The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Alvin Toffler

Gone are the days when ‘weapons of mass instruction’ were appreciated in the garb of schools. John Taylor Ghatto, in a teacher’s passionate pained voice, elucidated this phenomenon in his scathing commentary on what he called the ‘dark world of compulsory schooling’, a social institution designed to ‘dumb us down’. While Ghatto’s ideas may sometimes sound a tad too extreme, it is a fact that the schooling system over the ages has hinged on ideas of bulk-schooling, which largely trained children to be employees and consumers who obey reflexively rather than think critically and independently. It has been looking at only one aspect of human intelligence while there are indeed multiple. Homo sapiens needed multiple skills, differentiated abilities, and creative, emotional, and social intelligence for our very survival. Our ‘uniqueness’ is perhaps the most unsung of contributors to human survival.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution needed a professional proletariat, a manageable populace to form a consumer base, and human resource which could be defined by numbers, grades, and graphs, which could function in an assembly line, which had the attitude and habit-training to unmindfully follow somebody else’s agenda. Thus, from human beings, we transformed into ‘resources’. Only a very limited kind of intelligence decided our fate, our success, and failure, in a regimented schooling system. The very value of our life became dependent on a system of ‘mass instruction’ that had the authority to pass judgments and in the process often discard the ‘whole beings’ within each of us. After all, a child is not a collection of percentages or a collection of any kind of fixed attributes. A child is not a machine, not a product; a child is living thinking being with ever-evolving nuances, inquisitiveness, impassioned curiosity, urge to learn and do real things, urge to make a positive impact, urge to be independent… every child deserves a right to their own individuality, a recognition of their unique talents and a right to be respected as thinking human beings.    

In India, the colonizers needed the same out of us. Thus, bulk-schooling of the mind replaced our very own, indigenous personalized systems which were originally about the schooling of the body, heart, mind, and spirit. In our traditional Gurukul system, education was about self-actualization, self-mastery, mindfulness, and transcendence. Curiosity, reflective practice, intense watchfulness, ability to concentrate despite distractions, experiential learning, resilience-building were all blissfully ensconced in the yogic learning and growing routine that nurtured each one’s uniqueness. The system naturally embedded growth mindsets and critical thinking alongside a wide variety of real-life skills.

As the wheel of time would have it, nature put us through a watershed moment in 2020. The pandemic and its confluence with technology,  made classrooms transcend the dimensions of physical space and time, transferring ownership of learning to the learners. It jolted us out of a stupor and the future of learning is indeed taking us back in the cycle to the ideals of the Gurukul where each child is special, where each child is nurtured to achieve their growth potential harnessing the power of their unique talents.

As students take ownership of their learning and technology enables them, the world is their oyster and learning cannot be limited to unidimensional curricula. Thus, inquiry,  guided as well as independent, has emerged as the most natural process of learning and teaching. While education researchers, effective practitioners have been trying hard for years to show the way in this direction, there has been strong resistance from various stakeholders — parents, teachers, children, schools— of the process. Much of this resistance is still bound to continue, but the sooner we are able to strengthen inquiry-based and genuinely holistic learning environments, the better equipped our children would be to face the challenges of the future.

“The child seeks independence by means of work; an independence of body and mind.”
— Dr. Maria Montessori

Every generation is smarter than the previous one as we evolve from ‘Man to Superman’ (idea attributed to Fredrick Nietzsche & George Bernard Shaw). Human beings evolve and so must education. Our children are born amidst technology and it does come naturally to them. As we create the ‘free space’ for them to learn, self and peer-assess, set SMART improvement goals, think, communicate, collaborate and innovate, we must ensure that they tame the technology demon to their advantage rather than be tamed by it in the process. As adults around them, our role is to facilitate this learning process and we become co-learners alongside. After all, as G.B. Shaw puts it, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” The educator within each of us knows that ‘playing’ is indeed ‘learning’ in a multiplicity of dimensions.  

Schools must emerge as zones of exploration into learning where a structured curriculum provides some direction, the big ideas, and hooks, but no limitations to learning and inquiry-based exploration. The emotional, social, cognitive, psychomotor, naturalistic,  musical, spatial, as well as creative intelligence of each child must be nurtured in the learning space that schools evolve into. Hybrid models of learning do seem troubled water today as we grapple with their nuances, but are here to stay and will continue to enrich the learning environments.

No school can ever be better than its teachers. The ‘Guru’ is central to the process of learning. Technology cannot replace the ‘teacher’ and our cultural tradition has always deeply valued respect for the teacher, the Guru. While parents are the first teachers of a child, giving birth to their physical being, the child is reborn into wisdom and life skills learning from teachers at school. Just as learning must not remain unidimensional to material success, the relationship between parents and teachers must remain one of trust and mutual respect.

Each child is born with an insatiable urge to learn and to learn how to learn. Each child needs experiences and the environment to explore learning and happiness within this process is in fact a perfect way to assess the correctness of the process, as Dr. Maria Montessori would note. Each child is born with unparalleled genius and the learning process is about helping it emerge. Each child is born curious and the future indeed belongs to the curious.

Building Brighter Futures of Education with Lessons from the Past

The sooner we are able to strengthen inquiry-based and genuinely holistic learning environments, the better equipped our children would be to face the challenges of the future.

Building Brighter Futures of Education with Lessons from the Past

As students take ownership of their learning and technology enables them, the world is their oyster and learning cannot be limited to unidimensional curricula/courseware.

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This article is featured in the Issue
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Futures of Education
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