Rethinking Education


I am writing this to share my anguish at what we are doing in the name of schooling. By ‘we’, I mean educators and the education system in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, South Africa and most of Africa, state schools in UK and America. That is more than 60% of the global population of school-going children. Those that don’t fit the picture that I have drawn below are to be congratulated. I hope everyone else can come on par so that one day very soon, this paper will be read as an interesting piece on how bad things used to be.

Let me try to define the problem:

We have managed to create a global society which is almost exclusively focused on amassing material wealth and possessions. A society where worship of personal desire is the predominant religion and selfishness its primary virtue. A society which defines success in terms of the ends without any thought about the means. A society where compassion, cost to others of our achieving our goals, cost to the well-being of the environment, hopes and aspirations of the less well-endowed; have all lost meaning and are not considered even worthy of passing thought. The reality is that we are burning our candle at both ends and are about to be plunged into darkness from which nobody can emerge unscathed. As someone once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth, is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ In this case, look in the mirror and meet both the cancer cell and its victim. In the words of J. Krishnamurthy, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

We are profoundly sick.

It is for this reason that we need to rethink education because our present education system which was stared during the Industrial Revolution in the UK and later America and was exported to the rest of the world is spectacularly successful. You may be surprised to read this but it is indeed successful in creating what it was designed to create — unthinking, unquestioning, obedient workers. Education was and continues to be modeled on the needs of the military-industrial complex with children being treated as raw material. Something to be altered to suit the need of the manufacturer, in which the needs of the raw material are of no significance. Standardization is the key, with conformity being the cardinal virtue. Individualism, imagination, curiosity, diversity, non-standard ways of learning are all seen at best as a nuisance to be ‘cured’ or at worst as a virus to be ejected. Standardized testing is the tool to convert oppression into a virtue and force all square pegs to fit into round holes. Questioning is treated as rebellion and dealt with exactly as questioning (also called rebellion) is treated in industries (suppressed by force calling it unionization and labor unrest) or in the world (suppressed by the military calling it insurgency). Scant if any attention is paid to addressing issues that led to the unrest because after all the need of bosses (read teachers, school authorities in collusion with ignorant parents) that ‘production’ must not stop, whatever the cost, is supreme.

What we need today to cure our potentially fatal global malaise is the opposite of what our schools are designed to produce. We need people who are thinking, questioning, positively rebellious leaders with the commitment to work for the benefit of others. People with the skills to diagnose, define, conceptualize, strategize, communicate and monitor. But before all that, the integrity, compassion and energy to continue to work in the face of disappointment, discouragement and opposition.

I submit to you that we don’t have an implementation or quality problem. We have a design problem. A railway carriage is not designed to fly. It is designed to be dragged along behind an engine. No matter how much power you add to its engine or how luxurious the interiors, a train will never fly because flying is first a design issue. A microlight aircraft on the other hand flies even with fractional horsepower because it is designed to fly. Our education is not designed to create leaders. It is designed to create mindless, obedient followers. Fancy infrastructure, using state of the art technology in teaching, high or low fee or teacher salaries will still not produce leaders because we are building railway carriages, designed to be dragged along behind an engine. We can’t build planes in a train factory. If we want to fly, we need to build a plane factory. We need to rethink our design based on our objective of taking to the air. Design dictates performance. We need to redesign. Not alter trains expecting them to fly.

In effect the focus must be more on the tools of learning than on accumulation of random data. Focus must be on the spirit of enquiry on asking the right questions with the best question being the one which has no answer; yet. So the search can continue and the student doesn’t sit smug like a bug in his rug, content that he has the answer and need not look any further. Real education is to deliberately put yourself into a state of positive confusion, of productive stress, where you are forced out of your comfort zone of certainties.

This thought, that confusion is good and pat answers are bad, is uncomfortable and even painful as it forces you to look at yourself as the start of the process of education. Real education is as much if not more, about educating the teacher as it is about educating the student. Both are companions and partners in learning. I know we educators pay lip service to these thoughts. Unfortunately, that is a sign of our hypocrisy as our every word and action gives the lie and exposes our inherent arrogance as being ‘people with knowledge’ who have to teach the ‘ignorant’. We need to create an atmosphere where there’s a premium on questioning and teach the art of asking good questions instead of the mugging up of someone else’s answers. This doesn’t mean that all other’s answers are wrong. It merely means that the answer was right for that person. But you have to arrive at the answer yourself independently for it to be right for you — even if it is the same answer. That makes you stronger in the end.

One reality that is clear from all this which takes us to the core issue of all learning is the importance of variety and diversity of life experience. Not standardization but its exact opposite — diversification. The question for us therefore is, ‘How do we help students to have a widely diverse menu of life experiences so that they have a sound basis for diagnosis and decision making?’

In summary therefore, real education is the result of integration of academics with structured life experience designed to teach applicable lesson and teach students the tools they need to succeed. In my view this can’t be done while keeping our current so-called education system in place. There is only one thing to be done with our production-factory-style-worker-producing education system which is to give it a decent burial. We have to start afresh, with a totally new approach arising out of accepting the reality about children (that they are not little boxes to be filled and labelled, but living breathing, thinking human beings with opinions, likes, dislikes, differences in how they learn, what interests them and what doesn’t and above all, the need to learn how to apply the learning).

Our biggest challenge and the greatest resistance to this new philosophy will come from our own minds and hearts. Truly it is not easy to accept that we have successfully destroyed several generations, including of course ourselves in the process and to accept that we were totally, gloriously, shamelessly wrong in everything we did in the name of education. It will not be easy to accept that we — the educators of the world — are responsible for the totally immoral, greedy, toxic and suicidal society that we are now living in. But that is the truth. The beauty of accepting responsibility for a problem is that, then and only then, are you given the ability and strength to solve it. You can’t solve what you don’t own. So let us begin by being brutally honest and own responsibility for the problem and pray for success in solving it. The solution is:

Integrated Education

I believe that education must achieve four things:

1. Awaken and strengthen the conscience

The purpose of all education is to civilize. The hallmark of civilization is concern for others. That is why moral education must precede technical. People who know tools but have no moral bearings are people who can drop an atomic bomb on a city and sleep peacefully that night. People who are the opposite use drones to hasten medical aid instead of killing people by remote control. The distinguishing fact about human beings that differentiates us from other animals is compassion, concern for others and the willingness to stand up for another person who is oppressed when that oppression doesn’t affect us personally. The Wildebeest herd doesn’t defend one of their number who is being killed by lions. Each one thinks about himself and as long as he is not affected, he doesn’t care. That is why when he becomes affected, others don’t care and the cycle continues.

We humans are supposed to be different and our homes and schools are the places where we are supposed to be taught this cardinal differentiator. But how can that happen when we preach discrimination at home and teach individual competition and non-cooperation, even to the extent that we punish cooperation and collaboration between students in school. The insanity continues because once our students learn non-cooperation and destructive competition and graduate from our schools and enter the workforce, we then spend a fortune doing team building, mutual collaboration, active listening, boundaryless working and all such kinds of training workshops trying to undo years of what we taught them at school.

Our challenge is to build a foundation of moral values, ethics of behavior and good manners that give precedence to consideration for others and the commons. All this arising out of compassion, empathy and a total lack of self-centeredness. I don’t say ‘selflessness’, because I believe the moving spirit is what I call ‘positive selfishness’; which means to feel satisfied and happy when you see smiles on the faces of others. It is not that you are not concerned with the results of your actions but that you are concerned about achieving good results for others — not only for yourself. And you do this because you get true satisfaction from it and because you are aware that it is only in the overall good that your own safety, happiness and development lie.

Integrity, justice, freedom, honesty, courage, standing up for the unpopular opinion, raising a voice against the oppressor no matter how powerful he/she may appear to be, generosity, facing success and failure with equanimity, commitment and industry — all seem to be values which are not mentioned any more. Integrated Education must not only mention but champion them and teach them by practice. Success case studies where people have applied these values in their lives; stories of their struggle and the question of evaluating their success — not in conventional terms alone of whether or not they achieved what they set out to do but in real terms of the number of others they freed and encouraged through their own struggle, to take the unpopular stand for justice. All this must be done with the clear understanding that values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do.

2. Create excitement for new learning

As I have mentioned earlier, the biggest problem with our current so-called education system is that we give answers, insist that there is only one right answer and shut down all questioning, enquiry and dissent. We not only don’t encourage but actively discourage approaches other than the ‘approved’ ones. I am speaking about our school systems. Strangely at the university level, in the West, this is overturned and there is great freedom to try different ways to reach the goal. The results are clear and obvious. What I have failed to understand is why our school system continues to work at cross purposes with our university system (only in the West). In India, the Middle East and South Asia both school and university are in the same pit of darkness. But at least in the West, where the two systems are opposed to each other, I don’t see why change hasn’t come yet except in exceptional cases like Finland.

Be that as it may, the critical need today is to forbid the killing of imagination, rebellion, dissent, questioning and putting activity before reflection. Forbid, not only by word and decree but make it impossible by making structural changes in what we teach and how we teach it. Imagination, questioning and reflection are all part of being human and don’t need to be taught. What needs to be done is to ensure that they are not suppressed and killed because they are inconvenient and troublesome. This is what happens effectively today in our schools.

Who are we teaching?

We have to realize and accept the fact that our challenge as educators is to prepare our students to face a future that we know nothing about. This means that we have to teach them tools, not try to give them answers from our experience. Our experience at best has historical value and that too only if the student has the tools to conceptualize learning from the incidents and stories that he/she reads or hears from us. If not, they are at best entertaining stories and at worst a boring waste of time. So teach tools, not answers. The most difficult challenge in this is to accept that we don’t have relevant answers since we don’t know the future, yet retain the confidence that from our experience, we can teach the tools they need to find their own answers from their experiences in life. But that means that we must first learn the tools to be able to teach them. Those who have understood this will tell you that it is an amazing relief to accept that we don’t have all the answers and frees us from the stress of always being ‘right’. You give yourself the permission to be wrong or to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Imam Malik bin Anas, the great Muslim jurist said, ‘I don’t know; is the shield of the scholar.’ This is potentially our greatest contribution, if we can make it.

Question our beliefs

For this to happen, we have to examine and change our basic beliefs about children; that they need us to learn, that they don’t know what is good for them, that they must always be directed, ordered and if they don’t obey, punished. That they must be supervised and are not to be trusted; that they are incapable of independently handling responsibility and that their contribution is essentially useless which may be tolerated up to a point and then shut down. Every single one of these beliefs is manifestly and completely false, but we continue to act on them. All this may sound extreme but this is exactly how we behave vis-à-vis students in our schools. If you don’t agree, please reflect on the following:

What do you call a place where when you enter, a gate shuts behind you and you can’t leave until the gate opens again? Where your day is divided arbitrarily by others without any consultation with you and these divisions are indicated by bells or sirens, because you can’t even be trusted to be your own timekeepers? What do you call a place where you can’t speak without permission, can’t even go to the toilet without permission, can’t eat when you are hungry and must eat when you are told, whether you are hungry or not? You can’t play when you want but must play when you are told, whether you feel playful or not? You have nothing called ‘free time’, where ‘doing’ is everything and reflection is nothing? What do you call a place where you are segregated not according to interests, or talents, or your friends but by your date of manufacture (age) and are taught whatever the powers that be, think you need to learn, without any consultation with you about whether you want to learn that or not?

What do you call a place where regimentation is the name of the game, where compliance is the cardinal virtue; only obedience is rewarded; questioning, especially of the system is considered rebellion; and punishment is meted out publicly so that the humiliation overwhelms the pain? Finally, what do you call a place where what happens to you is not decided by you; indeed, you have nothing to say in it at all; but it is decided by those who own you and those who own the correction facility? No, I am not talking about prisons. I am talking about our schools. Although everything I said, applies equally well to prisons. Our schools are prisons.

What is amazing is that we actually pay for our children to go there when we have ourselves been through them and should have realized the evil they do to the young impressionable mind. But we have been conditioned to accept the dominant narrative and have suffered enough punishment or seen others punished; to have learnt the danger of questioning. Finally, ask why we have an august body called the Parent-Teacher Association. Have you ever heard of a Parent, Teacher, Student Association? I haven’t. Ask why not when schools are supposed to be for children, not for teachers or parents?

Irrelevant Teaching

The amazing eye-opening research of Sugata Mitra (see appendix) proves that teachers are unnecessary to teach skills provided there is enough curiosity and desire in the students to learn and they are given research resources. So the role of the teacher is not to enforce learning on unwilling subjects but to excite curiosity and ignite desire and then open the doors to resources. The last is the easiest because resources are available easily and cost free.

Our teaching today, barring exceptions, consists of filling boxes (children) with random information which they have no idea how to use or what to do with. They have no idea how one piece of information (geography) relates to another (history) and how that relation has relevance today (current affairs). The same is the situation with all other subjects including science and math. Having suffered this, their success in measured not by understanding of what they learnt but by their ability to regurgitate unprocessed data, in response to random questions in a specific time frame. Those who can do that are deemed to have aced the exams. What did they demonstrate? Memory. I believe that our current exams are a reflection of our own admission that what we teach can’t possibly be understood and applied, so there’s no point in asking any questions about that.

During this time (exams), the individual destructive competition that we encourage in the entire system comes to the fore and any student who helps another is called a ‘cheater’ and thrown out and disqualified. What is his crime? Collaborating with another citizen, helping someone who needed help, sharing knowledge or at least information. Yet we insist on calling this education. And then we are surprised that the most highly ‘educated’ nations in the world are the most barbaric. That is why I say that the most difficult task is to bring about a mindset change. But sadly without that nothing else will work. I have proposed solutions later so please bear with me.

3. Make sense in terms of application of learning

As I have mentioned before, since understanding and relating what we understand in one area of knowledge to another is not even on our menu, it is hardly surprising that application of learning is not the most important thing on our mind. So we have the completely incongruous situation of our brightest pupils landing in the field of life completely incapable of taking care of themselves or of applying what they learnt to anything useful, productive or remunerative. In India the situation is alarming to say the least. Education has been made into a business, a seller’s market where the customers are helpless and quality is the last thing on the seller’s mind. This is not simply a rant. I am speaking on behalf of those who are suffering this injustice of paying for an education which delivers nothing valuable. Data speaks volumes:

What do you call a system where 97% of the graduates of a professional course are unemployable? I don’t think calling it ‘education’ really fits. But that is the sad reality of our system. The tragedy is that the only people who suffer at the end of it all are the students. The college owners make money with the fees they charged which is not refundable if the student can’t get a job. Teachers get their salaries whether or not the student learns. If the student fails to learn, the teacher is not held responsible at all. I don’t say that the entire responsibility is of the teacher’s but shouldn’t teachers at least share the responsibility of learning? But in our system they don’t. Everyone walks free except the poor student who had no say in what he would be taught or how. All he/she did was to choose a subject. Everything else happened without his say. Yet he/she is the only one who pays a real price.

Solutions: What we must do to break out of this prison

Three things must happen in education which are all complementary to each other:

1. Through the study of history, language, literature, poetry, art, culture and religion the student must be linked to the sum total of human knowledge, experience and development so that he understands his roots. Our roots and origins must be taught truthfully as being in the entire human race and not in our own narrow false interpretation of it in terms of some caste, nationality or race.

2. Science, math or technology must be clearly related to its application in real life. This need not be restricted to how it is applied today alone but the door must be opened for students and teachers together to explore application possibilities in the world of imagination. Imagine solutions for tomorrow.

3. Principles of citizenship: equality, universal brotherhood, justice, responsibility, dissent, dignity and diversity of belief and practice must all be taught and emphasized so that a feeling of personal superiority and arrogance doesn’t take root in the mind.

The purpose of real education is to prepare students to deal with life and to create and live in a society that is beneficial for everyone in it. What passes in the name of education today fails on almost all of these parameters. It is true that if we’d had a society that reflected the best of these principles, our educators would have claimed credit for that and rightly so. Then where must we place the responsibility for the kind of society that we have ended up creating, which is the opposite of all these principles; except at the door of the same educators?

The idea is not to blame or condemn but to express the pain and anguish at the kind of global community that we have created and to raise the call for the need for urgent and sweeping change. As I have said before, the time for cosmetic or even incremental changes has gone, if ever it was there in the first place. It is now time to make transformational changes if we are to survive as the human race. It is not a question of saving the earth but of saving ourselves. Today we have people agitating to save everything from tigers to the most minor beetle. I ask you, ‘Who is ready to agitate to save humanity itself?’

For humanity is in far greater danger than the tiger and the need to save it from itself is far more urgent.

So what must happen? How is real education to be done?

I believe that what we need to do is to integrate education and teach children according to the ways human beings learn. What do I mean by that? Let’s begin:

1. Citizenship is what schools must teach and inculcate before anything else. Citizenship means respect for one another and the willingness to participate in the good of one another. The way to inculcate this is to show respect for the students by involving them in all decision making that affects them. After all we consider this to be justice and practice it in all other aspects of our society. We must do three things for this to happen:

a. Students Council

i. Create a Students Council to which representatives will be elected by the students practicing the best principles of democratic participation. This Council will have the responsibility to discuss and decide on any matter that involves them and present their recommendations to the Principal (or Governing Council of the School). These may be any matter including the daily timetable, class duration, games to be played, school uniform, extracurricular activities, hobby clubs, sports, holidays, special interests and needs or anything else. The school must be a microcosm of life and society and students must learn how to engage in it and influence outcomes while ensuring that the main purpose of their coming to school — to study — is fulfilled.

b. The Principal/Council will inform the Students Council about any non-negotiables concerning any matter and will in the normal course of things, accept the recommendations. Where they feel that the recommendations can’t be accepted, they will give reasons and request the Students Council to come up with fresh recommendations. No recommendation may be refused without giving reasons. That is the real meaning of respecting people.

c. Teacher Effectiveness Appraisal

ii. Teaching is not simply a job but a major responsibility with long lasting consequences on the lives of people. So assessing the effectiveness of a teacher is critical to quality. The purpose of such assessments is not to punish teachers but to help them to become better teachers and more effective in their roles. The assessments must be done professionally by an independent agency on internationally accepted parameters but one of the most critical elements of that assessment must be student feedback. This feedback must be sought with data and collated anonymously and fed back to the teachers as part of the post-assessment debrief so that they can know how they are viewed by their customers. Like all assessments and customer feedback results — these must also be linked to annual bonuses and promotional opportunities for the teachers. Only then will they be taken seriously.

2. Humans learn from peers and together; not in segregated groups. Organizing classes by age is against human learning habits. After all you don’t forbid your older children at home from interacting with their younger siblings. On the contrary you encourage them to take care of them and teach them what they know. That way learning is accepted more readily by the younger ones and makes meaning to the older ones. Yet in our schools we follow the factory model and segregate children according to date of manufacture. So this is the first thing to change.

a. We must organize multi-age classrooms with children of at least a 3-year age gradient studying together. This is how human beings learn best.

3. Class size must be reduced from what it currently is (in India) to not more than 20 per class.

4. Teaching must become client based — not even answering questions, let alone dictate notes — but helping students to ask good questions and then helping them find answers. By helping I mean directing them to resources they can search for the answer, help them in the research if they need help as well as encourage them to explore new areas, hitherto unused for such answers. This will be an excellent way to show the relatedness between different bodies of knowledge.

5. Learning comes from different sources but the differentiator of human learning is the ability of human beings to take learning from one place and apply it in another completely different place with a completely different contextual setting. So the more variety of life experiences a person can collect, the bigger is his/her database to search for appropriate life lessons to apply when he/she needs them.

One of the finest examples of this is the ‘training of prophets’, through the shepherding of sheep. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be on them all) were all shepherds of sheep. And through this activity they learnt the fundamentals of leading flocks of people, caring for the weak, standing between their flock and the wolves that always stalk the unwary, leading them through the easiest paths through potentially dangerous territory. The shepherd puts his flock and its needs ahead of his own. He stakes his life to protect them. He is awake while they sleep as he looks out for them. His primary concern is for them. And he does all this because he understands that his role as a shepherd and its success depends on one thing only — the welfare of his flock. So if he wants to be a considered a successful shepherd his flock must ‘speak’ for him.

The Prophet Muhammadﷺ was a shepherd in his childhood, thus taking responsibility at an early age and being alone all day and sometimes even at night while he was still not even a teenager. Then he started accompanying his uncle on his cross country trade caravan journeys traveling through hundreds of miles of desert and sometimes hostile territory. There are no passengers in caravans. At least not men. Everyone has a responsibility and that for first timer youth is usually to take care of the animals. The two most difficult animals to take care of, are camels and horses. But that is what the Arabian trade caravans consisted of. Then was the wealth of learning in the great trade centers of Palestine and Damascus of meeting and dealing with people from different nationalities and races, speaking different languages and following different religions. Here came the learning of pluralism as well as the importance of being able to deal with people in an environment where you are the stranger who has no power or authority, yet you have to strike the best deal for your trade goods. You need to learn to communicate across cultural boundaries, learn other’s ways, learn to handle conflicts, negotiate, take risk both personal and financial, make mistakes and learn from them and deal with success and failure with equanimity. This is where reputations get built and so it was in his case.

Muhammadﷺ used to spend long hours in isolation, in contemplation, meditation and prayer, alone in a cave of the top of a high rocky hill near his hometown of Makkah. Once again a very different type of experience of being alone, especially at night, watching the world at his feet and the sky above. What was in his mind? What did he feel? We don’t have a diary of those days but from my own childhood when I used to spend many hours on top of a rock in the wilderness, several miles from my home, outside the city of Hyderabad, I can try to imagine what it must have felt like. My only companion most times was my Labrador Ben who would clamber up the rock with me and simply lie by my side, the symbol of living happily in the moment.

The point I am making is the value of diverse life experiences which all lead to overall learning which can be applied to all sorts of leadership challenges in life which are contextually very different. I am not saying that all children must necessarily become shepherds or sailors but connecting with the earth and nature and being given responsibility at an early age is a great advantage.

So schools need to create a way to give a wide variety of experience as part of the teaching curriculum. I have suggested ways to accomplish this later in this paper. Parents and schools that shy away from this are doing a great disservice to their wards. Each school can do whatever is practicable for them but diverse learning — not merely sightseeing excursions — must be an important part of the curriculum.

6. Make the classroom exciting: I can perhaps guarantee you today that barring exceptions, if you ask a student of any school or Madrassa today to name the top three exciting places that he would love to be in, he/she will not list his/her classroom in them. If you ask for the top thirty also perhaps, the classroom would meet the same fate. The reason is because our way of educating is a burden to be borne and endured until we come to the welcome breaks during the day and the eventual final break at the end of the school term. It is interesting that we use the same word that you would use for a sojourn in prison — term — for schooling. Very appropriate indeed. That is the reason why I have yet to find a child who even looks at a school text book at the end of their schooling. If they are smart they sell them at a discount and make some ice cream money. If not, they simply trash them. What more do we need as an indicator of what our clients (students) think of our service? What amazes me is that despite the fact that we all went through the same process, we still continue to perpetuate it and pay for it. Why?

So how do you make the classroom interesting? By understanding that discovery is interesting. Being told things which you have to memorize and regurgitate is not. So make the classroom a place of discovery. As I mentioned earlier, don’t give answers. Lead them to ask interesting questions (best question is the one that nobody including the teacher can answer right away). And then lead them to places where they can discover the answers for themselves. Teach them that not to know, to be wrong, to be lost and confused are all acceptable and signs of being engaged, interested seekers. That is the essence of being a student. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer.

Teachers must also believe and accept that they are students and seekers. This has to come from within, not lip service. Only then can you really add value in class. I am always amazed at the difficulty that most schools (Indian) have in organizing teacher training. That educators should resist being educated must tell us something, right? But apparently it doesn’t.

Project Based teaching

The way to achieve the above is not to teach discrete, distinct subjects unrelated to each other but to take up Projects and then use them to teach all the subjects you want to teach. In this way teaching gets inter-related, interactive and collaborative. Students own responsibility for their own learning and take initiative to seek answers to questions that they generate themselves. Educators learn to respect the intelligence of students, appreciate their struggle and share in the joy of their discovery and above all, learn new things about the subject and more importantly, about themselves. Let me illustrate with one example:

Project Mountains

· Geology: Isostacy of mountains: Stabilizing effect on tectonic

· Chemistry: Minerals, rock formation, volcanic activity and its effect

· Geography: How do mountains effect climate and rainfall?

· Biology: Mountain flora & fauna

· History: How did mountains affect the history of nations?

· Culture: How do mountains influence the culture, traditions and beliefs of people who live among them? What has changed today thanks to technology and connectedness? What do these changes mean for us in modern society?

· Literature: Poetry, prose, drama, allegorical reference to mountains

· Mountaineering: Physics of balance, load, atmosphere

· Trips to mountains, mountain climbing, camping on mountains, photography in mountainous areas

· Time for reflection, introspection, journal writing: Let the mountain talk to you then ask, ‘What did it say?’

· For faith based schools: You can talk about what values mountains symbolize in your faith and how this can be applied in our daily lives. You can draw references from your scriptures and history of religious leaders to see how what they did relates to the values you see in mountains today.

Add your own.

A typical class for this, as mentioned earlier would consist of children of multiple ages with several teachers in the classroom, not only one. This is to ensure proper supervision as well as to help them in different ways from their different subject expertise. Many of these teachers can be (very easy to do this) international subject experts who come into the classroom on invitation, personally or virtually. You can have someone from the International Space Station send photographs taken from space of whichever mountain range you are studying. You can have scientists from different areas who will gladly give time to teach students. Those who won’t, you don’t need.

You can work interactively in real time with classrooms across the world, collaborating with teachers and students from different cultures, working on the same project. Remember that it is children who must do all the learning, taking initiative to connect with people and experts. All that teachers or the school need to do is to provide the infrastructure, which in today’s world is increasingly easy and cheap and then sit back and learn as well. All you need for most of what I have said is imagination, a simple high speed internet connection and a computer. You can upscale to smart boards, personal iPads and so on, but all that is optional and not essential. Nice to have but you can still do what I have mentioned with much less than that provided you have the willingness to try. The results will energize you and there will be no looking back.

Your children/students can publish a newspaper of lessons learnt in the course of their project. They will learn the fundamentals of research and publishing. They can publish books at the end of the project. They can make films and have TV shows (YouTube) about their excursions and experiences while working on the project. They can publish or broadcast interviews with subject experts, astronauts, scientists, practitioners. They can take on developmental projects locally or internationally and experience the joy of helping others in need; not by donating money alone but by living and working in those communities. To travel with a mission is the best way to see the world and learn about others but even more importantly to learn about yourself. It is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that learning takes place. That is what happens when we work in societies where their realities are sometimes the stuff of our own nightmares. It is when you live through that, that you wonder how they can still find it in themselves to smile every morning. That tells us more about ourselves than anything else.

The possibilities are endless and their potential to produce young people with real, experiential knowledge of the subject is something that makes me wish I could be born again to study in a school like this.

The same process can be repeated with different projects generating different things that you can and need to learn from each of them especially how each is related to the other. For example, oceans, cities, wars, food, agriculture, animal husbandry, IT, classics of literature and poetry, film making, insects, disease, politics, government, health care, ecology, space, rivers and riverine systems, animal and bird migrations, entrepreneurship, money, economic systems, pollution and its effects on global warming, energy use, carbon footprint, mutual responsibility to all humanity and all creation. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do. That is why we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t kill it, as ours does so effectively and early. The benefit of this system of teaching is not simply that it is exciting but that it directly links with practical application in life and opens doors for lifelong learning. Our students will no longer be unemployable. They will become employers with a conscience.

7. Faith education: Islam

I am preempting the question that I am sure to be asked, ‘How will you teach theology, especially Islamic theology using this method?’ My answer is specific to Islamic teaching but I am sure other faith educators will find it useful and will be able to modify it to suit their needs.

Allahﷻ said about people of intelligence and how they teach and learn:

A’al Imraan 3:190. Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding. 191. Those who remember Allah (always) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, AND think deeply about (research, discovery, invention) the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Rabb! You have not created (all) this without purpose, Glory to You! Give us salvation from the punishment of the Fire.”

In Islam there is no contradiction between religion (knowledge of the Creator) and science (knowledge of the world He created). Allahﷻ called those who are engaged in studying the world (every aspect of it), ‘intelligent’ people. He then went on to describe what real intelligence is and said that it is to first recognize the Creator and then to see His signs in His creation. That leads to acknowledging Him as the Creator and to worshipping Him as it is His right that He should be worshipped by those who benefit from His creation. The entire universe, all that we know today and all that we will come to know as we learn more and more, is an open book of the Creator (Allahﷻ) which points to His power, creativity, ability and above all, His love for His creatures. This is what the Prophet Muhammadﷺ was ordered to read when the first Ayaat (revelation) of the Qur’an were revealed. “Read in the name of your Rabb who created everything.” The reference is to Allahﷻ as the Creator of everything because His creation is visible everywhere to us, who are ourselves His creatures. That is why the great scholar and jurist Ibn Al Qayyim said, ‘There are two books of Allahﷻ — an open book (His creation) and a book that must be opened (the Qur’an).’ Islam invites us to read both the books but first the open book.

Why this method? This is because Islam recognizes that all knowledge is from Allahﷻ and the purpose of all knowledge is to connect the person to His Creator (Allahﷻ). The purpose of learning is to love Allahﷻ as He loves us. To obey Him because we love Him and because we recognize that whatever He orders is for our benefit, not His; because He is free from all need, including the need to be obeyed. Obedience benefits us and disobedience harms us. Faith education adds value to basic human values that are common to all people by showing us the reward for them when we meet Allahﷻ. Faith is the connector that completes the cycle so that the current of the power of the Creator flows through the person who understands who he/she is and how he/she is connected to his/her Creator (Allahﷻ).

How can we apply Project based learning to theology at the school level?

A word about why it is necessary to teach in the Project based way instead of our traditional way of teaching Islamic studies as an add on. Today two systems of teaching Islamic studies are prevalent globally. In Madrassas, math, English and rudimentary history, geography and occasionally science are taught as an add on after the main classes of Islamic studies. These subjects are non-core, don’t count in exams and are taught by people who are usually retired teachers from elsewhere who teach them as a means of earning some pocket money. These teachers also have a lower status (albeit unstated) than the Ulama who are the ‘real’ teachers in the Madrassa and so it is not a job that they like very much. Most Madrassas in India at least, are under-resourced in any case. And so these subjects are treated as a necessary evil to be endured. What happens is that what is taught here raises questions as it apparently doesn’t sync with what is taught in the Islamic studies classes but these questions remain unanswered as there is nobody who can integrate the two and answer them.

Islamic studies themselves are taught in our age-old rote learning method, with almost total focus on memorization and very little, if at all on understanding. Questioning is usually discouraged and beaten down by the club of the threat of impertinence and disrespect for the holy. The spirit of enquiry and challenge that we read about in our history books which was the way our great classical scholars taught, remains in the history books to be faithfully and respectfully read about and put away. Never to be applied today in our teaching. It is not difficult therefore to understand why our graduates from the Madrassa who are really high school graduates but called ‘Aalim’ (Scholar) come out so maladjusted with a conflict between what they know and what is expected of them especially after being bestowed with such an honorable title. Find me one high school kid who is called ‘Scholar’ or ‘Aalim’, and you know what I mean. The title is a burden that they have to bear and becomes a barrier for most to ongoing learning because it makes them shy of asking questions. After all, if you are an Aalim, you are supposed to know it all. So how can you ask questions? Just ask any you know to name the books they have read since their graduation and you will see what I mean. Since they come from an environment that discourages research, asking questions and dissent and which is techno-hostile, most don’t even explore the possibility of learning on their own. Thanks also to their very narrow focus on learning, those that do have no parameters to compare and understand what they may see on the internet.

The exact opposite happens in our Muslim schools where Islamic studies is taught as an add on with exactly as much importance as so-called secular studies gets in the Madrassa. The results are the same with the saving grace that since Muslim school graduates don’t come out with the illusion of being Ulama, they are not as much of an embarrassment as their counterparts. The entire system is highly inadequate to put it mildly and kindly and actually harmful to put it truthfully without any sugar coating.

So how do we apply Project Based teaching to Islamic studies? I believe that at the school level we must not teach Islamic studies exclusively as we do in our Madaaris. We must teach in the Project Based method so that the students emerge well-grounded in all subjects including Islamic studies. This means that the Islamic studies curriculum must be changed and the Dars-e-Nizami (in India) or its different variations that are taught today must be replaced by a new syllabus that covers all the different Islamic sciences at a basic fundamental level. The period of education must also be brought on par with normal schools, from the current 6–8 years to 12 years, so that there is enough time to teach all that I have mentioned. The Project Based approach will ensure that what they learn will be done thoroughly and with a sound understanding of the subject. So in short — no pure Madrassas at the basic education (school) level but schools teaching Islamic studies and modern education subjects together in an integrated manner.

Once basic schooling is over, the students can go to specialist schools to study pure Islamic sciences for their graduation and tertiary education. There they need not do any of the modern education subjects because they have enough of a grounding in them already from their schools. This is the way to cure our present situation of graduating ‘Ulama’ who are at sea and totally out of place in society after having studied 6–8 years of pure Islamic studies without anything else. This is a major lacuna in our system which begs correction.

In Islamic schools also, do projects in the same way with the addition that you also ask questions about what Ayaat, Ahadith, incidents from the Seerah and rulings of Shari’ah that may apply in the case of the project that you are doing. So in the case of mountains you look at Ayaat which mention mountains. Which Ahadith mention mountains; we have several of both? Which incidents in the Seerah mention mountains? See if there are any rulings regarding mountains. How is sunrise and sunset affected by mountains so that if you are camped in a valley how will you determine the time for prayer? Camp with a shepherd on a mountainside especially in the Hijaz or other desert area to get an idea of what the Prophet Muhammadﷺ would have experienced. Spend a night in a camp in a cave on top of a mountain to experience what he would have felt in the cave of Hira. Once again your imagination is the only limit to what you can do to bring Islam in all its aspects, alive in the class. Remember that this is not a theology class. But it is a class where you bring Allahﷻ into the class and let everyone connect to Him. This is a class where in the same breath you are talking about the Qur’an, Sunnah, Fiqh, Seerah, Tafsir, Physics, Chemistry, Math, History, Geography and a host of other things, marveling at how they relate to each other.

This is the beauty of the integrated system of teaching. It makes knowledge relevant, vibrant, exciting and challenging.

7. Social Skills Basket

1. Entrepreneurship

I believe that entrepreneurship is the best way to teach both leadership and citizenship. When people learn to take responsibility for themselves and their output and move mentally from ‘entitlement’ to ‘contribution’, they become valuable members of society. That is when they start thinking outside their selfish interests and think of others because they realize that their own benefit it is linked to that of others.

Vocational Training

  1. Start a Vocational Training Centre in every school. This must be done in every Government and private school and Madrassa. Every child must learn a skill. Products can be sold and the income can be used for the Center. This will also provide employment opportunity for artisans/professionals who are unemployed at present. Parents and community members can be encouraged to participate in this venture by lending their time and skills.
  2. Working with the hands is instructional, therapeutic, engaging and teaches the dignity of labor. It teaches people that simply throwing money at some service provider doesn’t solve problems. It teaches them to value the services that they are now accustomed to receiving without a thought to what makes the service provider valuable.
  3. Funding can come from CSR of companies who I assume, will be happy to fund such ventures. Other sources like Government grants, private philanthropic agencies and philanthropists can also be explored. The funding needed is only to start up. Running expenses will be generated by the center. No fees must be charged to the students. This is important to encourage them to participate.
  4. The building infrastructure already exists. If the timetable is an issue (usually there is enough time in the normal day itself) then the Vocational Training can be done after school and on weekends. In my experience children get so interested that schools will have a task to have adults to supervise on holidays and weekends. But that is a good problem to have.

Entrepreneurship Development Training

Simultaneously an Entrepreneurship Development Training Plan must be established teaching students of the Center how to turn the skill into a business. This will ensure interest in the Vocational Training Course itself as people will be interested if they see how they can make this into a viable business and career option.

I suggest opening both the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship Development Training to local communities also to help everyone and gain popular support. The Entrepreneurship Development Training course must consist of the following skills to be taught in a completely practical mode. NO LECTURES except as initial explanations. All teaching by practitioners.

  1. Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
  2. Budgeting and P & L Accounting
  3. Hiring and Team building
  4. Selling and Service Orientation

2. Leadership Development

Leadership education is a field in itself and I don’t want this article to get too long. But suffice to say that the school must devote time and space to this. One of the good ways to do this is through team sports and outdoor challenge activities. Sailing, mountaineering, abseiling, social work, working with people with various physical challenges, visiting hospitals, hospices, old people’s homes. Taking leadership roles in raising funds for civic projects, working with police in crime prevention, drug abuse and other areas, working with journalists on current political and democracy issues; all these and more are places to learn to lead and demonstrate leadership. Parents and schools must encourage, enable and support all these initiatives.

3. Citizenship

Communication, public speaking, presentation skills, active listening, cross cultural, cross religious, inter-community interactions. Making others welcome. Neighborhood service. Exploring your prejudices about others and shining the light of reality on them. Meeting people face to face to break stereotypes. Participating in parliamentary proceedings, hearings, court cases and public issues as observers. Teaching children from deprived backgrounds, adult literacy programs, working with craftsmen on different handicrafts to appreciate their work and help them to preserve and promote those arts. Special attention to the work that women do in our society, unsung, unappreciated and unremarked; yet absolutely critical. Schools must inculcate respect for women and the underprivileged; not create yet another elitist class.

4. Physical fitness

Team sports, horse riding, archery, swimming and anything else that promotes physical fitness. Special consideration must be given to endurance activity because that teaches the most important lesson about the need for perseverance in life. So long distance running, hiking, jungle lore, orienteering, kayaking, trail riding and all such activities which teach survival skills must be done. Interschool competitions, participating in national tournaments, sports reporting, organizing sporting events and using sporting events to tell the wider, more important story of human enterprise.

5. Connect to the earth

Agriculture, animal husbandry and gardening. These are therapeutic and healing. A connection to the earth is something that we have lost to our great detriment. We need to regain it. The feel of good earth dribbling through the fingers as you plant a tree is something that I can feel and taste to this day. This is what we need to teach. The earth will be saved only by those who love the earth. And only those who are connected to the earth can love it. There is nothing that does that better than agriculture. Agriculture must form a part of all schooling. Children must get their hands dirty, work with water and soil, create compost, use it, plant crops, ornamentals and trees, learn how the entire ecosystem works, learn what is beneficial and what is harmful and feel the joy of a good harvest. They must learn about and practice water conservation techniques and invent new ones. They must work with and use alternate energy. They must learn about and use alternate sources of fuel. They must live in villages without toilets, running water, electricity and learn to regulate their lives according to the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, cook on open fires using animal waste briquettes and use hygienic self-made toilets.

They must learn to handle animals. Learn how to take care of them, treat them when they are sick and feel the joy of their companionship. They must spend time in the forests, learn jungle lore, drink from a jungle stream, sleep under a tree, learn the sounds of the forest and what they mean, learn what is dangerous and what is not, learn to read sign for it is reading sign that leads to a life of happiness. All these varied experiences will build their bank of knowledge which can be applied cross context all through life.

For anyone who thinks that this is all too much, let me tell you that I have done every single one of these things; some in school and some outside on my own and I did them all while having my normal education. So I can assure you from personal experience that this is all possible provided you have the will for it. To read about this please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’ Kindle

In conclusion I would submit that the goal of all our basic school education is and must be the building of moral, ethical, courageous people with open minds who are accepting of others and their differences. Citizens conscious of their role in society, able and ready to contribute in multiple ways to build a world that is holistic, compassionate, intelligent and healing.

I think we have all had enough of the highly toxic system that we have built and inherited. It is time to end this. Before it ends us.


One of our leading thinkers who speaks about this today is Sir Ken Robinson. His explanation of what I have mentioned above is priceless. Please see this TED talk:

Many more on YouTube which I strongly advise you to listen to/watch. Here’s another:

Do schools kill creativity? Indeed, they do. It would be extremely unusual if they didn’t.

Another educator who promotes the idea of children teaching themselves is Sugata Mitra. Listen to him here:

Finnish School system

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success — The Atlantic