Another day of absence. It wasn't clear to me why the child had stopped coming to the school. I knew that not every parent was convinced about the approach here, the common complaint being that children aren't learning enough reading and writing. The school since its the initial years has been largely concerned with creating a space that has warmth, and sparks an engagement intrinsic to the child. Earlier, a student had left us in the winter break. The city relatives had insisted that he stay with them, and his parent was assured about better standards in the urban school. The parent felt that the environment in a village could not provide for a growing child. If you only saw the interaction amongst children, there seemed for him little that made for creativity and knowledge. Worse still, they were left free to climb trees, steal walnuts, and make excursions into the forests. In a city, one could channel their energies through several means. How could he deny this opportunity to the child? Other than his father, the child had to leave behind his older sister. The parent could not afford for both to study in the city. During home visits, we had watched the siblings interact intimately. They read out to each other, assisted in cooking, went to fetch water from the nearby spring source and had a full-grown peach tree to climb on. This companionship was valuable to the siblings.
Often, children move in and out of school for family engagements. Sometimes older children have to accompany elders to the forest or fields. At other times, they look after their younger siblings when the elders go off to work. Frequent illness is another reason. In certain homes, mothers are left alone to look after the children and the fields, while men seek out opportunities for income. With such everyday changes, the idea of school seems rather unnatural because one extricates children from their life experiences where they actually learn to take up responsibilities from a young age. The processes in a school as compared to the processes in life require greater effort. To begin with, one needs to set aside a separate time to carry out school's activity. A child derives more meaning from the tending of livestock or helping out parents in the fruit packaging. The school dictates rules and manners for learning, whereas the outside world supplies motivation, enterprise and leadership.
The drive behind sending children to school is to provide a point of entry into the world. The reference here is to the modern world as one views it on television. It is believed that 'good' education cannot go along with a farmer's labour, which is ridden with uncertainties. And yet, there are few options that education in the school caters to. A rising number of fast track graduates seek out government jobs for prosperity and stability. Those who cannot endure this exercise fall back to the joys of family life, which is still nourishing and reassuring. If one is ever lost in the glamour of the new world, one could always trace back to life at home. There is still the worthwhile forest and large landholdings, which could be sold at a sumptuous price.
What is rare and less tumultuous is the spirit of neighbourhood. There is an immediate sensing of each other's pain or suffering. It is the kind of kinship a child feels towards a calf or baby animals. One cannot easily comprehend what enables this sort of bonding. Is it that life here has less complex tasks, giving space for an enlarged vision? There is a bus service hereabouts that brings joy to the residents. It takes the same route each day to the nearest town and returns by evening. It stops wherever stopped. It is engaged for weddings and provides a free courier service to deliver medicines or gifts. As it approaches, it brings forth such a mix of reactions in people that one begins to sense that it is much more than a transporting machine. It mingles so effortlessly with life that it reminds you of people who comforted you in difficult times.
It is morning. Several young children walk up to the schools with their older siblings. Along the hilly slopes, finding the way through a criss-cross of paths, they go past forests, springs and fields. Here, they find their mothers and other relations who left home in the early hours to collect fodder or to attend to their farm duties. They greet each other heartily and move on. The younger children are left in the custody of a caretaker who engages them with songs, stories, alphabet and a few lessons in counting. For the child, there is a great deal happening around home: quiet play with grandparents, watching animals graze, observing how parents work or looking at the vehicles pass by. Gradually, she opens her view to the world around her. There are also larger homes where children live with extended families. Uncles and aunts are also involved in the nurturing. The child grows by observing living as a shared activity.
As children work and gain in strength, they are also drawn into some of the life practices. It is interesting to learn how some young children manage their livestock. For example, cattle are taken to a chosen pasture in the midst of a forest, where others also leave their animals to graze. At a certain moment, the animals return voluntarily to the roadside to be taken back home. Upon close observation, one cannot fail to see the different factors of growth at play in the child. The child exercises control where necessary building his skills of observation. He gains confidence by practising knowledge acquired from watching elders. He also develops character that derives strength from being able to carry out tasks that directly influence the lives of other family members. In such work, there is always the potential to evolve socially by forming new associations, and in logical ability by solving real life problems.1
However, there is a difference between this sort of apprenticeship, and what provides for the curiosity and growth of the child. The former calls for the learning of a set of desirable responses, the acquisition of useful habits. With the need to be recognized as active members of the community, a child seeks to develop manners early on that correspond with the traits of the community. What follows is mere enactment of different work habits wherein attitudes and tendencies get shaped along with some reserve of knowledge, similar to those of the group2. At this point, one wonders whether there is another approach.
As adults seek greater fulfillment, education as 'preparation' seems far too long a process - especially when conditions of life are demanding and the winds from materialist worlds are sweeping across the boundaries. Some families have succumbed to the blowing winds. Children who grew with the joint efforts of elders are left unattended. There is a mismatch of attitudes and the emerging venues of work. There is a glowing cheer for newfound things. There is a sense of loss and attendant guilt. Understandably, these are forces that also determine a child's response in the school space. There are unanswered questions. There are pleasures of accomplishment and curiosities that relate to specific experiences. There are fears and doubts that are planted and left unattended and so on.
When life has patterns of common interest, what is the starting point - from the child himself or the aspirations of parents or should one weave the two?
During a home visit, I had to meet the child's grandmother. Initially, she appeared nervous and hesitant to speak. I was visiting her after a long period and it seemed to her as though something had gone wrong. The child had been living with his grandparents for the last three years and the parents lived with the other two children in the nearby town. Various circumstances led to the separation. The family felt responsible for the child's upbringing, just as we did. I felt that there was an opening here, to raise concerns and to share freely, putting aside our roles as guardians. During our conversation, the child proudly presented a cucumber to me. Later, he sat down cutting it under grandma's supervision. He was carefully following our conversation while we discussed his routine at home. He knew that he had been troublesome and disruptive at school while other children carried out their work independently. Probably he thought that I was going to complain about him, but in my mind I was looking for an opportunity to include him in the conversation. At one point unable to bear the suspense any more, he broke his silence. He described school life and explained why he ran out of the class frequently. At this the grandmother grew angry but he knew how to meet her anger and held his calm. He listened and looked very carefully at the accusations made by her. The interaction had only provoked more reasoning in the child, for he was unfazed and differed openly. Wherever possible, he involved me in explaining the order of facts. What ensued was an open-ended discussion that brought the three of us together. Soon it was his playtime. And grandma guided him to choose the right clothes. Before leaving, he looked back at us with an intent smile and rushed outdoors. Soon after, I too left her with feeling a greater lightness settle in me. This was a contrast to several reactions I had harboured during my irregular conversations with him at the school. I recalled how he had interacted with a younger cousin, cajoling her in the adult's manner, revealing another aspect of himself. Here, he seemed much more independent and thoughtful than in school. More than anything else, it was interesting to see how he matched up to his seemingly authoritarian grandma and challenged her in some points of the argument. The child seemed to relate to her concerns, and saw them as matters of fact of which he needed to be reminded. Perhaps he wanted to learn these skills at a faster pace, or differently, than the standards set by the school and its routine.
It is the chief interest of any school that is concerned with the wholesome growth of child to involve parents and to integrate home life with the schooling experience. And yet one falls short of making this communication possible. The challenges are rather personal. Where at one level, it certainly depends on the individual's ability to articulate pedagogic principles or philosophy, there is a basic challenge to listen and engage. One often acquires mannerisms, vocabulary, attitudes, skills and other habits that are based on specific experiences and are therefore 'exclusive'. Such a language alienates. There are few and select points of contact. One pays little attention to other modes of expressions, obsessed by a common end that all must reach.
It is necessary to find appropriate contexts for sharing, where the beginning is made from an individual's or group's experience. The challenge here is to continually engage with each other. It happened in a meeting. The parents and the teachers had to share their observations of children outside of school and home - when they were playing together or involved in some sort of cooperative venture. The purpose of this discussion was to recognize different aspects of learning involved in these interactions, and the scope for social development in the child. The participants were asked to list out qualities they wished that children gained from their education.
The parents and teachers prepared the following list:
— Should have the ability to make decisions
— Should be polite
— Should be helpful
— Should think positively
— Should be able to solve problems independently
— Should be cheerful and smiling
— Should be open minded
— Should have good communication skills
— Should have leadership concerns in education
— Should have patience
— Should be a good listener
— Should be sensitive and caring
— Should have confidence to take up new challenges
It was interesting to see how each one narrated an experience from his or her own life to highlight a desirable quality linked to a person, or described situations when certain skills or capacities become essential. They shared instances that struck a common chord. This exercise brought everyone closer. The sharing was not of the kind where one group had more information than the other.
It is certainly difficult to carry out the functioning of a school while feeling compelled to seek an approval from a larger group, especially when immediate action is required. One is also concerned that in verbalizing, the vitality behind doing new things might be lost. While there is a need for greater autonomy at school, one also needs to understand how anxieties or fears originate in the first place. When there is undue emphasis laid on what the school can achieve, it is tempting to extend its influence by directing a child's interest even outside of its premises. Such an approach narrows vision and gives a limited view of the child. Such a responsibility can be overwhelming for the school. Here, a partnership is desirable. The school needs to cast off its parenting role and engage with freshness. It is worthwhile therefore to explore the space around, which offers different contexts and a diverse set of stimuli. It is also interesting to see how the experiences at school are being utilized at home to respond to situations. One learns about their limits while they are tested in real life situations.
In these early years of school, both teachers and parents witness together the blossoming in children. Both react in the same manner as new expressions show. There is much the same jubilation when a child declares that she can read. When the two have common interests, they share a companionship. The regard for a teacher is possibly born with this sensing. It is fascinating to note that it is the child that facilitates such associations.
1 John Dewey, The School and Society (Southern Illinois University Press, 1980)
2 John Dewey, Democracy and Education (The Free Press, 1997) Also Krishna Kumar, Raj Samaj Aur Shiksha (Rajkamal Publishers) and Toni Morrison lecture (1993) <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html> for insights into the use of language