Last month, I attended two events that delved into the question of educational best practice. Both provided interesting outlets into the educational communities of Bangalore and have given me opportunities to connect directly with educators and education enthusiasts both local, national and international.
The first talk followed a standard approach to discussing a child’s success and the necessary means of encouraging their learning. The author, Sally Smith, discusses her book, No Easy Answers – How Children Learn and Grow, highlighting her key belief, that questions are more interesting than answers. Within traditional education, we are hyper-focused on certainty, on knowing the facts and on being right. This leaves very little room for acting while questioning, approaching a problem tentatively or open mindedly, and simply trying something out rather than waiting to reach a conclusion with unwavering certainty.
A frustrating manifestation of this emphasis on being right, is that students fall into patterns of regurgitating facts only if they already know the answer, rather than applying previous knowledge to attempt to work towards an answer, whether right or wrong. By focusing only on right answers and not the process of reaching a conclusion, students are discouraged from trying. Encouraging any answer in which the student can explain their process means that students are given the space to either understand or misunderstand, but in both cases, the teacher can now follow their line of thinking and point them in the right direction when needed. Set a high standard then teach students how to meet it, the concept of student failure shouldn’t exist, the only person failing is the teacher whose job it is to guide them and to set achievable standards.
Another crucial piece that was discussed during this talk was the frequent condescension with which students and young people are treated. Children are viewed as sub-adults rather than being praised for their uniqueness, curiosity and flexibility. When you’re young, your behavior and brain fluidity is the perfect sponge for soaking up and critically consuming new information. The constant questioning and energy that children exude shouldn’t be perceived as a hindrance to productivity, but rather should be wielded and adhered to as the norm for how classrooms should function. Why go against the natural instincts of our most effective learning period in life? Trying to teach children as though they are adults is completely counterintuitive and is a clear indicator of one of the myriad of ways systemic changes need to be made in education across the globe.
Say to your students, ‘What did you ask today?’ vs ‘What did you learn today?’
The second event I attended was a two-day conference hosted by the alternative Bhoomi College. The event was titled, In Search of Well-Being: Decoding Economics & Rethinking Education, themes which aligned stunningly with my own during this grant period. There were many speakers as well as break out sessions throughout the conference, many of whom I listened to so raptly I hardly took any notes. Throughout the course of the conference, I continued to ruminate on my ideas surrounding educational alternatives, that were largely informed by the idea of localization (which was very intensely advocated for by a group called Local Futures) and reconnecting with indigenous ways of knowing and pre-colonial educational practices, which was inspired by my work at the Lummi Nation School, with Whatcom Intergenerational High School and by my reading of The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley, a transformative book I will discuss in depth in a later blog post and of course by my time as a student of Fairhaven College.
To best capture this conference, I am going to include lightly edited excerpts from my notes then briefly comment on them:
“Children not given room, time or space to be self-directed and follow their passions. Plug and chug, time consuming and overstructured schooling styles tend to be stifling. Need to reinvigorate the presence of community. Across India, medicine and engineering largely sole respected career choice, stamping out diversity. WHY? Are we learning xyz subjects in school? For the ‘organized sector’ which only accounts for 7% jobs whereas 50% are in agriculture. Focus on economic and educational competition encourages belittlement. Human development and well-being not equivalent to GDP/economic growth. Current economic system thrives on keeping food cheap, cost of food static for last 40 yrs in India, impact on farmers dramatic. Thrives on sucking income from the bottom to the top (vs. disproved trickle down…) Economic growth relies on keeping the poor where they are. Fear of stepping out of mainstream props up inefficient systems. Big Pharma pumps $ into food industry to keep people sick! Subsidies for poor vs incentives for growth / economic stimulus for business, 80% of agricultural subsidies go to the rich. Need participatory growth vs materialistic models of measurement. ‘Aid’ = exploitation, ‘Get big or get out’ mentality of business.”
The interconnectedness of farming, agriculture and sustainability with healthcare or wellbeing and with educational or economic success is especially prominent in India. A huge takeaway for me when engaging with this discussion, is the fact that 50% of the job opportunities in India involve agriculture, whereas only 7% are available in white collar professions. Practically every school across the country is prepping students to compete for 7% of jobs and taking up years of their lives when in all practicality under the current system only students who can afford a private education will be able to compete successfully for these positions. This means that most of the work being done in public government schools right now isn’t serving students or providing them with useful skills for the current job market.
“Education pathology directed towards preexisting mainstream goals. Break the chain of pedagogical tyranny! 70-80% people in cities marker of so-called development but this would devastate India: epistemological break in transmission of agricultural skills, (fewer people want to work in agriculture, feminization of the workforce), this leads to mechanical / factory / corporate farming which takes fossil fuels that are unsustainable, passed fuel peak, increased emissions, salinization of coastline, soil deterioration / topsoil loss, global scarcity impending, impossible to import enough to sustain ‘Development’ is ecologically impossible at current goals. Crisis of global modernity, secularization of modern world faith, afraid to investigate causes of unfreedom. Ecological structural alienation – indirect culpability / responsibility.”
The push for ‘development’ carries and impossible and damaging burden. UN Development goals are hopelessly rooted in capitalistic agendas and aspire to push more people into the international economy towards the goal of endless growth that is killing our planet and people. Models of sustainability need to be promoted over models of development. We need to stop viewing urbanization as progress and homogenization as the ideal. Many students are losing their connection to generational skill sets and cannot carry on their parents’ livelihood due to the disruption caused by schooling. This issue comes back around to relevance and localization. Standardized schooling models leave no room for tailoring school to the needs of students. Students do not all have the same needs, they do not all have the same opportunities, they do not all start or end in the same place and they do not all operate on the same timeline. This calls into question urbanization, shame and disrespect towards farming communities, and disdain from teacher’s models that agricultural work is not something to aspire towards. Children are taught that they should all aspire to be doctors or engineers even if they do not have any aptitude or interest. They may love to farm, but due to stigma are being pushed away from this crucial and employable position in society.
“Textbooks often don’t have any direct relation to observed world, relevancy increases student understanding and performance. Often study, mass memorize irrelevant subjects or data. Need contextual and experiential education. Learning on the job, with action imperative for most professions. Learning by doing, apprenticeship, internship provides direct platform for direct applicable learning that translates to employment opportunities or skills. Community empowerment, investment in the local. Leaving to the West once educated to earn $ for yourself considered a failure…why is there urban migration? Empower local youth to solve local problems with local resources.”
If schools were free to design curriculum around their students’ aspirations how would they look different than they do today? If schools were taught by local teachers who were intimately familiar with the student body and carried personal investment in their success, how would teaching quality change? If the state wasn’t allowed to dictate curriculum to serve their vested interests, how would the mass production of education change? Why are we so certain that a national curriculum is necessary? Why are we so certain that public education is the only or best way forward? Why is the world sold on the colonizer’s educational methodology? What will it take to revert to the old ways of learning, living and knowing?
“Contextual education goes hand in hand with indigenous wisdom. For example, in the SECMOL school in Ladakh, place-based courses are offered with direct relevance to the students’ lives and natural surrounding: Earth Architecture School – mud buildings, some stood for thousands of years, retain head in cold climates in Ladakh vs concrete buildings used now which are freezing – can utilize traditional knowledge in combination with modern technology, for example, glass windows. School of Responsible Tourism – largest sector, produces tons of waste, acknowledge and counter this ethically. Applied Ecology – dealing with desert conditions, flash floods, draught and other locally relevant ecological solutions. Can be abstract and reapply concepts in other areas, deeply understanding one area and learning how to find contextual solutions makes it easy to replicate in other places. Context: place, spirit of the time (past, present, future), experience (mother-tongue, loss of vernacular knowledge).”
This was one of the most inspiring sections of the entire conference and a clear example of what localized, indigenous, alternative education can achieve. SECMOL calls itself a reformist movement against alien education system. It offers alternative education for disadvantaged students and those deemed ‘failures’ because their schools, teachers or the overall system failed them. In the 80s and 90s in Ladakh, 95% of students used to fail their matric exams. They were deemed stupid and failures with very little investment into why they were failing or whether the exams had any relevance to their knowledge sets. This inspired SECMOL founder Sonam Wangchuk, an incredible speaker and passionate educational advocate, to create a system of schooling designed for these students with localized, relevant curriculum and teachers who believed in their students, his motto – nobody is a failure. At one point in his presentation, Wangchuk enthusiastically shouted a line I think all educators must live by, ‘If we don’t learn the way you teach, teach us the way we learn!’
“Do away with subjects, learn about ourselves, each category can be covered by a practical contextual knowledge. Educated class cut off from traditional knowledge systems by English education, modern education, public schools… Education system as it stands today has delinked us from nature. What happens in the classroom is no longer the world, just the word. Modern intellectuals often dismiss traditional knowledge and appropriate, cannot bring up children without roots, those that have decayed due to neglect are regenerating. Can take a minimum of five years in India to change college curriculum or sub out an irrelevant book! Policing your child makes you take on the role of the state. When you don’t waste time, you don’t have time to figure out what you want to do with your time.”
Interdisciplinary models of learning keep students from being pidgeon-holed and allow them to make connections across the arbitrary borders of subjects. Modern education as we know it today, originated as an alien system that was transplanted and forced upon communities around the world. It has replaced beautiful systems and caused many to disappear from practice. It has smothered native languages, cultures and customs. It has created artificial hierarchies and traumatized millions. It has been used as a form of homogenization, of control, of mass employment training. It has dulled and disengaged students uniformly. Capitalistic ideals of time management and productivity outweighed natural premonitions towards creativity and play. The more I learn the more certain I am of the brokenness this largely unquestioned and unreformed beast that has intimately impacted the lives of nearly every person in the world. The international scale at which learning has been tainted illuminates yet another form of colonization’s pervasiveness and long-lasting impact. The lack of conversation surrounding what modern day education systems replaced is deafening. And the assumption carried by many that the introduction of modern education was in some way a positive thing brought by colonizers is profoundly damaging.
These events both pushed my thinking and gave me a glimpse into the fiery, passionate, loving, comprehensive work being done across the Indian nation. There are many that still buy into the classic educational system of course. However, there are also growing numbers of parents who silently question it or remove their children from school in search of alternatives, even at the risk of shame and critique. It is beyond exciting to see the movement against the norm forming and to hear these courageous educators face the pushback eagerly in their pursuit of something better for their students and children.