Sunday, 26 August 2012

Whose Learning Is It Anyway?

A teacher in an International Indian school pointed out to the alphabet 'A' to S who was just over 3 years old and said, "Come on now say A apple". S replied, "A air plane". The teacher said, "No honey, A apple". S keenly gazed at her and said, 'A air plane". The teacher was at the end of the rope. She continued, "Sweet heart, say A A A as in apple". Then, she showed another flash card that had an apple picture in it and tried one more time, "Apple"; now with a bit irritated face. S nodded 'NO', made hand gestures of an air plane flying up in the sky and said 'Zoooom, A air plane". The teacher turned back and looked at me and said, "He is not listening".

Another day, S brought back home a worksheet that he needed to complete. The exercise was to match similar shaped fish in two columns. While I was beside him, I noticed that he looked at the worksheet and suddenly became so very sad. I didn't quiet understand when he started to cry querulously. The next thing he did was to pick a blue coloured crayon and he vigorously coloured the whole background. When he was done, he said, "No water and fish die, now no, they can't die. I put them in water". His eyes twinkled with joy because in his world, he saved the fishes by putting them back in water. He knew that is exactly how fishes could survive life; in water. The moment of realization that my sweet heart was aware of a huge fact about the life and death of a fish, was nothing but a jubilant moment for me. 

The next day I went to the school to pick him up when his teacher stopped by to chat with me. She said, "S has coloured the whole paper with blue. The exercise was just matching the same shaped fishes.". I smiled and exclaimed with sparkles in my eyes, 'He realized that fishes can not live without water and he coloured the whole background blue." The teacher replied in a stern voice, "He needs to follow instructions. He can't do his own things". I was shocked to hear this. I immediately felt that the teacher was not acknowledging what the child wanted to learn naturally. I felt that the child's autonomy was not respected and he was not given the freedom to express what he learnt. Later in his school days, this became a pattern. He was forced to learn and perceive things only according to the instructions provided by the teacher and worksheets. Creativity, critical thinking, freedom to express and think differently, self esteem, independence... the list goes on - everything went in the soup. 

My boy is now 8 years old. We recently visited Kabini, a popular wild life destinations and a river resort area in Karnataka, India. I was overawed when I saw the lush green fields, the humongous banyan trees, widespread sugar cane, turmeric, okra, ragi (finger millet), baby corn and cotton fields in and around Kabini. It was a treat for my eyes. My excitement bubbled up, beamed into my child and I really wanted him to enjoy the same treat. We stopped our vehicle to take a closer look at the fields. S enjoyed all the beauty and said, "Amma, it is so beautiful". Throughout the trip, I insisted my boy to watch the fields and intentionally showed him the plantations so that he could learn how and where crops are grown. I realized that he wasn't much interested in watching the fields.

Later, when we went for a walk near the lake around the resort, S was so fascinated by the 'touch me not' plants and started to play with it. There were plenty of them. We stopped by a place where some men were constructing a building. S wanted to stop and watch the men who were building a brick wall. He keenly observed how they were building a brick wall. Few months back, he wanted to understand - "How people build a brick wall?". He had even watched a You Tube video on that. Now, when he was able to really see some men being in action, he was excited to watch it. There was a huge heap of black stones near by. The stones were so beautiful and shiny. S wanted to pick one and keep it to himself. Three days passed by in a serene way, added fun and play for our little boy. S spent his time walking and marching on the sides of the lake and jumping in the trampoline. S also brought back, a stick of a tree branch that he was playing with. 

Back home, we rested for a day and he started to write about his trip. He needed my help to ask him open ended questions so that he could generate a content. He wrote all about how he played with the 'touch me not' plants, the tree twigs and how he jumped in a trampoline, his experience of visiting the elephant camp and more. He also mentioned that he brought back home a black stone and a stick from a tree branch. But, never he mentioned about the sugar cane, the finger millet and the cotton fields. I wondered how much I insisted that he connect with the lush green fields, but he still could not remember anything about the fields and the plantations. All he could remember while writing were the 'touch me not' plants, the tree stick, the  black stone, the trampoline fun and how he enjoyed walking along the sides of the lake. 

My point is - children learn what they see and live in a way that is pertinent to them. They are very present and conscious about how they perceive the resources around them. They construct knowledge and ideas related to what they are interested about.  They learn something because they are interested in that and not because we ask them to learn. And, they take sincere responsibility for their learning. When an educator allows a child to express what they learn and perceive in a way they see it, children feels acknowledged and their curiosity to learn more deeply, increases. 

A child sees an air plane in an 'A' while a teacher sees an apple. A child can feel that a fish can't survive without water and he pours out compassion with the help of a blue crayon to save those fishes. I look at the lush green fields while he is interested in the black stone, the twig and 'touch me not' plants. The child is perceiving his environment intently, learning what he wants to learn in a consistent manner. But we think, they are not listening to us or not learning what we want them to learn. 

As educators and learning partners of our children, let us stop, pause and ask ourselves this one powerful question, "How many times do we see through the eyes of a child?" There is a world out there with overflowing opportunities where our children learn continuously without any break. And they learn much more than what we want them to learn. Yes, they do learn. All the time. And, they sometimes seek beyond the limits that we set for them. It is only we don't see it. 

And when we see through their eyes, we will surely be able to acknowledge that there is abundance of learning happening in their world. And watch out, it may be more than what we think their capacities are. They may not be interested in learning about the shape of a fish, they may be learning much more than a mere shape - about the very life of a fish. 

Enjoy Learning and Sharing


  1. Unfortunately, Prabha, that seems to be the way education is going. even in international schools.. and the prob is not just the system or the syllabus. to teach well, we need good teachers who are few and far between. for example, i studied in the local state board, but i had some really great teachers who allowed me to explore what i wanted to, and who really got me interested in things i dont think i would have taken to, by myself. WHat i am today is thanks to them... unfortunately, such teachers are hardly seen around these days.

    Thankfully, i have found a school for samhith where he is able to explore his creativity without too many restrictions, though problems come up now and then, and thankfully we are able to deal with them reasonably well. I must count myself lucky, as i keep telling myself...

    that said, i completely agree with you. there is an abundance of learning happening in their world, and the more we leave them alone, the better they learn! And as i keep telling everyone, we only learn what we want to.. and when we want to, or have to... and thats true not just of kids, but also adults.. life is a journey of learning, and we can never really stop learning. school can help just so far, and so the focus has to be on making the most of the time we have in a relaxed environment, enjoying and picking up all the things we can... that is what school is meant to be... now if only this was utopia and that was really true!

    1. True Anu. Your comment makes me think that it may not be just the school, it is the teacher/ parent or the primary care giver/ guardian who would allow that freedom to explore. If there is one person at least who would let that happen, the process of learning would be like heaven. I am glad that you had some really great teachers who allowed you to explore what you wanted. And yes, One can see that in your amazing writing skills. I am also glad that you consider yourself lucky when it comes to S's schooling.

      When you reinforce what I said by saying 'we only learn what we want to', it reminds me once when you said that I will be able to write what I am really interested to write and that one piece of advice is motivating me to continue my writing journey. Thanks for that. And you are right, school can help just so far, one can look beyond too and I see your team (you and S) are doing that already, making the most of the time in a relaxed environment. :)

  2. Prabha....just wanted to say that you write so beautifullly....from your heart....loved this post! It is beautiful and touching! Thanks for write more....

    1. PD, thanks for the acknowledgement that I write from my heart. I like to keep my writing as professional as possible. While my goal is that, I also try to achieve balance by keeping it as authentic as it can be. The only way to achieve that is to look inside our heart. Timely and relevant acknowledgement and I take that as a compliment. As a beginner writer, I needed that. I will surely write more.

  3. What a wonderful post this was. Read it together with another friend. We both agreed heartily and have experienced what you have written totally.

    1. Hey Shilpa, what a surprise! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is very motivating. I am so very glad that you and your friend were able to have an experience in a hearty manner. Thanks friend.

  4. Prabha, I think you have touched a sore spot of the very valuable subject - how children learn and who are they learning for? This is what's missing in our current mass education. It's teaching that happens all the time without paying any heed to what the child wants to learn or is learning. I try NOT to let the faith and trust leave me at any point in time that my daughter is capable of learning what she seeks value in and what aligns with her nature, interests and persona. I've also seen that a certain thing that she was not interested in, at say - 4, she started regaling in it and devouring it at 6. So, we need to let them follow their instincts and choices and give them time and space. And help facilitate an environment that will fuel their pursuits...

    Thanks you for sharing your thoughts and insight from your experience as a mother... :-)