Surely a school is a place where one learns about the totality, the wholeness of life. Academic excellence is absolutely necessary, but a school includes much more than that. It is a place where both the teacher and the taught explore not only the outer world, the world of knowledge, but also their own thinking, their behaviour.
- J. Krishnamurti
Two years ago, in an attempt to answer a number of disturbing questions related to schooling, I started keeping a log of thoughts and ideas that emerged from the words of Krishnamurti that I have quoted above. These words surfaced again in a brochure given along with the application for admission to the Valley School. I have pondered over these three sentences, in conjunction as well as each on its own, inorder to unravel the enigmas of the learning that we are a part of, as teachers, pupils, parents or just concerned adults.
This learning perches precariously on the ideals and philosophy guiding the school on the one hand, and the interpretations of this philosophy and actual practices on the other. It is quite a feat to maintain a balance, and there could be cause for concern if we are unable to do so. A graver concern arises when we either misinterpret a guiding principle, or get comfortable in the mistaken presumption that our practices are in accordance with it. Many a time the intention on our part is beyond reproach, but it is devoid of assessment and analysis. We give selective importance, at our discretion, to certain aspects of this guiding philosophy. Our practices follow suit, and what begins as a small rift between rhetoric and reality becomes, in no time, a veritable chasm.
Central to alternative education is the idea that schooling is not merely scholastic in nature. It is an idea that has begun to infiltrate into mainstream schools to some degree, but remains limited to an inclusion of extracurricular and peripheral activities. Nonetheless, many people concerned with education today are in agreement with this view, and some attempt to go beyond extracurricular activity to an all-round development of the child in their care. My view is that these attempts still do not address the wholeness of life, or the understanding of the self, and that these attempts are actually diluting the fare. We are not doing things differently, we are only doing less than what is required.
The concerns for a 'whole child' emerged from observing that the mindless pursuit of narrow academic goals has resulted in unhealthy competition, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, an imbalance of personalities and an inequitable apportioning of inputs in schooling. The able few excelled, and maybe they would have excelled anyway, while the majority got little out of years spent in school. With this recognition began the search for alternatives, the search for a whole that is much greater than the part, that is, academic excellence.
Striving for excellence is an aspiration that takes us beyond our limitations, and the responsibility lies with the school to identify the strengths in each child so that she may reach her highest potential.
In this quest, however, we lost sight of the fact that academic excellence, or just excellence per se in any area of this broader definition of schooling, is a very integral part of the 'whole'. Striving for excellence is an aspiration that takes us beyond our limitations, and the responsibility lies with the school to identify strengths, albeit different strengths, in each child so that she may reach her highest potential. Instead of looking for alternate areas that could allow each child to discover excellence within herself, we began looking for alternatives to excellence itself.
That strengths exist in each of us, and that these strengths differ from person to person and must coexist with the weaknesses, is an idea largely unexplored, especially in a school situation. I would like to share an experience I had from a school I once worked at, which provides a beautiful metaphor for this. Our son Kabir spent a few years in a school where a high percentage of the students had special educational needs, as they had mild to severe difficulties. A Centre for Special Education (CSE) catered to the needs of these children, and wherever possible they were a part of mainstream school life. The oldest boy in CSE was 17 years old, but had been evaluated as having a mental age of five. He was a wonderful person, courteous, friendly and helpful. At the end of the morning break, one would find him at the entrance to infant school, standing with his palms out and the little ones would jump up and give him 'high fives' as they filed past. One day I fetched Kabir from his classroom to walk him to the bus, and after going through this ritual my son turned to me and said in a serious voice, concerned that I would not really understand, 'Amma, he is a big boy, I know, but he is also a very little boy like me'.
I marvelled at the perception and understanding of my five-year-old. It also set me thinking: are we not all like that? In some areas we are seventeen, while in others we remain five. We must also recognize that excellence only becomes possible when we aspire to, and are pushed, to become eighteen and six. As for the school, it would do better to concentrate on those strengths that will take the child to six rather than worry about the weaknesses that keep her at five.
This respect for individual differences and the attempt to bring out the best in each child is further illustrated by two examples from the same school. Kabir does not 'excel', according to school norms, in Physical Education and in Art, Craft and Design Technology. Yet, for two years running he did gymnastics as a P.E. activity, with two left feet and arms that got in the way, but with the dedication and confidence of an Olympic gymnast. It was a sense of security that allowed uninhibited participation, and earned for Kabir the title of 'Dr. Husain' from his P.E. teacher. Later he played basketball and learnt karate with the same conviction and enjoyment, and by his measure excelled inboth.
The Art teacher always said that if I wanted to see Kabir under extreme torture I should come to their Art and Craft class. We all realised that his forte was not Art, but only occasionally did he shed tears of frustration, as when the snow leopard he drew looked like an alien. But then he was made the official researcher and design engineer for all Art, Craft and Design Technology projects. He took his work seriously and excelled in this domain. He still could not draw, yet instead of dwelling on that weakness he was given an alternative in which to excel.
I am convinced that if we look closely enough we can define points of excellence for every individual in almost every area. For those who find this farfetched I can only say that, to me, defining common points of excellence for very different individuals, pushing them to attain it and in the end leaving them with no sense of accomplishment, seems not only unreasonable but also unkind. As I read Krishnamurti's words again I am convinced that striving for excellence is an endeavour by itself, an aspiration that exists or needs to be inculcated, regardless of the area.
Our outer and inner worlds cannotpossibly exist independently, and what we make of ourselves in one determines whatwe are in the other. Academic and intellectualstrengths cannot be without strong personalqualities and vice versa. If mainstream schools have erred in favour of academicexcellence at the expense of the personalside of the child, then maybe alternativeschooling stands guilty of tipping the balancein favour of the child's inner world at theexpense of scholastic achievement.
Why should one be valued at the expense of the other? Is it not possible for the two to coexist?And are they really two values or are they two sides of the same coin? We speak of academics as being defined by a curriculum and the innerworld of the child as lying outside the curriculum. That is an unjustified fragmentation. What kind of an inner being will we create in a child if we induce in her a kind of intellectual autism? What an alternative school needs is an alternative curriculum, a 'responsible and sensitive curriculum' which puts forth an agenda that caters to every aspect of the growth and development of every child. Therein the child strives for excellence in every area, be it academic or personal, and further, the definition of this excellence is individualised. This means we are not trying to make mathematical geniuses out of everybody, or behavioural clones.
Achieving excellence then implies working to, and maybe even beyond, the child's highest potential in that area. The extent of this excellence is not imposed arbitrarily but is determined by the child's potential. Being able to spell 50 percent of the words correctly is excellent achievement for a dyslexic child, and a bad-tempered child excels when she can control her anger under difficult circumstances. The practices in the alternative school must be guided by the principle that possibilities for excellence are unlimited.
On a different note, there is another plane at which we do need to address the wholeness, the totality of the child's being. In a school, the child's mind is moulded within the framework of a curriculum, some of it hidden and some overt. The curriculum comprises what is being taught, both outer knowledge and inner thoughts, how it is taught and who teaches it. This multifaceted curriculum then has to be well integrated and harmonious within itself if it is to cater to the whole child. If it is comprised of ill- researched components as well as uncoordinated adult inputs, then no matter how good parts of it are, it cannot address the whole. On the contrary, the child will fragment herself to cope with different aspects of a contradictory curriculum and the idiosyncrasies of the adults.
A new look at how we define excellence, and finding a common ground for the curriculum, appear to be the challenges facing alternative schools today.