from the perch: in kids we trust

What used to be big ideas – that today’s schooling system was made for an Industrial Age, that it’s highly ineffectual, and that there are other types of learning that need to be emphasized – have come to be commonly acknowledged and accepted. Without Ken Robinson reminding us, we know that we need to take a long hard look at the way we are educating children today.

Still, we know we’re not there yet. A recent Brookings study found that while 70 percent of countries recognize skill development as important even name specific skills within their national policy documents, few of them have a vision for what this may mean. Even fewer mention skills progressions or how in fact children would learn and develop these skills deemed to be essential for living and working in the 21st century[1].

Keeping in mind the other problem I have discussed in detail in the past – namely, that even in today’s world, there is significant disparity between the quality of schooling for children from under-privileged backgrounds and those from more privilege – this brings us to a two-fold issue.

  • How can we eliminate educational inequity, such that all children receive high-quality education?
  • How can we ensure that this “high-quality” education includes holistic development, with an emphasis on skills and values that will help children thrive as adults in a fast-changing and volatile world?

This implies any solution needs to be adaptable such that it can be contextualized to low-income and under-resourced environments without losing its efficacy.

In my experience, under-resourced communities do not always have the kind of teachers that are equipped to do their role well. If also expect them to facilitate the development of 21st century skills, we need to take something off their plates.

In my work with India’s largest education NGO, Pratham, for the past several months, I’ve begun to formulate my own ideas about aspects of what will work. Over the next couple of blogs, I’ll discuss each idea in some detail.

Imagine your own (hypothetical) child. What kind of adult do you want them to become? Presumably, someone who is caring, thoughtful, intelligent, social, and articulate. A leader who can bring a vision to life. But just as learning math requires practice, so does leading.

Thus, children must be trusted to practice leading at an early age.

We know that leadership has countless benefits in terms of other essential learning. For instance, being asked to choose what they want to learn, rather than being dictated to by a curriculum, means that children feel ownership. And ownership breeds interest and better learning.

In Pratham’s program, children get to choose from a “menu” of options, and while some will focus only on science courses, others like to explore all the options available to them. Regardless, this process is powerful. I visited villages that did not have them Pratham program, and asked children to explain why their favorite subject in school was their favorite. Without fail, their answer was somewhere along the lines of “because it’s easy” or “because I get good marks”. On the other hand, in villages where children had experience making choices, they could explain their likes and dislikes better. Children liked science because it taught them about the world, or English because it helped them communicate better. The answers were not perfect, but there was a distinct and perceptible difference.

Extending trust also means allowing children to make mistakes. During TFI, we let our student captains choose the starting line-up for football matches. Once, Chinmayee was pressured into choosing her friend as the striker. Halfway through the game, she realized that it was a mistake, and quickly asked us to put in a substitute. At the cost of a recreational football match, one of our students learned about the perils of nepotism – something senior officials and Bollywood stars have yet to understand. Most likely, such a lesson would not have had the same impact had it been delivered through a classroom lecture.

This does not mean teachers are not required. Rather, it means teachers should increasingly move into the role of a facilitator and coach. For a Learning Circle exercise, I paired together one of the highest-achieving boys in our Teach for India class with a girl who struggled academically. I sent these vastly different sixth-graders out into the community by themselves with one task: help someone. During the experience reflection, the boy observed, “Prachi is an inspiring leader, and I can learn a lot about self-confidence and expressing myself from her.” It is this coupling of activity and reflection that leads to children’s deepest and most fulfilling learnings.

Finally, trust must be coupled with respect. Not only are they capable of leading themselves, but others. But you must allow yourself to observe them and learn from them in return, for this to be a mutually symbiotic relationship. If a teacher is willing to learn from his / her students, I guarantee you that teacher’s students will learn from him / her.

The practice of leadership itself has cascading benefits, which can be discussed further later. But it’s difficult for most of us to extend trust to people with less experience than us. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s when it is most necessary. Increasingly, I believe the education revolution will only begin when we invert our approach and trust children to lead their own learning.