A learner needs to ask his own original question that he wants to know the answer to. No child is interested in knowing answers to questions which are not his own. And even if the child gets interested in the question that is presented to him, he is definitely not interested in answering someone else’s answers. When he is forced to (with carrots or sticks), he merely memorises information and stores it. Even that memory fades away as soon as exams are over (i.e. its purpose has been served). So, you see ‘memorising information’ is not the same as ‘learning’. When we learn something, we assimilate our lesson. It becomes a part of every cell in us. When we memorise information without any real context for it in our lives, we merely store it in some part of our brains. It does not become a part of us.* In fact, it is waiting to leave us the moment it has served its purpose, of being reproduced in the exam paper. We often mix up ‘learning’ and ‘memorising’! So when adults talk about enabling learning (in any set-up: mainstream or alternative schools, homeschooling, or whatever!) I immediately ask them ‘What will they learn’? If the adults come up with an agenda, I know they are not talking about learning.
What happens when a child is forced to comply with a certain agenda of the adults (parents or teachers)? He initially resists it. The I-don't-want-to-go-to-school-today tantrums of the young child are his natural first response to being forced into an experience that he is terrified about. We bribe him with goodies and “good-boy” titles. We shame him with “See, everybody is looking at you and wondering ‘Why is this boy crying?’” The resistance of slightly grown-up children is met with more sophisticated emotional manipulation “See, appa is working hard so that you can get the best education. I will be happy to see you go to school with a smiling face and learn happily.”
After days of pushing the child through this after armouring our heavy hearts as parents, everyone “settles down”. What does a child “settling down in school” mean? It means a certain helpless and fearful resignation to the decision. The pained child clings on to the goodies and good-boy titles. He wants to avoid the traumatic experience of being shamed. He fears letting his parents down, wants to fulfil their dreams about him. The child begins to live in a state of resignation about the whole situation, with more life sapped out of him each year.
A child who has “settled down in school” (or any context without questioning the authority of the adults) is unconsciously living in constant fear, and comes to accept that state of being as ‘normal’. For the child has long forgotten what it means to be ‘completely free’. The following are the common self-defence responses of children in schools, and in any fear-filled context in general.
This is the most common and culturally accepted form of 'self-defence' by children. All children strive to avoid conflict (because they know who really has authority over whom) and do what it takes to get into the good books of the adults. 'Saying the right thing' whether they mean it or not.** 'Memorising information' that they may be least interested in. Reproducing it in their exams in the way their teachers asked them to. 'Smiling at and being polite to' even their most disliked teachers. 'Being talented in what brings recognition to their school'.
Schooled adults' response to 'being pleased' is 'to give rewards'. "I will tell you what is good for you. If you listen to me and follow what I tell you, I will reward you." Children, to whom memorizing information, being talented in specific ways that are recognised, etc. come easily, have easy lives. These "successful" children who get completely tamed by 'rewards' often grow up into intellectually arrogant adults, who are not open to real enquiry. They may be kind people. But they are too scared to step out of the comfort of 'what they believe they know' and 'what has earned their culture's approval for them'. They say "It has worked for me. Let's leave it at that." They lead unauthentic lives. These adults are usually the ones who say “I had a great time going to school. School has worked for me. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it. Of course, it can do with some tinkering here and there.”
I am a classic example of this. I was a school topper and was talented in many ways that benefited my school. I was good at staying in the teachers good books too! In effect, I grew addicted to approval by authority figures to maintain my own self-esteem. When I enjoyed popularity and had their approval, I gained high self-esteem. When I didn't I lost my self-esteem. Though the rebel in me loathed it, I was too steeped in this role-playing to act any differently. A few years ago, I ran into my old school principal in a supermarket. I immediately unconsciously slipped into a 'pleasing-her' mode. What I spoke to her, my body language and everything else went into my wanting to earn her approval and prove to her that I had grown up into a worthy adult. I later realized what had happened. It took me a few days to recover from that experience! In spite of so much awareness about this that I claim to have, it shocks me to see how deep-rooted these unconscious behavioural patterns can be that I need to heal from.
Those children who are not intellectually gifted and are not talented in those specific recognized ways, go into one of three modes.
The child withdraws into his shell and uses up his mental energy to build a wall around him. Much of his energy is spent in just keeping the wall intact. It is not an easy task, for his life calling is pushing him in the opposite direction - to break the walls down and pour out his life energy. The younger the child, the more resilient he is, and the more easily he is able to break the walls down. But with each time he does it trustingly only to get hurt, he builds his broken wall again and again, thicker each time!
Schooled adults' response to withdrawn children is motivation. Of course all of us need a healthy amount of encouragement from our external environment in order to help us recover from hurt and step out with confidence. But encouragement and inspiration are very different from misplaced motivation, which is carried out without any real enquiry into why the child is withdrawn in the first place!
Aggression & Cheating
Some children's self-defence response is to be violent and violate other people's spaces revengefully, in a vain effort to get back their lost power. Some other smart kids get into cheating. Schooled adults' auto-responses to these are 'threat and punishment'.
Obviously none of these is going to help our children lead authentic lives and fulfil their unique life purposes!
* Mere information memorizing is not harmless either. Most information (visual and verbal) we are bombarded with in schools carries a hidden message about its underlying value system. For example, ‘Indian agriculture was backward and unproductive. Modern agriculture saved the world’ is a message that I got indoctrinated with growing up.
** How often I catch myself telling Isha when she receives something from someone "Say 'Thank you' to aunty". If I really care about inculcating a sense of gratitude in her, then I need to check with her about how she is feeling when she is receiving something and help her connect to her feeling. If she conveys something that means gratitude, then it is likely to help her know that the person who gave it to her would feel great to hear that from her! Instead, my agenda for Isha often remains 'I want Isha to say the 'right thing' that will please this person.' And that, to me, is unauthentic.