Not without books. Books are great. I mean textbooks as they are academi-factured (if that can be a word to denote academic manufacturing) and used now. The written word that becomes the gospel truth for 250 million students and millions of teachers in school today in India.
Seriously, the textbooks we produce are perhaps the greatest barrier in the system to fostering capable and autonomous learners. The fact that something is written in the textbook becomes the gospel truth that children cannot but recite.
There is the fact that most teachers cannot deviate from the text, cannot award imaginative, researched answers to questions given in assignments and tests. Many teachers would neither have the motivation, nor the passion, to understand these deviations.
Then there is the length of the written text, often verbose, and sometimes too simplistic or inadequate on even slightly deeper inquisitions. The sheer length of the discourse simply limits the extent of engagement that a student can have with the topic.
Compounding this litany of problems is the obsession with facts, so microscopic and so many, that you would even wonder later in life, why you were even expected to remember them, particularly as you could get to the net and answer them in a jiffy.
Ironically, TV shows that demonstrate the greatest failures, like the one that asks adults questions to check if they have actually passed the 5th grade, become the subject of great popular mirth and unconscious intellectual debauchery.
Then, as a result of the enlightenment that our students are not learning, they introduce new ways of assessments that actually end up spawning (to the publishers’ delight) new textbooks. And the whole cycle starts again.
There are umpteen examples from our system of textbooks that demonstrate these problems. CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation) is a mechanism that was supposed to induce children and teachers to think more, memorize less. But like the USA with the 21st Century skills curriculum, this got reduced to textbooks and project guides. The travails of the CCE, in the end resulted in diagnostic tests to check the problem solving skills of students with the PSA (problem solving assessment), which again has become the subject of many textbooks (almost like a separate subject).
Again, the system of gradually exposing students to a topic, in a step by step manner in each successive grade, leans exactly in the opposite direction of the non-linearity of learning through discovery, problem solving and peer-negotiation, because it limits the precise extent to which one can explore any topic and restricts, in effect, students to the contours of the author’s creative and intellectual boundaries.
My sincere apologies to the experts, but remember you were children once. In fact, it is a cruel testament to time, that you follow the same general methods that you were steeped in, perhaps with a liberal dose of buzzwords that you choose to believe make crucial differences to the way children learn now.
Perhaps it is time to stop treating children as dumb witted morons who will be developed into fine holistic individuals by using textbooks and allied means, however utopian and unrealistic the alternative may seem at present.
So, let us imagine a school without textbooks.
It will be a load off the shoulders, literally. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. And then will come the true revolution.
Perhaps then the students will be introduced to a world of themes, which they desire to investigate, alone or in groups. The themes that they choose will be their personal journey into the world, trying to decipher its working to the extent they can, facilitated by not just the teacher, but every adult or peer who can contribute.
Along the way, they will leave a trail of learning and sharing. Themes may span across multiple years, result in multiple explorations and projects, depending upon interest and guidance. In short, the curriculum will be a co-creation, the syllabus a much wider canvas to draw on, and the assessments driven by the capability to learn and master different dimensions and levels of technical complexity.
At all times, the focus will be in fostering skills that promote autonomy, open-ness, collaboration, scientific temper, values and logic and seeing their application to the theme. It will celebrate curiosity and wonder, aesthetics, sensibilities, discovery, inferencing, deduction and a host of skills that will define the individual.
The spaces of learning will become a celebration of coming alive.
And we will have done what is expected of us – we will have given our children not the right to education, but the right to learn. Amen.