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Published in Deccan Herald on 10th October 2015 at http://www.deccanherald.com/content/505509/rational-enquiry-schools.html

Rohit Dhankar

In the dominant traditional paradigm in India, the primary education is almost entirely geared to imparting the famous 3Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmatic) and some rudimentary information regarding natural and social environment. This view is constantly reinforced by large scale evaluations of reading without comprehension and arithmetic algorithms without understanding.

The less practiced but more professed child centred approach does a little better by recognising that the school should encourage children’s curiosity at the primary stage so that they learn to explore their environment, gain confidence, and learn to discover. But the approach puts almost complete faith in the so-called activity based learning and assumes that children are natural scientists who will discover all that they need; only if we could love them and involve them in activities. The need to set children on the path of deliberate rational enquiry falls between these two stools.

The traditional approach assumes the child almost as a proverbial tabula rasa or clean slate, to be written on by the teacher. The child-centrist approach, on the other hand, assumes the child to be a competent hypothesis making and testing scientist. Both spell half-truths.

This child is far from being a tabula rasa, and is certainly not a competent scientist. Michael Oakeshott eloquently expresses what the child possesses when she comes to the school: “chance encounters with fragments of understanding, … moments of unlooked-for enlightenment and … answers imperfectly understood, because they are answers to unasked questions”. All this is spontaneously gained in the process of living in the society. These fragments of understanding and imperfectly understood answers, however, are not to be ignored; and least to be despised. As they are the only basis available to an educator for putting the child on the path of boundless intellectual growth. This wealth of understanding that the child brings to school however need to be used effectively and intelligently. Again, in Oakeshott’s words the school ought to be a “serious and orderly initiation into an intellectual, imaginative, moral and emotional inheritance” of human race. And that could be done only through “a considered curriculum of learning to direct and contain the thoughts of the learner, to focus his attention and to provoke him to distinguish and to discriminate”. In other words, a conscious effort to put the child on the path of deliberate rational enquiry to eventually acquire the full range of human ways of thinking, doing and feeling.

The most important aspect of rational enquiry at the primary level is accurate articulation of ones thoughts. It could be a description of visual objects, situations, events, expression of opinions, feelings, and so on. Articulation of thoughts is much more than an exercise in language development alone. It brings the memories and imagery formed through experience at the conscious level; and thereby making them available for public sharing and scrutiny.

Children, if engaged in discussions on various issues, easily see the need to be coherent in their views; both internally, in their own views; as well as publicly, with views of others. This is an important demand of rational thinking on public matters. This quality of thought is, however, conspicuous by its absence in the most of our public debates; be they in the parliament, on TV channels or in the social media. May be we are paying the price of neglecting it in the primary education.

Clear and accurate articulation and recognition of need for coherence develops into an attitude to demand justification for claims made by others and epistemic responsibility to provide the same for the claims one himself/herself makes. These three simple things can serve as criteria of rational enquiry at the primary level: clear articulation, coherence in claims and demand for justification.

Intelligent self-learning

There are several examples in the country of learning schemes and material for beginners which use intelligent self-learning based on acquired knowledge and skills, rather than the teacher directed drill. Such schemes teach all the three aspects of rational enquiry mentioned above.

To illustrate the recommended approach I will give a simple example, lack of space does not allow more. A child of about 5 years was talking to a teacher. They both were looking at some claw-marks of birds on sand. The teacher pointed to one of the marks and asked: what bird made this claw-mark? The child, “A sparrow”. The teacher challenged: “How do you know it is not made by a maina or a dove?” The child looked puzzled for a few seconds. Then looked at a few sparrows searching for food at a little distance, and said: “Look.” Then pulled the teacher by hand towards the sparrows. The birds flew away as they approached. The child pointed to the claw-marks made on the sand and said: “these marks are exactly like those. And they are made by sparrows.” The argument concluded.

The pedagogical value of this little interaction: One, the child recognises the need to substantiate his claim, and takes the teacher’s question as a legitimate one. Two, he finds a fact (sparrows on the ground) which they both accept. Three, shows the teacher that the marks made by the sparrows are exactly like the mark under question. Therefore, the marks under dispute are made by a sparrow. The child has built a fine rational argument. The primary curriculum can provide numerous opportunities of much better exercise of reason than this one.

What we need to gear the primary education towards a rational enquiry at the children’s level is: one, re-imagination of teacher education. Two, a change in our notion of knowledge. Three, a greater acceptance of NCF 2005 and its recommended pedagogy. And four, restructuring the schools for sustained enquiry by the children. These conditions are not impossible; thought will require serious efforts. But, then, nothing valuable can be achieved without serious efforts.