“Ammu ottakki keyari”, she announced with a glee. That roughly translates to “Ammu myself climb”. She just climbed up the window sill all by herself. Ammu is nineteen months old and I have been noticing this demand of ‘I-want-to-do-it myself’ and ‘I-did-it-myself’ glee on her face quite often these days. “Ammu myself drink”, she says grabbing the cup off my hands. “I myself eat”, she says as she reaches out to the plate. “I myself shoe”, she says as I open the shoe rack. “I myself climb”, as we go upstairs to her room.
She wants to do everything by herself. Her surprisingly forceful tone and nonverbal cues make up for the limited vocabulary during those instances when she says, “I myself do!” Nobody is making her ‘want-to-do-it’. Nobody is making her learn how to do it. And what’s intrigued me is also that she has learned to do it all by herself.
Every child is unique is a cliché we hear a lot. Yet there is are these common innate traits that a child is born with – that we are all born with. One such innate trait is the ability to learn – by oneself. From walking to talking and everything in between, there is so much I have witnessed my little human learn to do within the first eighteen months of her existence. Even language and number sense – all by herself. This has only strengthened my belief in what John Holt noted – that for children, “learning is as natural as breathing”.
How is it then that we miss out on tapping into this natural learning ability once the child enters the school system? A system where we grown-ups (teachers, parents & society in general) believe that she won’t do anything unless we make her do it; she won’t learn anything unless we make her learn it. That’s what a part of my brain that was conditioned as a teacher believed too.
I switched careers to work in the education sector; ‘education reform’ sector, my altruistic self would clarify. And in my eight years of working with teachers, students, schools systems and education reform movements, there has been a constant yearning to go deeper into understanding the child in the context of learning or schooling as we see it today. It started with my stint as a teacher through the Teach For India fellowship. And I continued to miss the obvious even as my career progressed with interventions aimed at education equity – at teacher level, at community level, at whole school level. What did I miss? That the very crux of what we all were attempting to make better viz., the learning of a child, is a natural process. That children need not be made to learn, that a child loves to learn, but not to be taught! How did I miss this? Perhaps it was easy to – much like how the fish did not discover water!
There is so much I wished to do in the formative years within the education sector, as a teacher. Yet there’s not much one could do. How could I bring down the four walls that confined the students? How could I stop the school bell from ringing every hour? How could I not follow the time-table that determined what to teach and for how long? Oh, and the saddest part – how could I not test if my students have learned or not? There is an old tale of a monkey that was assigned to take care of a garden. And how did the monkey check if the newly planted saplings were growing or not? By uprooting it every morning to check if it was growing! Such was the task I thought I was entrusted with as a teacher – to make them learn – and then test them akin to uprooting the plants in the pretext assessing if they are growing. That’s pretty much what the system demands of a teacher, from as much as I’ve seen in all these years. The questions I had – the things I wished to change – is also what I’ve heard from teachers across geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“That’s how it’s been done all these years. What else can we do?” is a convenient excuse I’ve heard teachers and schools share as they dutifully carry on many of the meaningless activities within the four walls of a classroom. And from whatever I have witnessed of alternative attempts within the system, viz. something like ‘childcentered’ and ‘activity based’ learning has only added to my worries. All of it seems an attempt to ‘make the child learn’ and test what has been learned. What’s wrong with that? Well, there is so much a child is capable of learning, in a way they are naturally programmed to. And what we do the moment a child enters school is to forget that nature of the child and attempt what we’ve attempted for ages in the name of schooling. For a child, for whom till then ‘learning has been as natural as breathing’, everything we do to make them learn becomes meaningless. I have come to believe that this is where we, teachers/educators, need to focus – to understand and respect the very nature of the child in the learning process.
What exactly can we do? I don’t fully know yet. In all honesty, I am writing this even as I contemplate home-schooling my own child. What I am seeking to find however is what we can do to tap into the natural learning process of the child. I am searching for solutions that puts the child first in the attempt to school them. How can a teacher within the system, where a good majority of our next generation is ‘made to learn’, achieve this?
The impetus to write about this and figure it out has been triggered by my year-long interactions with a retired government school teacher, Rajendran Thamarapura and my current association with Qrius Learning Initiatives, his attempt at sharing and evolving what he developed as a solution to enable teachers overcome the limitations in bringing a natural learning process into the classroom. A lot of what I read, heard, saw and experienced over the past eight years is a baggage I carry. These experiences naturally influence my perspectives and convictions about children and how they learn. I am writing this as I continue to explore. Will write more to ask, to share, to seek, and to understand