Students need freedom to think, explore and make mistakes
Amita Jain, 14 Nov 2018

Anantha Kumar Duraiappah, Director UNESCO-MGIEP, in conversation with Amita Jain, questions the role of traditional education system and talks about the need to build emotional intelligence in young learners…


Q. How do you think the school system is faring in India?

A. It needs a lot of work. I think for the 21st century challenges, rote learning is not going to be useful. You need a lot of creativity and innovation. You need to give students the freedom to think, explore and make mistakes. We need to understand that it’s alright to fail. Failing is the way you learn. The only way you know how to control a car is actually going into a skid once in a while. We call it ‘Perturbation and Control’ theory. So, you perturb purposely so you can learn. There is too much anxiety, too much pressure, suicides, and the curriculum is overloaded. It is majorly about rote learning and exams. We basically need to take away a lot of this load and make learning fun. The Finnish’s school system is a very good example of moving away from the traditional approach of education. 


Q. Our challenges deepen as we go into rural-urban divides and lesser privileged areas. How do we tackle these challenges?

A. Look at the Slumdog Millionaire movie. That kid was so much smarter than all those others. He answered all those questions from his life experiences. To tell somebody from a rural area who can’t read and write that he is illiterate is wrong. We are basing it on our benchmarks. Everybody learns. They learn about other things, about nature, etc. but in the traditional way, we have defined literacy as knowledge of alphabets and numeracy. I think we should respect them with their differences. Of course, they need to learn numbers and there is a need to bring them in the proper schooling system, but we also need to celebrate their own indigenous knowledge. 


Q. You put a lot of stress on the development of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills. What is the importance of building SEL skills in students?

A. Our current education system focuses a lot on building the intellectual intelligence. However, it does a deplorable job of building students’ Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) skills and competencies of empathy, compassion and understanding. Many argue that this is the domain of homes and families and should remain there and others say that much of this is already implemented through curriculums related to moral education, peace education, and even sustainable development, among others. But, teaching concepts do not automatically translate into behavioural change.


We conducted a programme in Delhi including students of some very elite, government and slum schools. The topic was migration and the aim was to initiate a ‘dialogue’ between school children from different backgrounds. Some were very fluent in English and some not so fluent. We did this for about 10 weeks and at the end, we analyzed the dialogues. It was interesting to see that kids from elite schools found kids from slum schools very intelligent. Although the latter ones couldn’t speak English, they were very smart because of the way they responded via translation. They asked very penetrating questions. Another very great output of the exercise was that students from elite schools now paid higher respect for people doing very menial work like garbage collection, etc. The empathy starts to build here. Development of SEL skills helps students appreciate different cultures and issues and enables them to interact respectfully with each other, which is pertinent for building peaceful and sustainable communities in the world. 


Q. How can digital pedagogies and games facilitate the development of SEL skills? 

A. In a questionnaire testing socio-emotional understanding, if you ask somebody ‘Should you hurt your neighbour?’, one would obviously reply in negative. Everybody knows they shouldn’t. Games, on the other hand, tend to capture a person’s reaction in real-time, without them realizing it. 


Let me tell you a real-life experience. So, one of the aspects of SEL is self-awareness and attention. As a part of a mindfulness exercise, we went to the kids of Grade 7 or 8 and asked them to sit down, close their eyes and the bell was rung. Kids were all in giggles. They found it amusing. Then we found this video where the heart is beating and you had an on-and-off switch. We asked kids to play with the heart. As you regulate, the heart beats faster and slower. Then we asked them to touch their pulse and look at their pace of breathing. Kids were focussed and we managed to do exactly what we intended. It got them to experience the impact of the exercise. They said it was the best part of the whole curriculum. Without digital content, it would have been very difficult. Children react to games naturally. It goes back to history. Playing has always been an essential part of our well being. But we also have to be careful with digital technology. The schooling system today should be about creating a balanced combination of digital games and physical exercise. 


Q. Would the role of the teacher be eliminated with the advent of new technology?

A. No. But teachers have to change the way what a traditional teacher is thought to be. The teacher is no longer a holder of wisdom but more of a coach, somebody who is guiding. Information is no longer a problem. There is a plenty of it. So, it’s about how to use it and streamline it towards pro-social behaviour and learning. 


Q. Are there any upcoming UNESCO-MGIEP projects for Indian education system?


A. We are focussing on SEL majorly right now. It’s not just about values education or telling people about empathy and compassion. It’s about practising it and experiencing it. It’s much more different than just going into a class and talking about it. We have already completed these projects with two schools in India and we are going to launch in a big way in coming January 2019, with 10 countries and 5 schools from each country participating in it. We want to do a cross-country comparison on SEL through the digital platform.

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