An Alternative Agenda for School Education

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi defined education [1] as an all round development of the best in child and man - body, mind and spirit. This concise definition seems to have been elaborated at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand):

" Comprise both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning."

In the Jacques Delors report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century [2] it has been suggested that

" If it is to succeed in its tasks, education must be organized around four fundamental types of learning which, throughout a person's life, will in a way be the pillars of knowledge: learning to know, that is acquiring the instruments of understanding; learning to do, so as to be able to act creatively on one's environment; learning to live together, so as to participate and co-operate with other people in all human activities; and learning to be, an essential progression which proceeds from the previous three. Of course, these four paths of knowledge all form a whole, because there are many points of contact, intersection and exchange among them."

According to the Commission the challenges of the coming century would necessarily entail changing the aims of education and the expectations people have of what education can provide. A broad, encompassing view of learning should aim to enable each individual to discover, unearth and enrich his or her creative potentials, to reveal the treasure within each one of us.

In our country the common expectation from education is that of a passport to employment. It is therefore not surprising that education is being increasingly controlled by market forces, with the result it has become bookish and driven by performance in public examinations. There is also a widespread insecurity in both parents and children in the capacity of the state supported school system even to provide the type of education that would lead to better performance in public examinations and in entrance tests for admission to professional courses. The lofty definitions of education of Gandhi or that of the Commission appear esoteric in the prevailing situation. The trauma of education begins when child who is a mere toddler is forced to read and write alphabets before even the muscles have the strength to hold a pencil. The trauma of learning remains unabated throughout the childhood because the learning expectations of the "experts" from children continue to remain far too demanding and the required learning environment in their schools is generally absent. Schooling is used for learning by rote what is given in the textbook or what the teacher dictates and hardly plays conscious role in revealing the treasure within.

In spite of the fillip given by the state to primary education there are nearly as many children out-of-school as are in schools. The total enrolment in class V in 1993 was 14.93million [3] and the total number of children in the age group 11 in 1996 according to the population projections prepared by the Registrar General was 22.70million [4]. Another way to look at the situation is to compare the total number of children enrolled in classes 1 to 8 with the total number of children in the age group 5 to 14. These numbers are 131.79million(base of 30th September 1993) [3] and 234.55million(1st July 1996) [4], respectively. Not only the children who have remained without schooling but majority of the children who might have obtained primary education will most likely survive by carrying out tasks tied up with traditional economy. Even the young persons who are fortunate to have completed senior secondary education feel inadequate for white-collared professional occupations. There is an all-or-nothing obsession for availing higher education.

The curricula are overcrowded and the textbooks contain inordinate amount of information. At the same time because of the global developments in information and communication technology the world is witnessing an information explosion. There is an anxiety at the inability of man to cope with the unprecedented information growth. The traditional approach of storing information in the memory of human brain will not work. This is a cause of tension to all those responsible for managing school education. This type of fear is unfounded, as information needs to be distinguished from knowledge. What are required are the skills of accessing information, classifying it and processing it for solving some problem of human interest and thus providing value addition to it. In other words information is to be converted into knowledge. This will require that emphasis of teaching-learning be shifted from learning by rote of facts given in textbooks or those passed on by teachers to the ability to apply concepts in processing information and drawing generalizations by seeing underlying patterns. Furthermore, knowledge is rapidly changing. It may not be possible to live effectively the entire span of adult life on the strength of terminal knowledge and skills acquired at school or college. It will be necessary for every person to be a life long learner. Life long learning will be possible when one knows learning to learn. And, learning to learn can be acquired when learning occurs not under duress but when it is enjoyed. And, learning can be enjoyed when it is contextual and is found relevant by learners and their community. It is in this context it has become imperative to re-examine the existing school curricula and textbooks for they have to be made relevant for education for the 21st century.

A necessary condition for reorganizing education along the above lines will be to liberate curricula from a combination of plethora of subject disciplines to holistic learning by drawing upon from all concerned disciplines. Gandhi had gone one step ahead. He wanted learning to be organized around a local craft or local work situations so that learner will be able to coordinate use of his/her mind and hands and in the process acquire life skills. This concept of holistic learning can be best appreciated from an illustrative lesson plan prepared by M.K.Gandhi himself. He singled out takli, out of many other existing handicrafts then, for developing literary education through a craft. His lesson plan [1] is a tour de force for teaching history, geography, technology, agriculture and mathematics with an integrated approach. It is reproduced in the following:

" We must begin education of children with takli. My next lesson would therefore be to teach the boys the place the takli used to occupy in our daily life. Next I would take them into a little history and teach them how it declined. Then would follow a brief course in Indian history, starting from the East India Company, or even earlier from the Muslim period, giving them a detailed account of the exploitation that was the stock-in-trade of the East India Company, how by a systematic process our main handicraft was strangled and ultimately killed. Next would follow a brief course in mechanics - construction of the takli. It must have originally consisted of a small ball of clay or even wet flour dried on a bamboo splinter running through its centre. This has survived in some parts of Bihar and Bengal. Then a brick disc took the place of the clay ball and then in our times iron, or steel and brass have taken the place of the brick disc and a steel wire the place of the splinter. Even here one might expatiate with profit on the size of the disc, and the wire, why it is of particular size and why not more or less. Next would follow a few lectures on cotton, its habitat, its varieties, the countries and the provinces of India where it is at present grown and so on. Again some knowledge about its cultivation, the soils best suited for it, and so on. That would make us launch into a little agriculture.

You will see that this takes a fund of assimilated knowledge on the part of the teacher before he can impart it to his pupils. The whole of elementary arithmetic can be taught through the counting of yards of spinning, finding out the count of yarn, making up of hanks, getting it ready for the weaver, the number of cross threads in the warp to put in for particular texture of cloth and so on. Every process from the growing of cotton to the manufacture of finished product - cotton picking, ginning, carding, spinning, sizing, weaving - all would have their mechanics and history and mathematics correlated to them.

The principal idea is to impart the whole education of the body and the mind and the soul through the handicraft that is taught to the children. You have to draw out all that is in the child through teaching all the processes of the handicraft, and all your lessons in history, geography, arithmetic will be related to the craft."

The challenge is to adapt Gandhi's approach to teaching for imparting general education in the first ten years of school. In real life all natural phenomena require for their full understanding concepts from different subject disciplines which comprise science. The same holds for social phenomena. Instead of teaching concepts in isolation learning can be made interesting by helping students to explore their use in understanding real life situations. This will imply a shift of teaching facts to helping students to construct their own knowledge. Teacher's role will require a change from that of the sage-on-stage to that of the guide to student's learning.

It may be appreciated that unlike textbook problems real life problems, although interesting, are more complex. For understanding and finding solutions to such problems students may have to take help from others and therefore have to be involved to work in groups. For working in groups students will have to be helped in acquiring interpersonal skills. Learning to work together will lead to learning to live together. An important spin off of this approach to learning will be a shift from treating fellow students as competitors to collaborators. Adoption of such a pedagogy will place principal responsibility for assessment of students' abilities on their schools. Teacher's role will shift from that of a person who merely covers prescribed syllabus to that of an organizer of learning experiences leading to an all round development of the body, mind and spirit. To achieve this the edifice of education may have to be erected on the four pillars of learning identified in the UNESCO report on Education for the Twenty-first Century and by contextualising teaching-learning using Gandhi's holistic approach.


  1. M.K.Gandhi, Basic Education, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahemdabad (1951)
  2. Jacques Delors, Learning: The Treasure Within, UNESCO Publishing (1996)
  3. Sixth All India Educational Survey - Provisional Statistics, NCERT (1995)
  4. Registrar General, Population Projections For India and States 1996 - 2016, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi (1996)

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