The School of Tomorrow

This was a very popular article written by Sir published in The Hindu.

Forest photo.jpgIn the whole of your adult life, how many times did you use the Avogadro’s law? During your entire work life, did you find any use for the date of Battle of Panipat? How many times did you have to recall the formula for Barium Hydroxide?

If you are a school teacher or a professor specializing in those subjects, it is possible that you used those facts. But that cannot really be classified as a real ‘use’. If the final product itself is not useful, and if you are providing inputs to that useless product, that input clearly cannot be called useful either.

Yes, there is a small minority of specialists, may be less than 1% of the population, who are really using some of the subjects that we learn at school. Those specialists (physicists, mathematicians, biologists et al) use this knowledge as a foundation to learn even more specialized stuff.

Obviously, we cannot ignore their contribution. They expand the frontiers of knowledge with their experiments and new discoveries. Because of the scientific and technological progress gifted to us by that small minority, rest of us can enjoy a higher standard of living.

But for the remaining 99% of us, busy in our mundane jobs, struggling in our relationships – that specialized knowledge is utterly useless. We have no use for Ohm’s law. We do not use trigonometry in our daily life. The foundational courses of Physics, Chemistry, Math or Geography – taught relentlessly during our school days – are really a waste of time for most.

If we are to design a ‘School of Tomorrow’, we should throw out most of the existing subjects in our curriculum. Instead, we should focus on four subjects which all of us truly use in our adult life – work, relationships, society and technology.

In the subject of ‘Work’, we should teach skills that are needed in today’s workplaces. We should teach our children how to use computers to write, present, calculate and communicate. Instead of holding ‘mock’ parliaments or giving them copy-paste projects, we should give them real responsibilities inside the school.

In the school I run in rural Bengal, we get the students to manage the school canteen, maintain the school blog and Twitter handle, take care of the school’s IT infrastructure, mentor younger children, and fully take charge of the annual events. Through all these, we guide them about how to behave in a team, how to coordinate a meeting, and how to resolve conflicts.

In the ‘School of Tomorrow’, we should teach our children how to approach external organizations – maybe to raise a small sum of money for a school event. We should teach them how to write an effective resume and a persuasive email. Given the importance of social media in today’s world, we should train them on how to use it effectively for work – not just to post selfies, forward inane jokes and circulate fake news.

Other than work, our relationships with our friends, spouse, parents and children form a critical part of our life – one that determines how happy we are. Yet, how little we are taught about how to handle those! We are never told that marriage is going to be an all-important decision in our lives, and we should not jump into it in a youthful impulse.

We are not taught to listen with empathy. We are not taught that building friendships in schools and colleges is more important compared to hiding that notebook containing teachers’ notes. Yes – we may pay lip service to some of those values through subjects like ‘moral science’ – but that’s only theory, not practice.

You may question, how can you really give practical lessons on relationships? In a classroom setting, surely nothing more than theory can be taught? We need to be a little more imaginative here. Movies and literature, if chosen well, can be useful learning devices. Movies let us see issues from different people’s points of view, teaching us empathy.

A movie like ‘Revolutionary road’ may be shown in high school classes to dissect marital conflicts. ‘Twelve angry men’ can help us understand group dynamics. A movie like ‘Hotel Rwanda’, where the protagonist painstakingly cultivates relationships in anticipation of tougher times, can help us understand the value of building friendships and networks.

In addition to ‘Work’ and ‘Relationship’, the subject of ‘Society’ too, is becoming all important in today’s world. Earlier, in a disconnected world, we were subject to only local influences. Now, people can spread their prejudices, hate and bigotry through social media. Schools must teach our children stop believing and start thinking.

We need to teach our children how religion came from our fear and our inability to explain the world through our limited knowledge in an earlier era. We must teach them that whites are white because they are adapted to a colder climate, not because they are superior. We must teach our children not just to read newspaper, but also to spot fake news.

We should ask our children to take an active part in building our society. They don’t need to do anything too complicated here. Maybe they can start by asking their parents not to forward that hateful WhatsApp message. Maybe they can teach elders about how to use their smartphone to do more than pressing the like button in Facebook or to play games.

Movies and literature can be useful here as well. A movie like ‘The Pianist’ can show us, from a victim’s point of view, how it is like to live in a society when a minority group is persecuted. A book like ‘Animal Farm’ can tell us that often promises of a new world are only that, a promise.

Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ can teach us a lot of about the evils of caste-system and poverty. And Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’, which is a compulsory reading in my school in Class VIII-IX, can really give us an all-encompassing view of how our society came about.

The fourth subject, ‘Technology’ is inextricably linked with ‘Society’. In not-so-distant future, technology is going to reshape the society. Most of the current professions may not exist. Our current way of life may undergo such transformation that it may be unrecognizable.

Yet, our schools hardly deal with this all-important subject. They do not teach the students how to apply technology and how to code. They do not talk about how technology is going to impact society. They do not teach children about how to be safe in a connected world.

In the ‘School of Tomorrow’, these subjects cannot have fixed boundaries. Our relationships are shaped by societal myths and rules. How hard we work, which jobs are glamourous – such questions are also determined by the prevalent culture in the society. Technology is impacting relationships too. It fast-forwards our romances, making them stale within months. Technology is changing our workplaces and the society itself.

Not only these subjects cannot have fixed boundaries, they cannot have any fixed syllabus as well. The ‘School of Tomorrow’ will be characterized by its quick response to the changing world. To be so agile, it must be very decentralized – which means the teachers in the School of Tomorrow will be empowered to design the curriculum and constantly revise it.

Which brings me to the final point – what kind of teachers do we need in such a school? We need teachers who can blur the boundaries of subjects and the real-world. We need teachers who are not limited by specialist subject knowledge. We need teachers who are insightful, wise and experienced in the ways of the world. We need teachers who are not just dispensers of instruction, but a source of inspiration. In short, we need teachers who are the most talented, wise and experienced members of society.

If you think that’s a utopia – you are mistaken. In the past, the teachers were indeed creative, talented and wise. Legend has it that Vishnu Sharma, the creator of Panchatantra, created the whole set of fables to teach three princes about life and society. The great Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, founded their own schools, where they taught the kings, among others. Closer home, Tagore founded his own school in West Bengal.

Ironical though it is, to build the School of Tomorrow, we really need to take inspiration from the schools of the past.