In this view, academics are seen in a radically new light. In the standard view, academics are regarded as a set of subjects, as a body of knowledge, and/or as a field of cognitive experience, the development of mental powers. Yet, even cognitive or mental development is limited by this view.
In our redefined view, academics means an integrated approach, in which any topic is seen in its full context. In our view, cognitive experience is inseparable from any other aspect of experience and is to be explored in an integrated way. For example:
- A mathematician speaks of a beautiful proof.
- An astrophysicist describing star formations speaks with wonder and awe and expands our imagination over vast reaches.
- The Indian Independence Movement is not only an incident in Indian
history, but also an event in which patriots rose above all personal bounds to perform unimaginable deeds.
- A few lines of poetry make us mindful of the interconnectedness of life, and we experience this interconnectedness again when we study environmental science.
Everything we turn our attention to is full of examples as luminous as these. The question simply lies in how we see them. Where in these instances can we separate cognitive experience from any other aspect? We cannot really learn matters of science or history or literature without developing as a person, and we can learn them better from a base of personal security and confidence. Whatever we learn in this integrated way remains fresh with us, always accessible, and guiding us in the conduct of our daily life. It is more important that we redefine academics in terms of the quality of our total experience rather than in terms of the quantity of information. However, even when the object is not to learn a great quantity of information, in fact, one cannot help but be well informed by pursuing the objects of knowledge with enthusiasm. Secondly, academics include cognitive development, in which the full range of cognitive faculties is engaged and utilised, especially analytical skills, reasoning powers, systems thinking, and so on. Where these are present, creativity is usually present also. Unless the student is given the freedom to examine and question in his own terms and from his own point of view, these cognitive skills cannot possibly develop their full scope. All too often, standard academics develop a very limited set of skills centered only on memory and mental understanding.
Our redefined academics can easily include all the subjects normally covered in standard academics. These standard subjects are seen in a new light that places them in the context of personal development and encourages a full set of cognitive skills. The key to such learning is the cultivation of a kind of open approach that encourages innovative thinking and expands the learning possibilities exponentially.
Let us suppose, for example, that a group of high school students undertake to organize their own science class. Their organizational and planning, communications, and teamwork skills come into play as they deal with the academic matter, but there’s an internal process at work also in which the students’ imaginations become extended by what they learn and they gain a sense of connectedness to all that is around them. Something takes over in their discussion as they reach for knowledge, a kind of collective mind that reaches beyond what any one individual might grasp. The teacher becomes a facilitator of this dialogue, opening up new possibilities, pointing the way to new areas of inquiry.
Our new perspective on academics and personal development shows that we lose nothing from the academic knowledge we used to have; instead it connects that knowledge to the students’ interests and understanding. It nurtures a wider array of cognitive skills. It opens new horizons for personal development. This isn’t an uneasy truce but a rich and flourishing interaction.
What is academic content when academics are redefined?
Standard academics are organized in terms of subjects and courses of study. When we speak of the content of courses in standard academics, we mean basically what is learned in that course. Another way of saying it is, what do we take away when the course is finished, or what is asked for in the assignments and exams? If we propose a different view of academics, we have to propose a different idea of academic content, together with different organizing principles. And if we say the cognitive side is linked with the other areas of our overall development, we would think of the content part as being richer than it’s usually seen to be. Richer cognitive content inherently draws upon different areas of development and often bridges different fields of knowledge (i.e. it is interdevelopmental and interdisciplinary).
Our new organizing principles might take advantage of this crossing of boundaries. For example, as for organizing principles, we might be looking at ways in which the content of a given field has parallels with, or reverberations with, contents of other fields, so we’re not structuring things in terms of classical subjects, but are putting things together in terms of their inner relationships. For example, we might look at repetitive patterns in the periodic table, seashore formations, and repetitive structures in literature.
Content, in our expanded view of academics, is going to reflect this integrated idea of development. We might see it in the following ways:
a. A functional and relevant body of knowledge
A relevant body of knowledge means two things. First, it means knowledge intimately connected with the students’ own personal experience as the primary frame of reference. Secondly, it means knowledge relevant to the society and culture in which the student lives and works, through a myriad of interconnections. To say that this body of knowledge is functional means that it is always ready to be put to use. Such a body of knowledge will, by definition, be different for each student and culture. That does not pose a problem. Because it is both functional and relevant, it will serve to connect people more effectively than does the accumulated information of standard academics.
b. Skills, qualities, and tools
These relate to many of the outcomes of education that people are asking for: critical thinking, relationship building, concern for others, etc. Closely aligned to these skills and qualities are mental tools that aid in academic development, such as language, memory and reading skills. When considering the cognitive side of education, however, one particular set of skills needs to be emphasized: language skills. Memory and reading skills combined would enhance every student’s performance in school and throughout life. We could also envision their usefulness in dealing with examinations. We need to be thinking of exams as another game and not as an obstacle.
Having addressed academics through expression and content, we will venture a definition of “academic excellence”. For us, the term is used in the personal sense of an individual’s striving for mastery and perfection, not as an external, comparative reference. We look at how a child develops his personal, social and academic skills and how each area helps the others to develop. For example, a child may, over time, through the efforts of the teachers, develop a base of self-confidence that then helps his academic skills. At the same time, children are often required to cover a basic body of information and acquire basic skills, ensuring that they perform at the highest level in all the external evaluations they meet. Therefore, we accept external criteria such as examinations—we prepare the children for them, and encourage the children to take them as a challenge, but such assessment should not be taken as an actual measure of what they themselves really are achieving. Some students, for example, develop extraordinarily but still have average marks. A boy may come from a home environment of violence and cultural deprivation, and as a result, be unable to amass basic language skills, which affects all his studies. But, if through hard work and motivation, made possible by the encouragement and support of his teachers, he is able to achieve a moderate score on an external examination, he can be seen as achieving excellence, though his scores may be average. A standard of academic excellence has to include a recognition of what an individual actually attains, given his unique circumstances. We can also consider our excellence as a school, so we’re not just evaluating children’s performances but how well we do the job of facilitating their mastery, a consideration that will show up in their performance. We can also work to improve our tracking system so that the interrelationship of a child’s personal, social and academic development can be clearly seen and followed. Throughout the school, continuous assessment of each child is conducted through daily entries in the children’s records and after-school discussions by the teachers. When we talk about academic excellence, it’s always going to have an external frame of reference. Yet, there is another way of looking at how academics work. We know that the academics are really working when children’s interest and imagination ‘catch fire.’ When students, a number of times in the course of their school years, take an absorbed interest in an experiment or a project or a hobby and take delight in what they’re doing and take it to the point of satisfaction and fulfillment, in their own terms, without reference to anyone else’s expectations, they can be said to have achieved academic excellence. In this way, children can take possession of their own lives and their own development.