Let's hear it for joyful learning

TUTORIAL

In the last few years, public attention has been focused on education of children at the primary level. There's been a realisation that learning of the child at the primary school level is the foundation for his later achievements. Many changes have been brought about in the methods of schooling. This year is particularly important since the Government of Karnataka has introduced the Nali Kali project in government schools.

Schools as factories

Centuries ago, traditional skills were passed on from one generation to another, first through mere observation and then through apprenticeship leading to mastery. These vocations were such that any child could easily understand the nature of what his parents were doing - farmers, carpenters, scribes, etc.  It is only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution that things changed.  Instead of a carpenter slowly converting logs of wood into furniture, he had to learn to operate machinery to perform only one part of the job, may be just make planks. The job of a turner or welder was such that a child could never understand it by mere observation. The needs of society changed, and this impacted the field of education also.

A tremendous need for productive individuals was created. Schools became factories to produce workers to feed this hungry society. The most efficient way of mass production known to modern man is the conveyor belt, conveying the raw material in a factory through various stages, to finally give us the finished product. A similar model was brought into the education system.

Children of a particular age were taken into the school as raw products. They were treated like clay to be molded, saplings to be trained to grow in a particular manner.  Knowledge dictated by the needs of the adult society was broken down into small units and drilled in installments into the heads of the pupils through years of schooling, until they emerged as doctors, engineers or teachers, ready to take their place in the world.

To ensure this was done well, a text book was used like a production manual, and exams were conducted to inspect the quality of the finished product. The teachers were workers in this factory model, each working on the raw material at various stages of processing. All the authority was vested in the creators of the system. The job of the child was to sit passively and allow all these processes to be performed on him.

Flawed system

It is only in the past few decades that we have realised that this method of educating children is defective. The child, who is forced to sit passively, tends to become either a submissive sheep or a rebel. When knowledge that he is forced to learn has no relevance to his life, he tends to abhor it. We've read countless articles about the lack of standard in learning in almost all newspapers and magazines, year after year.

Understanding children's needs

What is it that we have to do to in order to rectify the situation? We have to first observe the person for whom all this effort is made - the child. We have to look at who he is, what are his needs and his psychology. Only then can we devise a method that will bring out the best in him.

Most people are of the opinion that a child does nothing but play, whiling away his time till he is trained to behave better. We Montessorians beg to differ. To us, the child is a worker, developing himself into an adult through his effort. He comes programmed with a timetable, which tells him that he ought to take over the job of respiration, feeding and excretion from birth, start solids at 6 months and try to talk at one year.

Like all workers, he needs tools, a work environment, training and then freedom to work at self-construction. Each of his conquests has come with a lot of effort. How many times did he fall and still get up before he learnt to walk!  He comes to school just after developing many skills like movement, speaking, etc.  Instead of supporting him in his endeavour to perfect them, we the adults take away his freedom to speak, to move, to have any opinion other than that of the authorities. We chain him to the bench.

Guide, don't control

It is a well known fact that hands-on practical learning is better than merely memorising from books. That is the reason for having practical work in all major fields of education from engineering to medicine, psychology to physics, cookery to carpentry.  Why must we deny this facility to those who need it most?  Why cannot early schooling be based on activities with teaching learning materials, if it can be so?

Let the body, which has just mastered the art of moving according to the dictates of the mind, continue to move in the pursuit of learning. Let the budding skills of oral language expand with conversation with the teacher instead of being confined to answering questions. Let there be a recognition of individuality in each age range, removing learning from the tyranny of a programme of work. Let there be guidance instead of control.

The text book-and-exams method is time-tested and familiar. Letting it go would cause a great sense of insecurity among all of us. We must ensure that the activities are so devised that they lead to the same learning outcome that we expected from the earlier method.

We need to applaud the Government of Karnataka in this regard, since they have introduced their activity-based learning program, Nali Kali, across the state. The teacher and the taught are physically and intellectually meeting at the same level during the learning process. There is opportunity for the child to express his creative skills - for drama, music and mime. The dictates of the National Curriculum Framework - joyful learning, multigrade and multilevel teaching, continuous comprehensive evaluation - can all be met through this approach. That is, if it is implemented the way it should be.

The method may not be perfect. Any nascent programme, being implemented on such a large scale, is sure to have lacunae. It will surely need time to grow to what it should be. What we need to do is not to discard it for that reason, but to help develop it, fine tune it to fulfill the needs of our children. To do that, we need to take a good look at the pluses and minuses of the programme and the system that is implementing it.

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