Resuming Tagore’s Forgotten Vision of an Educated India

The practicality of his educational philosophy…

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, a writer and philosopher who discoursed with Gandhi, Einstein, and other greats of his day, an ardent poet, artist, a religious leader and the author of India’s national anthem! We all know who this reference is to…

Many Indians recognize Rabindranath Tagore for all of the above. Despite his fame in the arenas mentioned above, Tagore’s progressive educational philosophy is fundamentally an ancient history today! Tagore’s experimental models pioneered in his schools, Santiniketan and Sri Niketan (West Bengal, 1901), remain sheer experiments. His ideals have not found their way into India’s schools – as rote-memorization seems to still be the predominant learning style in many schools.

Tagore’s views of education are not available in any single volume. It is appreciable in his various expressions. It may be gleaned from his addresses and may be read in his essays. It may also be obtained from his conversational poetry and art. Tagore’s ideas on education were derived mainly from his own experience. Tagore’s educational ideals have been shared by other educationists and many of its innovations had become a part of general educational practices, but somewhere have lost their purpose and direction. His special contribution lay in the emphasis on harmony, balance and total development of personality.

The following poem (every stanza), which outlines Tagore’s vision for an innovative approach to education, is today mindlessly recited in thousands of schools across the country – in ironic contrast to the vision it advocates.

Yet Tagore’s vision for education is one that modern India cannot afford to forget. Let us delve into the following closely to savour Tagore’s vision on education.

Mind Without Fear

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,

Where the world is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the words came out from the depths of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits,
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom,
My father, let my country awake.”

“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”

An environment where students have the confidence to express their thoughts freely and believe in their own learning ability fosters learning in totality. Fear of making mistakes prevents an individual from being free to venture a new thought, to experiment, to ask questions, to be creative, and to innovate. Tagore opposed to any form of corporal punishment as means of discipline. In his school, he cultivated internal discipline based on intrinsic motivations like joy and pursuit of creative tasks.

However, some teachers even today believe that fear is a necessary condition for learning. Students’ mistakes are mercilessly and sometimes viciously punished, rather than being seen as a necessary part of the learning process.
The creative escalation of a child thus becomes stunted by an educational environment where he / she cannot learn without fear of a beating, or failure.

“And The Heart Is Held High”

Central to Tagore’s educational vision was the nurturing of students’ souls. For Tagore, the purpose of education was not just employment – but more importantly, personal fulfillment and self-improvement.

At Tagore’s school, Santiniketan, education was “infused with passion and delight because of the way in which education was combined with dance and song.” This joy and passion carried over to the rest of child’s studies, enabling him / her to perform well in examinations. Tagore believed in starting the learning process with those things close to a child’s heart, rather than beginning with a textbook. Through frequent excursions in nature, games, songs, drama, readings, celebrations, and spiritual teachings, he sought to develop the souls of his children.

Amartya, a former student, writes that at Santiniketan, the emphasis was on “self-motivation rather than on discipline, and on fostering intellectual curiosity rather than competitive excellence.” Lest one assume that Tagore’s focus on the arts disabled intellectual growth, this student grew up to become Harvard Economist and Nobel Memorial Prize winner Amartya Sen. Reflecting on his education, Sen marvels, “Tagore was concerned not only that there be wider opportunities for education across the country…but also that the schools themselves be more lively and enjoyable…”

“Where The World Is Not Broken Up Into Fragments By Narrow Domestic Walls”

A key concept in Tagore’s representation is that of promoting a ‘narrative imagination’ – the nurturing of creativity, empathy, and diversity. For Tagore, one of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to see things from multiple perspectives, an integral Life Skill advocated by the WHO years later.

The inability to empathize with others’ viewpoints is a key cause of apathy, oppression, racism and violence in today’s world. In his 1917 book, Personality, Tagore writes that “We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by empathy…”

The narrative imagination thus needs to be consciously cultivated in school curriculums. When we listen to another person’s story it touches our emotional and imaginative core, leading us to dwell in their perspective and experience their common humanity. A new conviction of the essential humanity of the “Other” changes “us” and “them” into “we”, and motivates us to act for the common good.

“Where Tireless Striving Stretches Its Arms Towards Perfection”

Tagore’s model prioritized education of the rural majority. He believed that a country’s education system must be intimately connected with the life of its people. Thus any education offered in India, whether at school or university level, must be connected with patterns of rural living and aimed at rejuvenating rural life. The major thrust of his program at Sri Niketan was to apply knowledge for the betterment of all aspects of rural life – including agriculture, education, health, and social issues. Moreover, Tagore placed strong emphasis on conducting early education in the child’s mother tongue, to give an equal opportunity to children from diverse backgrounds to learn well.

“Where The Clear Stream Of Reason Has Not Lost Its Way Into The Dreary Desert Sand Of Dead Habits”

Tagore emphasized on critical thinking. To passively accept what is dictated by textbooks without raising questions or disagreements hinders learning.

A system that fails to teach students to understand, question, critically reflect and act upon what they learn, produces adults who fail to understand, question, critically reflect and act upon their society. It creates a nation whose citizens are taught to submit rather than to question; to adapt to the world as it is, rather than actively trying to change it; to accept rather than be assertive.

In contrast, Tagore taught students to critically examine all beliefs, traditions, and statements, and to accept only those that stood the test of reason, rather than blindly accepting them on the basis of authority.

“Into That Heaven Of Freedom”

Promoting the freedom of the child is at the heart of Tagore’s philosophy. Believing that the limitless development of human potential is possible only in an environment free from any kind of burden, Tagore writes in his book, Personality, “I established my institution in a beautiful spot away from the town where the children had the greatest freedom possible under the shade of ancient trees.”

Tagore placed the child at the centre of the learning process. Likewise, many progressive learning theories today seek to draw from the child’s existing knowledge to create an engaging, relevant, and joyous learning process. Students should be given the freedom to explore, inquire, experiment, and discover things for themselves. Tagore wrote, “Not hammer strokes, but dance of the water, sings the pebbles into perfection.” Tagore did not believe in “hammering” information into children’s minds, imposing a single belief system or ideology on them, and forcing them into pre-determined moulds. Respecting the dignity of the child implies respecting the child’s curiosity, their freedom to question, to explore, to imagine, to be critical, even to disagree, and to make choices for themselves.

“Where The Mind Is Led Forward By Thee Into Ever Widening Thought And Action . . . My Father, Let My Country Awake”

Tagore rightly said, unless education reform efforts begin to address the deeper elements in our collective mindset that may be restricting change, reforms will remain piecemeal.

In his poem, Tagore not only lays out the ideal, but also proposes the way forward: “ever widening thought and action”. To bring about change, we must shift the way our society thinks about education: education that redefines success beyond a narrow preoccupation with marks; that encourages students not to passively memorize and accept but to think for themselves, form their own opinions, and act for the collective good.

Can we take the opportunity this Independence to resume Tagore’s educational heritage…For our students to progress as individuals who can think and speak boldly, whose souls are nurtured towards creativity and innovation, who embrace diversity through empathizing with others, who are committed to promoting a more just and inclusive society, who are able to think independently and freely and to persist the kind of education Rabindranath Tagore envisioned years back?

August 2010 – Growing to be effective

In the first week of July I was attending one of the world’s largest research based educational conference ‘The Learner’ in Hong Kong. I was pretty excited as it was one of the rare occasions for me to present a research paper, my topic ‘School Cinema: Utilizing the powerful impact of films to inculcate life skills and values thereby promoting holistic development of children’. It was heartening to note educators from across the world appreciating the depth of School Cinema and the fact that it was not relegated to being a research paper it is a live program benefitting several thousand students. The conference got me in touch with some amazing research that is happening in the space of education across the world, most research was hard core work being done by educators. From ‘Testing for gender differences in learning’ to ‘Meta competence or Critical-thinkers, what do we make our children?’ to ‘Challenging the Unexamined Epistemic Assumptions of the Teacher Educator Learner through Transformative Learning Theory’ to ‘The Way of Tea: Paradigm for Life-Long Learning

I must confess that the attention to detail that needs to be given to education is missing sorely in India. It is extremely good to try out new things and newer systems in education, but if it is not studied before being implemented en-mass it could lead to undesirable results. What we as educators need to do is, be brave and experiment but also be sensible to figure out the impact of our changes. Understand and evaluating the impact on our children or teachers or on the systems is vital.

For example if a school decides to have children evaluating teacher’s performance, it is very important to try it out as a pilot in a particular class or section. Collect feedback from children and teachers and see how it is impacting the overall performance of the school. Is it having the desired positive impact or is it leading to negative repercussion? If done in a controlled environment and then qualitative and quantitative data is analysed it gives a new learning to move ahead.

One of the biggest challenges Principals and School Leaders face is to convince the management or teachers about the new changes they want to bring. They normally find them rigid about changes they want to bring in. The management cannot understand emotions or feeling they go by facts, so you give them facts. Here is one practical suggestion for you, the next time you want to make a change do a pilot and go to the management with facts; it is always easy to convince people when you show them the facts.

Maybe you want to change the uniform next year or introduce film based learning in your schools or want to have a regular teachers training program, convince the management and teachers scientifically, go to them with data. Tell them the % of students who will benefit from the change; why, how and what impact will be created by the change. You will see that you will become a lot more effective as a leader when you approach is more scientific and research based.

July 2010 – A greater attribute in schools

Horlicks Wizkids 2010 rolls out this July this year the event travels to 30 odd cities from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka reaching over 3 million children and getting a participation of over 2 lakh making it one of the largest events in South Asia. What is most interesting about the event is not that it is a flagship event of our events brand Krayon, but the fact that it gives innumerable children an opportunity to exhibit their talents and learn ‘Life Skills’.

For years we at Krayon have been propagating the fact that schools should encourage children to participate in inter school activities that help them to discover their innate talents. I am glad that the National Curriculum Framework endorses this view of ours. According to the CCE guidelines given by the CBSE board children will be evaluated on their co-curricular activities along with sports.

We have done several studies to evaluate impact of events and competitions on children who participate in them. The one fact that stands out as a beacon is that if we have to enhance the self esteem of children, the best way to do it is to expose them to platforms where they can explore their talents. The boost it gives to their self esteem and self confidence is amazing, better still this confidence rubs off on other areas of their lives. For example the confidence painters or debaters get from their event gives them the confidence to face exams better or handle real life situations better.

In addition to confidence building intra school and inter school co-curricular activities teach a lot of other important life lessons to children

–          Very often children grow up believing they are the best till they are exposed to children from other institutions. Events exposure helps in grounding them and their confidence.

–          When children see someone perform well, they instantly applaud this teaches them to appreciate the performances of others. This is a great attribute in a society that fails to appreciate the good that happens around it.

–          Success and failure in events enable children to learn handle failure and victory.

–          Normally most team and group events require them to work with several other students, teachers and help staff. This experience teaches them the importance of team work and coordination.

–          The ultimate aim of every participant  is to perform well, this gives them an important lesson on Quality

–          After every event children are keen to know how they performed from their peers and the audience. This is a great experience for them to learn about feedback and course correction to perform better in future.

If we look closely the lessons which children learn from co-curricular activities can help bridge the gap between that the industry expects from educated young people and what the present educational system is churning out.

June 2010 – Uncovering Education!

Welcome back to school…

I love Paris, I love the charm that that city has, amazing architecture, French cuisine, beautiful people, and the overall experience of just being in one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities of the world. I spent a good part of April this year in France and while I was in Paris I was looking forward to meeting Mr. Jonathan Levy a pedagogical and educational specialist and a teacher trainer in pedagogy. We decided to meet at the St. Paul’s metro station located in the oldest part of Paris peppered with huge villa from the pre French revolution era. Jon suggested an old French restaurant situated in the middle of a large square. Following lunch we ventured out to the surrounding streets to get a glimpse of old Paris and several big villas had been converted to museums. It was a lovely afternoon, but what made the experience great was the fact that right through the lunch and the excursion that followed Jon was talking about Janusz Korczak a Polish Jew probably the only ‘Martyr’ in the field of education and his educational philosophies. I was immensely inspired by his life and the way he handled children. It is sad but true that most of us in India have never heard of him and his contribution to education.

Right there I decided that Mentor should dedicate a section to the ‘Legends of Education’ and bring forth their philosophies, pedagogies, experiences and learning’s. How often have we heard of terms like ‘Experiential Learning’, ‘Project Learning’, ‘Learning through Choices’ and used these methods and practices in our schools and in our trainings without even knowing how and where they originated, their core philosophies and meaning in the larger sense of life. Starting this month Mentor will feature a new segment titled ‘Legends of Education’ that will bring alive the life and works of great men and women who have left an indelible mark in the educational arena and added value to generations of learners across the globe.

It’s the beginning of a new academic year and we have been working overtime to bring a lot of newness and excitement to our Mentor Family. Mentor comes to you with a new look and new design and it features new sections all aimed at making your reading experience more meaningful . Candid Melee is being merged with the Have Your Say section and it will feature questions from Educators being answered by Educators. Just feel free to write to us any question or query that you need an input from another educator and we will find suitable educators to respond to your queries. This section will bring in a lot more interactivity between our readers. Infact that is the direction we are taking this year to ensure that ‘Educators are Connected’, keep reading Mentor and very soon you will realize that we will enable all educators to connect, learn and share!

Educating through experience… John Dewey: The Modern Father of Experiential Learning

Education is life itself
– John Dewey

An American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been highly significant in education, John Dewey (1859—1952) is lauded as the greatest educational thinker of the 20th century.

Dewey’s key interest in the philosophy of education reflects from the time he worked as a high school teacher to developing a belief in an empirically based theory of knowledge which evolved as his many prolific works on education, The School and Society, to name a few. Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education works and initiation. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was one of Dewey’s first initiations. This is where he was able to actualize his pedagogical beliefs which provided material for his first major (1916) and Experience and Education (1938).

John Dewey believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive.  His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences which fostered their capacity to contribute to society.

For example, Dewey believed that students should be involved in real-life tasks and challenges:

  • Maths could be learnt via learning proportions in cooking or figuring out how long it would take to get from one place to another by mule
  • History could be learnt by experiencing how people lived, geography, what the climate was like, and how plants and animals grew, were important subjects

Dewey had a gift for suggesting activities that captured the center of what his classes were studying. Dewey’s education philosophy helped forward the “progressive education” movement, and spawned the development of “experiential education” programs and experiments. Dewey’s philosophy still lies very much at the heart of many bold educational experiments, such as Outward Bound.

Experiential Education

Experiential education is a process that occurs between a teacher and student that infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is mistakenly used interchangeably with experiential learning.  The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education “as a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.” Many will find a relationship between experiential education and Educational progressivism. The former is the philosophy and the latter is the movement it informed (some might suggest it is still a current movement).

John Dewey was the most famous proponent of experiential education, perhaps paving the course for all future activities in his seminal Experience and Education, first published in 1938; a book that was not actually about experiential education, but about Dewey’s curriculum theory in the context of historical debates about school organization. Dewey’s fame during that period rested on relentlessly critiquing public education and pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students’ actual experiences. This is strange, because schools were not very well-formed during Dewey’s era (i.e., they were not yet “modern traditional education.”) Dewey’s work went on to influence dozens of other influential experiential models and advocates, including Foxfire, service learning, Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound, and Paulo Freire.

Dewey on Democracy in education…

Dewey’s recurrent and intertwining themes of education, democracy and communication are effectively summed up in the following excerpt from the first chapter, “Education as a Necessity of Life”, of his 1916 book, Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education.

“What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession.”

For John Dewey, education and democracy are intimately connected.

According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student.  For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience.

Therefore, as educators we are responsible for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which equip the students to contribute to society.

Why do so many students hate school???

It seems obvious, but usually an ignored question…said Dewey.

Dewey emphasized that the traditional teaching’s concern with delivering knowledge needed to be balanced with a much greater concern with the students’ actual experiences and active learning.

He was the most famous proponent of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. His theory of experience continues to be much read and discussed not only within education, but also in psychology and philosophy.

Dewey believed that an educator must take into account the unique differences between each student.  Each person is different genetically and in terms of past experiences.  Even when a standard curriculum is presented using established pedagogical methods, each student will have a different quality of experience.  Thus, teaching and curriculum must be designed in ways that allow for such individual differences.

For Dewey, education also a broader social purpose was to help people become more effective members of democratic society!  Dewey argued that the one-way delivery style of authoritarian schooling does not provide a good model for life in democratic society.  Instead, students need educational experiences which enable them to become valued, equal, and responsible members of society.

Many people then had misunderstood Dewey’s experiential education to progressive education. Progressive education, according to Dewey, was against traditional education methods.  In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being relatively unconstrained by the educator.  The problem with progressive education, said Dewey, is that freedom alone is no solution.  Learning needs a structure and order, and must be based on a clear theory of experience, not simply the whim of teachers or students.

His Philosophy

John Dewey was an educator, but he was first and foremost a political philosopher. He saw weaknesses in both the traditional and progressive styles of education. He explains in length his criticisms of both forms of education in his book, “Experience & Education”. In essence, he did not believe that they met the goals of education, which he defined as obtaining the freedom of thought. Interestingly and paradoxically, Dewey did not actually believe in freedom of thought in any kind of absolute sense, although some experiential educators are not aware of this aspect of his philosophy. Dewey advocated that education be based upon the quality of experience. For an experience to be educational, Dewey believed that certain parameters had to be met, the most important of which is that the experience has continuity and interaction.

Thus, Dewey proposed that education be designed on the basis of a ‘Theory of Experience’. In this respect, Dewey’s theory of experience rested on two central tenets – continuity and interaction.   

Continuity refers to the notion that humans are sensitive to (or are affected by) experience. In humans, education is critical for providing people with the skills to live in society.  Dewey argued that we learn something from every experience, whether positive or negative and ones accumulated learned experience influences the nature of one’s future experiences.

Interaction builds upon the notion of continuity and explains how past experience interacts with the present situation, to create one’s present experience. Any situation can be experienced in profoundly different ways because of unique individual differences e.g., one student loves school, another hates the same school.

Dewey also categorizes experiences as possibly being mis-educative and non-educative. A mis-educative experience is an experience that stops or distorts growth for future experiences. While a non-educative experience is an experience where a person has not done any reflection and so has obtained nothing for their mental growth that is lasting (“Experience & Education,” John Dewey). It is also important to note that John Dewey didn’t write a book called “experiential education.”

This is important for us as educators to understand.  Even as we cannot control students’ past experiences, we can try to understand those past experiences so that better educational situations can be presented to our students.  Ultimately, all a teacher has control over is the design of the present situation.  The teacher with good insight into the effects of past experiences which students bring with them better enables him/her to provide quality education which is relevant and meaningful.

His Influence

Dewey went on to influence many other influential experiential models and advocates. Many researchers credit him with the influence of Project Based Learning (PBL) which is best defined as instruction relating questions and technology relative to the students’ everyday lives to classroom projects. Students form their own investigation of their own group which allows students to develop valuable research skills. The students engage in design, problem solving, decision making, and investigative activities. It allows students to work in groups or by themselves and allows them to come up with ideas and realistic solutions or presentations. Students take a problem and apply it to a real life situation with these projects, which places students in the active role of researchers. Dewey’s views continue to strongly influence the design of innovative educational approaches, such as in outdoor education.

Dewey examines his theory of experience in light of practical educational problems, such as the debate between how much freedom v/s discipline to use.  Can we as educators use his approaches as useful guides to help solve such issues in our schools?

Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of a student’s experience and the necessity for the teacher of understanding the students’ past experiences in order to effectively design a sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow the person to fulfill their potential as a member of society. Are we as educators doing that…?