(At Shibumi, we are making a radical shift in curriculum. The curriculum is still evolving and we meet frequently to think details out and talk things over. We’d like to share our thoughts with you as they are fleshed out. Do keep an eye on this blog to follow the growth of the curriculum.)
The first letter to the parents of the school, introducing the new curriculum.
The teachers at Shibumi have had intensive and lengthy discussions in our curriculum meetings at the end of the last term: re-connecting with the school’s intent, looking at what we have been doing, what seems to be working and what doesn’t – a process vital to continue functioning with intensity.
The fundamental intent of the school is to nurture a learning mind – that is, a mind free of fear and resistance, a mind which is not caught in conclusions, which is not driven by personal interest, and which has the capacity for stillness, not being preoccupied. It is necessary to have a sense of deep relatedness with the world and the capacity to respond to it responsibly and fully. Along with this, our intent is to help a young person find out what he or she loves to do – which does not mean an exclusive activity, but to help each student discover areas in which there may be the deep interest, aptitude and vulnerability for life to most fully express itself through the individual.
We would like to put into place a new programme/curriculum, starting this term, which we feel will help awaken such a learning mind.
This curriculum will be much more individualized than it is at present. Till the age of about twelve it will not change too much and will consist of basic skills in mathematics and languages in addition to group activities, exposures, workshops and trips. There may be short apprenticeship periods arranged for the eleven and twelve year olds of the kind we had organized this year.
From twelve to sixteen, the curriculum will be increasingly individual and interest-led. We will help the student develop skills and understanding in the area(s) of their interest, irrespective of whether or not it is an academic discipline. We will try to arrange for individual apprenticeships with willing people who share these interests and are passionately involved in what they are doing. There will continue to be an ongoing programme of some mathematics, reading, writing and other communication skills, learning to think, gather information, solve open-ended problems, mostly through working at what each student is interested in. This may be done by following up a period of hands-on, immersive apprenticeship outside the school by a period of further study, documentation and presentation within school. This could be one way of stretching the student’s capacities in the realm of hands-on learning as well as in that of the intellect.
While we will take every care to see that the young person is apprenticed with people who are not only passionate about their work but also otherwise responsible and grounded, we will also continue to engage in direct dialogue with the student. The process of mutual sharing, questioning and challenging will in fact be vital to such an approach to education.
We foresee that such a curriculum will help foster a love of learning (because a student would be working at something that he or she cares about, rather than accepting the existing drudgery of the system), along with self-confidence and responsibility. Adopting this approach, however, means completely doing away with our emphasis on the school leaving examinations, which has hitherto been accepted as a default end-point of schooling, even at Shibumi. We will fulfil our commitment to the handful of students who are already working towards their exams, but we will no longer start training children for examinations from the age of 14.
From our experience as teachers, we have come to see that the consequences of having compulsory school-leaving examinations have been serious, even in the more flexible schools.
While there is the odd student who is able to take examinations lightly and well without it interfering with her growth, most students spend their years from about 12 to 17 working towards exams at the cost of their essential vitality, losing their real capacity for learning and exploration. As teachers and parents we accept this, placing exam-preparation over deeper, more meaningful learning experiences, because of our fears of letting go of the structure of exams. Inevitably, the students too harbour the adults’ insecurities and become dull through coping with the unpleasantness and stress of it all. The last few years of school are accepted as a time of struggle, within which the student seeks some fulfillment in competing with fellow students and in various diversions and entertainment. This dulled mind may even resist learning opportunities which do not seem directly relevant to the exams.
Though many of our students have gone on to successful careers, the primary intention of helping a young person discover what he loves to do has remained largely unfulfilled. Even for a student deeply interested in a subject that is typically taken for an exam, the demand that he should start preparing to study the syllabus at the age of 14, and then one exam succeeding another at a relentless pace, takes away all the time for exploration and enjoyment. Fourteen is an age when a young person is facing the many challenges of growing up, emotionally and physically. Meeting these challenges fully demands a lot of care and energy on the part of the adults and a sense of space for the adolescent. It is clearly not the right age to start focusing and narrowing down, which necessarily happens at the loss of something vital. If we are concerned with preserving the vitality that all young people have, we must provide sufficient time and the right environment for it to take root.
At the end of the education we are shifting towards, if a student, at the age of 16, shows the desire and motivation to do examinations, we will help support a programme of self study leading to the same, beginning only after the student’s 16th birthday. We hope that by this time the student will have the necessary stamina, responsibility and the skills of self study which would have been emphasized throughout their schooling. With this base in place, preparing for the exams will not be a struggle for the child who is taking up the challenge voluntarily. The learning process will also be free of the dependence on the adult which makes the process unsatisfactory to both adult and student.
We may charge a nominal fee to such students to cover expenses and may require them to volunteer some hours of work every day or week at the school. There are a couple of reasons why we feel this would be a favourable arrangement. We would like to sever the link between the charging of fees and examinations which seems to somehow dominate and vitiate relationships between teachers and students creating dependency and expectation. Schools begin to see themselves and to be seen as providers of a service albeit of a special kind. Education is an act of responsibility towards the young. Volunteering at the school will also instill the responsibility and self-respect that is very necessary for a young person of this age. Continued dependency and the feeling of having to be taken care of may be creating some of the resentment and resistance that are part of so many adult-teenager relationships.
This is a very new approach to school education, at least in the Indian context, and there are naturally missing details in the curriculum plan at this stage. But we feel confident that with the care and attention of parents and teachers it will succeed.
The school cannot be equipped in advance with all the resources necessary for such an education. But we can draw on the resources of the world around us and with the help of parents and friends, identify people with whom they can interact and be apprenticed with for short periods of time. There are many who would gladly share their skills with interested youngsters. The role of the teacher will not be primarily one of giving skills and information but of observing and understanding the learning needs of the individual student and putting him in touch with an environment which will help a passion for learning take root. At the school, the adults would offer elective modules of their interest and expertise, which the young people would join in according to their interests without being forced. All attempts would be made to expose students to a rich and varied environment appropriate to their age and interests either at school or through other resource-people.
We must emphasise that this kind of education cannot succeed without the whole-hearted support of the parents. It will be detrimental to a young person to receive contradictory messages from the home and school and to feel torn between the two. It is therefore imperative for the parents to talk over and fully clarify all their concerns with the school, and examine whether they are completely willing to take the journey with their child, facing their own insecurities and letting go of them.
In conclusion we may note that many examining bodies seem to see the wisdom of doing away with examinations at the tenth standard level.. The CBSE has made the 10th standard examination optional. In the US there are no school leaving certificates at the high school level. In the UK students are increasingly opting to sit for their first school exam at the age of 18. The IB has no equivalent at the 10th standard level. Of course schools may continue to visualize the curriculum in terms of standardised curricula consisting of the usual ‘school’ subjects and activities and to have exams as a means of motivation and control.