Learning with an open mind

By Anoushka Zaveri

Two years ago, I exited the regular Maharashtra board college education model and enrolled myself at FLAME University, Pune. My teachers were tuned in with what they were teaching, and allowed room for discussion and disagreement. The quality of my interactions within the classroom changed. My classmates and I were more sensitive and intuitive to each other’s stances and opinions. I began to embrace what I was learning with open arms and an open mind. Most of all, the quality of the books I studied changed. The textbooks that taught history recorded multiple narratives of historical events and their wider implications. English literature, instead of a drab series of question and answers, became a tool to understand the human condition through deeper investigations of characters’ life and times.

These changes have made all the difference. I spend long hours thinking about what would have become of me, had I continued to read the same old, standardized textbooks that delivered plain, boring information – the same old ICSE History and Civics for Class X fraught with dehumanizing accounts of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and high praises of our government’s needless intricacies. The same old English manuals of beautiful poems and short stories coupled with reductive explanations of the same. My brain visualises itself turning into a sealed but empty cardboard box and it forces me to ask myself – is that what I wanted back then, out of my education?

For most students, asking such question is a luxury. Education is a luxury. Shouldn’t the education they receive be truly luxurious then? One that ameliorates their condition not by simply being available, but by being rich, equipping and compatible with the requirements of our world? How do we, then, as a global community of students and teachers create a better, more enriching and more wholesome education for every learner?

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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization believes textbooks to be our medium through which to answer the above questions. Textbooks are everywhere, in every school, college and university and they are the medium we must enhance in order to answer the above questions. In collaboration with the Georg Eckert Institute and in alignment with UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals, a guidebook devised to help textbook authors and educators design better curriculums explains how sustainable development can be more intricately woven with the content of core subjects like Math, Science, Geography and Language. By using the metaphor of “embedding”, the guidebook emphasizes on an interdisciplinary approach wherein sustainable development is the foundation upon which core subjects are taught and learnt instead of it being a separate subject, unconnected and cut-off from the rest. Such an interdisciplinary approach promotes convergences between core subjects and sustainable development and ensures full engagement with the latter.

Textbooks for Sustainable Development: A Guide to Embedding, in addition to laying out thoroughly, the ways in which sustainable development can snuggle in with mathematical and geographical concepts, science and literature, also highlights the urgency of developing such curricula. Replete with real world examples, the guide incorporates the wider, liberal view we need to inculcate in our education system in its own approach towards embedding Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in curricula. A chapter is devoted to the scope for embedding ESD in each of the core subjects. Within those chapters, the content is organized on the basis of what possible end each subject can fulfil towards sustainable development by incorporating the same within its bounds.

In the guidebook’s definition of sustainable development, it is not only an environmental term considering the ‘sustainable’ aspect of it nor a purely economic term considering the ‘development’ of it. It is all those steps we must take to ensure a better future for ourselves. These may include inculcating empathy to counter hate through literature that teaches compassion and building concern in students’ hearts towards the poor environmental condition of our planet. By peering through school curriculums and identifying the ways in which they neglect the inclusion of sustainable development, changes in teaching materials, texts and most importantly, teaching objectives can be made. They must be made – for our sake.

And how, you may ask, should we make these changes? Textbooks for Sustainable Development: A Guide to Embedding answers through an explanation of the term ‘embedding’. Embedding ESD entails making sustainable development and its requirement indiscernible from the content of each core subject. This includes designing competency-based educational models that adopt pressing matters of today like environmental depletion, gender equality, hunger, sanitation and human rights as themes. Intellectually and emotionally stimulating exercises that invigorate students with the capacity to think critically, responsibly, empathetically and kindly about the world around them form the backbone of an ESD-based curriculum. Naturally, the evaluative component of the model or the assessment of students’ progress should focus on promoting rigorous engagement between students, their cultural contexts and physical surroundings.

For textbook authors and teachers, who are the target audience of this guidebook, I believe incorporating ESD is easier said than done. I think it would require a cultivation of immense sensitivity and awareness towards the world in addition to a lot of research. Authors, before beginning to change the content they insert in their textbooks, would need to change the way they perceive education and its objectives. Teachers would have to do away with conventional copy-the-board methods and work towards making the classroom an interactive space — a reflection of the world outside. Although these are big steps, they are steps we must be willing to take to see a difference maybe not in climatic conditions or green cover, but inside students’ minds. I can say this, proudly and gladly as a student, that my switch from an un-updated, standardized, information-oriented education to a more relevant, wholesome, critical-thinking-based education has made all the difference. The pedagogy I have had the privileged exposure to, and the textbooks I have had the privilege to study, have made all the difference.

(About the author: Anoushka Zaveri is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, Pune, majoring in Literary and Culture Studies with a minor in Theatre. Born and brought up in Mumbai, she is curious about the ways in which gender plays a role in and affects the lives of urban populations. She is currently interning with the Education for Peace Initiative at Prajnya.)

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