Conversation With Nyla Coelho ” Education for Life, Education for Restoring the Intimacy with Land”

During Conversation With The New Leam

Education for Life, Education for Restoring the Intimacy with Land

Why is it that in the name of ‘education’ we have lost the living contact with what sustains us—nature, land, crops, agriculture? Is it possible to rethink education, and nurture a new generation of learners who are in tune with the spirit of a land based curriculum? Nyla Coelho—an educationist gifted with a high degree of sensitivity—encourages us to see this possibility. The issues she has raised in a conversation with us are bound to make our readers think.

What drew you to the field of education, and to understand the significance of a land based curriculum?

Like almost all of us who drift through life with no particular career path or direction, I too came into education by accident. My first job was that of a teacher, which frankly I found very challenging as some of my students happened to be older than me. I was a fresher out of university teaching a basic biology course to students of Homeopathy. One assignment led to another and I ended up teaching students of all levels in descending order, the last being playschool toddlers. I found all levels equally challenging and moved on to other areas of interest.

Education was back in my life again when I was looking for a school for my son. This was a challenge of another kind. Having investigated or visited almost all ‘reputed’ schools across India, I finally decided that the best school was the one closest to home, at a walking distance in a familiar surrounding with a familiar company and a safe neighbourhood. I still believe that these are the best criteria for choosing a school. I say this because I am convinced that children go to school more to be with friends and playmates rather than for study. All worthwhile learning comes through lived experiences and the functional aspects of the 3Rs can be learnt anywhere anytime; one need not spend a decade and a half of the best years of one’s life on that in regimental surroundings.

Well, the idea of a land based curriculum came to me by accident. Between 2003 and 2012, I was actively associated with the work of Multiversity India coordinating its Taleemnet initiative; I was also involved with the Organic Farming Association of India. So on the one hand we were trying to understand the learning endeavours outside the schooling system –engaging with self- directed learners, alternative schools, deschooling, unschooling, homeschooling, and on the other we were engaging with organic farmers who were practicing safe food growing methods against daunting odds. It was these farmers who time and again warned us of the faulty education system that failed to serve the needs of the rural-farming community of the country. In no uncertain terms we were told: ‘ There is some certainty that you (meaning the present generation) will be fortunate to get safe organic food, but we do not offer the same assurance for your children (the coming generations) as our children are completely alienated from the land; in fact, the education system perpetuates this alienation.’ This warning was really shocking. We decided that designing a curriculum specific to the needs of the children of the rural-farming community of the country had to be conceptualised and attempted.

How relevant is ‘basic education’ today considering its historical neglect and distortion?

  Basic education as the name itself signifies will remain conceptually relevant for all time, although its contents may need revision from time to time keeping in mind contemporary societal needs.

 Is it possible to inspire children with a fresh vision of productive work as an alternative to the current neoliberal agenda which is infiltrating our schools?

Of course, it is possible and it is being done by many pioneering educators all over the country. Children can be enthused to experiment with anything; they are always filled with a spirit for novel adventure. They will explore anything that is couched as novel and exciting. It is precisely the reason why the neoliberal agenda has been able to infiltrate not only education but all aspects of a child’s life. This is cleverly being pushed by domineering governance systems, hegemonic power structures and economic-capitalistic interests. Parents more than anybody else should be able to see it for what it is and take bold counter decisions, even if it means taking the path less travelled.

What is the significance of a land based curriculum for a child’s overall development? Is it relevant only for rural areas?

I think somewhere in our rush to make ourselves superhuman and masters of the Universe, we have paid little attention to our innate nature and the demands placed on us to act responsibly as only one of God’s infinite creations. If you observe little children, they are very connected to all natural phenomena. At a fundamental level, systematised formal education is a recent functional civilisational arrangement with a history of a few hundred years. Children are by nature of the land, and a land based curriculum, if seen from that aspect, would be a natural pedagogic choice.

Even from a contemporary/ realistic perspective it is relevant. We have brought upon ourselves much  crises at multiple levels that are unfolding at a planetary level. It is time we skill ourselves and our children so that we can keep our sensibilities attuned to natural systems. Only then is there a possibility of a smooth transition to a relatively secure life.

 How do you look at our present exam-centric education? What would be your suggestion to reinvent it for the holistic growth of the child?

Personally, I think examinations must be scrapped and an exam- centric education system must be  rejected.  Examinations are an insult to human intelligence and a black mark on civilised society.

This article is published in The New Leam, JANUARY 2017 Issue( Vol .3  No.19) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at

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