(This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Mentor, an education magazine, under the title ‘Rewarding Insights’.)
Schools are built to educate children, so why not seek their inputs about the school environment? This simple thought became the starting point for this article. Children spend a large part of their childhood in school, so it would only be fair to facilitate and support their involvement in co-creating their learning space. This would give students a sense of community ownership instead of imagining themselves only as consumers entitled to a value-for-money experience.
The skeptic may argue if children in school are mature enough to offer their ideas in relation to a question as abstract as ‘What constitutes a healthy school environment?’ Yes, they are, if the adult engaging with them is mature enough to help frame the engagement in terms that are meaningful to the children participating in the discussion. It is important, however, to step in with some basic understanding of one’s own position.
What does ‘school environment’ mean? Does the environment include only the building, the various physical spaces, colours, accessibility for people with disabilities, light, infrastructure, greenery and furniture? Does it also encompass the vibe and the ambience? Does this definition venture to embrace how one feels when one steps in, because of the way the people are? While some homework with regard to one’s own thoughts is useful, a measure of openness to an evolving definition, contributed to by a range of students, is likely to widen the possibilities of classroom exchange.
While working with an ICSE-affiliated school in Mumbai in mid-2012, I conducted a session with my eighth graders in order to elicit their collective response to ‘What constitutes a healthy school environment?’ It brought forth some very interesting answers; some thoughtful and imaginative, some wild even, and some obvious ones meant perhaps to please the teacher. Here is a sample of the list they came up with: not wasting electricity, no teasing and no hitting, tell everyone to settle down and let the teacher touch, not touching any chemicals in the laboratory without asking, students being respected by teachers, being permitted to carry electronic gadgets, not allowing passers-by to smoke outside the school, being able to bunk class without getting caught, teachers should be strict in the class but friendly outside class, we should get a solution to each and every problem, where there is happiness, where you can talk to the teacher about any problem, each child should get a chance to express, etc.
This quick sample gives you a glimpse of the variety in their responses, which reflect a broad understanding of the term ‘school environment’. Their responses touch upon ideas such as cleanliness, classroom discipline, comfort, health, pollution, bullying, fun, freedom and equality. If one were to carefully think about each of the points they have made, one would be able to appreciate their discerning, intelligent minds and their ability to articulate their needs and preferences.
Some of the other responses that came up in the discussion were: teachers should co-operate with students and not scold them about small things, people should act like upstanders and stop others from fighting, good teaching from the teacher, no discrimination between students, positive energy, once a month we should have ‘no uniform day’, practical learning, smart boards in every class, everybody uses their talents, everyone respects each other, polite teachers and kind teachers, no use of abusive and harsh language, the school is not surrounded with hawkers or strangers, good students should work as mentors and help others, there should be a balance between studies and enjoyment, not to destroy school property, where children get timely breaks, where children come with a motive to study, there should be friendliness between students of different standards, etc.
Again, one can clearly see that students have used this classroom discussion on the topic of a healthy school environment as an opportunity to talk about their notions of fairness, friendship, mutual respect, safety, etc. One simple question brought out such a wealth of responses, which tell us about what would make children look forward to coming to school, and what would make them feel secure, happy and confident.
One could take the discussion further by asking students to name the various stakeholders who need to work towards co-creating the kind of school environment they would like to have, and how they in their individual and collective capacity could contribute to this process. This exercise might be challenging for some of them but this is a risk worth taking and supporting them through. This is a chance to learn that one needs to be part of the solution, not just the complaint.
This exercise might offer some rewarding insights into how students look at the school from a macro-perspective, which school leaders and administrative heads need to know about if they truly want to be relevant and responsive.