Four kids had gathered in the evening in my house, as they usually do. Their ages – 2.5, 3.3, 6.5 and 8.4. They were exploring ways to play and interact. The 6.5 year old Sarah suggested that they make a train. She wanted a few cardboard boxes. A few! Whoa! I did have some, but they were all being used for storage and organizing. I didn’t have the energy to empty. I had recently undergone a corn removal surgery on my right foot, and still limping from it. I managed to get one cardboard box and suggested if they’d like to decorate it.
Sarah was interested. I gave them a box of oil pastels. They all got down on the floor, each claiming one side of the box. There was no hustle and bustle. These usually noisy kids, each wanting what the other has got, were surprisingly calm and content in that moment. I’m guessing that the eagerness to get started with the crayons on a canvas like this was an enticing idea.
So, they were engrossed. Each had chosen her own colour of liking. They were all rubbing away diligently. Until, I noticed that the crayons wouldn’t go over the plastic tape used to keep the box intact. I got them a colourful, sparkly tape. I didn’t tell them what to do with it or where to put it. They taped that shining thing on the edges, in the middle.
By now, more than 45 minutes had passed. I was happy to just sit there and watch them and once a while resolve any issues that came up among them.
I got busy with some work and noticed that they had moved from the living room to the art room (we call that room this way). Now, this room is home to loads of art stuff that Pari, my older daughter, uses. They would be tempted to try a whole host of things and that’s understandable. But, their flow would be interrupted. So, I reached out to get some fluorescent poster paints and temperas along with paint brushes and ear buds. I could see they were recharged. They didn’t need anything else. All of them, including the youngest 2.5 year old Myra, got back into it and stayed there in a meditative state making lines and swirls and dots with the ear buds.
Nearly 1.5 hours had passed. Now, Sufiana, my 3.4 year old, got an idea. She picked up one bottle of poster paint and rushed into the bathroom. The bathroom was now a purple pool. Myra was not to be left behind. Soon, it was a melange of colours all over the floor, and their hands and faces too.
I let them have this fun. It was too good to stop! I guess this was the best part for the two little ones. How could I intervene and be a spoil sport.
Meanwhile, the other two girls were still at it. When their sides of the cardboard canvas were done, they happily handed it over to me to place it where it would dry.
Those moments were like a movie for me. They played in my mind again and again that evening. So compelling were those scenes that I had to narrate and share some pics.
Compelling, yes, because, its all so simple. Learning does not happen in closed brick boxes that classrooms are. Learning happens when children are out there in the real world, interacting with people for real reasons, solving problems that will meet their needs, doing work that is meaningful for them in that time and space, and watching other children – younger or older – and adults going about their work, learning things, applying skills to make something happen.
In this context, I’d like to share a few paragraphs from the book, ‘the Underachieving School’ by John Holt. I’m sure these thoughts will leave you pondering. You can also read the book here, for free.
True learning – learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning – can arise only out of the experience, interests, and concerns of the learner. Every child, without exception, has an innate and unquenchable drive to understand the world in which he lives and to gain freedom and competence in it. Whatever truly adds to his understanding, his capacity for growth and pleasure, his powers, his sense of his own freedom, dignity, and worth may be said to be true education. Education is something a person gets for himself, not that which someone else gives or does to him.
What young people need and want to get from their education is: one, a greater understanding of the world around them; two, a greater development of themselves; three, a chance to find their work, that is, a way in which they may use their own unique tastes and talents to grapple with the real problems of the world around them and to serve the cause of humanity.
Our society asks schools to do three things for and to children: one, pass on the traditions and higher values of our own culture; two, acquaint the child with the world in which he lives; three, prepare the child for employment and, if possible, success. All of these tasks have traditionally been done by the society, the community itself. None of them is done well by schools. None of them can or ought to be done by the schools solely or exclusively.
One reason the schools are in trouble is that they have been given too many functions that are not properly or exclusively theirs. Schools should be a resource, but not the only resource, from which children, but not only children, can take what they need and want to carry on the business of their own education. Schools should be places where people go to find out the things they want to find out and develop the skills they want to develop.
The child who is educating himself, and If he doesn’t no one else will, should be free, like the adult, to decide when and how much and in what way he wants to make use of whatever resources the schools can offer him. There are an infinite number of roads to education; each learner should and must be free to choose, to find, to make his own.
Children want and need and deserve and should be given, as soon as they want it, a chance to be useful in society. It is an offence to humanity to deny a child, or anyone of age, who wants to do useful work the opportunity to do it. The distinction, indeed opposition, we have made between education and work is arbitrary, unreal, and unhealthy.