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The real goal of education

More than ever, the ancient Greek concept of paideiawhich emphasizes that the goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's own selfhas become relevant

Almost all students flounder to find their balance in the overcrowded, attention-deficient environment of schools. Photo: iStockphoto
Almost all students flounder to find their balance in the overcrowded, attention-deficient environment of schools. Photo: iStockphoto

“Your daughter participates well in the classroom discussions and does well in her assignments," the teacher said to me, “but I am really disappointed with her exam results."

“You will have to get used to this," I said. “She dislikes taking exams. She won’t perform under pressure."

“Yes, but we have to prepare our students for the Board exams," the teacher said.

“You know and I know that the class X Board exams are overhyped and class XII is still four years away," I said.

“That is true," the teacher conceded.

“We have a child who is self-motivated, who is curious and likes to gain knowledge," I said, “why should we interfere with her natural learning process?"

“But exams are also a necessary part of the process," countered the teacher.

“Our daughter has shared with us many times that she gets very anxious when she has to take an exam," I confided in the teacher. “She feels physically ill."

“Yes, but we cannot be soft on our children, we have to toughen them up," she said. “We have to prepare them for the real world."

If you are a parent who regularly attends parent-teacher meetings in mainstream schools, then this is familiar dialogue for you. This “real world" that we seem to be preparing our children for is vaguely defined and loosely based on a set of outdated assumptions and fears of the significant adults in the child’s life. More often than not, our curriculum and teaching methodology is designed for an education for the past, not really the rapidly changing and unknown future.

This is when I knew that I must bring in the experts. To keep it simple, I quoted a tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular astrophysicist and educationist: “In school, rarely do we learn how data become facts, how facts become knowledge, and how knowledge becomes wisdom."

I found this truism on Twitter and therefore it is definitely less than 140 characters. I suggest you learn it. Or copy it in your phone. Use it liberally whenever you are in a parent-teacher tug-of-war.

I remembered Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel laureate, describing the ills of rigorous academic schooling: “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."

What I wanted to tell the teacher was that the adolescent we are speaking about feels quite prepared to function in the real world. She has academic interests she wants to pursue, creative ideas she wants to implement and work she wants to be involved in. It is her parents and school that is placing this prolonged set of hurdles of grades and examinations between what she wants to do and what we allow her to do. How she seeks to learn and how we make her learn.

But I didn’t go there.

Most teachers in our schools are already under tremendous and increasingly conflicting pressures. Sometimes they are speaking from their own conditioning, and often they must say what the school management has instructed them to share. A structure that does not recognize and encourage the distinctiveness of every teacher certainly cannot enable the teacher to treat each student as a unique individual.

Teachers may recognize that each child has his or her own rhythm and pace, but the education system pressurizes them to homogenize the teaching process in their classrooms. The limitation of time and the constantly expanding curricula weighs them down. We know from our own school experiences and that of our children too that almost all students flounder to find their balance in this overcrowded, attention-deficient environment.

There is an active conversation in academia today about the crucial role of empathy and emotional intelligence as skills of the future. While we are all experiencing rapid lifestyle changes created by faster-paced information and communication channels, we are also finding that emotional illiteracy, ignorance of context and social alienation have tagged along. This confuses us and creates dissonance in our minds.

More than ever, the ancient Greek concept of paideia—which emphasizes that the goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one’s own self—has become relevant. As a parent and a teacher, I find that every interaction with other teachers must now circle around this concept. Not the ability to retain data and information, but the ability to understand how they connect with our lives and that of the planet. Steering away from how much time children are spending acquiring knowledge to how much time they are spending in creating and doing activities away from books and screens.

This is what will train them to be adaptive and innovative in the world of the future.

As far as parent-teacher meetings go, if we want empathy from a person in an important role, we need to start with offering empathy. I made the conversation move away from the student and touch upon the teacher. She isn’t used to the idea, but it will grow on her.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the forthcoming book My Daughters’ Mum.

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