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Educators who transformed education

We often use the terms ‘education’ and ‘literacy’ synonymously. It is probably because education, today, is mostly about reading textbooks and writing exams. We hope it will launch our careers and help us earn a living. Today, we may have hordes of educated people amongst us. But is education turning us into accountable adults?

Interestingly, history shows us that even an illiterate person can be learned and wise; Emperor Akbar and Hindi poet Kabir are a case in point. While Akbar was a fine judge of character and endowed with a strategic mind, Kabir was a mystic and a saint who inspired both Hindus and Muslims through his ideologies.

Evidently, education is so much more than being literate or earning a degree. The real goal of education is, after all, to make us think critically, reason logically, and thereby help improve society. This International Literacy Day, Soulveda salutes educators and philosophers who envisioned a well-rounded education system for holistic development of individuals:


Well-known Greek philosopher Socrates believed that new knowledge stems from prior knowledge. And the more we think about an existing knowledge, the more we end up questioning it. Often, one question raises several questions, thereby broadening our perspective. Based on this rationale, he devised a pedagogy called the ‘Socratic circle’.

This learning method uses dialogue amongst peers to delve into an existing problem. Students are divided into two groups–inner circle and outer circle. Students in the inner circle are made to examine an issue or topic and ask open-ended questions. This facilitates stimulating dialogues, creating a conducive environment for all participants to share their perspectives on the topic. The outer circle students simply observe and then provide feedback to their peers in the inner circle.

Given the brilliance of open dialogue, this methodology is still employed in modern day education. It is particularly apt for problems that have no single solution or a ‘right answer’, and require examination from various perspectives.

Johann Pestalozzi

Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss education reformer, believed that the goal of education is not merely to impart knowledge, but to ideally help a person unearth their latent potential. This, he believed, is possible by finding a balance between the intellectual (head), physical (hands), and spiritual (heart) aspects of our lives. Striking a balance amongst the three would help a person connect with their true nature and become ‘whole’. To strike this internal balance, he advocated inclusion of fine arts and physical exercises in the curriculum.

Spirituality in education and a higher sense of responsibility leads the educator and the protégé on a path of self-discovery and self-transformation.

Savitribai Phule

Savitribai Phule is the first Indian woman teacher who ran the first women’s school in India. She did so during a time when countless restrictions were imposed upon women. A social reformer, she strived to educate people to view fellow human beings beyond the segregations of gender, caste and religion. Believing that education is the key to eradicate social inequalities, she did her best to spread knowledge through her poetry. Her school in Pune became a symbol of hope for countless ‘untouchable’ and ‘backward’ girls in the country.

Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan, an American teacher, at a young age of 20, took on the challenge of teaching a differently-abled child (Helen Keller) who was deaf and blind, and unable to speak then. Realising that formal pedagogy did not fit her special pupil, Sullivan decided to get creative with her approach.

Sullivan, instead of focusing on the impairments of her student, focused on the fact that Helen was just a child. She taught Helen language and vocabulary through games and everyday activities. This not only created a rapport between the two, but also gave Helen the confidence to interact and influence her environment despite her disability.

Over time, Sullivan further developed an innovative sign language to impart complex knowledge to her student. Sullivan’s teaching method was clearly child-centric and it yielded her tremendous results with Helen. Her unorthodox method of teaching bore fruit when Helen became the first deafblind to receive a degree from Radcliffe College. Even Massachusetts’ renowned Perkins School for the Blind launched the Deafblind Program after witnessing Helen Keller’s potential. To this day, the programme runs with Sullivan’s ‘child-centric’ method at the heart of its initiative.

Emmanuel Levinas

French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas inspired a spiritual approach to education and pedagogy.  According to him, spirituality in education and a higher sense of responsibility would lead the educator and the protégé on a path of self-discovery and self-transformation.

This approach to education would push an individual to apply their knowledge to help better the state of humanity as a whole. Levinas’ methodology also emphasised that every human relationship–even a student-teacher one–is to be treated as personal. Furthermore, his approach urged educators to accept a student without judgment. This, he maintained, would help educators transform themselves as well through teaching.

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