Pondicherry: Do a small experiment. For a week closely watch children walking to school or waiting for their school buses in the morning. You would have a slim chance of seeing bright young faces enthusiastic about school and learning.

Where has all the joy gone from education? Has school become an institution like any other? Have schoolbags with weighty books and notebooks for subjects that most children will never find real-world applications become a burden? Has pressure peaked to score in exams to launch professional careers? And is there additional constraint to compete with friends to get ahead in a cutthroat world? Perhaps it is all these things and more.

The results are appalling. At an age when children should be joyous, curious and questing to know, the system sucks out all the happiness of learning. Today’s education follows an industrial model synonymous with training. Learners are trained; “good” schools and colleges train rather well. Primary considerations are acing in exams, sailing through job interviews, and winning promotions. What about training for happiness? Sorry, that is not on the curriculum.

It should be. Schooling is a critical aspect of childhood and adolescence. It should be blissful, nurture the spirit, and lead to the discovery of life and the world. Reasoning, insight, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit derive their early foundations there.

For all these reasons, it is imperative to bring back joy to learning. It may begin with creating colourful and welcoming classrooms. School architecture may be rethought since a majority of Indian schools look like factories, warehouses or government offices in disrepair. School gardens would bring the wonders of nature to little ones. Imagine their thrill at a germinating seed or a plant coming to new leaf.

Unnecessary homework projects could be rid. Classroom materials may be creatively presented and assessment methods revisited. “Free” periods could be provided where learners are by themselves and with one another with nothing to do.

Children of most ages love stories. India has travelled from timeless oral story-telling to the present written texts. Kathavachaks and generations of affectionate grandmothers have imparted values, morals and cultural fineness to children from perfectly narrated tales.

This great tradition of storytelling is lost in mainstream education. This civilizational loss is made worse by imitation which infects fiction and is reflected in its genres and writing and narration styles. Geeta Ramanujam of Bangalore’s Kathalaya: The House of Stories is trying to reverse this sad trend.

“In India, the story has always been the learning tool par excellence,” she says. “All our great teachers taught through the story, be they Shankara, Auvaiyar, or Akka Mahadevi. They gave pleasure, indulged in paradoxes, and afforded listeners a chance to explore meanings.” Vikram Sridhar and Deepa Kiran are endeavouring the same.

While educational thinkers elsewhere recognize the value of storytelling, we in India scorn this art and make our syllabi “professional” and “career-oriented”. With some creativity, curriculum-designers could employ storytelling in most subjects at nearly all levels of education. Dance, drama and even age-appropriate films can feature elements of learning through stories.

A teacher’s work is half done when students actively engage in learning. Creative storytelling keeps learner interest high and addresses deficits of attention span and concentration. Stories inspire, uplift and motivate learners and facilitate character development. Learning about the world becomes a process of discovering inner worlds; another’s life becomes a stepping stone to knowing the layers of one’s own.

Going to school becomes an act of joy.

To be continued...

Also read The art of questioning -1, The art of questioning-2 and The art of questioning-3.

Beloo Mehra has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She taught at Antioch University Midwest, Ohio, and is on the faculty of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research at Pondicherry.