Updated: Oct 26
"If the education they are getting doesn’t fit well in the lives that they are living then it won’t fit well in the lives that they hope to live.” - Arzoo, Kat-Katha
Education is a big puzzle in today’s world. One question which is most important to me now is “What is relevant education?”. How many of us have found the education we received as a child relevant? Rather, how do you define relevance in education? What if education isn’t relevant? Let’s start answering a few of these questions.
The Indian school system in ancient times was relevant when children used to study in Gurukul and were encouraged to explore and take risks to live a balanced life. The Gurukul system helped children make informed decisions about study, work, food, exercise and the way they wish to live their life. However, the modern school system has become commercial and encourages a rat race. A standardised curriculum and pedagogy cannot work with the same effectiveness for all children across a diverse country like India. Fortunately, some NGOs/Educators have realised that the modern school system isn’t helping kids holistically grow into informed and confident adults. Thus, there is an urgent need to work towards bringing relevance in education.
In my 2-year-long journey with TFIx, I have been fortunate enough to experience some of these spaces. Here are a few that urged me to write this piece:
Kat- Katha, New Delhi
Kat-Katha’s vision is to end forced sex work by enabling women and children living in
brothels to live a life of their own choice and pursue their dreams with dignity, ownership and compassion. I visited Kat-Katha last year and observed a classroom where Kat-Katha’s team member, Arzoo was teaching one of the women (lovingly called a Didi). Arzoo struggled to make Didi sit down and study, but when she started teaching, Didi became so engrossed in the lesson that she forgot all the excuses she made to not study.
I wondered what Arzoo must have done to make sure that Didis see the relevance in what they learn. She said, “Having empathy with our learners is most important because it's only when I can empathize with Didis that I can imagine what might interest them and it's only then that I can do those things. I need to think from the perspective of a Didi and think why Didi would want to pay attention to this. If I can answer that through my lessons, then it's a good lesson.” One thing that is evident from Arzoo’s example is, if the education you are getting doesn’t fit well in your life then it isn’t relevant.
I wonder, what if schools’ ultimate aim is to prepare students for life and not just getting jobs?
Bachpan Banao, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh
Another example of relevant education is from one of my recruitment visits in the tribal districts of Chhattisgarh. ‘Bachpan Banao’ organisation in Dantewada is working with tribal communities to improve education for children.
I observed a classroom which was extremely relevant to the tribal context. Kids were free like birds and they were owning their learning process. It was a farming lesson and I was not able to identify who the teacher was until I was told. More than a classroom it looked like a community project. That day their field was their notebook and tree branches were their pencils.
Bachpan Banao envisions making all schools in Dantewada like this.
Pranith from Bachpan Banao said that around 64% of students are moving away from education in Dantewada, mainly because modern education is of no relevance for these tribal kids. The moment that kids start walking, they are independent to roam around villages, run after cows, and play in rivers. But when they join school, their world turns upside-down. They are made to sit in the same place for hours, keep quiet and listen to teachers whose language they cannot understand as Hindi is not their first language.
The school academic calendar is not relevant to the needs of the tribal community. Monsoon season comes in mid-June, which is also when schools reopen. Farming being the main profession for the tribal community, parents choose to send their kids to the farm rather than school. This community does not celebrate festivals such as Holi and Diwali, so the vacation they get during these is of no use, and hence they bunk schools during their festivals.
Thus, from curriculum to syllabus and school structures, nothing is encouraging for a tribal child.
“When we are proud of the diversity of our nation, then why can't we create our academic calendars addressing different livelihood needs of the society?” said Pranith very rightly.
Bachpan Banao has a model school named Sapno ki Shala to address these issues. Here, children are given a weekly holiday so they can enjoy the Wednesday Bazaar.
Bablu and his two siblings work in a brick kiln to sustain themselves. Due to the school timings and attendance rules and lack of accommodation by the teachers, Bablu had to leave. Bablu has been coming to Sapno ki Shala regularly since the last two years as there is no rigid classroom structure, school is democratic in nature, and every kid decides their own time table.
Pranith believes in Gandhi's saying, that an ideal size of school is when everyone knows everyone. In Sapno ki Shala, the teacher to children ratio is 1:5. Kids learn at their own pace. Bablu is comfortable with the school structure now, as even if he doesn’t go to school for two days, he can start his learning from where he left it.
My biggest learning from this visit was that a school should be accommodating to a child's needs and context because children can only flourish when they are happy and free.
Swatantra Talim, Ramdwari, Uttar Pradesh
Rahul Agarwal, Co-founder of Swatantra Talim who works in a small village in Ramdwari, UP, strongly believes that schools shouldn’t create another world for students. It should help children sharpen their knowledge, skills, and mindsets in their own world.
The word “Swatantra” means independent and “Talim” means Education – an education system where you have all the freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn, and to some degree, even when to learn.
Swatantra Talim envisions every village as a "center of innovation" and every child as an "innovator" facilitating social change.
“We don’t educate a child, children educate us. Children know more about villages than us. The best way to educate a child is to create a conducive environment where there is equality and justice, where kids have freedom to ask questions and learn. Only then can they flourish and grow. ” - Rahul Agarwal
In Swatantra Talim, a child is always put before the curriculum. They understand that all learning happens in relationships with the world, with each other, and with ourselves and Swatantra Talim helps children and youth to cultivate these relationships.
Bachpan Banao and Swatantra Talim show the towering potential of our education system and what it could achieve, if all schools became democratic in nature and allowed every child to decide their own learning path.
Even the most skilled of thieves cannot steal our knowledge from us. Education is thus, the most powerful valuable asset one can have. However, perhaps the only thing more valuable would be those who strive every day to make sure that it does not become a scarce resource.
Organisations like Kat Katha which help their children/Didis apply their learnings in daily life, Bachpan Banao which let children own their education in a democratic space, and Swatantra Talim which provide a safe and conducive environment for learning, are the harbingers of change in our education system. They work towards making communities more resilient and informed by making their learning innovative and fun. They not only endeavour to fulfil the promise of education made to every child, but go one step further to make that education relevant. They not only educate students, but nurture independent and confident individuals, because as Albert Einstein once said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
About The Writer
Ankita Thakur designs and executes TFIx incubation year. She is an Engineer graduate with a brief experience in Corporate as a technical recruiter. She joined the Teach For India Fellowship in 2016 and taught in a low income private school for 2 years. Post her Fellowship, she joined the TFIx team. She is a music enthusiast and loves listening to music.