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Thursday, November 13, 2008



‘India needs teacher leaders’




   Aholistic approach to educating students, in the words of Raji Swaminathan, is one that seeks to open the mind, nurture the spirit, and awaken the heart. Key concepts of such an approach include fostering a passion for learning and nourishing a sense of wonder. Swaminathan is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies, US. 
Swaminathan has been using the themes of democracy, freedom and community as a foundation to examine how schools work within democratic governance or investigate what aspects of school life students find significant. One of her areas of research is how 
   schools promote alternative ways of teaching and learning. Another is an inquiry into the experiences of students in schools. 
   She says: "We have good examples of holistic education in India where education is seen as going beyond narrow focus on the intellect, where every child is more than a future employee and every intelligence and ability is seen as more complex than the scores or marks one receives on tests. The Aurobindo schools, the Krishnamurti schools and Tagore's philosophy are all examples of holistic educational philosophies that challenge one to be reflective, imaginative, creative and aware." 
   Internationally too, such philosophies are well known with examples such as the Montessori system, Steiner model, Reggio Emilia model and Freire model. "While they are all different in terms of the role of the teacher or how they view the child — as an agent of change, as a flower who will bloom in the right environment, or as clay to be moulded by the teacher — the fundamental attempt in each is to balance freedom and structure, individuality and social responsibility, inner or spiritual wisdom and spontaneity, in order to respond to each learning situation in its immediacy," informs Swaminathan. 


Schools and colleges, she feels, have the challenge of educating people to participate in a world that's going to continue to change in ways that we cannot foresee now and to cope with challenges that we cannot yet name. "The best thing we can do for our students in such circumstances is to give them the mental discipline and dynamism to keep learning how to understand and act in the world long after their formal education or schooling is complete." According to Swaminathan, in holistic education, teaching incorporates four themes: 
• The idea of multiple perspectives: An approach that draws on interdisciplinary themes to structure controversies that stimulate competing points of view, doubt, and observation 
• The concept of collaborative learning: The idea of creating a classroom community while learning to pay attention to the power and positionality of students and instructors. Besides creating opportunities for students to encourage and challenge each other 
• A framework of cultural studies and social justice: Combining the tools of critical thinking and interdisciplinary perspectives and applying them to contemporary problems and conditions with a view to social justice 
• An aesthetic attitude: Learning requires an imagination that allows for encounters with depth and helps students to continually adjust vision in ways that reaches for insight. 
   Swaminathan further adds: "Therefore, in the act of teaching we have first the status quo — that which is given or what already exists. The second act is the point of contact with a teacher, a text, a peer, where dialogue takes place, curiosity unfurls and our status quo gets shaken up. The third act is the transformation — we learn to see something differently. This is the central point of all teaching. Alternative ways are but the paths to this fundamental act of learning." 
   To facilitate all this, one can try service learning, storytelling, drama education, open education, schools without walls, community based learning, etc. The important aspect is to not mechanise teaching in any way and to keep it dynamic and creative. 


Swaminathan feels that schools should be safe zones for students in every way. Physically, of course, there should be the assurance of no bullying or violence. Beyond that, she adds that schools need to be safe for students to make mistakes, where they will be both affirmed and challenged. "We need to create safe zones where students can debate and discuss all topics of concern to them. The idea is to allow them to make meaning of their lives and find out how they want to live, who they want to be and to help them get the tools to do so," says Swaminathan 


However, the above may perhaps be true for the US and UK; where the quality of education is high, infrastructure is strong and resources are readily available. So, it is perhaps possible for them to look beyond basic education and concentrate on holistic education, social justice and so on. But, can the same be possible for India as well? 
   To this, Swaminathan points out: "If we focus on the least that we can do, we will end up doing the least we can do. Basic literacy cannot be separated from the ideas of freedom, justice and responsibility. The depth and beauty of education lies in imagining change. Change is central to the educational enterprise anywhere." 
   Besides, she argues that education is context-based and the system in the US may or may not suit the context in India or in the UK. The important thing to learn is to keep education central to the national and local agenda, especially in an increasingly global world. Such an education needs to go beyond literacy. "We have to believe in the possibility to be able to work towards change. Otherwise people will merely be schooled or lettered and not educated," explains Swaminathan. 


Not one to undermine India's strengths, Swaminathan adds: "We have great strengths in terms of talent. I have come across many imaginative and inspiring teachers in India in my workshops or in the schools I visit. I have also found students who are eager to learn. These are the two most essential ingredients for any education system to flourish ---inspiring teachers and enthusiastic students." 
   However, she does point out that the system needs to move away from an emphasis on rote to encourage critical thinking. Besides, the pressure teachers face in terms of teaching for exams is also detrimental. She says: "It is time to recognise teachers as leaders and as intellectual beings rather than as mere technicians who deliver modules of information packaged as knowledge in 40-minute slices." 
   So, resources probably need to be poured into education so that teachers can design and plan learning opportunities of different kinds for students. However, that shouldn't be something teachers rely on. "Regardless of whether one is constrained by the examination system, different learning opportunities can be created for students. In teaching we need to plan for the unexpected, have alternatives ready in one's repertoire so that we can take the conversation to new areas in classrooms," informs Swaminathan. 
   The country needs new types of teacher education programmes and teacher professional development — courses that centralise the learner, that help teachers think about critical pedagogy and use multiple perspectives, that expose teachers to different educational systems and pedagogies. She concludes: "India needs to grow teacher leaders who are activists and scholars. Ones that engage in action research in their classrooms to improve their practice."



Sunil Sharma


Dil Se Desi Group


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