Saturday, August 14, 2010

Redefining Brilliance

I recently attended a conference that showcased a multimedia educational program for schools and colleges. This amazing program is already running successfully in several schools in India. As more and more schools adopt it, it could be that one big thing that finally revolutionizes the way India teaches and learns in her schools.

As the event progressed, I felt like India was finally "getting it."

At long last, phrases like "different learning styles," "hands-on learning," and "making learning fun" were doing the rounds to describe educational programs that will be taught right here on Indian soil, not exported half way across the world to the highest bidder. The burden of an education system that weighs heavily on our children's shoulders as they trudge to school every morning was about to get a lot lighter. For a culture that has given undue importance to marks and ranks for decades now, where a "point one" percent can spell the difference between happiness and misery, sometimes even life and death, any approach that attempts to reduce this obsession with marks and bring the focus back onto the learning process is to be welcomed with open arms.

Just as I felt that hope for our children was right around the corner, an eager executive in the audience sprang the "I" word. "Is there any data to prove that this program will help children get into the IITs?"

Dude. The Indian Institute of Technology? Say what? We're talking school education here. We're talking English, History, Geography, Biology, Chemistry, Math, Environmental Science, Political Science. We're talking about a meaningful exposure to all kinds of knowledge, so that hopefully, children will grow up knowing that there is life outside the IITs and IIMs as well.

Back at the conference, what ensued was a tug of war between the IIT lover and those who argued that the program did not provide any such guarantee.

The "I" word. It's no great secret that India has long been obsessed with the IITs and IIMs. These are premier institutes of technology and management, respectively. Top notch, no doubt. They have always been regarded as the abode of the brilliant. Clearing their intensely competitive entrance exams is considered to be the ultimate mark of brilliance.

I only wish this country had equally prestigious institutes for the artistically inclined. Unfortunately, "brilliance" remains an adjective reserved only for the mathematically and technologically inclined.

When someone is introduced as being from an IIT or IIM, the very mention of the three letter word elicits a predictable reaction from most listeners. Enthusiastic nods, plenty of them, are accompanied by a prompt shooting up of the eyebrows. This indicates that the subject is extremely impressed. And that no further introduction would be necessary.

While I wouldn't want to read too much into the question that was asked at the conference, I must admit that I found the question quite disturbing. It seemed to view education as a means to an end. An end that is often presumed to be ideal purely for monetary reasons. Or simply for the "glory" that the achievement of such an end would bring to the family name.

I have nothing against the IITs and IIMs. In fact I think some of their graduates are making very meaningful contributions to the corporate and social sectors. However, what disturbs me is the presumption by a person that an educational program somehow gets credence purely by virtue of its ability to prepare students for a career in technology or management. And that students who cannot get into these institutes do not count as "brilliant."

I eagerly await the day when brilliance will actually be a measure of how spontaneously, how creatively, and how passionately a child is able to nurture and display their unique talent and skill. It doesn't matter what talent that is.

There is no doubt that the new program being introduced in schools is a quantum leap in the right direction! However, as we make this phenomenal shift on the outside, it needs to be accompanied by a shift in the way we think about the very purpose of education.

An education that helps children open their minds - helps them think more, observe more, analyze more, and construct more; one that gives them all the courage they need to cast away the shackles of societal burden and soar into skies of infinite possibilities; gives them the gift of a free mind; now that is an education that has fulfilled its promise.