Mahatma Gandhi suggests in Nai Talim that knowledge and work happen simultaneously. He was of the view that the existing education system was like a factory churning out clerks for the government. Instead, the purpose of education system should be to produce true servants ready to sacrifice for the country. He once remarked -

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. The girls, we say, do not have to earn; so why should they be educated? As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education.”- M.K Gandhi

Even with this awareness amongst our nation builders, we continued the colonial model post independence. At that time, the literacy rate of India was around 12% and school going children around 18%. May be the reality of the time dictated different priorities. The government focused on mega industries, big dams and higher education including the Indian Institutes of Technology. This approach, maybe, suited those times and was in accordance to the required workforce. But there is a sea change in India today, both in terms of demography and aspiration.

Traditional employment avenues are getting exhausted, there are only limited government jobs to offer and these cannot be expanded beyond a point. The nature of work and jobs is fast changing and are heavily driven by technology and innovation. ‘World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work’, says that ‘many children currently in primary school will work in jobs as adults that do not even exist today’. Rise in non-conventional industries, freelancing and massive open online courses among others will lead to non-linear opportunities, which will require quality education along with non-traditional skills to be given to our children.

It is not that India has overcome the traditional challenges of our education system. Even now, more than 50% of students in grade five cannot read a grade two text or solve a simple subtraction problem. Year on year we are witnessing reports showcasing poor performance in foundational literacy and numeracy. Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education is only 24.5 and the employability post graduation is even worse. According to the ‘India Skills Report 2019’, only 47% graduates are employable in India. Some assessments say, we will lose around ten crore or more of our students to illiteracy if this continues. The demographic dividend which India is so proud of will last only over two decades. If we fail this generation, we will be failing as a nation.

The big challenge facing our policymakers today is to find the right link between current education and future jobs. The education imparted to the kids should prepare them well for the unchartered territories of future workforce. Education in the twenty first century simply cannot restrict a child’s horizon to their books or classrooms. Draft New Education Policy 2019 mentions, ‘Globalization and the demands of a knowledge economy and a knowledge society call for emphasis on the need for acquisition of new skills by learners on a regular basis, for them to ‘learn how to learn’ and become lifelong learners.’ The key skill therefore would be the child’s ability of learning how to learn.

The philosophy behind learning how to learn

When we plant a seed in the ground — we provide for water and manure and create a nurturing space. The seed has in it to grow as per its nature. We don’t ‘support’ the seed to turn itself into a mango tree or a tomato plant but rather watch it grow in wonder. Our children are the seeds that will bloom into a diverse set of individuals if we are willing to give the control of learning back to them.

While there are multiple issues in the current education system, one which the authors of this article most resonate with is how we treat our students. Are they vulnerable consumers of the education system or are they empowered beings capable of generating their own learning?! All stakeholders - be it the school, parents, community, government or non-governmental organizations, currently treat learners as someone that needs to be ‘taught’; who can neither decide what is right for them nor take their own decisions.

What if we start treating learners a little differently, as people who do not need spoon-feeding; who can make choices and create their own strong learning experiences based on their own interests and aspirations? As a philosophy, we believe that this is a possible key to solving India’s issues around education.

What is learning how to learn?

In this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, the professional skills required keep fast changing. Something that we learn today might lose its relevance tomorrow. It is imperative that our students are able to up-skill themselves independently without taking a break and spending resources every time they are faced with a disruption in life.

The skill of learning is the manure that can enable all learners to continue learning and be relevant to the needs of their time throughout. Learning to Learn then becomes the ability to lead one’s own life in the direction of one's own choice.

The process of learning

Various people have written about the process of learning. A notable framework is Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle. It talks about the cycle of taking up a concrete experience, reflecting on it, synthesising it and then implementing the new learning in other aspects of life. While there are critiques of this process, at the heart, learning to learn is imbibing the circular/iterative process of action and reflection. For students, we need to structure this process and give them ample opportunities to learn and imbibe the steps. A few tools which can be extremely helpful are:

Mind Map - As a tool, mind mapping allows structuring of various ideas in a visual format. It is basically exploring a central idea or a question which can then branch off into more sub-ideas and thoughts. Students use the mind mapping technique to lay out the expanse of their topic of study and connect it to things they already know and things they would like to know.

SMART Goal setting — Much has been written on how SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound) goals are set and the benefits of such a goal setting exercise thereof. A SMART goal is imperative for an independent learner to start taking small steps on the journey of learning.

Backward planning — Once you have a SMART goal, then it is critical to convert it into a plan of action. A backward plan allows a learner to plan backwards from their goals. Backward planning also enables the learner to judge if the SMART goal is indeed realistic!

Review and reflection — The ability to step back and reflect is extremely important for any learning to happen.

A child is naturally curious and learns at a fast pace during early childhood. Each element of their surroundings is a learning experience for the child. However, even from these seemingly unlimited set of resources, there are things that catch a child’s fancy over others. A child who is left free to explore, thrives. To enable high quality independent learning, the learner needs to experience an environment which lets them be child-like. Another important aspect of enabling such learning is to create an environment free of consequences — where the child’s natural curiosity can take over. It is important that the child does not just learn to access a reward or avoid a consequence.

Further steps

A critical element to get students to start on the journey of being an independent learner is to treat them with respect and allow them to be the creators of their own learning. As an educator or a parent, other important elements are to understand the learner’s interest and aptitude and make learning resources available. Encourage the child to actively experiment, make their own mistakes and learn from them; provide them access to quality feedback from teachers and experts and watch from the sidelines as they take charge and grow!

‘Learning to learn’ as a skill requires open minds and a fundamental change in the structure of schools. The structural change suggested in the Draft New Education Policy 2019 from the rigid ‘10+2’ to the new ‘5+3+3+4’ is more suited to impart such skills.

The current system promotes rote learning and is ill-equipped to prepare a child for future challenges and opportunities.

The current school infrastructure too is not only outdated but insufficient to cater to the needs of our children. Of all the school education institutions in India (including senior secondary, secondary, upper primary and primary schools) only 7% are intermediate or senior secondary schools (to be precise 1,12,637 out of total 15,22,346 schools). If we don’t have enough schools to send our kids to college, then where are we preparing tomorrow’s workforce?

Students today will be the building blocks of tomorrow’s workforce. With rapidly reducing size of memory chips and equally expanding distance among human relationships, tomorrow’s workforce is at a greater risk of facing issues of mental health.

To state some glaring facts, according to a World Health Organization report released in 2018, 'one in six people aged ten to nineteen years suffer from depression. Half of all mental health issues start by the age of fourteen and globally, depression is one the leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among fifteen to nineteen year olds.' In this background, it cannot be emphasized enough on the importance of ‘trust’ in a child - to make their own choices and to make their own mistakes.

Education at the end of the day should be a means to self-discovery and evolution as human beings. Swami Vivekananda had said on education that ‘it is the manifestation of the perfection already present in man’. Let the perfections in the child manifest.

The authors were part of the finalist team at the Youth Summit 2016 organized by World Bank Group. The theme of the summit was ‘Rethinking Education: Innovative Ideas to Transform Education’