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Nurture to Dream and Aspire

If we can light the spark of curiosity in a child they will learn without any assistance, says noted teacher, principal, academic director and textbook author Maya Choudhury.
BY Maya Choudhury |   18-10-2013
 
Maya Choudhury with her grandson; Photo courtesy of Uttara Choudhury  
Excerpted from a Speech given at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) get-together in Guwahati, Assam; August 2013

My association with education began on an innocuous note 30 years ago. I was pleased as my 5-year-old son informed me he didn’t need my help to do his homework. He could do it himself. He’d been asked to write five sentences on his mother and that was easy, he said blithely. I waited for him to come back from school the next day, sure his teacher had given him a good grade for his earnest effort, but to my horror my son’s eyes were misty. His teacher, I was told haltingly, had flung his book into the dustbin. I could see she had tweaked his ears leaving red nail marks on them.

Next morning I knocked on the principal’s door. I wanted to find out what my son had done to merit such rough treatment? His big crime, I discovered, was that he had dared to be original and write what he felt in his essay. He had not robotically reproduced the five short sentences the teacher had dictated to the class earlier that day.

The principal was more than patient with me and surprised me a few months later with a telephone call asking me to apply for a school job opening. That started my association with education. I have always believed that schools are not corrals where spirited children should be broken in. Instead they should encourage young people to experiment with ideas, make mistakes and test the boundaries of their own creativity.

If a school is supportive of a child’s response to the unknown, as a young adult he will be curious and positive. Noted philosopher, J. Krishnamurty affirmed “Merely to stuff the child with a lot of information, making him pass examinations, is the most unintelligent form of education.”

Education must suit the needs of a society. Not so long ago education was a privilege and even kings and queens were known to be unlettered. The utility of education was in the contemplation of the universe, in philosophy or the cultivation of literature and the arts.

We have travelled a long way since. Gradually education lost its elitist tag as it became clear that even to be a successful farmer one needs education.The primary goal shifted from the civilizing influence of education to education for employment and survival. Individuals with the most information the most facts in their heads were the fortunate few to ascend the ladder of success in their professions. Schools and parents focussed on pumping children with facts, assuming that if their wards had the right facts, they would score well in their tests and the right scores would ensure their admissions to the right colleges and this would set them up for the right careers.

Fortunately, that era too has now been transcended. With the global economy entering a new phase of complexity we are realizing that we need to correct some of the old emphasises in our education system. While factual knowledge remains a key factor for survival it’s no longer sufficient. With the click of a button anyone can now access information on the Net. What then is the great differentiator between those who succeed and those who don’t?  What is it that really counts? The winners of the 21st Century are those who possess creativity, strong analytic skills, foresight and good people skills.

Firstpost Editor R Jagannathan wrote: “We have business schools in India that produce MBAs with lousy people skills...We have medical schools which produce super specialists and plastic surgeons and no doctors for the masses and we have general graduates who are not qualified for anything even after they have wasted five years studying after class 10. They have no skills for any job!”

The fact remains that today we need people with multiple skills and quick learning and re-learning abilities.

Teachers need to retool themselves, they need support and training that will help them to graduate from the role of a teacher to that of a facilitator.
Teachers need to realize that times have changed. They are not bankers who need to deposit what they know into the heads of their students. There is a sea-change in the education landscape. Technology allows kids to teach themselves at their own speed with teachers who refine, monitor and pay special attention to their special needs.

Big changes are coming in the shape of high-speed mobile networks, cheap tablet devices, the ability to process huge amounts of data cheaply, sophisticated online gaming with adaptive learning software and new  interactive digital textbooks with built in continuous  performance assessments. Teachers need to learn how to use technology as an extra pair of hands to free them to do more challenging tasks. Teaching after all is not a delivery system but a creative profession.

There’s an assumption that there are only two kinds of kids the smart kid and the dumb kid, but the truth is that there are no dumb kids. Kids have multiple intelligence while some are better at math or science others have different skills. When children come to us at the primary stage they are uninhibited and curious. It’s important to build their foundation in maths, science and languages but it’s equally important to stress on the arts and physical education. We need a broad curriculum which allows us to build their confidence, discipline and sense of responsibility. We need to remember that education is not a mechanical but a human system. The Indian education system fails students by offering very limited choices.

If we can light the spark of curiosity in a child they will learn without any assistance — children are natural learners. Take the “Hole in the Wall” experiment through which researcher Sugata Mitra demonstrated that in the absence of supervision, children can teach themselves and each other. In 1999, Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in Delhi. They installed an Internet connected PC and left it there. Soon they saw kids gingerly approach it. In a while they were playing with the computer and soon they learnt how to use it and go online. They also taught each other how to use it.

This project demonstrated that an environment that stimulates curiosity can help learning through self instruction and peer-shared knowledge. In India we believe our kids can’t manage without us. We forget that spoon feeding makes them dependent and ultimately makes them lose confidence to think out of the box.

As Khalil Gibran says, “We can love our children but cannot give them our thoughts.” They have their own thoughts. We need to respect their thoughts allow them to use their imagination, encourage them to have aspirations and tread softly on their dreams.
 

Maya Choudhury has been a teacher, principal and academic director in a career spanning 35 years. She won the National Award for Teachers in September 2005 from the President of India. She is a classical pianist and author of six history and social science school text books.


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