The success of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan in enrolling almost 98 per cent of all children of school going age has shifted the focus of education to the question of quality. The need for emphasis on quality has been recognised by both educationists and the government. Last year’s Draft National Education Policy has a strong emphasis on pedagogy, learning outcomes and teacher training.
Quality has to be measured against a vision of the meaning and purpose of education. In other words, what does it mean to say that a child is educated? In this context, the educational vision of Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother, which she implemented at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education has much to offer.
Mother felt a holistic education must focus on the simultaneous development of five dimensions of an individual: physical, vital, mental, psychic and spiritual. She envisioned an educational system that balances these dimensions and serves as a platform to enhance the learner’s potential.
In the current context, children from rural India suffer from malnutrition and diseases due to lack of hygiene. This prevents them from attending school regularly. The lack of infrastructure to encourage sports to maintain a healthy body also impacts academic participation.
Encouraging rural schools to support sports and creating playgrounds in villages can have a significant impact on the health of children. A key reason for children dropping out at 10-11 years is child labour, born out of a necessity to earn livelihood. While Mother supports physical activity, she discourages parents from keeping a child constantly engaged with work.
On the vital dimension, she stressed on psychological well-being and refinement of the aesthetic sense to enable a child to choose what is beautiful and harmonious and avoid degrading influences. She stressed on psychological well-being and refinement of the aesthetic sense to enable a child to choose what is beautiful and harmonious and avoid degrading influences.
Character development is not to be done by coercion but by kindling in the child an aspiration for a higher life. Modern education places great importance on subjects like science, language and maths while there is less emphasis on life skills that help students cope with challenges they face in life. Cultivating the vital dimension helps children develop character, have a better understanding of what happens around them and develop resilience.
In recent times, we see a strong push to understand cognitive functioning and improve the cognitive capabilities of learners. Education being largely a mental activity, Mother mentions that the system should develop the following mental capabilities in the learner: Concentration and retention, ability to grasp complexity and richness, thematic organization of concepts, power of discrimination and mental calmness that makes one receptive to inspiration.
Curriculum must be localised according to the surroundings to facilitate better understanding. A striking feature is that she does not support a reductionist approach of simplifying content into digestible capsules. Rather, there must be an intermingling of high achievers and slow learners so that the latter gradually grow in understanding of the subject and rise up to the complex content.
Mother’s vision of psychic and spiritual education focuses on discovering one’s purpose and the dedication of the individual to his eternal principle. According to the Mother, this need not be necessarily religious: The notion of god can be replaced by the philosophical notion of Truth and the discovery would be equally valid.
Schools in many parts of rural India are plagued by lack of teachers, low teacher attendance and poor teaching quality. The District Information System for Education (DISE) report states only 41.3 per cent of rural schools have regular teacher attendance. More worrying than poor subject matter expertise is the approach of teachers towards students.
Mother did not consider the teacher as an instructor but as a facilitator who awakens a love for learning. A child must not be forced into the shape desired by the parent or teacher. With education becoming result-oriented and standardised, schools impose tight curricula and strict timetables. This causes a great deal of stress and a hurry among the teachers to “finish the portions”.
“Don’t try to pump into the students mere data and information. Don’t give them so much work that they may not get time for anything else. Let the students understand what they learn,” says Mother.
Alcoholism, focus on daily wages and substance abuse prevent rural parents from participating in their child’s education. Research reveals that active involvement of the parents in the educational process can enhance student motivation.
The Mother says that children learn from observing their parents and warns of how negative traits in the parents can have a disastrous influence on children. Parents should achieve a right balance of love, care and attention so that the child develops a strong personality. She is highly critical of parents who are too anxious about their children.
Mother’s vision is of an integral education where every dimension of the child is cultivated and allowed to find full expression. True education must embrace all aspects of life and enable a child to understand the world around them. It should support him in discovering his own aspiration and vision for life in harmony with his nature and orientation.
This, over time, integrates the personality and brings a dynamic and constructive force and purpose to thought, action and life. (With Shyam Krishnakumar)