By Saswati Sarkar, May 21, 2021 14:55
We associate sign language with people who can’t hear or speak. It is considered to be their tool for communication. However, it turns out that within six months, sign language can make solar engineers out of poor, rural women who can barely read or write and haven’t seen much of the world beyond their rudimentary huts. Yes, that’s what Barefoot College in the arid village of Tilonia, Rajasthan, has been doing for over 40 years in order to empower millions of women from underdeveloped countries and various regions of India.
This informal educational institute, which currently has 23 independent centres across 20 states, is the brain child of Sanjit Bunker Roy, an educationist and social activist who was chosen by the Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential personalities of the world in 2010. Deeply influenced by the Gandhian principle of self-reliance, Roy dreams of making of making villages and rural women self-sufficient. Though Barefoot College, founded in 1972, started with the mission of providing solutions to the water problems of villages, it evolved into an institution that arms the rural population with essential skills necessary for sustenance. Currently, they have 46 digital learning centres across 4-5 states where boys and girls from villages are taught to use iPads, tablets and other digital tools.
An alumnus of the elite Doon School and St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Roy believes that his actual education started during his initial years in Tilonia when he was working as an unskilled worker digging wells for water. This realisation stems from his belief that education is what you receive from your family, community and environment. In this interview, Roy talks about the importance of skill and value-based learning as well as the role of informal education in facilitating all of it.
National Education Policy 2020 focusses on skill-based learning for students. What essential skills, according to you, should be inculcated in them?
Well, imagination is an essential skill that needs to be inculcated in children in order to facilitate innovation. Also, it is extremely important for urban kids to learn the art of communicating with people coming from different socio-economic backgrounds. As far as rural children are concerned, there should be a system in place to ensure that they are trained in some traditional skills which have helped villages thrive for ages. Weaving, leatherwork, ironmongery, handloom and blacksmithing are some of the skills which are dying with the current rural generation turning away from them. However, they need to be preserved if we want our villages to be self-sufficient. Professions requiring these traditional skills should be made respectable in order to motivate rural children to continue with them. Lastly and importantly, children must learn to bounce back from their mistakes. However, to foster this skill, we must allow them the room for trial and error. This is how they will learn, unlearn and re-learn, a process crucial for true literacy. In his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler had rightly mentioned, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be someone who cannot read and write but someone who can’t learn, unlearn and re-learn.”
Do you think our education system should facilitate value-based learning? What values should children of the 21st century imbibe?
Certainly. There are some non-negotiable values that every child should grow up with and our education system should nurture them. We should teach our children to treat everyone as an equal and value freedom of thought. They should also be taught to respect manual labour and embrace the concept of learning by doing. Simplicity, austerity, compassion, tolerance and patience are other values that need to be ingrained in children during the initial years of their life. They should also learn to appreciate skills over formal degrees. The very foundation of informal education is based on these values.
You don’t believe in formal degrees. Informal education is what you think should be of prime importance. Why?
Informal education is a system that thrives outside the four walls of a school and doesn’t pay undue importance to degrees, the primary focus of formal learning. Schools and educational institutes do not have the scope for value-based learning while that is the core of an informal system. Take equality for instance. Treating everyone as equal is a non-negotiable value. In an informal set up, every learner is treated as an equal and provided the same facilities. There is no discrimination in terms of caste or socio-economic status. This is a rarity in the formal education system. Also, structured learning leaves very little room for cognitive skills like imagination, innovation and the ability to ensure effective communication between divergent socio-economic groups. Well, there is a difference between literacy and education and Gandhiji was the first to realise this. Literacy is reading and writing what you pick up in school. Education is what you receive from your family, your community and your environment. Informal learning promotes education.
Institutionalised education and informal learning methods should co-exist in order to ensure the holistic development of children. What are the best ways to blend them?
Yes, co-existence of the two is essential. Currently, the penetration of informal learning system in India is insufficient. Though invisible, it is necessary. There should be more informal educational institutes like Barefoot College in the rural belts of India which focus on inculcating values and essential skills in students instead of just enabling them to earn paper degrees. We need to think of a model where students from formal schools of the rural and urban sectors get to interact with those of the informal institutes frequently. Regular exposure to a different mode of living and learning will ensure holistic development. In fact, students from various schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai come over to Barefoot College in Tilonia and stay for a while to learn from what we do here. They love to see what is happening here.