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Reimagining School Education

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Book Review

By Dr SATISH C AIKANT

My Good School: Where
Passion Meets Education
By Sandeep Dutt
Rupa Publications, New
Delhi, 2023, Pages xxvi+
169, Rs. 295

It is a truism universally acknowledged that education is the most essential component of the cultural capital of a society and the education acquired by a person in the formative years of schooling determines not only the individual trajectory but also constitutes the form of the society and of the nation at large. Providing the right kind of education to children is not just incidental to the functions of state; it is a major responsibility. In India, unfortunately, education figures nowhere in the electoral agenda of the political parties and so it does not become the obligatory function of the government in power to provide equitable access to education. This anomalous situation gives rise to various kinds of disparities between those belonging to the privileged section and those who have to live with all kinds of deprivations.

My Good School: Where Passion Meets Education by Sandeep Dutt touches the heart of the matter when it comes to addressing the core issues relating to education, especially school education in India. The author has excellent credentials for offering his blueprint for transforming the educational landscape. He is a distinguished alumnus of The Doon School. A bibliophile, a passionate educator and social entrepreneur, Sandeep has found his metier in the field of education moving from the high-flying job of the National Director of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Scheme to become the Head of the Bhadrajun Artisans Trust. Away from the city lights and located in the village of Bali in Rajasthan, at the foot of the Aravali Range, the trust runs The Fabindia School with a mission to provide access to high-quality education for boys and girls at the rural level using English as the medium of instruction. The school is based on the philosophy that it is not the high-rise buildings, manicured lawns and expensive facilities with cutting-edge technological devices which guarantee good education to a child. As the author writes in the Introduction: ‘A campus alone is not a school. It needs people with compassion and values who will help deliver quality education and will help the entrepreneur maintain quality’. There are stakeholders, viz., the school management, students, members of the local community and teachers who provide a wholesome environment for an educational vision to take a concrete shape. Teachers are potentially the single most important asset in the achievement of the vision of a democratically just learning society. In the contemporary times they need to play more important roles if students’ creativity, intellectual curiosity, emotional health and sense of active citizenship are to be realised.

The book is divided into four sections: The first section deals with the rudiments of teaching and learning, choice of academic curricula, the role of parenting in a child’s education and the degree of a teacher’s commitment and enthusiasm for her work. The second section redefines educational objectives and learning in terms of reading, writing, innovation, and the inclusion of liberal arts in the curriculum. The world today feels the need for liberal arts education equally with professional, vocational or technical training. The school curriculum must include the study of humanities which is essential to lead us to a more value based and learned society. Section three is about the life lessons which are imparted by education. The fourth section covers the architecture of school organisation constituted by Principal, student leaders and the teachers. The system, of course, will run smoothly and efficiently only when it is supported by trained staff.

Reading, especially of the deep and critical nature, the author points out, is at the heart of education and is a proven method for cognitive development. It is especially desirable today when faced with various digital distractions, attention spans are being reduced to split seconds and the ability to read and comprehend tends to get lost. The Fabindia School has started a programme called DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). The activity is carried out in all the classes under the guidance of the principal and works to enhance the reading ability of the students. Indeed, without books and reading we won’t have a cultural reference point to bind us together.

The author maintains that ‘for school culture to thrive the three most important qualities are Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Diversity improves tolerance, empathy and critical thinking. Inclusion or inclusive education provides a friendly atmosphere which helps in empowering students and staff. Belonging is acceptance and pride of the Institution. These strong feelings build up confidence and belief, and help build schools with quality’. Imagination, which is a uniquely human attribute must be sensitised through education.

There is much talk about smart classes these days, but, as the author reminds us, it is the smart teachers who make smart classes. No amount of money spent on teaching aides and infrastructure will ever be able to replace a good teacher in the classroom. None of the sophisticated technology and IT devices will ever be able to replace smart teachers. We ought to understand that technology is merely a tool. It is the teacher who as the human element is the effective delivery agent for quality learning in the classroom. Innovative teachers do not excessively depend on technology. A smart teacher is one who in their own idiosyncratic manner makes learning fun in the minimalist conditions of the classroom.

Teaching is a complex activity and it is therefore in the interest of policy makers and managers to recruit and retain teachers who are committed to providing the best possible learning opportunities to students. Passionate teachers do not work in isolation. They are part of a complex web of social and interpersonal relationships that work within the culture of collegiality relying upon mutual understanding and sharing of power. However, cultures of collegiality should not stifle a teacher’s individuality or undermine her continuing passion to exercise her autonomy in the classroom. A good school must work to help provide the best ecosystem for the personal and social development of an individual. Learning is a collaborative enterprise. Even the best teacher with positive disposition and endowed with the right intellectual orientation needs a community of supporters to endorse and validate them.

A coordinated intimacy of the teacher-learner relationship is an essential part of the learning process and is an important pedagogical strategy. Teachers should invest emotionally in the students since in collaborative cultures even the small gestures and little ceremonies or personal interest shown in the classroom or school corridor go a long way in boosting the confidence of a child. The overall school performance is about a great deal more than maximising academic achievement. Love of learning, personal development and enhancing self-esteem, learning life skills, problem solving and the development of independent thinking- all go toward making a well-rounded and confident individual. The author aptly quotes Arthur Foot, a former headmaster of The Doon School, that ‘the boys should leave The Doon School as members of an aristocracy, but it must be an aristocracy of service inspired by ideas of unselfishness, not one of privilege, wealth or position’. More than the learning outcomes in terms of textual knowledge it is experience and experiential learning which characterise an educated person.

According to a recent Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) ‘Beyond Basics’ which puts the spotlight on youths aged 14 to 18 years in rural India, of more than 86.8 per cent of youngsters enrolled in education institutions one-fourth of them cannot read a class II level text fluently in their regional languages. It presents a dismal picture of the state of education in several regions of our country. The rural hinterland is only symptomatic of the malaise. With more than seven decades of democratic governance and claiming to have a welfare state the marginalised sections of our society remain poor and disenfranchised. They have hardly any access to education, healthcare and means of decent living to sustain themselves. The book by Sandeep Dutt makes one reimagine school education, but more importantly, by giving us the model of The Fabindia School, he shows us the way forward.

(The reviewer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University and former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)