Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Schools need space for digital makers

Last month, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau were addressing an audience of “young change-makers" in Delhi, they emphasized that children and youth are the “leaders of today" who are “already changing the world".

“I don’t want anyone to tell you that you are the leaders of tomorrow," Trudeau told a cheering crowd of students and young entrepreneurs.

You know this to be true when you hear stories of children doing amazing work at a young age. Last year, a 17-year-old Indian boy (Siddharth Mandala) invented a unique “ElectroShoe" to protect women from physical abuse. A 15-year-old (Akash Manoj) designed a device to predict silent heart attacks. A 14-year-old (Harshvardhan Zala) developed an anti-landmine drone. A nine-year-old (Oyon Ganguli) made a device that saves water. I don’t believe that any of them were child prodigies. These were young minds that are given an encouraging environment that wasn’t bound by rote learning or inside-the-box education. And these are just some of the children who have been celebrated.

In India, science labs of Agastya International Foundation enable rural children to play with gadgets and machines to perform science experiments. The coding and software development training classes of NavGurukul encourage adolescents from an underprivileged background to learn to code. The Katha Lab School uses storytelling as a means to teach everything, from mathematics to robotics.

However the question I want to ask is why are most of the “innovative" classrooms run by non-profits?

Urban parents today have the choice to send their children to “traditional schools" or “alternative schools". But if you go back in time, “traditional schools", in their truest sense, were meant to be spaces of learning where children gained skills that would be useful to their community. Today, however, traditional schools have become centres of “modern education" that ironically lack 21st century tools and skills. Even though a massive number of students graduate from engineering colleges every year in India (their quality or understanding of the subject is another matter), a large number of students are afraid of science and technology.

Mitchel Resnick of MIT Media Lab once rightly said, “Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organising your thoughts and expressing your ideas. The reasons for learning to code are the same."

While I am not saying that every child must learn to code, the option should be open to children at an early age so that they can at least tinker with software and hardware. Starting with the basics of digital technology and fundamentals of coding, digital makers spaces in schools will create a motivating space for children and youth to transform their ideas into reality or be trained for the future jobs of the world. Analysing Big Data, understanding artificial intelligence, innovating with 3D printers, robotics and developing Web or mobile-based applications should be at the forefront of these well-equipped makers spaces that encourage, train, nurture and mentor a young community of thinkers and doers.

Why can’t all our schools be learning spaces—rather than education spaces—where children get the opportunity to fail, try again, fail, try again, and succeed through hands-on training. Besides, at present, most mobile and Web-based solutions are being designed by urban innovators in urban spaces for urban citizens. While metropolitan cities sure have accelerator spaces and co-working hubs for out-of-college youth, imagine if the same could be made available to students in rural areas or at least at district levels. Such spaces will foster curiosity, learning and experimentation, which will lead to knowledge-based learning rather than education-based learning, eventually creating a pool of makers who can identify problems and design creative solutions for our rapidly changing world.

I would like to emphasize here that coding is not the goal, it’s just a means to achieve goals, one of which, as Resnick says, is “to teach people a new way to think", so that their creativity and curiosity can be encouraged. It’s time we put an end to an education system that produces passive consumers of textbook information, and rekindle the knowledge system that produces inquisitive minds, active innovators and conscious citizens.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar

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