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Making Space

skindeep's picture




            Growing up in Bombay, the system of education I was inducted in was the British one. It was based on rote learning, and our goal from the 5th grade to the 10th was to take (and ace) a state wide examination, which in turn was meant to reflect our intelligence and everything that we had learnt in the course of our twelve years in school. The problem was that the curriculum was vast, and there wasn’t or didn’t seem to be enough time to both understand and learn something. And learning meant being able to repeat, word to word, what was in the text book.

            This system has been in place since the British colonized India. We have since then, grown as a country - economically, politically, mentally and spiritually. But the system has stayed the same. When I asked people (my parents and teachers and even the school principal) why we continued to work in its confines, the answer was that they knew it didn’t work entirely, but everyone had to go through it, everyone always had, and besides, it’s the system that’s most widely recognized. It gets you into college, helps you get a job, and all those things cumulatively prepare you for the world.

Human beings are creatures of habit, and it’s amazing the kind of things we can get used to.  We mould ourselves and our lives around stability, around concepts, ideas and beliefs that have always been that way. Because that’s all we ever allowed ourselves to know. Systems that were once examples of innovation soon become redundant, because we grow and develop and sometimes change, but they stay the same.

James Baldwin was quoted saying: “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.”

What is the aim of education today? Some people would say that it is to help individuals mould themselves, to make them a well rounded, respectable person in society. Others would say that the point of education is to give people enough information so as to enable them to get a respected job in society and be successful. And these assumptions – these assumptions about the aim of education being to make an individual a more acceptable/accepted jigsaw puzzle piece that fits into a society is what I would like to talk about.

Once the aim of education is set, everything related to education gets settled around it. When we decide that we are educating our children so as to allow them to survive in the ‘real’ world, when we decide that we want our children to be successful and have respectable jobs in terms related to society, we educate them in a manner so as to make that possible. This goal of education affects the curriculum we decide, the way we treat our children in the classroom, the matter we teach them, and in effect, the manner in which mould and shape them as individuals.

There is one problem with this, and it is as follows – if we, through our educational system, are molding children to be specific things, where is the room for individuality and/or for revolutionary ideas? Where is there space for children to construct their own worlds and their perspectives? What we need to realize is that the world around us is changing and it’s doing so at a rapid rate – so how do we expect our children to survive in this world, in this game of street ball, when they’ve only been trained to play on a referee ruled court?

There are ways to pick up the pieces where we left off, and continue to work with the educational system, and people have been striving to bring these into existence. Trung Lee, in his article ‘Wanna Improve Education? Demolish Classrooms’[1] shows us one of these methods.




His article, gives us an example of a secondary school remodeling done by the Danish government in 2005. This college is in itself and in its structure a model of openness, in which the architecture parallels with the pedagogy of individual and interdisciplinary learning. The college is basically space, space that flows into more space, physical space that, involuntarily, gives birth to mental, emotional and spiritual space. Students are allowed to be, to think and by virtue of that, become individuals.

Do all schools need to take as drastic a step as that? Not at all. That would require more funding and resources then we have right now. But we can move away from the classroom set up we have established as of now. The typical high school today has rows and rows of desks and chairs that all face a blackboard by which a teacher stands and lectures. Yes, we allow kids to decide where they want to sit, but if all the desks are aligned in the same manner, it not only affects the flow of conversation but it hinders ones flow of thought as well.

An article in the Codesign Blog -‘Redesigning Education – why can’t we be in kindergarten for life?’[2] talks about the same ideas as Trung Lee, but takes it a step further. Yes, the physical organization of the classroom is important, but what we do in that space is just as important. Children will not learn if they have knowledge drilled into them and have no room to experiment and play with what they’re learning – so it doesn’t matter if a school teaches music and art and if the child is allowed to draw/write whatever he wants to, if the teacher has a fixed view on what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in those fields. If a student who draws a blue rabbit is given less positive feedback than one who draws a brown one, the first student, will learn over time that rabbits are meant to be brown. And as a child grows older this idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ builds him a personality that he has barely any agency in.

The article in the blog approaches this problem in an innovative manner – it takes us back to kindergarten, when we enjoyed going to school, when we learnt science and art through stories, when teachers tried to relate to us and understanding was more important than knowing.






It talks about physical space, and how that not only affects the students, but the teachers approach to the students as well. Class suddenly isn’t about being told what to do and how to do it, it’s about having a conversation, it’s about realizing that there is more than one way to look at something, and that all those ways of looking at it can be right. Class becomes the space in which you discover that physics and philosophy have a lot in common, and that that’s okay.

            It asks us then, why as we ascend in school, we are given more structure, more rules, more confinement to rebel against or struggle within? Why, when we need to better develop our capacity to think, reason and question are we placed inside a box?



             These questions and slow attempts at change that are being made within the educational system are important. If incorporated together, they have the potential to change education as we know it and create a system that produces individuals who can think for themselves, and decide, what role (if at all) they want to play in society and what changes they want to bring about. It should be the kind of education that helps them find gaps that need to be filled and then give them the knowledge and resources to fill those gaps if they ever decide they want to.

            In the words of Freire: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

We have been living within structure for years, and it is up to us now to decide, and decide wisely, if we are ready to allow the structure we are so familiar with to bend, and twist, and transform into something else.

                                                                                                                                                                     *       WORKS REFERED TO


1.      Trung Lee - ‘Wanna Improve Education? Demolish Classrooms’

2.      Codesign Blog -‘Redesigning Education – why can’t we be in kindergarten for life? 


3.      Sam Dillon – ‘States Receive a Reading List: New Standards for Education’




Paul Grobstein's picture

education, agency, and social norms

"If a student who draws a blue rabbit is given less positive feedback than one who draws a brown one, the first student, will learn over time that rabbits are meant to be brown. And as a child grows older this idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ builds him a personality that he has barely any agency in."

There's a very interesting and apt question posed here.  Should education serve the purpose of helping students  to get a respected job in society and be successful" or to acquire "agency, which may require some resistance to societal norms?   Maybe there's a less this-or-that possibility, particularly if, as you say, "the world around us is changing and it’s doing so at a rapid rate."  Perhaps then part of acquiring agency is becoming aware of societal norms, not as an end state but as a take off point for thinking about new ways to be?  And part of the business of education is to facilitate that process?