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Why Schoolteachers Need To Move Beyond The Engineering-Medicine Trap

30/06/2017 9:13 AM IST | Updated 30/06/2017 9:13 AM IST
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Never before has the need for 'life mastery' been as prevalent as it is today. Walk into any bookstore and you will find any number of 'self-mastery' and 'self-help' type of books, along with books about spiritual development and fulfilment. Increasingly, I hear of people who have left high-paying corporate jobs to follow a yearning they have had.

I believe this phenomenon links back to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. Maslow places the 'need to know' or the 'need to self-actualise' above all the other baser needs such as 'survival', 'status' and 'affection'. I believe that as survival is a given for a large section of the population, the holy grail of human development is slowly but surely shifting towards finding 'life purpose'.

As survival is a given for a large section of the population, the holy grail of human development is slowly but surely shifting towards finding 'life purpose'.

Newborn and younger children express this 'need to know' naturally and innately as long as their need for survival in terms of food, shelter and comfort is addressed. Young children are curious and they look at the world with wonder and awe. A toddler can stare at a butterfly or an ant with utmost focus for long periods of time. They have no concentration issues, no attention deficit issues. Most of this wonder, curiosity and awe are killed in the process of conventional education and schooling. The natural process of learning does not exist in compartments of science, math, English, environmental studies and so on. Albert Einstein pointed out the frailties of our schooling and education. He said that his schooling almost destroyed his interest in mathematics and physics. He only recovered this interest when he left school. Most adult geniuses retain their childlike ability to 'play'. Einstein often refers to his innovative work as 'combinatorial play'.

Yet, whether in my pre-schools or my high schools I constantly have to find a defence for including play as an integral and essential aspect of the learning process. I remember coining the phrase when I began my first school, "Play is hard work!"

Albert Einstein said that his schooling almost destroyed his interest in mathematics and physics.

We drive out play and creativity in the process of schooling — the kind of schooling that does not centre around concepts that keep children engaged or questions that children have. Instead, we dictate and mandate a curriculum that operates as though for every question there is an answer that must be known. And, through textbooks and subjects with learning goals that are the same for every child in a given age group.

We really don't care about what interests these young learners. What we don't realise is that the brain is best engaged when it seeks out meaning in an area of interest. The next best way is to create engagement of the brain by giving it a reason to learn something — 'why this is important to know, learn, or use'. The conventional system of schooling neither allows the brain to wander in search of meaning nor does it provide the reason 'why'. So, most kids are left learning what is placed in front of them and literally labour through disconnected subjects and reams and reams of information that is a brain obstacle course. This entire navigation is a forced one, with the single purpose goal of good grades and exam scores.

The brain is best engaged when it seeks out meaning in an area of interest.

When sitting with my curriculum team, I force them to make sure that before any learning process is created for children in the class, the curriculum designers must have the 'why' clearly worked out.

The 'why' is articulated in two ways — one, as a statement and two, by way of connecting the 'content' and the learning process to the student's life in some meaningful way.

This is manageable with most school content. On the rare occasion when my curriculum designers and I are unable to find a 'connect' for the student, we are at least honest with them. Most children and teenagers appreciate honesty. There are times when we develop a learning situation from content that we cannot see a reason for mastering. An example is memorising a formula when today all information is available at the touch of a button. In such cases, we refer to the worksheets or learning tasks as — 'crack the exam'. We actually say to students, "We cannot think of a reason 'why' you should do this. We can only be honest and say you need to do this if you want to 'crack the exam'."

We actually say to students, "We cannot think of a reason 'why' you should do this. We can only be honest and say you need to do this if you want to 'crack the exam'."

Throughout the learning process, we expose learners to the many opportunities in life that exist outside engineering, medicine and other conventional avenues. When students can visualise the future they aspire to, there is an internal compelling force that mobilises them to move towards it and do the things that will enable them to realise their aspiration. Parents, teachers and society cannot motivate students to learn by force, coercion or manipulation. It is only if you can tap into things that students believe are of value to them that you begin to create huge possibilities for students to perform and create beyond your imagination.

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