Since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister, he has introduced and popularised many slogans such as “Make in India”, “Stand up India”, “Start-up India”, “Vote for India” and “Digital India”. I am sure many more are in the offing. But the one that is missing is “Know India”. Many of us do not know our own country well. To achieve this, we need to begin early. School students should be encouraged to know India firsthand. It is not enough for them to know the number of states that India has and to learn the country’s main geographical features from textbooks. In this context P.B. Acharya who has served as governor of Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, had said on one occasion that Indians knew much more about the US than about the country’s seven northeastern states. Over the years, various unpleasant incidents have occurred to indicate that the rest of India has not really embraced the Northeast. Apart from teaching and learning about these states, it is important for school students to get to know about these states and their people firsthand — through excursions and exchanges.
It is therefore with great delight that we welcomed to our school a group of teachers and principals from Sikkim. Anuradha Sen, senior consultant of an organisation called Creatnet Education, had reached out to me to find out whether we would be open to the idea of a group from Sikkim spending a day at our school, observing classes, interacting with teachers and the principal. Two groups would be visiting other schools in Kolkata, but they wished to join the group at our school later and have an interactive session with me. I was impressed to hear about the work of Creatnet Education, whose mission was “to transform systems and institutions into learning organisations by creating spaces, frameworks and programmes” that would facilitate learning. Another of Creatnet’s main objectives was to support and assist educational institutions as catalysts for change and to empower the leadership within each institution. It was indeed impressive that all the government schools were part of the programme. Off-site development programmes over five days were also factored in. It was also heartening to know that the entire project was being supported by the government under the “Equip” programme.
Finding out more about Sikkim was part of my preparation for my session with the 30-strong group. Official statistics published on the Internet indicated that the state of Sikkim had improved exponentially in its literacy figures as well as in different aspects of school education. I met the group that had been allotted to our school during the lunch break and I asked them about their experience in the different classes. One common comment was that our students were free and uninhibited with their teachers. Another remarked on the range of their vocabulary — “I couldn’t get over this Class 7 girl using the word narcissist!” he exclaimed. Embarrassingly for our guests, I wanted to know whether they had anything negative to report. The answer was that there was too much noise from the traffic in the classrooms that faced the road. And they added generously that they were quite amazed at the degree of concentration on the part of both teachers and students. Apparently, they were quite oblivious to the cacophony outside and were totally focussed on the lesson. I realised that for many of them the noise and confusion of Kolkata must have been quite a shock.
Our guests had come from Mangan, Jorethang and Deorali. I can still visualise the peaceful environment of Sikkim that I had experienced when I visited the state as a tourist a few years ago. The greenery everywhere, the bluest of skies above and the hills around had a calming effect while the liveliness of the bustling towns was in fact quite attractive. Their schools must be so different, I thought to myself. But I also know that barring cultural differences, deep down children are the same everywhere. The other two groups joined us in time for my presentation. I had planned an informal, interactive session and to my relief I found that the group — after the initial ice-breaking — was relaxed and responsive. My presentation was based on certain questions that had been sent to me on request. They wished to know whether teachers should change and the desirable qualities they should possess and exhibit. So, we discussed the phenomenon of “change”, coping strategies and change management. We decided that just adjusting to change was not enough — we needed to anticipate it, plan for it and design it. It was also agreed that the greatest obstacle to bringing about change in an institution was “resistance”. Most of our Sikkimese guests felt quite comfortable about questioning, and commenting on the various issues that were raised. At the end of the session there was an interesting exchange. One of the principals asked why I had used the term “quality education”.
Wasn’t the word “quality” redundant? Do people say “golden gold”? I replied that the kind of statements that some of our “educated” political leaders make in public indicate that they may have received a formal education, but it was certainly not “quality education”. And yes, we don’t use the expression “golden gold”, but we often say “pure gold” — and we do know about the different qualities of gold depending on the number of carats. Nevertheless, I appreciated his perception of the term “education” as sacrosanct. Our interaction with our Sikkimese visitors was a learning experience for all — we as a school were certainly enriched by the visit and I think we understand the state of Sikkim a little better now. We urgently need to adopt the slogan “Know India” in order to try and understand our own country and appreciate its diverse cultures. It would certainly be a better way to be integrated as a nation than pursuing the notion of “one nation, one culture”.