Friday, May 12, 2006

Crossover curriculum

Geoffrey Fisher, Principal of Kodaikanal International School, spells out the issues in educating GenNext.

He is at his eloquent best articulating the main challenges that educationists like him face today. "To maintain a relationship, never to break a relationship, and always be prepared to repair it if it happens. To accept that people make mistakes and to learn from them, rather than to punish them for their mistakes. To ensure that we challenge children all the time because the greater our expectations of them, the better they'll achieve. Kids stop achieving when we don't expect them to."

But then Geoffrey Fisher, the Principal of Kodaikanal International School (KIS) has three decades of experience in six different education systems across continents... and has taught in the UK, Australia, Egypt and Argentina before coming here.

Around 1990 he found the British system of education "a little restrictive and that continues till today." Finding the policy of public assessment of students at age 7, 11, 15, 17 and 19 a bit too much and "taking the fun out of education as it makes an average British child spend a year of his school life — 40 weeks — being publicly assessed", he applied for a job in Switzerland, but ended up with one in Egypt, where he spent two years. Here and subsequently in Argentina, after teaching in bilingual schools the Briton found "the world is not Anglo Saxon but multilingual." In the Argentina school where he taught, the students acquired "wonderful bilingual skills in both Spanish and English; they were expected to write creatively in the same standards in both the languages. My son, a product of this system, can do a criticism of a Spanish book in English... and writes poetry in Spanish."

On his experience in Egypt and Argentina, Fisher says the culture of education in these countries is very different compared to UK or Australia. "In the latter the emphasis is not only on knowledge but the use of knowledge for problem solving, creativity. In Argentina we were offering international curricula but the cultural setting was very different with much more respect for teachers." India, he thinks, is more similar to Argentina than UK/Australia; "if a teacher tells you something, even if you know it's wrong, you accept it."

After another teaching stint in Australia, his wife, who had visited India on a one-year Rotary exchange programme, persuaded him to look for a job here. After a year at KIS he finds the experience "fascinating". The KIS has 500 students, half of them foreigners. On its appeal to foreigners Fisher says, "Apart from quality education we offer music, extra curricular activities, environmental education; we are significantly cheaper (the annual fee is Rs 4 lakh) and I'd say significantly better too, compared to Australia."


On the pressure that the Indian education system and parents put on children today, Fisher says, "Well, parents all over the world do that and some of our Indian parents impress me when they say: `Yes, we want our son to be a doctor/engineer, but if he chooses to be a teacher or something else, so be it.' I think the world is moving away from the categorisation into engineers, doctors, etc. Today there are roles where you can be an engineer and work in communications or be a media person and work in management; there are different crossovers." His students are aware of this trend and "one of the great joys of our system is that we get people who have been in international situation and are globally aware and they leave us after doing an international curriculum, living with different nationalities and hence acutely aware of different cultures and sensitivities, very well prepared for a global world."

Does the KIS face problems with drugs and alcohol? "We have no problem with drugs, and as for alcohol, it is much less than anywhere else I've worked. Kodai is a very safe and secure place in a number of ways," says Fisher.

But then aren't today's kids in a tearing hurry to do all that adults do? "I think they want to do things... dangerous things... that adults have decided not to do."

Fisher has ambitious plans in sensitising his students to environmental issues. "Our generation has done a lot to destroy environmental stability and the children will have to repair it." Towards this end the school is creating a residential environmental research facility on a 94-acre campus in the wilderness on the TN-Kerala border. Encouraging leadership skills by supporting students organise camps and other activities and community work are the hallmark of KIS, he adds.

Teen years

On the difficulty of handling teen years Fisher says individuals differ; "we are in danger of treating them as immature, relating `immature' with `unintelligent' when actually they are only inexperienced. They have the same intellect, same reasoning capacity and face similar issues that we do. They have to deal with expectations of society and their own expectations. It's all very difficult."

He thinks that residential school students develop strong bonds with the school and each other, partly because they are members of a community and very interdependent on each other. It's a fallacy to think that such students do not have strong bonds with their parents/family; "the experience adds to your relationships. Our students continue to have the same strength of relationship with their parents; I don't say they have a perfect relationship, but a strong one, and end up with an additional set of relationships, networks and resources. They are more independent, can stand on their own feet and are reflective of a broader set of understandings."

On the proliferation of coaching classes ensuring that "trained intelligence" rather than "native intelligence" comes to premier institutions like the IITs and IIMs, Fisher says, "I'd use the term creative intelligence or problem solving or relationship intelligence. If you spend a lot of time in your reproductive intelligence — the ability to learn information and reproduce things — what you give up is time spent on learning how to generate new ideas, on how does this knowledge here relate to that knowledge there. Or how do I learn to solve a problem in math and apply that to one in geography." He agrees that our examination system hardly tests all this and thinks that "less information and more understanding of that information will be a move forward. To have a well trained mind is very important, but at KIS we don't just use text in exam, we set up a debate, oral presentations, group presentations, etc." Though different from the general Indian examination system, it is still "very rigorous and demanding but much broader and not as dependent on remembering and reproducing information," he adds.

India is "fantastic"

He loves all aspects of India beginning with the food, even though he finds it spicy. "I like the dignity of people; you see people covering the whole gamut of material wealth, but being dignified and able to live their lives with much more satisfaction than people in other parts of the world with much more material wealth. India is a land of contrasts and vastly rich environment and those who come here either love it or hate it; you can't be lukewarm about India. You think it either fantastic or awful; I think it is fantastic."

India is educating teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses for the rest of the world. The Indian approach to education and the importance to English language; "a culture that is thousands of years old but a national identity barely 60 years old; I find it very exciting to be a part of all this," says Fisher.

He doesn't think that the reading habit among the young is at danger thanks to the Internet. "The way of acquiring information and controlling it is of course driven as much by technology as by reading a book. That doesn't diminish the value of reading a book but means that the way my son thinks and writes are completely different to the way I do," he says. While his brain is trained to write down information when he wants to learn something, his son won't take notes, but will remember things through computer use. "The way his mind is organised is very different from the way our minds are organised. That doesn't make it better or worse, it makes it richer because he is also an avid reader." But for youngsters flooded with information through the Net, says Fisher, the challenge is "how to reject information, be critical of it, say it can't be real and look for some other information."


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