Unlearning to Reimagine the Purpose of Education

Voices from the Field   13 July 2022
By Suchitha Balasubramaniam and Varsha Pillai


Even as India boasts 97% enrollment in primary schools, one needs to understand that being in school is not the same thing as learning.

Suchitha Balasubramaniam and Varsha Pillai
Dream a Dream

“The only thing that’s harder than starting something new is stopping something old.” – Russell L. Ackoff, author of Redesigning the Future

The latest Indian National Crime Records Bureau report states that student suicides spiked to a new high of 12,526 in 2020, contributing to over 8.2% of deaths among young people. UNICEF’s report titled The State of the World’s Children 2021 states that 1 in 7 young people between ages 15 and 24 in India were depressed or lacked interest to do anything. Another global study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) published in the Journal of Adolescent Sciences reported that exposure to adversity is strongly associated with depression and violence inflicted by young people in poor urban areas around the world, including India. The data that has emerged in the last two years seems stacked against our young people, and it does not help when additional reports state that the pandemic will further allow students to fall behind. 

Even as India boasts of 97% enrollment in primary schools, one needs to understand that being in school is not the same thing as learning. While different facets play an important role in learning, there is nothing more dismissable than the one-size-fits-all approach. The Indian education system continues to ignore children and young people who come from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Are we overlooking the fact that we teach the same syllabus to privileged children who focus solely on education and to children coming from adversity who are battling day-to-day survival? 

The Indian education system continues to fail our young people with its rote learning approach and systems that ignore the socio-economic and cultural backgrounds of our children (including such factors as religion, gender, caste, and economic class). This old, rigid narrative does not include the lived realities of young people facing adversities and in many ways reinforces the old tropes — a student with good grades waiting for a well-paying job. 

The blatant disregard for individual experiences negates originality. To cite an example: A young person may not be great at mathematics but may have an interest in the arts. But, the education system does not allow the young person ways to explore this interest. Instead, it has them focus almost solely on mathematics, meaning they are not learning in an area of interest and are just being reminded of a challenging area.


The blatant disregard of individual experiences negates originality.

Suchitha Balasubramaniam and Varsha Pillai
Dream a Dream

Suffice it to say, the old ways are no longer working for our young people. We need to acknowledge this and work to recognise our old beliefs and unlearn narratives that no longer work for every child. However, unlearning as a process is not easy because many of the old narratives are deeply embedded into the fabric of our society. A prominent, embedded idea is that children must be educated, score well in exams, and build a career that can lead to a secure future where success is determined by their salary or owning a house. 

Dream a Dream has been working for the last two decades to empower young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity by using a creative life skills approach. 

We know that even as children and young people are empowered, systemic barriers and archaic ideas of success continue to push young people back. There is a need to advocate for a shift in the public’s mindset so that we can reimagine the very purpose of learning and education itself. Can our own process of unlearning begin by questioning our own definitions of success? Can that definition venture beyond the traditional ways of seeking better grades and ranks? Is it only about a young person being able to complete a university degree or getting a job and building a career? Or is there a different way to look at success where every child could feel happy with their choices and life? Can we completely redefine success? 

In our experience, we have seen young people be responsible, resilient, and happy, even when they pursue something other than conventional pathways of success like grades and careers. Every time young people show up for themselves and their communities, when they face adversities, overcome them, and are happy with their choices — that is when they feel a sense of success. 

For instance, our young person Ranjith who joined the After School Life Skill Programme at the age of 14, excelled in rugby and represented his state in national tournaments. He joined Dream a Dream as a facilitator, to mobilise young people in his community and train them in rugby. He also worked with young women to help them build better careers; one of them even represents the country in rugby tournaments. 

Likewise, our resilient young people showed up even amidst the brutality of the pandemic. Another example is Anjali, a 20-year-old alumnus of our After School Life Skills Programme, who wanted to contribute to her family. The pandemic had affected their livelihood and Anjali wanted to help her mother and started working in a local store. It was short-lived because the lockdown meant the store had to be shut down. Anjali used her skills of drawing and sketching to create works of art to sell. 

In another case, 21-year-old Bharath, a graduate of the Dream a Dream Career Connect Programme, was overwhelmed by the plight of migrant workers and wanted to help them. He mobilised his classmates, friends, and neighbours to come forward to source rice and managed to support 50 migrant families. The path has already been laid by our young people. 

As an organisation that is constantly learning from our young people, we wondered if we could walk away from the gruelling system of grades and reimagine education — if we could unlearn our previously held beliefs and start the process within. We also acknowledged that the process of unlearning necessitated that someone facilitate the unlearning process to help co-curate, build, and embrace the new! It meant reexamining the roles of individuals and communities and keeping the child at the centre of all our thought processes. Further, it required us to collaborate deeply with diverse stakeholders, hold difficult conversations, and most importantly, ensure young people take the lead. 

The process taught us that unlearning is an evolving process and honest admissions of not having all the answers or all the solutions is a great place to start. We have embarked on this unlearning journey to look internally and work to build a culture that allows us to face our conscious and unconscious biases and work on them, in our quest to build a microcosm of a just, equitable world we seek for our young people.

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