Bridging the gap

We often lament about lack of new knowledge generation in our institutions of  higher education. The quality of knowledge generated in a society depends on many factors, and is rather a complex affair. But one significant reason for this problem in our system lies unnoticed at the very beginning of our school education. That is the unbridged gap between the child’s common sense understanding and school knowledge.

The child progresses in life and education without this gap ever addressed properly, and that results in stultification of faculties.It is well accepted by now that children bring to school a fully developed language and a fairly complex conceptual picture—understanding—of the world. Attempts to burry this under school knowledge creates a chasm between what one believes and what one says. The child’s common sense, when she comes to school, is composed of snap-shots of memory, unanalysed action-routines, and attitudes acquired from adults. All this is often called ‘experiential knowledge’. This is acquired by direct acquaintance and only partly formulated in language; none of this is either properly organised or examined. Another part of the child’s common sense is snap-shots of conversations heard in day to day life.

This again is only vaguely understood and almost totally unexamined. All this is adequate for the child’s protected life in the family and is very intimate; having strong emotional linkages. Its emotionally and experientially embeddedness and intimacy make it very rich and valuable for the child.School knowledge, on the other hand, is somewhat formal, organised and often too rigidly structured, and dry, so to speak. It is divided in school subjects, sequenced keeping conceptual dependencies and complexity in mind.

 The child-centrists often eulogise the free flowing seamless understanding of the child, and condemn the rigidity and compartmentalisation of the school knowledge. This, though may not be completely wrong, is misleading and totally unhelpful characterisation of the situation.The child’s understanding may be vivid and emotionally very rich but is not fashioned to build the edifice of increasingly sophisticated knowledge upon it, which is an absolute must in today’s world. The school knowledge is in principle organised to build solid foundation for future growth of knowledge. Its rigidness is due to lack of ingenuity and imagination of the curriculum framers, not necessarily a result of structure and appropriate conceptual organisation. But whether one blames this gap on the school or not, the problem of bridging still remains.

This problem is built into the very notion of education as a process of deliberate intentional, directed and systematic learning which has some goals to achieve. While child’s understanding is a result of living life as it comes, spontaneous and experience absorbed by mind.One way of dealing with this gap is contextualising the curriculum which is usually interpreted as teaching things which are familiar in the child’s environment and are relevant to her life.

 Another is the three-part slogan of ‘known to unknown, particular to general, and concrete to abstract’. Intelligently used, these two rules will certainly alleviate the child’s difficulty and will prove to be of help. But they will bridge the gap only partially. And that is the reason why most of us today have two sets of knowledge: for using in life and for formal purposes.

The knowledge used in life is mostly acquired outside the school, is unanalysed, partially understood, and has significant gaps. But is connected to life, believed, vivid and rich. Knowledge for formal purposes is made of words, lacks connections, structured but empty. And therefore sterile; produces nothing new. If we want to do away with dual—functional and inert—structure of ideas, something more than contextualisation is needed.This gap is not ‘quantitative’ but ‘qualitative’. It is due to the very nature of concepts and its structure. It could be filled only if the child gets opportunities to build systematic connections between the concepts, to reflection on her own ideas, purposeful observation to complete a mental picture, and constructing a body of knowledge out of experience.

Readymade new information
One way to bridge this gap could be to devote first about three and a half years of primary school to mastering ways and habits of knowledge formation and shun all communication of readymade new information. By knowledge formation I mean: a. acquiring dexterities to do something concrete with one’s hands, that is, making a ball out of rags and string; and b. formulate claims about the world in language and examining them for their truth value, that is, making the claim that “twigs of garden hedge take root if planted in moist soil”, and then testing it against experience. Ways of knowledge formation are observation, articulating ones observation in language, sharing those articulations with others, debating their truth and providing or examining evidence.
 All this will require a certain kind of discipline of mind, keeping to a task, intellectual engagement, and controlling immediate inclinations. Without these later qualities, no task of examining a piece of one’s environment and arriving at any conclusions can be completed.

This indicates a serious and guided engagement with the natural and social environment to bring ones experience to an articulate level where the claims can be made and examined in a small community of learners. During this time, no new information need to be given, no new knowledge of different environs need to be brought in. All one needs to learn is how to organise one’s own experience through language.Once this task is completed, the child should be ready to receive, make sense, examine and assimilate new information and knowledge in her own robust conceptual structures. And will know what to accept and what to reject on reasonable ground. It will not violate the child’s understanding, will not reject it; but will transform it qualitatively so that it may form a firm foundation for further growth of systematic knowledge.

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