ANAND D. AWOOTAR
PhD, D.Litt
Chairperson, Education Commission
Mouvement Patriotique

The hallmark of a meaningful education system arises from the need to develop faith in children’s creative instinct and their capacity to construct knowledge out of their experience. Learning, specially at the primary level, cannot become a joyful experience unless we change our perception of the child as a receiver of knowledge, and move beyond the convention of mere textbooks as a basis for exams.

Unfortunately, our schools have, for far too long, been academically over-burdened, creating gated communities among our student population since their very tender years: those good to become laureates, those good to go to University, those good for vocational schools, and the rest good for nothing much. As things stand, schools in socially-deprived areas spend vast amounts of time patching up the consequences of poverty (widespread disaffection, family breakdown, poor health, neighbourhood torn apart by alcohol, drug abuse and crime). However, those of us accustomed to statements that manipulate rather than inform, it is hard to stomach the rhetoric of so-called concern for disadvantaged children, given the scandalous level of indifference towards reducing the achievement gap.

The need to humanise education is more than ever felt to make it relevant for the pursuit of a wide variety of human aptitudes through new visions of learning, better suited to the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of this knowledge era. Real learning takes place when the process of education is engaging, exploring and explaining, and makes room for valorisation of multiple competencies – literacy, numeracy, mastery over basic skills, music, drawing, communication skills, sports, social and emotional development as well as student motivation for learning and progress.

Since the 1960s, we have witnessed more than a ten-fold increase in violent crimes, in illegitimate births, in divorce rates, in single-parent homes, in cases of severe indiscipline in schools. Ask any teacher, the worst problems in primary schools in those days were identified as talking out of turn, making noise, running in corridors, dishevelled hair, untrimmed nails, littering, cutting in line for milk, the shirt untucked into trousers. As for girls, their skirt was two inches above the knee – considered scandalous. Ask today’s teachers the same question. They will sing the following ear-splitting and forehead-furrowing litany: drug abuse, alcohol and tobacco abuse, teenage pregnancy, bullying, theft, suicide, gambling and violence. Unfortunately, to apply solutions of the 1960s to solve today’s heart-wrenching problems is like using spray-bottles to fight forest fires.

Whatever else we have got for all the hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money pumped into our education system, we certainly have not got cultural progress, or solutions to our social ills, le vivre-ensemble, and much less, the badly-needed today’s 3 R s – Responsibility, Restraint, Respect. We have become ‘comfortably numb’ in the face of over-whelming evidence of disintegration – statistical, anecdotal and personal.

There remains one indispensable path leading to whatever measures we may eventually choose to opt for: the valorisation of students (to be started from lower primary schools) with emphasis on a less stressful system that encourages meaningful learning, discovery, innovation, empathy, and happiness at the expense of a hierarchy of grades, with all its attendant stress and humiliation. The greatest of all discipline being self-discipline, it is best that such a quality, to be more meaningful and long-lasting, is generated from within instead of being imposed from outside.

Bearing in mind the psychology of children, any attempt to win them over through small ingratiating gestures or cajoling into good behaviour is worth the attempt in the process of creating an atmosphere of love, empathy and a sense of valorisation and belonging to the school. As children, we used to be greatly elated at the simple activity of depositing the class register in the head-teacher’s office at our teacher’s behest. Such an activity inflated our ego, gave us a sense of importance, and raised our spirits.

It is precisely this untapped emotional reservoir lying dormant in the bosom of each child that our system chooses to ignore in hot pursuit of academic excellence. Not surprisingly, the top is being creamed off at the expense of the vast majority of our pupils who eventually fall by the wayside with no hope of recuperation.

Yet, a mere shift of mindset and approach to enable us to embrace some practices as part of school offerings is likely to make a whole difference in student and parental behaviour.

TO BE CONTINUED