Updated: December 20, 2021 9:58:47 am
Being a kid these days must be really hard. By “these days”, I don’t mean the pandemic, but how things were before that, and no doubt will revert to after we are well out of the pandemic. A child spends five to six hours a day, six days a week, in school, mostly in a classroom, with a list of strict rules of how they should behave: Don’t talk; sit up straight; don’t fidget; pay attention; don’t run in the corridors; play only during PT period. We unfairly expect from kids the kind of behaviour that would be a challenge even for adults. All this is in the interest of supposedly valuable learning; and nearly all of it, coming from books. No exploration, no critical thinking, no fun. And very little hands-on work, if any.
This is not to say that children shouldn’t attend school, but to draw attention to how far the school experience is from the way they would naturally learn. Some structured learning is necessary, but does it have to be structured this way?
You’d think the rest of the day, outside the confines of the strictly regimented school hours, would be more child friendly, when kids can be kids — exploring their environment, playing with other children, engaging in tasks and books they find interesting, mulling over their experiences. What they face instead is the same near-mindless regimen. School homework. Tuition. Tuition homework. Coaching classes. No wonder, children often come to class tired, saturated and disinterested. There is no time to tinker, to work with their hands (something they crave from a very young age but are thwarted), or just to have some unstructured hours to themselves. There is no time to develop a relationship with the natural world that surrounds them.
All this stems from the belief that education comes from textbooks alone. At a workshop, I conducted in a school whose science teacher had won the “best teacher” award, I asked if they had done an easily doable experiment in their textbook. They said “yes”. They meant they had covered it in the syllabus — the description, instruction and the questions and answers all rote learned from the book — not actually done the experiment! Similarly, I had once asked kids if they had seen mosquito larvae. Many had — “in the book”. When shown live larvae, the students guessed they were tadpoles. Clearly, they had seen neither in real life — or at least had not known what they were seeing if they had.
With this notion that everything you need to know and learn is in books alone, children are expected to hit the books when they return from school. When they start doing anything other than school-related stuff at home, they are told to “go study”. Thus, simple everyday experiences and observations that my generation took for granted are denied to them, leaving them completely ignorant of the most basic processes. Some random examples — 8th graders telling me that dahi is made by keeping milk in the fridge (milk in, dahi out); 5th graders who didn’t recognise the Gulmohar tree in full bloom right by their classroom window, but knew about the baobab tree they have never seen (featured in science documentaries on TV). We should never underestimate the enormous learning that happens during activities such as helping out in the kitchen, a little gardening; or some time to observe happenings in the real world that are naturally fascinating to children. Not all learning needs to be formal.
When students’ learning in out-of-school situations is found wanting, the finger almost invariably is pointed at the school, and that most intangible of entities, “the system”. While the latter can certainly do with an overhaul, the rest of us cannot absolve ourselves of all blame. After all, many more hours of a child’s day are spent out of school. What opportunities to learn, grow and develop through meaningful engagements are we providing our children? There, we as a society have failed miserably. Policy documents recommend connecting the school curriculum with children’s everyday experiences; for that to be possible, we first have to allow them those experiences.
Time for us to wake up and realise that it’s not all in the books.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 20, 2021 under the title ‘Only work, no play’. The writer was on the faculty at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai. Her research is on how science ought to be taught at primary and middle school
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