Rahul, good to hear from you.
Gautam Khandelwal

“FREEDOM FOR GROWTH”, a model aim according to Tagore’s vision of education. How to “open the mind’s caged door” in alternative rural schooling.

By Viv Macadam, Feb 2015 Bangalore, India

I found a little tattered pamphlet many years ago in a pile of ex library books in a traditional school in India. It was entitled “Rabindranath Tagore, pioneer in education” and was compiled by Sahitya Chayan in 1994. I devoured it, and found the essays by Tagore himself and his much valued assistant educator L.K.Elmhirst utterly eye opening and inspiring beyond words.

Sadly I am ten years older if not wiser. Tagore’s vision has not spread all over India or even in rural areas of Bengal to the extent that they should have 90 years down the line! In fact the following words are lamentably true of an ever increasing number of pretentious and expensive schools (mainly calling themselves “International”) in every city of India:

“Already too many schools exist for the depriving of the children of the privilege of helping THEMSELVES OR THEIR FELLOWS, and for the ENCOURAGEMENT OF AN UNNATURAL SPIRIT OF COMPETITION. It is in fact, just out of SUCH SELF-CENTRED INSTITUTIONS, concerned primarily with their own success in scholarship or games, their own WEALTH in numbers of students of size of buildings,…that arises that spirit of sectarianism, of nationalism, of selfish individualism and self-assertion, which produces in the world the most insidious form of dissension and spiritual blindness”. (L.K.Elmhirst)

Does this sound familiar? Are there not stressed out, alienated, unhappy children sweating to compete and become “toppers” in order to please parents, school and society, and join in the rat race to grab an engineering or medical degree? Or join an IT company? or become an MBA or a lawyer? Is this what we teachers are about?

So why Freedom for Growth? This was the motto Elmhirst felt would, if kept at the heart of all the school’s activities, ensure not only freedom for growth but also for enterprise and adventure, and Imagination ,”the greatest of gifts, that function of the mind upon which all progress depends”.

Elmhirst is referring to the Siksha-Satra educational experiment that was pioneered by Tagore and himself in Santiniketan.

I think we can all agree that it is “in their simplicity, in their capacity to grow, and in a certain native frankness that the charm of children chiefly lies”,.and that, unhindered, they will “carry on their own research in the field of LIFE, gathering knowledge from experience with an abounding JOY that is rarely exceeded later”. Yet why do these words cause our hearts to sink, in disappointment , or so-called realism, as we admit that there are very few educational establishments that either see children that way or give them that kind of freedom to grow?

One reason is that the fundamental premise has been lost sight of. It is a natural process for the young of any species to seek experience that is ultimately about self preservation, but with a kind of joyfulness and energy that is startling. Even trees as they sprout and reach up and out, show this “exuberance”, as Elmhirst calls it. So why is it repressed in schools that are supposedly designed to help children grow? What is going on? and what can we do to change it?

Society tends to descend in its aims to the lowest common denominator, or the perceived majority needs that make the economic system and thereby the running of the mass of people called society, viable. The media, of course, sells and actively promotes any values that will uphold the consuming system so that the wheels can go on turning and profit go on being made and workers go on working. The education system in general either meekly accepts its role of producing docile members of that thriving system, or actively attempts to kill their imaginative and free spirits. This is criminal neglect of our children and the Planet’s future, if there is to be any.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”, say Edward Bernays. Surprise, surprise, he said in a democratic society. Do we really think that in a democracy we are not manipulated? It is well known that different ways of knowing and learning create different kinds of human beings. Vandana Shiva has it very clear that in the 21st century “we have moved from wisdom to knowledge and from knowledge to information, and that information is so partial that we are creating INCOMPLETE human beings”.(As seen in Schooling the World video)

We no longer feel intimately and intrinsically part of the entire web of life. Fukushima, the most immense nuclear disaster in history is belching thousands of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific and we, incompletely informed by the Media, couldn’t care less. Why? Because the Media have not picked it up and made it as interesting as the Air Malaysia crashes. We, the educated! We, the incomplete!

What’s worth knowing? This is perhaps the key question when talking about designing a school where the children are “free to grow”.

Most curricula are firmly based on what we, the adults, want the children to know. They should, in fact, be based on what we know ABOUT LEARNERS. For, as the cliché goes, there can be no learning without a learner ( I didn’t say teacher). Think about the classic remark often heard in staff rooms from exasperated teachers of bolshy teenagers: “I have taught it to them again and again and they simply haven’t learnt it”. This absurd statement is on a par with a shopkeeper saying “I sold them the earrings but they didn’t buy them”!!

Learning is a transaction, a process, not a one way putting of a thing into some empty heads. It all comes down to what we think takes place when a learner “learns”. According to the eminent and neglected educational psychologist Ames (in Knowing and the Known) “the ability to learn can be seen as the ability to relinquish inappropriate perceptions and to develop new and more workable ones”. For we perceive what we want or need to perceive, and this is largely a function of our previous experiences, assumptions and needs. Furthermore, in his view perception is intimately linked to the language system, meaning that in a way we “see with our language”. So a uniform and standardised curriculum of content to be “taught” is likely to be a predestined failure. Perceptions vary so widely that for example, when it rains, some run for cover, others run out and enjoy it. Learners, similarly, vary widely. If teachers acted as if they knew this, then they would see students NOT as receivers of “subject matter” but as MEANING MAKERS, and realise that “what is important is what the student makes of what we tell him, not what we intended” (Kelley)

Clearly we need to rethink everything about how we teach. Whose perceptions should we give validity to? On what basis? What knowledge is relevant to which student? As one 5th grader in a New York slum put it, when asked by the science teacher “How many legs does a grasshopper have?”: “Oh man, I sure wish I had your problems”!!

If we start from the individual learner (a student centred curriculum) we might come closer to enabling real learning to take place. If we remember always that knowledge is what we know after we have learned something.

A question based curriculum: What is the difference between the question (to which the teacher already knows the answer) Who discovered America? And How do you discover who discovered America?.

As Dewey explains: “Once you start a man thinking there is no telling where he will go”. For the second question is open ended, and can lead anywhere. Unlike in a fixed syllabus that has a clear sequence of skills and information to be learned. In the inquiry environment we are proposing, learning is “episodic, fitful, an explosive collage of happenings” (T as a S A). There is no denying that learning has a certain logic to it as a process, but it is a process whose rules, spirals and wiggles are established by “living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving and languaging nervous systems” (“)!

In other words, good learners.

What is a good learner? Good learners are above all flexible, happy to shift perspectives, confident they can learn, they enjoy solving problems, and like to rely on their own judgment not on second hand authorities, they have inbuilt crap detectors, and know what is relevant to survival and what is not (don’t try to tell them what it is “good for them” to learn). They respect facts and ask meaningful questions and are not fast answerers. They realise some problems do not have a clear resolution. If one were to be asked was this year a success, with the majority of students coming out good learners as outlined above, I would say a resounding success, for success really means behavioural changes in the students, or the ability to challenge and ask questions, rather than a passive accumulation of book knowledge spouted in some written test. For these students would be in a position to develop and internalize concepts that will help them survive in the rapidly changing world we are in.

This brings me full circle to the Tagore/Elmhirst essays on freedom to grow. Without using the phrase, they were strongly opposed to the cult of trivia and non relevant knowledge. They placed Nature at the heart of the learning environment: “Nature herself is the best schoolmaster and rewards the student according to his capacity and powers of observation…The schoolmaster here is an anachronism. He can no longer tower over his pupils from his rostrum and threaten them with his power to grant or withhold marks and certificates” (Oh yes he can, in 2015, still!). There is no room, he says, for Nature Study as a “subject: “Nature study is transformed into the study of Nature in relation to life and the daily experiences of life

Discipline and freedom: How to find the minimum of discipline needed for the preservation of the maximum of liberty?. This calls for a delicate balance. Many teachers fear anarchy and chaos if they allow space for their students’ creative imagination.

Certain rules are of necessity needed, if one is to perform the tasks of everyday for self preservation: each task has a method to it, even sweeping, or making chapattis. Children have enough common sense to see the need for such discipline.

But what is really needed in a new kind of schooling is freedom FROM superimposed restriction. Craftsmanship, for example, supplies its own discipline. The child MUST have a chance to make his own discoveries, to achieve freedom through experience. But “to encourage the children to set their own bounds and to reason out their own discipline, needs a real faith in their capacity and a real courage..to stand by and watch mistakes being made without constantly interfering to set everything right”. (L.K.E)

Education for life not for career: Preparing a child for life is not about getting him or her into some suitable and lucrative (of course) career. The loss of values implied by such an aim (shared by a majority of schools) has far reaching implications. The future is crying out for aware people to opt for sustainable living in intelligent ways and to contribute to alleviating the suffering and starving as well as furthering the appropriate use of any resources left to us. The future will collapse if we continue the business as usual educational approach, and blithely let students think there is no imminent catastrophe coming in their young adult lives. It is totally irresponsible and uncaring to lead them astray in this manner. Strangely, two Indian educators had this clear 90 years ago and out it into practice as best they could in a small way in remote villages of Bengal!

The practical implications of the freedom to grow model: as applied by the Siksha-Satra experiment, involved fundamentally a vision of the rural student as an important member of his community and whose education could have a significant impact on his own immediate family and village. This is a pressing need even today, although the problems are no longer quite the same. If rural India loses its farmers to the glamour of the cities, who will grow the food one wonders!

“The playtime of young life is not an unmeaning thing. It is intimately associated with the demands of a strenuous future, even though for the time being some of the worries of self-preservation may be borne by the parent”. Basic premise.

We forget this and give them a toy world to play with, forgetting that when we were small it was always a grown up world we craved!

“The aim, then, of the Siksha-Satra is, through experience in dealing with this overflowing abundance of child life..to provide the utmost liberty within surroundings that are filled with creative possibilities, with opportunities for the joy of PLAY THAT IS WORK- the work of exploration, and of WORK THAT IS PLAY- the reaping of a succession of novel experiences.” Basic aim.

Between the ages of 6 and 12 Elmhirst believes that the child is most absorbed in gathering impressions through the senses especially that of touch. Hence the emphasis on use of the hands, as apprentices in handicrafts and what he calls housecraft (housekeeping). The child acquires skill and wins freedom for his hands in the workshops. Only after some experience in these fields will he be ready to actually record, relate, dramatize and synthesize the discoveries of the senses. “Until the child has had intimate touch with the facts and demands of life, it is surely unfair to demand long hours of concentrated attention upon second hand facts and figures, wholly unconnected with anything he has hitherto encountered and taken note of in his real life”. Yes!

On top of housecraft (hygiene, cooking, cleaning, latrine care and so on) some special crafts are encouraged, ideally to be sold and also to be of use in the home. The child will realize his own hands can create objects for his self preservation (e.g. sun dried bricks, pottery, weaving, dyes, carpentry, basket work, tailoring, watch repair, cycle repair, block printing, grinding cereals, making oils, or musical instruments and so on).

Any of these require some science, some business, and plenty of confidence. Outdoor crafts like keeping poultry, caring for the water supply, preparing seed beds, irrigation and so on are also intrinsic, and of economic benefit to the population at the same time.

The garden plot, which for many rural children is a familiar activity, can be experimental and also ideally profitable. Text books, class room and laboratory go by the board as the child keeps his records of his plot (English), and the accounts (Maths), gets to know about the land fertility (Geology) or the use of different natural manures (Chemistry), the control of plant pests (Entomology) and how birds help or hinder (Ornithology) and in fact it can embrace the planet (Ecology), all from a small plot.

From garden plot and workshops out into the wider field of life: excursions can be made to so many local centres of activity, Post Office, brick kilns, station and goods yard, jewellers and watchmakers, carpenters and timber yards, factories, rice and oil mills, Police station and Jail, shoemakers, tailors, and many more. In each of these there is an art, a science and some element of business, tools to be handled, men to be met, room for imaginations to be kindled and future change and improvements to be made.

The school must be a laboratory not merely for the absorbing of knowledge or for producing sheltered hot house growth, but for giving out, for adventure into the realm of practical economics and self preservation, of self discipline and self government, of self expression in the world of spiritual abstraction and human welfare”. (L.K.E)

I have tried to explore a variety of angles on the same theme which is where education should go from now on, in such a way as to maximise the potential in each child for imaginative thinking, which is what the future hangs on. The Sikhsa-Satra model is one among many, the Inquiry method pioneered by the ground breaking book of the 1970s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, John Holt’s How Children Fail, and discoveries of other leading lights in education, have been presented here. But it is for each country and each teacher to apply the ideas to their own context. My hope is that not a single teacher should remain who is satisfied with the old paradigms in education which up to now have put most of us to sleep and allowed massive events like famine in Africa (ongoing and continuous and worsening) and Fukushima to go unnoticed.


Sahitya Chayan: Rabindranath Tagore, Pioneer in Education Delhi 1994.

John Holt: How Children Fail

Postman and Weingartner : Teaching as a Subversive Activity 1971

Schooling the World, video by Economics of Happiness.


One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.