vicinity of my school (Vasant Valley) were functioning even at 60 percent of their capacity why would anyone pay money to come to my school?

Then I’d have to struggle to do something new all the time to make sure that people paid money to come to me. But I’m very aware of the fact that we have a long way to go – and that we have to keep pace with what’s happening in society.

And the challenges we face are higher because we are a day school. So kids walk into school ‘with their homes’ – which we have to take into cognisance - the fact of what is happening to the kid between home and school. What are they learning on the journey? What are they reading on the back of the buses, the billboards they pass and so on, that’s all part of the process of education which is taking place all the time.

A lot has been said about the forces of globalisation at this conference – does your school do anything overtly to prepare students to go abroad to study?

Not at all - we are a very Indian school – which is why we are still affiliated to the CBSE – we may have a world class view and world class facilities and a worldview but we are not an international school. We intend our children to be steeped in our culture so we only teach English, Hindi and Sanskrit.

We believe that unless you have those roots you will not be able to deal with what the world is throwing at you. And yet we make sure that what is happening in the world is also available here. So new ideas, new thinking, best practices in how learning happens, all of this we bring in. We also have two curriculums in our school: one for students and one for teachers.

What is your view of the CBSE and its scope?

 It is unfair to fault the board with anything – for after all it is their task to set a minimum level – at Vasant Valley, we take that as our lowest common denominator and then add stuff that we think is necessary. So take Physics as an example, I need my students to understand the subject and then I need to help them learn the skill to take the CBSE exam. Those are two different things and we are very clear about that difference. And as I often tell my students, no matter which system you go to, there is no escaping hard work, to do well. You need to understand and appreciate the importance of rigour – otherwise there is no point in coming to school.

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