By: Shahid Siddiqui

Education, during different periods of history, assumed different meanings and focused on different objectives. It has usually been equated with change, development and emancipation. It is important, however, to understand that education per se is not change, development or emancipation. It could, however, enhance the life chances of individuals to attain these objectives.

Education, being imparted in most of the mainstream schools, however, emanates from a transmission-based pedagogical approach where teachers try to transmit or transfer knowledge, skills and values from one generation to the next. In this paradigm, students are viewed as empty vessels or slates who are supposed to receive knowledge passively. The transmission approach in education revolves around the ‘banking concept of education’, as Paulo Freire would call it.

According to Freire’s banking concept of education, the minds of students are considered to be containers in which information is fed. The students are not supposed to think but just store the information given by their teachers. The students, without understanding the information relayed to them by their teachers, reproduce the stored information in the examinations. In this approach to education, knowledge is viewed as ‘static’ which is handed down to students by the ‘all-knowing’ teachers. The role of students in this approach is passive as they are at the receiving end. They have no compulsive motivation to think or reflect.

This kind of education cannot lead to the realisation of major objectives, change, development or emancipation. This form of education leads to stasis and conformity. Education in this format is destined to produce ‘mono-culture robots’ that may get good grades and later good jobs but are unable to think independently. Such graduates are least concerned with what is happening in society and do not feel motivated enough to bring any significant change in the world they live.

Ivan Illich, in his classic book, ‘Deschooling society’, laments the fact that mainstream schools are producing students who cannot think independently as they are trained to receive information given to them by their teachers as the ultimate truth. According to Illich, the major objectives of education, change, development, and emancipation cannot be realised through the conservation approach of transmission as it stifles the faculties of creativity and reflection and leads to students embracing conformity.

What kind of education can then bring change at individual and societal levels? For this we need to debunk the conservation approach of transmission that is based on five major assumptions. The objective of education is to transfer knowledge, skills and values from one generation to the next. Knowledge is static and out there. Students are empty vessels who act as sponges and absorb ‘knowledge’ transmitted by the teachers.

Teachers are omniscient and know everything under the sky. Education is not required to reflect on what is going on in society and is not supposed
to challenge societal taboos.

The alternative paradigm of education is the transformation approach that aims at transforming the individual and society. The transformation approach of education hinges on five important beliefs. First, the objective of education is to transform. It focuses on change at individual and societal levels. Second, knowledge is not a static object but is a vibrant, fluid and co-constructed phenomenon. Third, students are not empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge from teachers. They, even at a very early age, do have certain beliefs and knowledge about different things. Fourth, teachers are not omniscient and are only one of the sources of knowledge. According to this approach, there are many other powerful sources of knowledge available to the students. Fifth, the role of education is not just to bring change in the lives of individuals but also in society.

When we talk about education, we also tend to link it with development. The issue, however, is that the notion of development is narrow and usually confined to the economic aspect only. Amartya Sen in his book, ‘Development as Freedom’, links economic development with multiple freedoms – freedom of thought, expression, and choice. In this way, Sen extends the boundaries of development beyond roads, railway tracks and high-rise buildings. Education should then focus on the more holistic notion of development – socio-economic development. The ‘socio’ part of development is unfortunately either ignored or under-emphasised in educational institutions. If we want to use education as a potential tool of change, this part of development needs to be underlined.

To bring change at individual and societal levels, it is crucial to adopt the critical paradigm of education that requires inculcating critical thinking skills in students so they become independent thinkers. The critical paradigm of education is an emancipatory approach that focuses on the ultimate aim of education, development and emancipation – that is freedom from personal biases in terms of language, ethnicity, cast, colour and creed.

This kind of education will equip students with the skills needed to live their individual lives in a better way. It will also prepare them to live with others in a peaceful manner.

If we really want to realise the potential of education, we need to revisit our notion of education and alter it from its passive role to an active one.

Instead of serving as a tool of transmission of static knowledge, education should serve as a transformative tool that focuses on co-construction of knowledge. It is in this paradigm of education where focus is laid on developing thinking human beings who have a strong liaison with society. They are not mere robots filling job slots but are constantly engaged in bringing qualitative improvement in society.