By Dr. Ali Khwaja, a counselor, trainer, columnist, life skills coach, and a perpetual student
The famous psychologist of Harvard University, Howard Gardner, who first highlighted the concept of multiple intelligences, carried out some simple experiments with school going children. Students who were supposed to be good in Math were asked to calculate, “If 100 children need to go for a school picnic, and each school van can accommodate only 12 children, how many vans would be required to take all the children?” He was amazed to find that many students answered, “Eight vans, and four remainder.” They were so tuned to the examination system of problem-solving that they gave the perfect mathematical answer, but left four children behind in the picnic!
It is the time of the year when the exam Bug bites students, teachers, Principals and parents. It is the phase when all other activities take a back seat, and the focus is on the impending “final” exam, since the examination has become more important than learning itself.
The interesting aspect of this exam fever is the way the buck is passed on from one to another. As a counselor, teacher trainer, career guide and general busybody, I have ample opportunity to interact from students and teachers, to parents and Principals. Each group gives me the clear indicator that it is “they” who make life miserable – teachers blame Principals, Principals blame parents, parents blame students, and students blame teachers! The fact of the matter is that it is the system to blame, and none of these stake holders can do anything to change the system.
What we can certainly do is to adapt ourselves to the system and make it as functional as we can. And perhaps the greatest responsibility to take this initiative lies with the heads of institutions. You have heard the proverb, “a team of lambs led by a lion is better than a team of lions led by a lamb.” This is the importance of good leadership, and nowhere else is leadership as important as in an educational institution – because the leader affects not only his team members (the teachers) but also the budding human beings (students).
Here are some very practical and essential steps that the head of an educational institution can take towards improving the process of learning, and in reducing the stress of exams:
Our scientists, researchers, thinkers do exemplary work under very difficult circumstances and with minimal appreciation or support, and they get very less recognition, either from the global community or even from our own people.
For example, take Dr. Vidita Vaidya, a lead Neuroscientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, who has been awarded the Infosys Award for Life Sciences 2022. She and her team have done amazing work on how the brain creates a variety of emotions – and has also questioned the efficacy of anti-depressants. She says “I have great faith in the brain as a plastic structure – it has a great capacity for change. We can harness this for the generation of people who have been possibly nutritionally-deprived or faced adversity”.
There are innumerable such scientists in India who do not win Nobel or other international awards, but are a pride of our nation.
Let us salute and encourage them.
Life is what we make of it. If we learn to live life to its fullest, balance our needs with others, manage our own emotions and build better relations, we can overcome any hurdles or challenges that the future throws at us.
Unfortunately Life Skills are not taught as an essential part of learning and growth of children even now. We teach students the 3R’s (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) and so many other subjects, but we do not teach how to face life with a positive mindset and with the right attitude.
We teach children how to walk but we do not show them the direction. We teach them to talk but we do not teach them to listen. We empower them to do calculations but we do not teach them how to apply the knowledge and information that is taught for years and years.
As concerned adults, let us supplement the education of every child with inputs into strengthening and motivating them to become capable and balanced adults.
By Dr. Ali Khwaja, a Montessorian, counselor, trainer, columnist, life skills coach, and a perpetual student
Five decades ago I used to walk down to Casa Montessori on Marine Drive in erstwhile Bombay. I spent the day with a group of boys and girls who were boisterous, to say the least. Aunty Sarla seemed to have unlimited patience in dealing with us – even on the day when she put her hand in the stack of old newspapers kept for craft work, and accosted the putrefied green vegetables I was stuffing there quietly every day! She again explained to me the importance of eating vegetables, ensured I did not hide them anywhere, and threw out the stack of stinking old newspapers.
After two years I moved on to a “mainstream” school, and began the process of discipline, straight-jacket academics, and comparison in terms of “Rank” in every term Report. I remember with pain when my rank once went down from 5th to 15th, and I was stripped of my “Prefect” badge, even though my teachers had continuously said that I made a very effective Class Prefect.
I went on to college, a prestigious engineering institution like IIT, and eventually even managed to acquire a Ph.D. In the past three decades I have also had the privilege of conducting workshops and training for teachers of over two hundred schools in Bangalore and elsewhere.
Whenever someone asks me for my bio-data, I mention in the first line that I am a Montessorian. Either because they don’t understand what it means, or because they cannot pronounce it correctly, they often skip that part of my introduction when I am being welcomed to give a talk. And yet I know what I am today is because of the two years I spent (“studied” would be a wrong word) at Casa Montessori.
When I look at education today I wonder why we are regressing. Innumerable unnamed Gurus of the past, Sigmund Freud, Dr. Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner (of “Multiple Intelligences” fame), Daniel Goleman (who introduced “Emotional Intelligence to the masses), President Abdul Kalam – everyone has been telling us that learning should be initiated and inspired, minds should be ignited, children should experience what they are doing, and how it is relevant to them. Yet we are stuck with the old MacCaulay system of “chalk and talk” education, which the British had brought to India two centuries ago to develop us into efficient clerks and assistants. We would like to compare children’s memorization ability through meaningless exams, and compare them mercilessly. Competition is the buzzword that forces both teachers and parents to make the student gain those extra marks at the cost of learning. Those unable to get high ranks lose self-esteem, and those at the top of the class are perpetually insecure when they will lose their high perch!
With globalization and free market economy, Degrees and Diplomas are losing their significance. Employers are only interested in skills and capabilities, organizations are looking for team players and leaders – but the mainstream education system continues to provide bookworms and zombies. If we cannot bring about a change in college or secondary education, the least we can do is to give a strong foundation to the children in their first few years of life, and then at least they will be able to discern what is good or bad for them.
Montessori education is more gravely needed now than in the last century when Dr. Maria first introduced the concept. With technological developments, learning by rote has lost its meaning. Computers, robots and machines can perform tasks much faster and more efficiently than humans. But what society needs is a generation of people who can understand themselves, understand others, relate harmoniously, and remain motivated and balanced. These abilities are built in the first few years of life (refer to the Marshmallow Experiment of Stanford University where tiny tots were tested for their ability to delay gratification, and decades later monitored to see whether they could do so as adults too).
Dr. Maria Montessori has opened the doors to us, but we need to walk inside and experience the joy of true learning, for ourselves and for the twenty-first century children (I personally would not mind taking off for a year and enrolling in a Mont-1 Class). As concerned adults, parents, teachers, let us give the strong foundation to children that will not only enable them to face life better, but also take better care of us when we are all doddering old men and women dependent on them!
We have done extensive research and experiments on the ways and means of supplementing the social and emotional learning of children of all ages, and are presenting the techniques in our on-line program, open to all adults, named “Certificate in Child and Adolescent Development” starting on 15th May, 2021.
We will not only be teaching you through weekly sessions the practical ways to work with children and ensure their balanced growth and development, but will also give you sessions with qualified and experienced Mentors who will review and guide you every week on the activities you may try out with any child. This learning will be very useful far beyond the current pandemic, and will empower you to work towards bringing up a new generation of mature, sensitive and balanced children who will face the future world with confidence.