Written by Arvind Gupta
The critique of school as an institution has developed and grown in the past half a century. Education theorist Everett Reimer wrote School is Dead in the 1960s. Danger School, a classic published by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s group in the late 1970s, captured through scathing cartoons the harm which schools inflict on our children. Most schools are caged jails, where an alien curriculum designed by some “experts” is thrust down a child’s gullet.
Today, many schools are gargantuan corporate enterprises with thousands of children on their rolls, and for all practical purposes they are run like factories, or better still like mini-armies. The website of a private school in Lucknow boasts of 56,000 students, for instance.
But progressive thinkers have always envisioned “free schools” for children. The great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, founded a school for the children of poor peasants at his home, Yasnaya Polyana, without any strict schedule, homework or physical punishment. Maria Montessori was the first Italian woman to become a doctor; she went on to work out the “stages of development” in children which became the basis for her educational philosophy, which too emphasised children’s freedom and choice. Tagore’s critique of rote learning is articulated in the classic tale The Parrot’s Training (Totaakahini). A small progressive school in Japan run by a visionary principal has been immortalised in the best-selling Tottochan. Perhaps, the longest lasting libertarian school in the world is Summerhill. It was founded in 1921, a hundred years ago in England, by A S Neill with the belief that school should be made to fit the child rather than the other way round.
Usually, government schools hit headlines for all the wrong reasons — a wall caves in, a roof collapses, or children fall sick after a mid-day meal. But the AAP government in Delhi vowed to make government schools better than private ones. They achieved this success by improving infrastructure (no stinky toilets), giving dignity to teachers, constituting school management committees and by involving many good NGOs for innovating learning methods. In 2015, there were only 17,000 classrooms. In just three years, AAP added another 8,000 classrooms; 11,000 more classes are under construction. Once completed there will be 36,000 classrooms.
In India, schools have always been deeply segregated. The 1966 Kothari Education Commission’s recommendation for a common school system was never implemented. Today, which school a child goes to depends on her socio-economic status. The pandemic has furthered and exacerbated this divide. COVID-19 hit parents economically. Many were unable to pay school fees. Some removed their children from private schools and put them in government schools. But the government is trying hard to withdraw from public schools, or hand over their precious land and managements to private organisations. Why is the government going headlong with this privatisation? Doesn’t it know that in America, England, Japan and Finland — the most advanced countries — the best schools are government schools? The digital divide between the rich and poor has also widened. The poor do not have access to mobiles, laptops and internet connectivity.
In such a scenario, one can try and conceive of neighbourhood learning spaces. The pandemic forced millions of adults to work from home. Many people realised that an office is not needed to do productive work. In the process, some have realised the boring nature of routine office and factory jobs and, simultaneously, discovered their own potential. Many have left busy, polluted cities, and returned to small towns and villages.
We must strive for more neighborhood learning spaces as we reimagine the school. Large housing societies already have community halls. Smaller ones can easily allocate a dedicated space, where adults can share their skills and experiences with young ones. Every housing society should have an “activities centre”, where children can make and do things.
In the 1960s, England had a lot of community colleges. Here, anyone who had any skill could offer a course. And anyone who wanted to learn a skill or subject could join in. No degrees were required. The courses were wide-ranging, from haiku, Chinese art, limerick writing, pottery to bicycle repairs! We need to reimagine schools – as places for community learning. Schools have a very narrow vision of a teacher — someone with a B Ed degree. How about envisioning tens of thousands of retired professionals as teachers? They will bring years of practical experience to learning.
The government can use the pandemic to better its own schools. First, by improving the infrastructure and making the schools more welcoming. Clean toilets, drinking water, library, a tinkering lab, and a playground will help. Second, by making learning fun. Instead of segregating children by age they can have classes with mixed age groups. The children can also learn at their own pace. Third, locate the champions — the “heroes” within the government system — and use them as effective resource people. Without any cash incentives, simply by bringing innovators to the fore, many teachers will feel motivated. Fourth, by inviting established NGOs to help bring in best practices from all over.
During the pandemic, 1.5 million people logged into archive.org every day. It is the largest repository of books with 28 million books for free downloads. We need to build such a free archive for Indian languages. The recent announcement that the government will buy bulk subscriptions of scientific journals so that everyone can access them is a step in the right direction.
We need schools where children with different backgrounds — class, caste, religions, abilities — can study together and learn to care and empathise. In David Horsburgh’s Neel Bagh School in Kolar, Karnataka, children could learn at their own pace. They could study Class V Telugu, Class III English and Class VII math all at the same time. They learnt to work with people with different skills and abilities. They also learnt cooperation, group work, compassion, human dignity and plurality of opinions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2021, under the title “The open classroom”. Arvind Gupta is a toymaker and educator