When children challenge the system


Today I went to a regular Science Toys workshop in Airoli, Navi Mumbai. It was a community center. There were around 40 children from 8 to 14 years of age packed in a room with little space of free movement. I had always found a tough time managing such a large group and keep their attention towards me. But I always try my best. Through the activities that I show them i.e. the very simple but attractive toys made by waste materials, I believe that we can have a nice enjoying and learningful time. I believe that even if my voice isn’t enough to grab their attention, at least the activities can do that job. But that doesn’t happen every time.

I along with my friend Sunil tried to do some interaction before starting our activity. We asked them to guess our names by asking five different questions to us that will give them clues of what is the name (of course not asking the actual name). We spent almost 15 minutes in explaining what we want them to do. We gave them examples how they can do it. With a lot of chaos running side by side, they managed to ask us different questions and were able to guess Sunil’s name.

Generally when my friend Vinayak takes this activity, it is quite an organized and enjoying one, but this time I thought I couldn’t create that excitement for this activity. And while some were listening to what was happening, some others were not attentive in the group.  However then I thought let’s take out my precious toys from the box which will pull everyone’s attention and get some discipline.

Indeed there were excited to see what I have when I told them that I have toys made by me through waste materials and that each toy has a science behind it. I took the first toy of ‘Changu Mangu’ based on the centrifugal force. I put a story behind the toy and tried to make it as attractive as possible. It is a toy where two table tennis balls are packed between two transparent plastic cups. I gave them the challenge that they have to separate Changu Mangu into two opposite corners. They were all excited for this. Many of them tried their hands on it but no one could do it. Finally I decided to jump in and reveal the secret which was by spinning the bottles after which the balls are thrown in two opposite directions. Up till this it was quite a good engaging activity. However, when I tried to hold a discussion on this, by asking why this is happening it went messy. Though many of them were listening and trying to think and answer on my question, others still were not interested and started chatting between themselves. It disturbed the class. I wasn’t in a position to guide the discussion in an ordered way.

After that I took many other toys. As long as I showed them the toy, it was good. But as soon as I decided to hold a discussion, it didn’t go well. My lack of skills in guiding the discussion came in the way. At the end, it became so chaotic that we had to close the session for the day. I had similar sessions before when handling children is no easier than flying an airplane.

We can look at this scenario through a number of perspectives. First of all, there is no doubt that a teacher (or a facilitator) should have the skills in guiding a class in an ordered manner. My friend is able to hold the same activities and discussion quite orderly and with a lot of enthusiasm than myself and he has some necessary skills that I don’t have, even though I am doing such kind of activities for almost five years. When thinking at a larger scale of application, let’s accept that many teachers won’t have the skill of keeping the attention and interest of children. And when they are not able to do it, they have to get harsh on them and force them to keep quite. But that is not the solution of course.

Our education methods are teacher-centered or teacher-directed, meaning that a teacher decides what will happen in the class and if the teacher isn’t good enough, the children won’t learn much. The teacher is the director of whatever learning happens in the class. We have to accept it no matter how much we talk about child-centered ways of learning. All child-centered ways ultimately depend on the skills of the teacher. What do we do then if we don’t have a skilled teacher? And to talk statistically, I don’t think that we can find more than 50% of teacher who can be termed ‘good’ keeping certain (subjective) parameters in mind, especially if we include the government schools. That’s why our reports show that even after five years of schooling 52% of children cannot read a class 2 text.

I believe in the importance of the teacher, no doubt. A teacher is the one who has received a lot of respect since ages. But I question such a system where lack of skilled teacher spoils the learning outcome and we are failing in skilling at such a huge scale even at the level of providing basic literacy skills to a child. I am not talking about the real education that goes beyond literacy.
What do we do if we don’t have a skilled teacher and we have to accept that we won’t always find one or make one? Can a good education happen without the teacher becoming the sole initiator and director of learning? Indeed we require the teacher. No doubt. But if the equation is: good teacher = good learning, bad teacher = poor learning, I doubt if we could ever achieve a universal ‘Quality’ education. Can we create a system where learning is not dependent on the teacher or directed by teacher? Instead the teacher may have much different role to play in an entirely different learning system.