During our annual curriculum meetings in April '96, two crucial questions were raised. One was regarding the role of observation and attention in the curriculum. While these have always been an implicit part of our curriculum and approach, is there a way we can make them the focus - directly, tangibly, explicitly? The answer seemed to come very naturally out of our ongoing interaction with a botanical sanctuary in Wynad, North Kerala. This sanctuary in the rain forest combines breathtaking natural phenomena with unmatched care and attention given to rare species of plants. The year before, one of our groups of students, 14-15 year olds, went there for three weeks as a part of their curriculum. Each of them worked on a project observing one particular plant or insect in relation to its enviromnent, for long stretches of time each day. This project explored two things:
- learning from direct observation without recourse to expert knowledge
- learning from a natural 'process' (e.g., a stretch of the river, a tree with all the creatures living in it, an ant hill and so on).
Initially there was a feeling of uncertainty among the students about what they were supposed to 'look for', and even a touch of impatience that nothing much seemed to be happening! However as time went on, they began to relax and found that there was indeed a great deal to observe once they let go of their expectations and time frames. They discovered many interesting things completely through their own observation. This project opened up fresh insights for the students, for us teachers and for the adults at Wynad.
But was such a project possible only in Wynad? Could we do it at CFL right here in Bangalore? We were determined to find out. How does one incorporate observation in the school day and do it in a truly natural way? Are we not observing all the time? Does it make sense to have time set aside for it? Can we do anything to help ourselves to observe better? The questions were many - and clear answers none.
The second question that came up was about leisure, in the school day and in our lives. We spoke of how in the past, to expose our students to a variety of experiences, we had invariably made our school year too full of exciting activities and events. Had we been alert to see whether the child was going from one such absorbing activity to the next without a sense of space or leisure? Would it be possible to have a quiet year, where the children participated in a few activities with a great deal of leisure and a total involvement in the process? Of course, doing less need not necessarily bring in leisure or excellence. The challenge would be to explore this carefully, with attention.
Related to this, we asked ourselves how different our lives are from those of an executive, an academician, a factory worker... Physically we seem as busy. Are we also as preoccupied? In response to these questions, we decided that each teacher should have at least a half-day off, and if possible even a full day off, each week. We cautioned ourselves not to fill this day with other non-school or even school-related jobs, but to find out whether it could become a true day-of-leisure. Could we discover that leisure is the ground of all our activities and work?
...a totally unstructured chunk of time given over to exploring together what it means to be quiet, to watch, to listen, to do or not to do an activity...
In the course of our meetings it emerged that we would explore the questions of observation and leisure at some depth this year. [A brain that is constantly preoccupied, chattering, cannot possibly observe. But if one gives oneself the space to quieten the brain, perhaps then observation can take place.] Each adult in the school would spend two block periods a week (three hours) with four to six students going into these questions. Students in all age groups, including the 16-18 year olds, participated. CFL being in a farm on the outskirts of the city helped because we could go on long walks to beautiful spots, which seemed a good starting point. More importantly, this would be a totally unstructured chunk of time given over to exploring together what it means to be quiet, to watch, to listen, to do or not to do an activity. We soon discovered that this was a space to just be, and not be involved in doingsomething. There was no agenda, no obvious teacher and student. This brought in a very different quality to the relationship and to the inquiry. Unlike a class or an activity session where the teacher brings about quietness and attention through the subject, here there was nothing. But soon we saw that when we did not interfere with or feed the usual noise and chatter, after a while it subsided and there was a response from the students which was unforced. The students would tell us that they had observed their own thoughts slowly quietening down.
Instead of the usual excursions to places of interest, we decided that through the year, small groups of children with two teachers would spend two to three weeks at the botanical sanctuary inWynad. The totally harmonious lifestyle of the adults there (no electricity!) offered a truly unique experience to each of us. Games, projects and activities were planned by the sanctuary revolving around the theme of observation. For example, one group took up bird-watching very seriously, setting out every morning at six for a session of over an hour. It was clear that by the end of their stay they had begun to be very sensitive and responsive to this process. As far as leisure went, they were more than ready to take on tough physical jobs for long hours - it seemed to us that the sense of leisure had removed their habitual resistance to hard work.
The themes of leisure and observation expressed themselves in classroom situations as well. For example, in English we decided that the curriculum would stress those skills of language learning that demanded attention to detail and a sense of order. Therefore a lot of time was given at one level to reading out well, pronunciation, expression, neat handwriting and matters relating to form. At another level, attention was also given to correct spelling, sentence construction, vocabulary and such things as are usually glossed over. Regularity of work, especially homework, was given importance. We found that the children responded readily and with no resistance, perhaps because they were becoming sensitive to the beauty of form and order.
As for the teachers, we found that quite a few of us were able to have a full day off. The sense of leisure and space was quite remarkable and we seemed to carry it with us through the rest of the week. But by the start of the last term, certain questions came up. While the day of leisure seemed very good for the teachers, what impact did it have on the rest of the school? Since our teaching and other duties were not reduced, we had very full days at school. The opportunity for relaxed interaction with students and other teachers had diminished. More and more lunch discussion sessions were being set up! The school also seemed rather depleted when the full complement of adults were not around. Looking at this, a number of us changed our schedules to see how we could have this leisure both at home and at school.
This year has been a quiet and yet challenging one for us all. In the curriculum meetings we've just concluded, we were all agreed that leisure and observation will remain an integral part of the school. We will continue to set aside time in the timetable for small groups of teachers and students to explore the true meanings of leisure and observation. And we will continue to pay attention to the balance between various exciting activities and a feeling of leisure, for both students and teachers.