Thursday, February 26, 2009

Child Education without Belief

Mainstream primary school education is considered highly unbalanced by many parents and educators. The criticisms usually include the following:
  • A burdensome curriculum with too heavy a mental load for small children.
  • Emphasis on memorizing rather than on understanding.
  • Weak or non-existent emphasis on physical and cultural development.
  • Insensitive and overburdened teachers, an unhealthy student-teacher ratio, and a profit-centered administration.
  • Encouraging competitiveness and paranoia about one's future.
These are valid concerns. Even though some elite institutions (both public and private) are trying to address these, an average school in India does suffer from almost all of the above ills. Coupled with these limitations of existing institutions is the constantly frustrated wish and drive to bring literacy to all and to universalize primary education.

Alternative education systems seek to address the above problems. Its distinguishing characteristics from ordinary education can be classified in three broad categories:
  1. Methodological Distinction (difference of means): Schools in this category do not dispute the aims of education but explore new teaching methodologies. Examples are the various elite schools with a high teacher-student ratio, the Playway schools, the Montessori movemnt, the Totto-chan experiment, etc. I think educational experiments should be very welcome and they should go hand-in-hand with latest advances in child psychology and educational psychology.

  2. Ideological Distinction (difference of ends): The vast majority of alternative schools in India and abroad fall in this category. They usually have an agenda of forming a certain kind of elevated personality or consciousness in the child. Examples in India include the KFI schools, Aurobindo Schools, Waldorf Education schools, and almost all schools backed by a religious or spiritual institution (e.g. the Isha schools, schools run by SGPC, the Arya Samaj or DAV schools, schools run by Sathya Sai Baba, schools run by Asaram Bapu, etc.). Many schools run by large religious institutions pay only lip service to value-education and are not generally distinguished from normal schools.

    There are schools which, though not aligned with a religious institution, have other values as their foundation. For example, the Sarang school focuses on environmental sustainability, Jeevan Vidya focuses on harmony and other humanistic values, and so on.

  3. Demographic Distinction: Various NGOs in India and in other developing countries are trying to bring literacy and education to underprivileged children via small organizational initiatives. Theirs is indeed a laudable activity.
I want to focus primarily on the second category, since for me it is the most controversial.

Obviously, a school can be "alternative" in more than one way. For example, the KFI schools have a very good teacher-student ratio but they also have an ideologically different basis (based on the teachings of J Krishnamurti).

Some claim that normal school education is already agenda-driven, that it seeks to create a subservient, docile, consumption-oriented and fearful human being. I agree that most students turn out like that, but I disagree that is what the schools intend. I think these effects are not aimed at by normal schools. These are unfortunate and unintended effects of the mindsets of stressed parents, disinterested and alienated teachers; and the pressure to succeed (from the peer-groups, one's family, one's own desires which are fueled by the media and the perception of cut-throat competition in today's world).

Especially in India, where there is a strong spiritual content in its culture, the stresses of modern life (including in education) are seen as a "western" influence. Sensitive parents, scared of harming their children in normal schools, perhaps unthinkingly enroll them in value-based schools without deeply evaluating the school's philosophy (which in most cases is replete with religious undertones).

Most well-run ideologically distinguished schools make it a point to counsel parents, before and during the child's education, so that parents don't end up unintentionally blocking the work of the teachers.

My concern is whether it is possible to find a third alternative to both a so-called "western" education (in which the primary aim is to equip the child to be financially successful) and what I consider a "spiritual" education (in which the primary aim is spiritual upliftment, to the detriment of mental and intellectual development). Looks like a teaching paradigm based on humanistic-scientific values (grace and courtesy, aesthetics, physical and mental health, rationality, enquiry) might not be a bad idea, but such schools seem to be very rare. Most schools have questionable belief systems behind them.

Does it have to do with a distrust of science and with an attachment to one's own culture, howsoever regressive? Or is it because it is easier to be unscientific as long as it feels good, both for the teachers and the parents?

What do you think?


dad ma said...


Montessori school system in India has done a lot of good and the practical ways of learning break the monotony of lecture methods and is learner-centric. No matter, how much one experiments and takes cognizance of child-psychology, a teacher has to be trained to do it all. While a lot of attention is paid to curriculum, still lesser to pedagogy and least to psychology of a teacher....more later and a good post!

sunson said...

I don't think it has much due to distrust of science than understanding oneself. Like you've rightly pointed out, its the notion that one should become 'wealthy' and act like a 'good samaritan' and so on that has skewed the purpose of education. There are always a few brilliant, technically sound teachers.

I guess the real cause is due to the human condition - to reach a point in the societal hierarchy and secure access to resources and protect it unto death. Until an education system teaches a human on what a human is made up of (via scientific anecdotes, psychological experiments and so on) man will continue use whatever he/she has learnt in fitting into the 'Empire'.

btw, "What a way to go: Life at the end of Empire" is a nice documentary on this front. You might not find it artistic - but the end message is essentially poetry.

Dadi ma ke kisse kahani said...

"Until an education system teaches a human on what a human is made up of (via scientific anecdotes, psychological experiments and so on) man will continue use whatever he/she has learnt in fitting into the 'Empire'."

- what human is made up of is taught through humanities and social sciences and most of literature gives a deep evidence of it. I am particularly referring to George Orwell and William Golding.

- "Empire" is another name for civilization, anti thesis of which is savagery. That is an age old debate which only finds newer metaphors with every generation. The documentary you mention is the same kind, albeit new wine in old bottle!

srid said...

"what human is made up of is taught through humanities and social sciences"

hmm, apparently humanities comprises of anything but the human condition. does humanities, for example, teach about feelings, emotions and their debilitating consequences?

how will man stop continuing to use whatever he/she has learnt in fitting into the 'Empire' unless he learns about his own condition? (as sunson asked)

Gargi said...

There can be no successful education system until or unless it is supported by passionate teachers. It is only the teacher, who can create a love of life long learning in a child, as the child is spending the majority of his time with the teacher. That teacher can be the parent of the child too. In US, homeschooling of the kids is an alternative education system adapted by some parents,due to distrust towards the government provided education. These kids do take the state mandated exams but do not attend the regular schools. The parents are the teachers and are fully responsible for the education. Home schooled kids do extremely well academically but most people question about social development and missing on other perspectives. Montessori education is very child oriented, but the cost is prohibiting for a lot of parents and also for higher classes it has its own limitations. Indian education system has too many flaws but it also has some strengths (and somehow is gaining popularity in Japan).I think what we need is some middle ground between Montessori and Indian style, where parents are seen as equal partners.