‘May we please go outside?’ a student pleads, batting eyelids as I walk into a noisy room of fifteen-year-olds. ‘You are letting us free??’ another mischievous voice found its way to my ears. I can’t help but smile, feeling tired after innumerable attempts at clever retor ts to such questions. Now, I have to quickly think of a new one. ‘You are born free!’ I say, feeling impressed with my presence of mind. I could not come up with something for the first question.
The students peer into their books of short stories in English and yawn occasionally. I have to engage them differently now. Quickly managing to initiate a discussion, I declare, ‘Hope is a delusion.’ Responses erupt from all over the place. ‘Ah! fruitful interaction!’ I say to myself. Class over. I leave the room. They run out seeming pleased. Phew! 25 kids, 25, 000 things they have got to say.
I am five minutes late to my next class of psychology. ‘You are late!’ a chorus of sixteen-year-old voices. ‘Apologies. I got waylaid, ’ I reply picking out one of the most used answers from my head. I catch myself feeling proud and happy walking into their class. ‘The older bunch seem so open to my class, ’ I think. ‘May we please not write anything today?’ My ego deflatessooner than it got inflated.
In the class we talk about feelings, sensation, perception, neurotransmitters and the human brain. ‘So what is the role of attention in sensation and perception then?’ I ask. It seemed inevitable to me to ask it. It seemed absurd to the children. We revisit the question slowly, trying to make sense of it all. ‘The state of the brain is attention, ’ I blurt out in conversation, ‘. . . and we seem to learn to estrange ourselves from this.’ Question marks spring out on their faces. We interact with caution and confusion.‘The popular content of inattention seemsto be thought, mostly thoughts pertaining to the “self ”.’ ‘Blah!’ — I clearly see this written all over their faces. “But then .. .” More questions. Very few answers. Class over. We leave together talking about structural details of the brain.
80 As the voices of children have wafted away out of school and the evening invites itself into my mind, I take a clear look at what is remaining of me. Only questions linger on in my brain. ‘What is happening in a classroom when children and I come together?’, ‘What is learning?’, ‘Who is a teacher?’, ‘What am I trying to do?’, ‘What makes for good schools?’ . . . These obvious questions that are real for anyone working in the field of education remain prominent amongst an array of innumerable and intertwined questions. I shake loose all the knots off my brain and try to reorder the strands in a systematic manner.
Are schools really for learning?
As I peruse the pages of history in my mind, I see that different learning atmospheres for students, young and old, have been necessary. They have helped people fit in and find a place in the social order of things in an ever-growing modernity, becoming skilled enough to be employed. But just this has not been enough. Learning about oneself, one’s psychological life and sometimes the purpose of living itself, has also been of vital importance. The school has been a forum, in almost every society, for creating opportunities for both kinds of learning to happen. But looking at what we have made of the world and ourselves today, much of learning — of both inner and outer worlds — seems yet to happen. It is clear that we continue to live greatly self-engrossed, confused lives, unclear about how exactly to make any good change in the world possible. Schools have not shut down because of this failure. Instead, they have continued to grow in numbers across the globe, giving us thefeeling that ‘education’ is growing as well.
What is ‘right learning’? Can it happen in places like schools? By themselves, schools don’t seem to be the most appropriate places for learning! This may probably be because they have structures and mechanisms which by their very nature oppose the natural movement of learning in a growing individual. Though some structure and scheduling is necessary, at least to the extent that some activities have a place, a beginning and an end, is it possible not to have too many oppressive structures; and yet allow for working and learning? Would it be possible to create a school where the space and learning opportunity a child receives is not confined to learning skills for examinations? A school where learning is not confined by imaginary society-expected time boundaries such as ‘must finish high school education in twelve years’? Of course, there may be some value in getting things done within work-related time boundaries, such as, ‘Write an assignment on global warmingin one week.’
The ability to learn characterises life. Humans are capable of learning language. They are capable of sophisticated insight. We have survived for thousands of years, evolving into complex societies and cultures across the globe. We are evolving into a life of great technological sophistication and have plunged into modernity and its challenges. Both biological and technological evolutions have taken us to a level that was unforeseen even a few centuries ago. We continue to train ourselves with skills that accelerate further technological development, to the extent that now a great deal of irreparable destruction is happening. However, psychologically, we seem to be still struggling to evolve. Anger, sorrow, fear, envy, joy and other human emotions are almost at the same place in their structure and function from wherever they have begun in us. Have we tried enough to learn about our psychological lives to enable us to simply live together in harmony with ourselves and other lives? I wonder. Most of what we have learnt has helped us rationalise the great danger in which we have put ourselves and other lives today. What is worrying is that the problem does not even seem pressing or urgent enough for school curricula to change. Marginal modification seems to beour only answer.
Does it matter whether children learn about the psychological life now, or later, or not at all? It is important that we let attention and awareness happen in all of us, including children. In this way, children may pick up employment and management skills from us and let them operate in attention and awareness. It seems important to be with children in their learning of language, thinking and finding out with them what it might mean to use these tools rightly in play, in life. It is interesting to watch how this ability to speak also gives us the ability to discriminate and crystallize our sense of ourselves. Is it possible for a child to draw home learning of oneself, of others, of adults, their vulnerabilities, limitations and through all this honesty and clarity in a group of adults, see occasionally some wisdom in them and give some wisdom to them? Without all this, destruction and violence seem inevitable. This would make us all students and teachers, learning and teaching actively at all times. Boundaries will fade.
Relationship is not manipulation
The babble grows further in my mind. I let it happen. One thing that affects our everyday working with the children in a school is the syllabus. There is very little space in school syllabi that allows us to talk about feelings, conflicts in the child’s life, manipulation in adult life and the like. Though the role of relationship is primary in education, a lot of it is about having a‘good relationship’ with the children, so that they may feel close to us, confide inus and learn well all that we teach them. But education is about children and adults having sufficient relationship to work andlearn together about themselves, about the inner world. How does one really understand oneself in relationship? Whatabout understanding a statement such as, ‘It is not necessary to manipulate anybody to get what I want’? Is this something we have to learn after innumerable years of exploiting and manipulating people and relationships? Or is it possible to see the futility of it right now?
It is difficult, in the structure of the school, for a child to ask to rest the brain in the middle of an organic chemistry class or a poetry class, or ask to do the lesson differently or later or even maybe not at all. For the teacher, it is difficult to keep children from misunderstanding freedom of choice and becoming indulgent consumers. Maybe the problem lies in ‘us’ and ‘them’ existing as two identities, trying to manipulate the environment and people so that learning may happen. However, learning to manipulate better is the only‘learning’ possible in such a situation.
It seems difficult to create a good atmosphere where education can happen. A school seems to operate on people, working as an organism with its own existence. It seems to have the need to sustain itself, become larger, define its boundaries and grow into a sentiment. This ensures efficient working and makes sure it will survive. It somehow becomes like an individual’s sense of ‘self’. The individual’s self, which is another powerful sentiment, identifies with an organization, feels attached to it and hence holds on to it dearly. The ‘smaller individual self’ and the ‘big collective self’ help each other survive. In the midst of all this preoccupation, is education happening because of schools and teachers or despite them? I wonder.
I am beginning to grow tired with the ramblings of my brain. With all the skills and strength of the intellect I have developed through education, it is almost impossible for me to suspend my sense of myself as the learner or the teacher. It seems difficult to suspend the need to belong and identify myself with the organization I work in. My need to look at my work as having a greater purpose than many others also seems ‘natural’. My intellect remains dishonest as it thinks it will solve all this easily. If the intellect is honest with itself, it has to accept the futility of its own working in solving problems created by it.
For some strange reason I miss my sixyear- old nephew. As I think of him, I recall how attentive he was while playing as an infant. Young children are very attentive. In moments of play in early childhood, children don’t need to ‘pay attention’. Not attentive to play, but just attentive and play happens — pure and motiveless. Like a bird flying or fish swimming. This moment of learning seems to be very interesting even to watch. What is striking is that there seems to be no player, just playing. I wonder if it is possible to create a learning atmosphere where nothing comes in the way of learning. Not even the identities of the teacher, the learner and the school. Maybe then the result of learning won’t matter. Even measurement or evaluation of learning would become far less important than it is today.
All this has to end. It is time the right thing happened, I tell myself. The old habits and the wrong approaches must die for right learning to take place. In a certain sense of the word, is it possible to ‘die’ so that learning takes place? Is it possible for all of us as a ‘school’, ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ to die so that learning and education may happen?
As night breaks on my thoughts, the moon vaguely smiles at the futility of my introspective gymnastics. ‘Am I willing to die to myself to let learning happen?’ The night hums in my brain. The moon, the crickets, the darkness, the fading energy, the ever-spiralling questions — this is my night, tonight.