This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

Towards a New Education

Urmila Samson

Introduction

During my school days I realized that there was more to education than what could be possible within the confines of one institution, and interaction with the same children and teachers throughout one’s childhood. Many people do not realize that it is our childhood experiences outside of academics that contribute to what I would call intangible learning; the part of education that cannot be measured and evaluated. It makes up a greater part of our learning, and today’s system is leaving less and less time and space for it. In this paper I have put forward some ideas as to how we can at least begin to develop intangible learning. Soon after my standard ten board examinations I came across many books on education and while still in my teens I decided to have many children, (a football team, actually), and never send them to school! During the following years I found more and more books that spoke of changing times, the increasing gap between the content of syllabi and of what education should now consist. By my mid-twenties I was determined to effect a change in the system. I worked in seven schools over a period of eleven years. It is then that I realized that reforms from within the school structure were constrained by the outdated nature of the structure itself, the framework and systems; especially the fact of syllabi that are made by outsiders far removed from the individuals, and the board exam as the final aim. I am not trying to say that we have to do away with schools altogether, although I have called my concept No School.

Homeschool, Unschool, No School.

When I was asked to present a paper on my homeschooling experiences, I was not happy, as I do not advocate homeschooling. Besides, our home education cannot be termed as homeschooling. Homeschooling means that parents use the prescribed syllabus, but go about it more creatively. Homeschooling in various countries has been formalized. Parents have to get accreditation, worksheets and tests are mailed and sent back for evaluation. Some schools allow homeschoolers to join in their extra curricular activities and have use of laboratory and library facilities.

A few years ago I found a term on the net ‘unschooling’ which is closer to what we are doing. The unschooling families seem also to have been influenced by John Holt. Unschoolers do not necessarily follow a timetable, a syllabus or have parents who are teachers. Parents go about their business and children learn from their own play as well as learn about the adult world by going about with their parents. Parents are alert to their children’s needs, and make resources available, including the children in the process. Process is ever important, and the goal is never a test or a board exam. In some countries there are huge support networks and unschooling families meet, picnic, exchange ideas and put up helpful websites. Rather than write tomes on education, they exchange problems, solutions and ideas from their experiences. Towards the end of his days John Holt lost faith in the fact of his “Learning in Freedom” ever coming to be, as the vested interests and convenience of formal schooling seemed to override his concept. However, today there are millions of homeschoolers the world over, thousands of unschooling families as well, and their numbers are on the increase.

I do not advocate home education as a universal solution, and neither do many of the families who are into it. It assumes various conditions that are not universally available, so I suggest instead, that we start by changing thinking and attitudes towards education. Then only can my suggestions become practical. Within the present framework they will seem impossible. I am very grateful to Neeltje and Matthijs for giving me this opportunity to share my ideas Towards a New Education backed by my home education experiences.

Some assumptions:

  1. Individual effort is valuable.
  2. Subjective experience is valid. Different views and ways can co-exist.
  3. Even impractical ideas should be expressed, for the dream creates the reality.

Not rigid; subjective; purpose is of opening up more ways:

It takes 18 years for a human child to reach maturity, much longer than any other living creature. We must be mindful of the different educational requirements of each stage. I have broken these up into age appropriate categories that are by no means rigid. These are borne of my own experiences. I am not trying to validate my way as the only way. I also may be mistaken as to cause and effect. I am sharing this in the hope of opening up more ways of looking at education. The No School concept I propose is myriad.

I did not have as many children as I had planned, (for practical reasons)! Though three, in India, is considered two too many! But true to plan, I have not sent them to school at all. My eldest daughter Sahya is 12 years old, and I have two sons aged 7, Rayn, and 4, Niom. Their names do not belong to any religion.They come from the musical notes of a scale – Sa, Re and Ni.

Need to re-iterate universal wisdom regarding childcare:

Though everyone seems to know what children need, there is much missing in our country specific to this age group. I am only highlighting what I feel requires constant re-iteration, and ideas on how it can be brought about. In itself nothing is new, so I will not go into detail. What is new, however, is that I am suggesting that paediatrists, gynaecologists, NGOs, teachers, parents and government agencies take up these issues, that follow below,to formally remind each other and everyone else about its importance. (With the intensity that they push pulse polio).

Nurturing:

This is the most urgent need of children and all living things. Love is a much bandied about term, so I am using a word that does not cause confusion. If parents have not received love, from where will they give it? In order to begin somewhere, I suggest that just as the syllabus is prescribed, and adhered to and monitored, so some basic form of nurturing should be discussed with parents, teachers and caregivers. Psychologists can design excercises and advertisement people can push the concept with the vigour that they push products. It should be the main prescribed item in the syllabus for 0-6 year olds. Nurturing 0-6s should become a norm, a well-established fact of contemporary life.

Many parents/teachers/caregivers nurture children intuitively, many feel they are perfectly right in hitting, intimidate or verbally putting down children and many parents mistake pampering for nurturing. In ancient India, the child from 0-7 was to be treated as a King! The next stage he is a student, then a householder and finally a Sanyasi. It is difficult for all parents/teachers/caregivers to nurture.I only propose that the concept of the importance of nurturing needs to be ‘pushed’Then if for whatever reasons some are unable to do so themselves, they can see that the child is in a place where they can insist on nurturing.

Support:

Due to the joint family system, support groups for young parents do not exist in our country. (Or rather are so few, that they are not worth the mention in this discussion.) The support that is needed is not the kind where ‘experts’ teach parents, but where parents come together and share their experiences and learn from each other. The more number of support groups that exist, the more choices parents will have in case the one they first join does not fit in with what they feel is right.

Very importantly, parents have to be supported in using their intuition, rather than their rational minds or pressure from those around them. In my experience, parents long to love their children, but are afraid to spoil them. They need confidence in the knowledge that nurturing breeds inner toughness, which is inviolable.

Extended families, friends, neighbours need to be sensitive to the unique challenges faced by families of under 6s. These tend to exert unconscious pressures that parents then unconsciously transfer to the children. Without us being conscious of it, the little and big seemingly inconsequential irritations of daily routine: work, school, commuting, social and religious obligations, expectations of dress and behaviour, all pile up causing tremendous stress on a daily, hourly basis. We need to therefore, constantly remind ourselves of the need to de-stress, to return to a state of awareness, and to educate the people around us of the chain reaction consequences of their demands/expectations. Adults and children in urban situations are busier than earlier times, and therefore unable to take time out to review their situation, actions and responses. There are so many more choices, things to do, distractions and insidious influences. The media bombarding us and our children with what we should look like, do and even who we should be.

Health and hygiene:

We tend to separate physical health and treat it as a completely isolated aspect of life. When my first child fell ill, I used to get terrified every time she had the slightest cold or tummy upset. When my second baby was born, the fact of handling a child and a baby made me even more worrisome and tense about hygiene and illnesses. There were months on end when we were ill all together or in never ending rounds. We went from homeopaths, to allopathic doctors, to specialists, all the time working on myself, trying to calm myself down and reach a state of awareness and clarity as to what I was doing that was coming in the way of the healing process.I realized that I had relapsed in to the super mom syndrome, wanting to do a perfect job of motherhood, not being humble enough to ask for help and support, and wanting to prove more than ever that I know everything about rearing perfect children! During the long and painful process of relaxing and letting go, I came to understand that stress over health and hygiene causes sickness.In a relaxed nurturing environment where one invites and accepts support from those around, healing takes place on a deeper more permanent level. Once we were healed, we had found the secret of maintaining health and never visited a doctor again, (until my third child’s birth when we both contracted a hospital induced mysterious virus during my delivery and short stay in hospital!)

It is then that I realized that diet and hygiene are lesser factors in determining health. (We see human beings live through the filthiest conditions and very poor diets in our country itself.) Stress levels and a supportive, nurturing atmosphere are more important factors determining health.

Death:

Our attitude towards death affects the way we live our lives. Therefore it is important that children have as natural an experience as possible. Sahya and I visited my mother’s parents once in a while, as they lived in Mumbai. My grandfather passed away at the age of 91, when Sahya was three years old. Sahya had seen her great grandfather’s body getting older. When he died, I explained that when the body gets old, slowly the organs and limbs and all the parts get weaker and the person inside gets tired of trying to do things and move around with such a body. Also the person feels that he has lived in this body on this earth for a long long time and done everything that he wanted to do, and now he has finished. So when the time is right, the person leaves the tired, old, useless body on the earth. We cry and feel sad because we miss talking to him and hugging him. The part of the person that we could talk to and hug was the body. The part that does not die is the soul.

God and Nature:

One week both my sons asked two different questions and the answer was so connected. These truths are usually expressed in beautiful language that is hard for children to grasp. I have written a simple explanation so that children may understand the greatness that is Nature and God. Usually children grow up admiring science and other man made wonders throughout childhood, while having only hazy snatches of what True Greatness is.

Rayn: “What is nature?”
Mama: “Everything that is not manmade. Buildings, dams, roads, electric lights are manmade.
Rayn: And leaves, trees, mountains, planets and sunlight are part of nature.
Mama: Man can never make Nature.

Some days later:

Niom: “What is god?”
Mama: “The creator or maker of all things like flowers and trees and us and animals and insects and the moon and Venus…. All the things that people can’t make.

“Why can’t we see god?” And I have answered all three when this question has come up: “Do you feel angry or sad or happy? Can we see it? Only if you show it on your face, or by doing something. So we see god in the things that god created and made. Do you have thoughts? If you do something with your thought, then I can see what you have done. If the thought remains inside you then no one knows about that thought, but that does not mean that it isn’t there all the same!”

Religion:

“What is religion?” 

“Ever since human beings have been on earth, they have had a very strong feeling that there is something greater and stronger and more powerful than them. That some creative force has made all the beautiful things we find in nature. They made stories and explanations about it and ways of praying for what they want, and then when they got what they wanted very badly, they made special prayers of thanks. Different people made different stories and passed them down to their children and so on. The stories, prayers and ways of praying over many years became fixed in the form of a religion with a name for each religion, names for the gods and goddesses, and names for the prayers and customs and places of worship.

Later, there were saints and holy men who realized that times have changed, and people sticking to a religion that was made hundreds of years ago were losing the proper meaning. So they taught people different ideas of god and different ways of understanding life and god. Over the years, people who liked their way becamefollowers, and made their teachings into a religion with a new name. And again over 100s of years people have lost the meaning of life and god, and the religion has got fixed and people have forgotten its meaning!

Educational infrastructure for under sixes:

A holistic experience:

Parents need a break from their children, but parents also need to be more involved with their children. This is not a contradiction. I found that when parents get a break, they come back with renewed enthusiasm and creativity and enjoy being with their children more. Also, I have noticed that one person playing with a child tires more quickly than if two adults are playing with them. Similarly, groups of adults and children together have a great time if the adults consciously tune in to the children. It is enriching, therapeutic and educational for both the adults and the children. Actually, it is more than that. It is quite a holistic experience.

Neighbourhood Safe Place:

Families can and do organize group activities on their own, but here I will describe a way that families can come together and share their educational capabilities without energy loss and pollution due to commuting.

The more, the merrier. Every urban and rural neighbourhood should have a Neighbourhood Safe Place that they can be proud of and that everyone feels comfortable to visit. It should be more open and less built up.

The open spaces can be used for playing in mud, planting and harvesting anything, (order in chaos!), simple swinging and sliding systems. Children will swing from anything – tires hung from trees, they will slide down muddy or grassy slopes…expensive equipment is always a maintenance headache.

The inside rooms can have simple percussion instruments that the 4-6s can make themselves, art, dance, dressing up etc.

Resources: Almost all resources can come from the neighbourhood. 

Rescource people: They can be the young, old and physically challenged people from the neighbourhood. Psychology students, teacher trainees, social workers, parents with some free time and energy, grandparents…Their main work is to be alert and really be all there. Tune in to what is happening, be on hand to sort problems, read storybooks, help children at the computers, comfort the hurt, pull out and put away any special resource materials if and when required. The most important thing is LET THE CHILDREN BE IN CHARGE of their own activities. Do not think we know better. From 0-6, THEY actually DO know better! Before they are brainwashed, which is bound to happen after this stage.

Parents: must be encouraged to come in and join in the fun. They may also share their particular skill – story telling, pot making, a tribal dance, singing, finger shadows. Modern education belittles ancient wisdom and culture. It is no good going into tribal areas to teach literacy and urban syllabi, without learning herbal medicine or how to read the weather, seasons and time without gadgets and science.

Adult-child ratio: Just as the single parent to child ratio is impractical, so is the one teacher to 5,20, and even 60 or more students absurd. Child adult ratios have to be rotated on an almost daily basis. With children in charge and parents and others coming in and out of the NSP, children can choose whom they need to contact for what. They have larger, wider options for interaction and various combinations available to them.

Temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, embarrassment in public:

Making a mess that someone else has to pick up, breaking things, throwing things, hitting and pulling hair, refusing to share, fighting with other children and a host of other ‘negative’ behaviours are just the other side of the coin of ‘positive’ behaviours, and should be recognized as such. Parents tend to feel that it is a reflection of their upbringing. If the child behaves ‘good’, they take the credit, and if the child behaves ‘bad’ they feel so embarrassed they often hurt or humiliate the child. The child is often mystified because he just expressed himself in a truly authentic manner. Both in the NSP and the home, negative behaviour should be allowed as much as is possible or bearable. In our home, I allowed everything even when I was hurt or embarrassed in public. In the beginning I was just going on intuition. But after 12 years of mothering, I can say with confidence that all children go through this phase, and this is only a phase in their development that they need to explore before they grow out of it.

Though everyone knows how primary education should be, and in many countries it is in practice for many years now, we have to really pressurize the authorities in our country to free our little ones.

The practical problems are ‘where’: In every nook and cranny of the country there exists a school with at least a small play ground.

‘Who will initiate this move’: In every nook and cranny of this country, more than one NGO are already in operation, and they have a better picture of that territory than probably the government agencies in charge of that territory.

‘Who will send their children to these NSPs’: That will depend on the manner in which each NSP is launched.And that will be a beginning.

Case for computers for basic literacy:

My younger two children have used CD Roms that took care of basic literacy completely. I recommend that computer literacy go hand in hand with academic learning, and that websites be created in every language for every age group so that anyone can go to an NSP or a net café, and for a small fee per hour can learn reading, writing and numeracy. John Holt has proved that learners of any age can learn reading in 30 hours.

Children and computers.

1.When there is a warm understanding parent/ teacher/ care-giver, open air space to play, and minimum restrictions, it is my experience that children will not need computer and TV as addictive escapes.

2.Children prefer warm loving interaction and outdoor play and will choose it every time over computer games and TV. It is in the absence of both the above and the addition of pressure to do this or that unwanted activity that children are left no choice but to watch TV and play mindless addictive repetitive games on the computer.

3.In most schools in India there is very little educational material and equipment. Those who can afford it have to guard it like anything and still bits and pieces get lost. Only a few children actually get hands-on educational tools and books to freely explore.

The computer has endless exploration possibilities that are properly researched and graded. They are interesting and not addictive. They also change levels automatically for each individual explorer. Human teachers cannot have the ingenuity and energy for individual students like this. Even as a mother I cannot give my children that level of individual input (in this particular area of basic literacy).

4. Human beings can give the warmth and the friendly interaction more easily if they don’t have to bother with academic progress for which humans need patience and computers handle with ease.

I am only referring to basic literacy and thinking skills.

My children explore both the real world and the computer world easily. I have more time to be mother, as well as teacher of things that the computer can never teach. I am humble enough to realize that certain very good CD Roms do a better job than me in certain areas of academic learning!

5.CD Roms are expensive, so I am suggesting that web-sites are created using their very innovative and interesting methods.

6.The CDs that my children use are Dorling Kindersley, Sesame Street, Jump Start and many by Humungous Entertainment. Each CD has a variety of characters, games and ways of learning different things. Teams of teachers, child psychologists, ad. people, and artists have put these together. No class room teacher can have that kind of combined expertise. On the other hand many non-expert classroom teachers have a different quality of contribution that a computer CD cannot!

My children and some of my friend’s children who use these have also a tremendous love of books of all kinds: Stories, science experiments, research, maps…and they learnt how to better use their books and follow instructions and find things via their edutainment CDs. And more importantly, they spend most of their time in creative play and structured games including board games. I would say that computers are a new and innovative tool that can enhance learning multi-fold.

7.When books started being used, people must have complained about losing the ability to memorize.But soon information increased in quantity and diversity, that it was impossible not to use books. Now books are considered invaluable tools.When water started flowing through pipes, instead of being drawn fresh and clean from streams and wells…You see where this argument is leading….

Computers save time: Children learn basic literacy and numeracy plus a host of thinking and problem solving skills effortlessly, painlessly and have great fun doing it. Given an open air NSP full of children and friendly adults, they will automatically balance their computer time.

It does not require skilled rescource persons: as once the children know how to click about and follow the simple spoken instructions, no help is required at all.It does not require purchase, storage, maintenance of expensive materials and equipment: Most schools cannot afford books and equipment. Montessori or other educational rescource equipment is expensive, and materials have to be guarded, rationed and maintained. Computers on the other hand are almost as good as hands on equipment and one manipulates the ‘equipment’ with the click of a mouse! In addition, computers do not lose patience when a child gives a ‘wrong’ answer. Children can even give repeated wrong answers for fun. Wrong answers do not become an issue at all, thus removing the fear of failure. And of course, the computer never runs out of rewards for every little achievement! They praise the child generously and cheerfully.

The numerous software and other companies can donate computers when they are upgrading. I’m sure they will easily cover our 0-6 population.We need to invest in websites for basic literacy in the style of Sesame Street and DK in every possible language. Instead of wasting time on arguing the ills of children and computers; children and TV; and children and advertisements, we should spend that time, in pooling our ad brains, child pshychologist brains and educationist brains to spread an interesting interactive education via these media.

Before I go on to the next developmental stage I would like to read an excerpt from some thoughts I had written on Intuition:
‘I am always grateful for the chance to share my thoughts and ideas. I may be completely wrong here, mistaken there, slightly off-track somewhere else…. Only through dialogue can I myself learn.

Intuition has got buried by reason and intellect. I don’t want to define intellect in this discussion. Let us say that children are by and large intelligent. Their intelligence is of different types. An enlightened education can help them build on what they have. A decadent education can pretty much wipe out all traces of many types of intelligences. Intuition on the other hand is very little known about, as it is both intangible and unquantifiable. Our present day education and educated society have forgotten its importance, and rely on science to fulfil human needs and solve world problems. There are therefore many scientifically correct answers today, but no real solutions.This stems from what Fritjof Capra termed as a ‘Newtonian mechanistic worldview’.

Quantum Physics has replaced this worldview, and has come close to Ancient Mysticism, in that the problem cannot be addressed from the outside. The result of an experiment will differ according to the experimenter. A particle is simultaneously a wave. “The Tao of Physics” by Capra explains this. And his book “The Turning Point” relates it to all humankind’s institutions like medicine, industry and education. Quantum Physics shows that there can be no absolutes, no perfect solutions, and that even our perceptions can only be relative. Mystics have been saying this for centuries. But how did they know? Where does music come from? Who created the universe?

Not science, not even knowledge, and definitely not money.

Adults of the ‘Newtonian mechanistic worldview’ think that children don’t know, so we have to take control of their lives, minds and bodies and fill them with what we think is best. Actually children intuitively turn to what is best for them, if let alone. Not completely, not without any direction or protection. If you throw a baby in the water, it swims. But you do it with caution. If you throw a child in, they sink. Later, we have to actually teach children to swim, step by step. Great swimmers may learn in a trice or a year or two years.No doubt, this all assumes that they had access to water. And that is where the new education comes in. The No School.

Though it is difficult to define intuition, I will put down some words that I have found in the thesaurus: instinct, sixth sense, divination, feeling in one’s bones, inborn, untaught, unlearned, spontaneous, automatic.

There is so much out there. How are people to know what to choose. Directories and guides are all external sources. We need our own individual, personal inner guide. To sift and sort without too much mind boggling reasoning. Never before has there been so much information and so many choices.No one can access everything there is. Each person can only rely on intuition, gut feelings, the inner voice to be their guide. Children must be allowed to believe in themselves, to trust their own instincts. It is important that we do not confuse wild fancies and momentary wishes with authentic indications.Each of us will have to have infinite faith in that which is beyond and greater than ourselves.