Friday, September 17, 2010


In Delhi's fabulous Khan Market, a cluster of high-end boutiques and delicious food, there is a hidden treasure called Manzil.

This is where students of all ages and socio-economic classes come to learn.

It works especially well because it is in no way a school, and from what I see, everybody is somehow a teacher.

Here I sat in a room last week, faced by two guys who created a community radio program, and was asked the question: Do you believe in education or learning?

Somehow these have become separate entities, and India's government schools often highlight the disparity in plain colors.

In the past month I've met children who can recite their numbers in three languages from one to one hundred. But if you suddenly ask for the numbers out of order, or backwards, they're completely thrown off.

Similarly, as I work with Yuvsatta in Chandigarh, I notice that when I give the children a creative activity, they are aching for rules and guidelines.

Rote memorization is not just a method here, it is a lifestyle. And a problematic one.

I think back to my own education -- 18 years of free, public education.

I was a terrible student. No one believes me because I always scraped by in the top 5% of my class. But you should know that I was lazy, I hardly studied, I read at least three non-school books for every one that was actually assigned.

In fact, it took 20 years for me to realize that I wasn't an idiot just because I was the only Indian who wasn't in super-duper-advanced Calculus or Biology.

Most of history and psychology class was spent daydreaming, and writing stories in my mind or on paper. Any textbook I have is filled with sketches, and any notebook filled with short stories without endings.

So when I whittle down social issues -- poverty, gender inequality, environmental catastrophe -- the only solution I ever see is through education. Not that this thought is monumental, everyone knows that awareness is key for change.

But when the word education has lost it's true meaning, the solution is also foggy.

Abdul Kalam, one of India's premier scientists and national leaders, wrote a book for developing India called Ignited Minds. In this book he writes: Dream, Dream, Dream. Dreams transform into thoughts. And thoughts result in action.

This spoke to me especially because I spent eighteen years of taxpayers money doing exacty that.

Appropriately, then, my first activity with the "impoverished" children I'm working with was to create Dream Books (Sapne ki Kitab). I asked them to write their goals, their dreams, their desires.

Some kids sat down for the entire two hours, sketching and writing. They drew rainbows and skies and doctors and teachers. They drew gods and money and houses.

Some of them asked me what their dreams should be and I just smiled and gave them another oil pastel to draw with.

Until I figure out how to make learning and education synonymous, I've decided only this much. This year I am not going to measure our impact on children through exams or English skills or public speaking.

This year, I'm going to measure these children only by their dreams, and how far they will allow them to grow before they turn into a thought, and eventually, an action.


AparnaKothary said...

Anki - this entry brought tears to my eyes and I don't even know why. Your honesty throughout your journey is so refreshing. I am so blessed to know you.

Also....please tell me there was a jam session at Manzil? Bliss.

flask said...

re: rote repetition of numbers

please don't ask me to cite sources, since i'm just commenting on a blog, but there is much data to support the idea that children learn to repeat numbers in order long before they are developmentally able to develop number sense.

some educational theories hold that the repetition of the numbers helps to create the neural pathways that later on carry that number sense into higher thought, so don't bear down too hard on that.

of course, you do not mention in your post the age of the children, so i don't know whether they are past the age when they should be given more tools in developing that critical thinking.

it's still worth considering.

be wary of swinging too far one way or another; dreams without structures on which to hand them are as useless as structures without dreams to make them come alive.

Venkat said...

Wise words and excellently written. Hats off to you!

Christine said...

Ankita! Not just incredibly true, but absolutely beautiful! I am so glad that you share your experiences and thoughts!

Anonymous said...

In so many ways, Anki, you inspire me to question and imagine far beyond the rutted walls of my day-to-day. Your wisdom shared helps others be wise. And, oh indeed how all beings ought make a Sapne ki Kitab! xo, Britt

Anonymous said...

ankita rao. you are so powerful with pen (or keyboard in this case). you're kids are as lucky to have you as you are them. i'm so excited for you.
:) arti