A classroom without subject boundaries

(This was published in Deccan Herald on 13th July, 2017)

In most schools, we have rigid 45 minute periods and strict subject boundaries. There are fixed lesson plans, schedules to be adhered to, and syllabus to be finished before the end of the year. It will be sacrilegious for an English teacher to trespass into the domain of the history faculty. It will be blasphemous to have a 45 minute period without assigning it a subject name.

So, in English class, we study textbooks containing short stories and poems. In history class, we learn about The Second World War, or the Russian Revolution. But they never mix.

What if we use a historical fiction like Ken Follett’s ‘Winter of the World’ to study both the history of the Second World War and English? While teaching different systems of governance, how about using George Orwell’s Animal Farm to illustrate communism?

If you propose something like this, there will immediately be a flurry of questions: What are we going to call this subject? And who is going to teach it– English teacher, or the history teacher? How is it going to fit into the syllabus?

Tradition dictates that at the expense of real, enjoyable learning, we must stick to our 45 minute periods. We must stick to the routine assigning fixed hours to individual subjects. We must go through the motions. Going through the motions lulls us into a false sense of complacency that learning must be happening.

In real life, the problems do not come packaged in narrow subject boundaries. In history, a revolution is often sparked by economic inequities, a war by geographical disputes. Geography again is interlinked with physics and chemistry. Why don’t we open our student’s minds to boundless possibilities of learning? Why do we limit their minds with standard textbooks or syllabus?

It is the same mindset that creates the obsession with the number of subjects. I heard parents saying, ‘In XYZ school, they have nine subjects — why do we have only four here?’ As if doubling the number of subjects will double learning. Sometimes parents of students studying at Kindergarten level ask, ‘When will history or geography be introduced? When will my child study computer?’

Schools pander to such demands by giving in. So they teach computers to kids of Class I even though it may just mean teaching them to paint. They introduce history or geography even before the children have learnt to read fluently. Moral Science is introduced as a subject, but the children’s minds remain full of prejudices related to caste, race, religion and gender, fed continuously by us all — at home, at school, everywhere. Correcting these misconceptions does not become a priority, because these are apparent-truths a lot of adults also believe in.

As we remain obsessed with textbooks with narrow subject boundaries, we ignore other avenues of learning. We forget how we adults got to learn most of the stuff that we use now. We developed our reading skills by reading novels and newspapers. We learnt to use technology by experimenting ourselves and asking our friends. We learnt about the latest events and trends from newspapers and magazines. And we used movies to learn about culture and social situations that we haven’t experienced ourselves. We learnt about other places and languages by travelling outside our home state and country.

Story books, newspapers, movies, friends and travel have been some of our most important sources of learning. Why don’t we use them more at school and home? In history, instead of memorizing mind-numbing dates and names, why not show them a historical movie like Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ or Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’? In civics, instead of asking them to memorize the minimum qualifications needed for a member of parliament, why not have a class where we discuss election news from previous day’s newspaper?

Movies can be very useful learning devices

As parents, why don’t we encourage our kids to make more friends rather than bury themselves in textbooks? Instead of memorizing the capitals of countries, why don’t we engage them in discussions about events happening in countries all over the world? Instead of complaining about the lack of homework during the summer vacation, why not take our children to places where they can experience a different culture?

As Einstein has said, ‘Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school.’ For most Indian schools, Einstein’s observation still holds true.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.