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Theme schools - Are they need of the hour?

By G. Balasubramanian

The idea of ‘Theme Schools’ is not a new proposition. Even before the concept of ‘formal schools’ started after the ‘industrial model’ thought dynamics, schools that subscribed to a single concept or a few allied concepts did exist in this country. They focused on developing a set of skills relevant and contextual to a given discipline of learning that called for deep learning and continuous learning. As such they focused not only on developing competencies in those disciplines of learning but a reasonable amount of ‘Mastery’ in them. The learners from such institutions dived deep into the roots of knowledge that contributed to the health and wealth of such disciplines of learning. Music, Dance, sculpture, theatre and other forms of art were nurtured through such institutions. On a similar note, several games, techniques of warfare and even concepts of social services were developed through some of these schools to produce people who are not only skilled in those areas, but who would build the future empires in such disciplines of learning. In all such institutions the focus was on every single learner and hence the curriculum was individualistic so that neither a common yardstick nor a normative tool was used to assess their individual learning curve and achievement levels.

In a broad based social structure, with an obsession for literacy (which was normally a prescribed pattern with a top-down approach), the paradigm shifted to mass education with a core curriculum to bring equity and equality, with excellence remaining more as a dream proposition. While the fundamentals of this approach cannot be questioned keeping in view the need for equitable distribution of wealth to all members of the society by empowering them with knowledge, the nurturing of celebrated themes was marginalized. The core curriculum and its follow ups redefined the objectives of learning to a ‘bread and butter’ model, dismantling the ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ structures. The debate between the ’utilitarian model’ and the ‘puritan model’ always weighed with a bias.

With the gateways of knowledge opening ‘the freedom to learn’ is being viewed with a more positive sight. The ‘globalization’ phenomenon opening knowledge, skills, trade, business and investments to a larger population across the nations, has encouraged and triggered celebration of different dimensions of knowledge, whatever be the field. Hence there is a need to respond and cater to the emerging demands by participating in the global competition. This requires an elevated level of focus, attention, understanding, specialization, and enterprise among the learners of all disciplines. The current system of formal schools catering to a distinct set of perspectives will not be able to meet these requirements and hence there is a case for ‘Theme schools’ in the current educational edifice, and certainly with a different thought dynamic. The current administrative structures of the Government working on the development of skills should take cognizance of such theme-based schools as natural narratives of their approach to celebration of skills.

Theme Schools – be it in Sports, Music, Dance or other areas of specialization cannot fit into a normal thought architecture, as they must be built with a different infrastructure – physical, cognitive, psychological and social. The rules and regulations that govern normal schools should not be applied to such ventures that subscribe to certain cultures, values and ideals, they need to be mentored and monitored by experts with proven accomplishments in such fields of activity. They need a lot of flexibility in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. The school routines and timings must be flexible, and the leaders of such ventures should have the freedom to do so, as their singular aspiration would be to develop and demonstrate excellence in such areas. Superimposition of ideas that not conducive to the practices in running such institutions will do more damage than good.

There needs to be complete flexibility in the kind of teachers who would be at the classrooms, as the normal pedagogical practices and applications would not help in shaping the learners in such schools. The fear that such schools would not fall in the ‘license raj’ of the administrative structures built over a century must be dismantled. Currently, several theme schools sporting themselves as champions of such themes are not doing enough and adequately to the cause because they have the twin objectives of meeting the needs of a normal competitive curriculum and the urge for advocating the unique curriculum for the learner. As such the agencies granting permissions and affiliation should be willing to work with an open mind to facilitate the growth of the ‘theme schools’ without imprisoning them for rules of lands, structures and practices which are not essential for pursuit of excellence in those areas. Accountability for the theme schools could be established though different scales and norms which will help them govern themselves with self-respect, value and social accountability.

The current National Education Policy which subscribes to ‘freedom to learn’ based on the ‘learnability’ of the learner does support celebration of knowledge in its multi-faceted form. Theme schools will indeed be a right step in that direction.

Swami Vivekananda remarked “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in Man.” Theme schools do help in realizing this vision.