Guiding Light of The Month

OH, let Light be poured on all the earth and Peace inhabit every heart. . . Almost all know only the material life heavy, inert, conservative, obscure; their vital forces are so tied to this physical form of existence that, even when left to themselves and outside the body, they are still solely occupied with these material contingencies that are yet so harassing and painful. . . - The Mother

The Mirambika System of Education

During my trip to New Delhi, I had the privilege of visiting Mirambika, a school that practices a form of education that, in its form and spirit, is the diametrical opposite of Singapore's.

In essence, and at the risk of some simplification and hasty generalization, Singapore's system is characterized by the following : clear and fixed learning outcomes that all pupils of a given ability group must attain by a certain age (subject to minor variations in subject combinations, and with increasing latitude of choice as a student matures); standardized and national assessment modes to evaluate and validate the attainment of these outcomes; packed and challenging subject content, with an emphasis on higher level cognitive skills on the academic side - coupled with an orientation towards tangible achievement, character development and often intense training on the co-curricular side. In combination, these lead to a tense and intense educational experience, with a premium placed on efficiency and professional management. Finally, guiding the whole education system are essentially pragmatic goals of economic and social well-being.

The results are, on the one hand, achievements in math, science and reading that are among the best in the world; and on the other hand, a lack of the values that linger at the bottom of our nation's collective heart: creativity, spirituality, curiosity, an appreciation for beauty and an idealistic aspiration for excellence. And needless to say, the Education System is one that moulds its wares with a good degree of flame and pain, and where joy of learning is often a dusty half-dead flower that could hardly breath. Continue on this path, and we will probably be a nation that will last (for a time), but will produce nothing lasting.

In Mirambika, we get the following : 'free progress' of pupils with self-directed, interest-based goals formulated with the help of teachers; flexible  assessments varying with the goals, and (I believe) consisting of assessments by teachers, peers and most importantly, self; spacious and sunlit learning spaces that foster collaboration; generous time given for learning and exploration; and finally, a sincere and single-minded aspiration to flexibly foster the potentialities of a child's mental, vital, physical and spiritual being - arguably something impossible in a system where one eye must always be kept simultaneously on the clock and the exam syllabus.

Having carried out several lesson observations, and having talked to many teachers, one can see that this is not of course a 'perfect' school - as the Mirambika teachers are only too aware. Viewed from an efficiency-driven Singaporean perspective, there would appear to be much 'waste': far too much time is devoted for pupils to explore and 'construct knowledge' through carrying out a few projects. And for someone who is used to the careful design of 'valid assessments', the assessment modes here would probably be lacking in rigour and too dependent on subjective observations (where are the rubrics, the measurable learning outcomes etc.). And at the end of the day, at age fourteen, students graduate to 'normal schools' where they end up preparing for, well, national exams. Finally, Mirambika is a school guided by the spiritual philosophy of the Indian sage, philosopher, poet and independence fighter, Sri Aurobindo. From a 'pragmatic' perspective, this focus on the 'soul' of the child, this emphasis on looking deeply within and without to find one's true potential, might seem to be both dreamy-eyed and impractical.

Yet even in the short time I am there, I saw many things that I could hardly ever see in Singapore, whether in the ultra-elite enclave of Hwa Chong, or in my current more ordinary school. First, the level of engagement and happiness while learning is quite extraordinary. Smiling faces everywhere, and children cheerfully engaged in learning and sharing. Second, there is a very high level of creativity and initiative displayed. Take for instance, a class of primary five children who were engaged in producing a drama showcasing the history of education in India. This project arose out of the children's curiosity, and its script was written collaboratively by the children as well.

It started in the 22nd century, in a world run by artificial intelligence and without schools, where 4 bored children accidentally happened upon an exotic object (which they later realized was something called a 'book') on the history of education. The play then flashed back to the ancient Vedic period, moving through the Buddhist period and the Mughal period before entering the modern world of Mirambika.  In each period, the form of education, accompanied by the real language spoken in that era, was enacted, followed by the rather insightful commentary of the 22nd century children.

The first thing that was clear was the amount of thought expended on the dynamics between characters, the use of plot devices, the creation of suspense and so on. Indeed, the dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot were fresh and interesting.  Given their lack of creative stimulus and training, I wonder how many of my upper Sec kids, or even the 'gifted' top one percent from Hwa Chong, can craft something equalling the work of these eleven-year-olds.

The inter-disciplinary learning that had gone on on was also evident. Not only did the children have to digest the bare facts of educational history and apply the conventions of drama to transform them into striking and interesting materials, they used Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi and English throughout the course of the play, and had to learn about Vedic Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism and (I think) Islam as well. They also had to learn skills of collaboration and co-creation, and practice the usual competencies for self-direction. Of course, throughout the project, they engaged in active reflection about the purpose and practice of education - thus addressing the original thrust of their curiosity.

I am relatively sure that despite the long time spent on the project, whatever they learn will stick for a long time, and they will have a fund of readily transferrable skills and knowledge for their next challenge. And most importantly, they would have done all this not because of the fear of punishment or a greed for marks, but mostly because they want to create and learn. In this way, Mirambika seems to be truly preparing her students for the 'test of life', and not a 'life of tests'. indeed the method here, messy and inefficient as it may seem to one used to careful planning and engineering, mirrors the method of Life itself. By allowing pupils to develop in line with their nature, by trusting to the natural growth of children in a fruitful environment, and by collaborating with a manifesting spirit within, Mirambika may well develop more complete and creative human beings who may, in many cases, be more ready than our hyper-trained Singaporean graduates to deal with the subtle, unforeseen and tremendous challenges of our future.

- Jared

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