Missing the Aim(s) of Education!

It's a perennial struggle to define what we really want out of education. That is, it is a struggle for those who are vested with the responsibility of developing the curriculum, materials, evaluation and the like. For others, such as parents, things are reasonably clear. Which is where part of the problem lies.

The common man, or the consumer, or the parents of children who come to a majority of our schools, have no doubt at all that the purpose of education is to prepare children so that they can get a job (and be a worry off their heads). Many others – such as owners of private schools – boast that they get hundred percent results in the various examinations. Implying that the purpose of education is to get children to pass through examinations with flying colours (and what the purpose of the examinations is of course well known to all!)

And if you ask teachers in government schools, the ones who actually teach and are considered 'sincere', they will usually come out with statements such as: 'to develop a citizen, for all round development, someone with values, someone who can be called an educated person.'

But when it comes to developing the curriculum we are somehow so reluctant to agree with these commonly held perceptions. We want something better, higher, more durable (our own approximation of the Olympics motto?) 'To produce someone who has a deep sense of values' is one of the most common aspirations. But what kind of values? And what to do about the fact that values are so relative (e.g. in certain situations, you actually get a medal for killing a man!). What is needed in order to be able to exercise values appropriately in a contextual and relative manner? And is that more a cognitive rather than ethical function (e.g. identifying options, weighing them against each other on various criteria, etc.)?

'Education should develop the right kind of sanskars / culture in the student' is the next most popular choice. But whose culture are we talking about? A teacher trying to teach children how to use a handkerchief to blow their nose was left aghast when they reacted with amused horror as he put his handkerchief back into his pocket – they said they always threw things away after blowing their nose with rather than putting them back into their pocket! In a context as diverse as ours where the good manners of one group are easily the bad manners of others would we not end up simply extending the social control of dominant cultural group/s?

Unable to resolve this we move to discussing: what kind of society do we want to see? What would we consider a developed society? Where everyone has a job and the per capita income is high (back to jobs as the most important criterion?).  Slowly the discussion moves to recognizing the diversity in society and the need for each group / person to respect the 'other' and cherish, even celebrate this diversity. The need for a dynamic society that is able to overcome the divides of caste and class, race and gender is emphasized. A society where collaboration is valued and practiced, where resources are more equitably distributed and opportunity is available to each person to better his or her lot is portrayed as the desired one.

So what are the qualities needed in the children emerging from our schools in order that this vision come close to reality. Now a little more concrete set of indicators emerges – self-confidence, autonomy, decision-making ability, the ability to accept one's own shortcomings and confront / improve them, a more scientific attitude that helps them question given conclusions and arrive at their own inferences, and so on.

So how would this impact the subjects we are teaching? Here again we run into difficulties – since, despite our best efforts, we continue to be the prisoners of our past. The kind of ideas that come up are: include a lesson on self-confidence and one on self-dependence as well, have guidance and counselling, do scouts and guides' activities, and the like. As if a lesson in self-confidence or the description of a great person's life will help attain self-dependence!

When this is explored further, the true import of some of these 'small indicators' begins to sink in. To ensure that children develop self-confidence, for example, they need to experience challenges as well as successes, repeatedly.  This will generate the necessary self-belief. Clearly, then, instead of simply teaching in the regular way and appreciating the child's efforts, the teacher instead needs to challenge the child – by introducing tasks of which some part children can do, along with others that they would find difficult. Then it would be important to ask children to plan it by themselves, share and justify their plan to a larger set of friends and finally implementing it on their own. The experience of this implementation needs to be discussed so that lessons may be drawn for the next time. It is repeated experiences of this kind that lead to self-confidence.

For each of the changes / developments we want in our children, identifying its implications is a harrowing task. Not only is it difficult to know what to do so that the desired outcomes happen (e.g. how do you 'teach' to accept one's limitations and also go beyond them?), the emerging discussion tends to doubly challenge long-held notions and deep-rooted practice. (Such as supporting children as they learn on their own rather than teaching them as we are used to.) And if these are the qualities we desire in our children, we are really left wondering why it is that we should be teaching things such as physics or chemistry or past participle and geometric progression.

As we progress further in defining the aims of education, we seem to be moving further away from 'education' itself as we know it and into something that is still quite undefined and yet to be evolved. Somehow even as we define the aims, we seem to be missing them.