I recently had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. I ordered lunch via a
delivery app and the delivery person lost his way, despite the map guidance on his phone. By the
time he managed to reach home (using the lower-tech option of simply asking people for help),
he and I were both quite irritated – he for the time lost, me for the cold food. Our groceries were
running a little low, so our cook found it hard to put together some dinner with whatever was
available. He kept knocking on my door every 5 minutes with some questions while I was in a
client meeting. My direct report at work ignored a customer issue because she was faced with a
problem she had never experienced before. While all this was happening, I was typing up the job
description of a role that I am hiring for. I typed ‘Adaptability’ and ‘Comfortable with Ambiguity’
as the first requirement.
This gave me the chance to reflect on how important those two skills are. Most job descriptions
contain some version of these skills as requirements. Yet these are things most people struggle
with. I wondered if our schools are doing enough to help children develop these essential skills.
Today a typical school in India has 7 or 8 sessions of 45 minutes or so each, with children sitting
in the same classroom all day. The only change is when they are taken out for their physical
education sessions (typically not more than once or twice a week) or to a laboratory. The
timetable is set, the teachers communicate the exam schedule, and some teachers even go out
of the way to tell the children which topics or questions are more important for the tests.
Homework is typically a reproduction and revision of what happened in the classroom. When
students do not stay within these firm guidelines, the punishments meted out are also
predictable. Children know exactly what comes day after day, hour after hour. While this
predictability gives children emotional security the absence of elements of surprise and
ambiguity seems to hurt children more, in the long run.
When schools do try to introduce a bit of ambiguity, they do so only in the timing and content of
the tests they hand out. And even when they do this, they end up suffering complaints from the
parents. A teacher who conducts a surprise test is almost always pulled up by parents for
stressing out their little ones in an ‘unfair’ manner. To avoid such questions, schools bias toward
a safe regularity in everything.
An interesting instance of parents protecting their children happened in 2017, when the CBSE
announced a change in the examination format from the annual system (where students were
tested on the entire portion at the end of the year) to a semester system (where students would
be evaluated at regular intervals). This made the parents of the then tenth graders anxious. They
protested that it will be hard on children and that the board cannot keep changing systems at the
blink of an eye. While I acknowledge the concerns of the parents, I feel their reactions were
exaggerated. The students had sufficient time to get used to the new system. They must be agile
to adapt. If they cannot, then what are we preparing them for?
What all this results in is that students grow up to become young adults who are comfortable in
predictable situations but start failing once the ambiguities of real-life kick in. They suffer, not
knowing how to handle the ups and downs of life. It is high time we prepare students for real life
and not just for scores. Here are some simple steps schools can take in this regard:
- Introduce ‘Surprise’ agenda days: Let the teachers have the full freedom to plan 1 day a
month. They could bring a few guests to speak with the class, announce surprise projects,
conduct surprise tests, conduct extempore contests, screen a movie. With no prior
intimation. Children will come to the class that morning excited and nervous about what is in
store. Some days they will enjoy the surprise, some days they will not. But that is how life is.
- Children-led classrooms: Let the children temporarily don teachers’ hats and coach younger
students. Set aside a day when higher graders teach lower graders. Map children one-on-one.
Everyone has something to learn and something to teach. Why not put that to action by
letting children interact in a controlled secure environment and get them talking? I hardly see
mainstream schools bring children of various grades together in a meaningful way.
- Get them to solve community issues: Children bring fresh pairs of eyes to problems that we
adults have gotten acclimatized to. Make them discuss and create action plans to fix some
simple problems they see in society outside the school’s gates. And empower them to try and
implement these solutions. Solutioning, working with other individuals, working with
governments authorities etc. will push them to grow adaptability and agility muscles.
- Introduce badge of honours for everything: I recall a classmate, Vandana, who was the best
student-leader I have ever seen. Her leadership skills have left a deep impression in me. At
14, her ability to bring her peers, seniors and juniors together was marvellous. And yet, I
cannot recall once when our teachers appreciated her for that skill. I think teachers and
school management should acknowledge all the skills a student exhibits, not just the
academic and physical ones. Talk about attitudes and explain why some are good to have.
Teachers should share their own personal experiences that will help children understand the
need for such skills.
- Practice mindfulness together: Mindfulness is a large concept, but it can sure be simplified
for children. Take a single value or skill and practice it together as a class for the whole day.
Talk about the value and then let the children introspect and share – what aspects of their
own behaviours exhibited these values? Maybe they can share examples with their
classmates. Teachers can facilitate conversations about how each one of us interprets the
same value in different ways. This will help children learn from everyone around them every
day. Isn’t that what we adults do, or rather are expected to do?
In a nutshell, I think we should push students into more situations that reflect the ambiguities
of real life. Let children learn how to live and cope with life. Let them meditate. Let them stay in
silence. Let them talk freely. Let them learn to be free-spirited. Let them grow into fully formed
adults who can handle complex situations with calmness and maturity.