Education is not child’s play, or is it?

In Finland, kids study only 20 hours a week. The Principal wants them to play and the Math teacher wants the kids to be happy. This is what I saw in a trailer of “Where to Invade Next” — the latest film by Mike Moore. Appears to be a crazy place, when compared to the grueling education systems in Asia and the US! It is quite surprising then that the Finns rank right on top on the PISA test scores. PISA or Programme for International Student Assessment is a worldwide study of 15-year-old school pupils’ performance on mathematics, science, and reading.

Learning and curiosity is innate in every human being. We all want to know more, to question others, to debate, argue, etc. The famous American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” The International Baccalaureate, a Switzerland based education board, has a mission of creating ‘lifelong learners’. This is best reflected by Peter Gray in his book Free to Learn. He writes as thus:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinarily capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.”

Therein lies the problem — while the desire to learn is inborn, the coercive nature of schooling kills this desire. The Finns by giving a ‘free hand’ to the kids have ensured that kids ‘want’ to learn. We have made education ‘serious business’. Education has become ‘work’ rather than the fun activity that it should be. Homework must be done by the assigned date at any cost. Standardized tests have become the benchmark of excellence. Ever wondered why kids love chasing butterflies but hate studying about butterflies?

The fact is that education is actually (or should be) ‘child’s play’. Children learn a lot through free play. While it may appear stupid and ‘childish’ to adults, toddlers learn hand eye co-ordination by pouring water from one glass to another. By playing in trees, kids learn about insects, leaves, colours, etc. Because I have been taking my 3 year old regularly to a park, he has developed a keen fondness for squirrels and peacocks. He wants to know what they eat, where they live, etc. Apparently, he wants a peacock as a pet at home! When learning is self-directed, children take responsibility and ownership for their own learning. It becomes far more effective rather than when it is forced upon the child. It is no surprise that my nephew is called upon whenever any help is needed with technology and gadgets at home. Technology was never a part of his school curriculum but he learnt about gadgets in the process of free play.

On the contrary, educational systems across the world are adult driven. Democracy in schools is a sham, if at all it exists. The fact is that children think differently than adults. While adults are very structured and inflexible in their thought process (this is what possibly gave rise to structured learning), children are quite flexible and adaptable. Adults are risk averse, while children want to explore and try out new things. When the two groups of people are wired so differently, then how can one make rules for the other? While schools and Governments across the world have set up hundreds of committees (again comprising of adults) to ponder over how learning outcomes can be improved, it is a pity that this issue has not been posed to the children, who are the key stakeholder in the process.

Ashish Dhawan of Central Square Foundation wrote an article in the Business Standard titled “Assessment-led education reform” where he writes, “Over the next five years, all states should migrate to census-based assessments that enable tracking the progress of every child while holding teachers, principals and school systems accountable for every child’s learning.” This really worries me. With increasing pressure on teachers for student performance, I can already visualize children living in a pressure cooker.

The need of the hour is to free children from schools and schooling so that they can take charge of their own learning. What is needed is a facilitating environment, where children have adequate open spaces to play in a safe environment. Only if we allowed kids to play freely, to learn at their own pace and in the manner that they wanted, learning would be so much more fun and so much more effective. While the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, the children unfortunately have none of it.

PS: This post was originally posted on May 6, 2016

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