The Challenge of Education in the 21st Century

On Saturday 3rd January Inwoods Small School was privileged to have Harsh Tankha, a former teacher and long-term associate of Brockwood Park, give an inspiring talk and open up a valuable enquiry with staff and parents on the ‘The Challenge of Education in the 21st Century’. This raised many questions about what we, as parents and teachers, are doing in our endeavors to prepare the children in our care for a possible future world of artificial intelligence and knowledge available at the click of a button. Or perhaps more devastatingly, for a world of scarce resources resulting in serious conflict and struggle between and within many societies.

So with this in mind, what is the purpose of a school? Harsh pointed us in a crucial direction of enquiry, that of ‘The Intelligent Mind’. Not a utilitarian mind trained to be efficient and knowledgeable, but one that will meet life in a totally different way. Harmony, peace, beauty, equality, health, and vitality are qualities greatly desired in the world but are mostly approached with a movement of idealism and reward-seeking, no different to the personal drives that are causing so much havoc in society. The work to bring such qualities to the world begins by nurturing something very different in the individual mind of a young person, naturally equipped with great energy and potential for making a significant contribution in life, in a way that no computer programme can achieve.

Would an intelligent mind not be caught up in anxiety and fear and the need to escape into entertainment and consumerism, but rather use leisure to both search for and create beauty in its midst? Is it a mind that does not think and act mechanically but rather thinks creatively and compassionately? Is it a mind not bound by authority and coercion but rather seeking collaboration and cooperation? A mind so alert that it is not influenced by its environment and acts meaningfully within it. A sensitive mind, so touched by the beauty and mystery of the planet that it will not deliberately act to destroy another living organism.

Can an ‘intelligent mind’ be cultivated in an educational environment? What would the day to day activities consist of? What kind of relationships would one expect to have? What learning opportunities would be proposed?

For a world without followers accepting the corrupt and destructive acts of powerful organisations, maybe we need to nurture free spirits and independent thinkers by eliminating coercive control and hierarchy on the school grounds. Rather than competing for results that lead to a temporary and false sense of achievement for the few, and fixed feelings of failure for the many, we can do away with tests and assessments, and have children enjoy the process of working together on meaningful activities and topics of interest; learning how to learn rather than learning for personal gain. We can offer plenty of opportunities for uninterrupted play and watch their interpersonal skills unfold and imaginations expand. We can bring quietness to their day with moments to engage with life alone, walk and sit alone, allow pauses between activities and between conversations; an un-rushed momentum to the daily rhythm that allows for spontaneity, growing awareness and reflection. Opportunities to develop the capacities and sensitivities of the body through physically engaging with the surroundings. Permission to be sad, angry, frightened, joyful, silly - emotions explored and therefore more deeply understood.

An ‘intelligent mind’ needs forest walks, hill-top scrambles, quiet moments under a tree, the sound of birdsong and thunder, a sunset, the sparkle of morning dew, and cold water on bare skin. The senses awakened in nature’s communion allows for fresh insights to arise out of the whole being rather than acting from a conditioned brain. With the emphasis shifted to relationships and nature, perhaps school settings can be better places for the innate intelligence of goodness to flower. Such a new mind would not ‘fit in’ to the society as we know it, but be an instigator of a marvelous new world.