I had a dream last night. It was one of my recurring dreams, where I miss my 10th class or intermediate exam, or I look at the question paper and realize that I do not know how to answer any of the questions.
Leaving interpretations of such dreams aside, I started thinking about what is so scary about the two scenarios. What is the worst thing that could happen to a person in such a situation? One would have to take the exam again, maybe 6 months or a year later!
Missing exams or having to retake them can happen for various reasons, including health, family emergencies or tragedies in one’s life. However, for some inexplicable reason, “losing a year”, having to be one year “behind” people of the same age group, seems to be a cause of significant worry for many, ever since I can remember. Board exams seem to occupy a very prominent place in our lives, and missing them or not passing them casts a lasting shadow on a person’s future.
In fact, it is quite fine to go from year to year without learning much or remembering anything, but it is really important to keep moving forward along with the batch mates one had started off with in pre-school.
As I kept thinking about this, the following questions occurred to me:
1. Why do we group a bunch of children together based on their age – NOT on their aptitude, NOT on their interests, NOT on their levels of maturity, but simply based on their age – and call them a “batch”, as if they were products with the same manufacturing date?
2. Why do we assume a normal distribution for every group of children, in every class, in every school, in every city of the state or country, and impose fixed subjects, topics, standards, requirements and time tables on everyone?
3. Even if the above assumption (of a normal distribution) were true, is it okay to cater to a certain percentage of students who seem to fall within a certain range of the average, and, as a consequence, push the ones on one end of the distribution too hard, and mindlessly hold back the ones who are on the other end?
What exactly do we stand to accomplish by all of the above anyway?
Certainly, not education! Etymologically speaking, the word “educate” comes from Latin root “educo” which means “to lead forth”. It does not mean corralling kids together by age. It does not mean teaching, testing or assessing. It certainly does not mean ensuring that nobody is left behind by a year compared to their “batch” mates. It simply means what it means – “to lead forth”.
I always believed that my child, like all children, would be born with an inherent curiosity to learn about the world around her. I believed that her education would start the day she was born.
Accordingly, I started reading to my daughter when she was one month old. I started off with bhaagavatam, mahaabhaarataM and raamaayaNaM by Sri Puranapanda Surya Prakasa Dikshitulu, popularly known as Ushasri, and finished reading all the three books for her, in that order, in her first year. I would sing many traditional songs, lullabies and poems for her, and watch her respond with excitement and joy.
I placed her first picture book, “Oh! The places you’ll go” by Dr. Seuss, in her crib when she was 3 months old. She would be lying on her back, her face turned towards the book, and she would keep looking at it while I flipped through the pages, reading and describing to her what the book said. Sometimes, she would fling her hand, probably in an attempt to turn the pages, and I would let her do it at the expense of some pages getting bent. That book remains one of our favorites even today, and I think it will always be, for the rest of our lives.
By the time my daughter was six months old, I started making more books available to her. These were not board books, but all kinds of books which had beautiful, colorful photographs of the natural world, the kind you would find only in the reference section of a library, meant for adults who have barely any time to take a peek at them. I would often wonder why those books, which are more interesting to babies and children, were not in the children’s section. Whenever my daughter was drawn towards a book, I would help her turn the pages. I would read the legends and other interesting notes, and talk to her about the photographs. As a result, I learned a lot about the natural world along with her, and was thankful that I was only 35 years behind!
Around the same time, we would also watch and sing a lot of songs about nature, animals and plants, forests, oceans, wetlands and other habitats, presented by some of the best nature-loving musicians (our favorite being Lucas Miller). By the time my daughter could speak two word sentences, at around 18 months of age, she had an amazing amount of knowledge about the diversity of life, including names, habitats and lifestyles of many animals. She loved having conversations about metamorphosis, symbiosis, pollination, germination, seed dispersal, hibernation and many other natural phenomena. By the time she was two, she would excitedly talk about them or break into a song, every time she saw something related in a book or in her surroundings. She got interested in new topics, like the space, the solar system and the dinosaurs, to name a few. While I realized how many years I had lost or by how many years I was behind in learning about many fascinating aspects of the world, I was happy that I got another shot at it through my daughter.
My daughter’s literacy and language development were incidental, and I will touch upon that in another post, but what I would like to emphasize here is that all of the above learning was organic, and most of it led by my daughter. None of it was planned, and none of it was intended to be exactly the way it turned out. As mentioned in my previous post, I would only ensure that all kinds of fascinating books and other resources were available for her to lay her hands on, to play with and explore. I would be close at hand to sit and read or do any activity she was interested in at any given time, on any given day. I would make sure to take her out to places so that she could observe the diversity of life or witness and experience some natural phenomena first hand. In the process, I realized that there are so many things around us, waiting to be noticed, experienced, enjoyed and explored; that it is never too late for anyone to arrive, and that it does not matter who was ahead of or behind us in doing so.
For the last several months, it has been a pleasure to watch my daughter flip through pages of all her books like a pro, and talk to herself and to us about all the things she knows and all the things she imagines. If I ever doze off in the afternoon while putting her to bed for her afternoon nap, she quietly slips out of the bed, brings out her books, “reads” them one by one, and stacks them one over the other, to proudly present her “castle” when I come to check on her.
Many people ask me if it is really possible for little children to learn so many things. My daughter is my only data point that I can speak of, so I will not generalize about all children. The one thing I can say with certainty though, is that it is NOT possible to learn so many things by going to school, as most of it is “out of syllabus” for a toddler.
My daughter, who will turn 3 in August, did not attend play school, nor is she attending pre-school. It is decided that she will never go to (or even fit into) a regular school. I do not know which board exams she will take many years from now, and when exactly she might do it. What I know for sure is that we will continue to enjoy this matchless (and “batchless”), magical journey of organic education every single day, without worrying about her losing a year or falling behind children of her age group!
– Uma Challa, 14 April, 2014.
As I typed the last few sentences of this post, a beautiful poem from pOtana bhaagavataM came to mind:
sI. mandAra makaranda mAdhuryamuna dElu
madhupambu bOvunE madanamulaku
nirmala mandAkinI vIchikala dUgu
rAyanca janune tarangiNulaku
lalita rasAla pallava khaadiyai cokku
koyila cErunE kuTajamulaku
pUrNEndu candrikA sphurita cakOrakam
barugunE sAndra neehAramulaku
gI. ambujOdara divya pAdAravinda
cintamAmRta pAna viSEsha matta
cittamE reeti yitarambu jEya nErcu?
vinuta guNa Seela, mATalu vEyu nEla!
This poem translates into English as follows:
Does the bumblebee, which floats in the sweetness of honey of the Hibiscus flower, go to Datura ?
Does the swan that swings in the gentle, serene waters of the Ganga go into the rapid waves?
Does the cuckoo, which enjoys the tender leaves of the mango tree, get close to any other tree?
Does the chakora bird, which is touched by the warmth* of the light of the full moon, go for the dense snow?
Similarly, is it possible for the mind to gravitate towards anything other than His divine lotus feet, when it is intoxicated with the nectar of His thoughts?
(*BTW, as opposed to common descriptions that the full moon is cool, it is supposed to be hot and causes warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.