Monday, December 9, 2013



A few days before Diwali this year, I got a call from a Physical Education (PE) teacher in a Government school in Delhi. I got introduced to her only recently when an old friend of mine, who I hadn't met in more than a decade, came to visit from out of town and brought her along. My friend had told her, the PE teacher said, that we educate school drop-outs at Manzil, and she was calling to find out if she could redirect to us students from her school who couldn't cope.

I told her that she was mis-informed, that we didn't work specifically with 'drop-outs', and since much of what actually goes on in the name of 'education' is a farce, we have, instead, our own well thought-out approach to education that actually serves young learners, regardless of whether they are in school or not. Will you get them to complete their schooling and get a certificate? - was all she was interested in. No, I told her, and we don't teach all the school subjects either, and we certainly don’t give or help people acquire certificates. But - she was aghast - what will they do without a certificate?

That was enough to start me off. What does the word ‘certificate’ signify? Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a document confirming that someone has reached a certain level of achievement in a course of study or training”. The operative word is certify, which is related to being certain or sure, and a certificate declares, through a document, the achievement of such ability or competence in the person being certified. It follows naturally that a certificate may only be issued after the achievement of competence, and it is not meant to merely record that the person has attended a program of learning irrespective of whether anything has been learnt or not. But that is what it has become now – just a record of an activity that is by itself only incomplete.

What happens when a large number of people acquire certificates that have no integrity? So they actually confirm nothing about their competence? Instead of enhancing the value of the certificate possessor, the trust in and the value of the certificate itself drops. An entrance exam that ignores the results of a qualifying exam, administering the same entrance test to with and without certificate job applicants, no relation between what one has been certified for and what one is actually doing, etc – these are all examples of certificates losing relevance. And yet the craze for acquiring certificates is only growing. It is as if when the only path you know fails in getting you to your destination, you start running faster on the same path just because it is the only one you know.

But there is a better way. It is to recognize – squarely – the unfortunate fact that in India today, a ‘qualification’ (as marked by a certificate) is not the same as a ‘competence’. As the hindi proverb goes, हाथी के दांत खाने के और, दिखाने के और. Competence is होना, and Qualification is दिखना. And in the debate of what is more important of the two, we miss the essential point that it is not in one or the other, but in both in conjunction that the way forward lies. In what lies the integrity of the certificate, is exactly that in which lies our own integrity.

In the bewilderment of the PE teacher hides the sad truth that there is a craze for certificates in India today that is not matched by a craze for real learning. Most people seem to not even know that there is such a thing as true learning, and that it continually forms and re-forms one’s being. To correct the generally prevalent imbalance in the two quests for ‘qualifications’ and competence, we at Manzil have chosen to completely ignore certification for the time being. Our focus is on bringing to life – and making concrete in the minds of the young – the idea of learning for one’s real growth, that is, learning for its intrinsic value as against for external rewards. We do this by following a simple practice – by offering classes, but giving out no certificates.

And what have we found? Shorn of token temptations, our classes are not attractive to those who are looking for shortcuts to success. Consistently, over and over again, we find our classes filled with eager minds, drawn only by the prospect of what they are learning. They experience the magic of their own growth in a most organic way. It is revealed to them through their own self-assessment, not because someone else is awarding them marks.

There is, besides, an additional bonus. Like in any group, when the majority vibes one way, those on the fence feel gently nudged in the same direction. Those few reluctant learners intuitively sense the distinctive atmosphere of learning that the genuine learners build, and gradually experience the same magic of personal growth as them. We could never have predicted this, but reflecting over it in hindsight, of course it makes complete sense.

In the end, we serve our young most if we can somehow get them to experience the tremendous personal benefits of becoming life-long learners, and not mere certificate collectors.

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