By: Dr Cyrus Vakil, Principal
Text of Speech delivered at the Half Yearly General Body Meeting on Oct 27,2020
At the last AGM I spoke about the challenges of the day – of online learning during lockdown. And I ended by talking about COVID and the devastating lockdown, and the environmental foul-ups in general. I argued that society, and hence its children, need to become better problem-solvers, better at creative and critical thinking to avoid repeating the recurrent mistakes made by previous generations.
In this I was picking a favorite theme of mine about how education, in the wider world and at BIS, needs to adapt and is adapting to new realities around us.
As you know by now, I love talking about CHANGE.
At this AGM I want to focus on the opposite: BIS’s unchanging core.
What we hold dear, and why we continuously hold it dear in the midst of change. I realized that I may not have talked about this enough, and asked myself why. I may have taken it too much for granted that every member of the BIS community knew it and had internalized it; at least somewhat better than a Principal who had arrived much more recently than most of you. But I have now completed four years and I experience this imposter syndrome much more rarely. And I do believe that our Constitution is wise and well-articulated and can bear some pointed reminder.
So I took this opportunity to distil the essence of BIS’s educational philosophy. I started with teachers and coordinators from different sections in May and shared this document and discussed it widely with teachers. I am happy to say we have had substantial buy-in for this shared vision.
COMMON EDUCATIONAL VISION
1) Stakeholders (parents, teachers, students, staff) working together, across and within stakeholder groups, for a common goal — the best education for our children. Indeed, this child-centered focus remains the USP of the school.
2) While actual policies and regulations will differ based on age-appropriateness and differing requirements of different Boards that govern different sections, educational principles remain common.
3) There is a unity of educational vision — founded on the principle that children are naturally curious, wanting to understand the world around them and their role in it. In order to ensure that children “enjoy and respect learning” BIS educators need to engage them “with teaching methods of a high standard”, in order “to develop the individual child’s ability to the fullest,” to “build character” and “independent, liberal creative thinking.” (All phrases extracted from the BIS Constitution).
What I am doing today is sharing this with you and asking you for your buy-in. And if you can’t provide that buy-in I ask you to consider whether this school is really for you.
And I am doing something else.
Visions are lovely things but they get undermined by habitual practices that run against the grain of that vision. So I am going to take the liberty of playing Moses for the next 10 minutes. But, since BIS is a small school, and I am a little man, I will keep the Commandments down to a mere five.
THE FIVE COMMANDMENTS
- THOU SHALT NOT WOUND
- THOU SHALT EMPOWER THE CHILD
- THOU SHALT NOT MAKE EDUCATION A MEANS TO AN END
- THOU SHALT NOT TAKE EXAMS TOO SERIOUSLY
- THOU SHALT READ
FIRST COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT NOT WOUND:
If we are to “develop the individual child’s ability to the fullest” we must, at the very least, accept the first commandment. I have taken this extract rom Kirsten Olsen’s excellent book “Wounded by School”.
“How might administrators, teachers, parents, and students understand the impact of schooling more fully in terms of school’s capacity to wound? How might students learn to protect themselves from being wounded in school?
Since those who are wounded most at schools are those who are different and those who have special needs, BIS has raised its investment in Inclusion and expanded its definition of inclusion to include all those who are wounded. It has also instituted zero-tolerance toward bullying. Several kids found wounding others have been suspended; for perhaps the first time in the history of the school, and only let back in when they showed some understanding of the hurt they were causing to particular individuals and the BIS culture of caring as a whole.
I won’t dwell too much on this first commandment because even if sometimes teachers, parents, students wound each other they are aware that they have done wrong, and will try to rectify that wrong. Gentleness is not in short supply at BIS. And has perhaps never been in short supply.
SECOND COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT EMPOWER THE CHILD
The second commandment is slightly harder at a school which, because of its structure, empowers parents rather than students. But it is no less essential if we are serious about “developing children’s ability to the fullest”: Take a moment to read the manifesto shared. I know we are some way away from this, but high aspirations are fine if they show us the destination we want to walk toward.
A Learner’s Bill of Rights – Kirsten Olson, 2008
Every learner has the right to know why they are learning something, why it is important now, or may be important to them someday.
Every learner has the right to engage in questioning or interrogating the idea of “importance” above.
Every learner has the right to be confused and to express this confusion openly, honestly, and without shame.
Every learner has the right to multiple paths to understanding a concept, an idea, a set of facts, or a series of constructs.
Every learner has the right to understand his or her own mind, brain wiring, and intellectual inclinations as completely as possible.
Every learner has the right to interrogate and question the means through which his or her learning is assessed.
Every learner is entitled to some privacy in their imagination and thoughts.
Every learner has the right to take their own imagination and thinking seriously.
—From Wounded By School
The child needs in parents and teachers – Guides. Not controllers and spoon-feeders. He/ she needs guardrails not guards.
For parents this means letting kids learn for themselves, even from failure. This means not smothering and indulging them. It means asking them to do chores in the house during and after COVID. It means letting them organize their lives or at least their school bags and files in an age-appropriate way. Life skills are learnt at least as much at home as at schools, hence parents must pull their weight here. Empowering the child also means doing that very difficult thing, understanding that your child is not here on this earth to fulfil your unfinished dreams.
Kahlil Gibran – 1883-1931
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
THIRD COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT NOT MAKE EDUCATION A MEANS TO AN END
The third commandment stems from something which many ex-parents and alumni talk about, and which I have also seen in my four years in the upper classes of BIS and in EIT (Education Initiative Trust). An obsession with university placement. Education ceases to be joyous if it becomes a means to an end – that end being Ivy-League or Oxbridge placements or any end that goes beyond learning for understanding yourself, the people and the world around you. With this in mind we at EIT recently, after robust discussion adopted these resolutions:
- That, while we should remain cognizant of market realities about the Diploma Program (DP) in South Mumbai and that will judge a school by results and placements, EIT’s focus will remain on getting students to fulfil their individual potential. This will apply to both academic and holistic growth.
- That, while the school has focused on learning and not consciously fanned a growing SoBo obsession with grades and placements, it needs to be mindful of its communication on its website and other materials. Specifically, it will work on celebrating student achievement in a variety of areas transcending grades and placements.
- That greater opportunities will be provided for students in 11th and 12th to pursue individual initiatives within CAS, to showcase talent, and to lead. These would be put up on the DP section of the school website and also shared with stakeholders at least at the end of each term.
These points lead us to our 4th commandment.
FOURTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT NOT TAKE EXAMS TOO SERIOUSLY
Summative exam-based assessments may be a necessary evil in secondary, but they remain an evil. Pen-and-paper, time-bound exercises that have become poorer and poorer predictors of success in life. They also convert a joyous process into a single product, a single number. They take away space for formative assessments, project-based learning, extracurriculars and other things that build skills for life.
The most inspiring curriculums in the world can get sabotaged by bad or excessive testing. The tail of assessment, wags the dog of the learning. No assessment at BIS will test the recall of factual content more than ~25%. Testing will focus on:
- Whether a student has really understood key concepts/ theories/ metaphors, apply them, connect them to other concepts, understand their limits, and (in higher classes) critique them.
- Whether the child has acquired age-appropriate and subject-appropriate skills.
When I say this I know you will appreciate here that reducing a focus on time-bound tests and exams is not a recipe for reducing rigour or understanding – in fact, just the opposite. I should also stress that I am not saying that we will not celebrate success. In leadership, extracurricular or even in academics. But it does mean that we do not equate success with extraordinary marks in exams; still less does it mean that we brand those who do not excel in exams as failures, or wound them in other subtler ways.
The school’s secondary awards, which now celebrate citizenship, leadership, resilience and all-round development now look vastly different than what they did three years ago. Our websites are also beginning to celebrate the same. But you, as parents, need to reinforce the same message – about what BIS values, and you value, and which incidentally is also what great universities across the world value. Not just grades.
It has become fashionable these days to make jokes about Chinese imports. The fairy-lights may go out, even the Xiaomi’s get rebranded as Sumis but one Chinese import will stay because Indians love it so much – and I am not talking about Schezwan fried rice. I am talking about content-based exams. The Han dynasty invented exams to recruit their bureaucrats and tested them for their knowledge of Confucian texts. Just as the British thought it was a good idea to push Indian opium in China in the 19th century, they thought it was a good idea to use this Chinese prototype exam for recruiting Indian clerks coming out of their 19th century universities. After the 1905 revolution in China, the Chinese republic dropped these exams but in the Brahminical Indian upper-classes such rote-based exams already acquired high status, which survives to this day.
De-emphasizing exams does not of course mean lack of rigour in learning. Indeed it can even be argued that a pen-and-pencil time-bound exam can only go so deep and no deeper. Compare this to the fabulous in-depth presentations on COVID that upper secondary kids did for their juniors and you will immediately understand what I mean. Exams paradoxically, prevent deep engagement.
FIFTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT READ
Because, when you are reading, you are engaged 110%.
You are, as psychologists say, in “flow”.
“Reading is magic. It’s teleportation and telepathy.
It lets us roam across space and time, oceans and continents.
It lets us pick the brains of the most astonishing people on earth, access the wisdom of the past and see into the future.
Reading has many unintended consequences: we hold multiple interesting perspectives in our mind, practice listening to the opinions of others, and accept we’re not always right.”
Please note that I am talking about reading, not about books. Books have their magic but for many of your children and mine and I dare say for a lot of teachers entering the job market just now, physical books don’t have the allure it had for us. Hence the school has no preference on whether books are read in physical form or electronically, in the same way that the school has no preference on whether classes are activity-based (with teacher as guide-on-the-side) or instruction-based (with the teacher as sage-on-the-stage). The appropriate mix will vary from subject to subject, depending on how much prior knowledge students have, and from teacher to teacher. There are many many ways to teach well. So long as you are able to engage kids.
One class of books BIS has never liked are textbooks. The nexus between learning “everything” in a textbook and regurgitating it in exams has long been the bane of Indian education. It also drives naturally curious children from asking questions relevant to them. They also provide illusions of false mastery, of false completeness, of false certainty. They will be avoided as much as possible, though again, like summative exams they are sometimes a necessary evil in Board exam years.
So let me conclude.
It was fun playing Moses for 15 minutes but that was not, of course, the point. Nothing that I have laid out today should be new to you. Someone at BIS has said it before to you at some forum. Sometimes me. Sometimes my predecessor. Sometimes a member of the leadership team. Sometimes a Board chairperson. Because this is what the school stands for and has stood for. I have not come up with it, I am merely re-articulating it so that no one – no parent or teacher or school-leader can say: “I did not know”. Or “I was confused about what the school stands for.”
If you agree, great. Engage with us me and our BIS educators to deliver the best education for your child along these principles. Let us discuss and debate – but debate not the What or the Why, but the How. And if you as a parent don’t agree…well, I will gently say that there are many other good schools in town.