What does one teach when one teaches a subject? I notice there are three different kinds of learning. First, there is the learning of a skill. How can one make the learning of a skill totally free of the effort of memorising and struggling to remember? Can the learning of a skill be done so that it follows the contours of the learning brain, where the acquiring of a skill is natural, as in the learning of the first language? I am learning a new language on Duolingo (an app for learning a foreign language). It interests me how my brain can retain structures through familiarity and repetition without the need to consciously memorize. I do not have to go through the tedious process of memorizing words and sentence structures. The lessons are short and build on each other, so that repetition is built into the structure. Words and grammatical structures are linked to familiar objects. All of this allows for absorption without effort. I wonder if in the teaching of a skill I can bring the same effortless quality to the learning, by relating the context to an activity, an object or a situation. As a teacher can one be skilled in knowing when to repeat and how much, so that the learning is effortless?
Then there is conceptual learning where there is knowledge and insight into the structure of a concept. How does one make sure that the learner sees the concept that is being learnt rather than merely remembering the linear exposition of the idea? This is particularly true in the teaching of mathematics. Often, my role as a teacher is limited to the raising of questions based on what the student already knows. There has to be space where the student can learn to hold the question without immediately seeking an answer and getting frustrated in the attempt to do so. The space strengthens the capacity and demand to see clearly, rather than being satisfied to work with a verbal explanation or procedures. I feel this is parallel to Krishnaji’s demand that we see directly what is being said. The seeing brings about a creative engagement with the concept rather than a laboured ability to work with the technique. Insight here means the movement from a fragmented collection of ideas to seeing the underlying pattern. The question remains of course as to whether the pattern is there to be discovered or if the pattern is imposed.
This leads to the final movement of learning—insight into the very structure of thought. Thought creates the illusion of an ‘observer’ separate from the ‘observed’, and yet has the ability to reflect upon itself. How does one help bring about this insight in the learner? Here, help cannot be seen as assisting another. Rather, can the educator cooperate with the learner so that the space is created where such insight is possible? This is perhaps the most significant creative movement of learning. To watch the sense of being a watcher and allowing it to die away. This insight seems to be radically different, in that the deepest assumptions about time, space, distance are abandoned by the brain that is in a state of watching. Is this what Krishnaji meant when he said that we never look or listen completely? To listen without any resistance or translation is to listen to the whole. Every interaction is an opportunity for listening. Can every interaction between the teacher and student evoke this quality of listening? This is particularly true with the young. This listening is true relating, much more than words and things done for them. Patterns of resistance begin to form because the adults do not bring this quality of listening in their interactions with the young. So just as one begins to absorb the right grammatical structures without having to learn them through conscious effort, this capacity for listening becomes part of the child when the adults around are also doing it. It is natural for a child to do this just as it is natural for a child to respond to affection with affection. To listen and to look without actively seeking to grasp is a negative capability. The brain is in a higher state of attention in this state than when actively seeking to grasp something. Perhaps this has a role even in learning a skill or a concept.
When I teach, I also teach moving between the particular and the general. This means to see the general in the particular and to respond to the particular with the understanding of the general. Through the particular there is insight into the general, for example, in mathematics, where through the investigation of a particular example we try to understand the general principles. This capacity to see the general through the particular is distinct from generalising. Generalizing is the creation of a model by abstracting certain aspects, while this is seeing the whole through the window of the part. This is very important in the teaching of the sciences and mathematics. Children who struggle with these subjects are often lost in the particular. Teaching and learning in this way is perhaps difficult for us because we tend to get lost in the perceived complexities of the particular and are forever trying to master and control the particular. With the perception of the general, the particular falls in place. Take, for example, the solving of simultaneous equations. Once it is seen that there are two unknowns and two pieces of information needed to solve them, the particular problems become easier to handle. It does not seem as if separate unrelated rules are needed, which need to be memorised.
From the particular to the general is perhaps also the process of investigating into oneself. We are used to thinking of order in terms of symmetry, predictability and pattern, amongst other things. Is there an order underlying all form, which is in essence freedom from contradiction and conflict? And what is the nature of learning that can approach this order? Can I, as a teacher, interest the student in this question even while I am teaching a subject? Can the mind move beyond order in form to order underlying form? The seeing of the general through the window of the particular is a movement of insight, but this is partial if there is no letting go of the most basic structures that thought has created—separation, distance, time and self. These still colour and distort perception and so the brain is content with models which describe, rather than demand to see directly. This again is related to self-enquiry,where the observation of the particular conflict or fear allows for an insight into the structure of conflict or fear.
I also see the importance of gatheredness and attention when the teacher and student are in communication with each other. Thus, the speed with which I speak, how I speak, and my own quality of attention become very important in creating an atmosphere of learning. My attention is their attention. We are in a state of attention together.
Can I alert the student to the movement of thought and memory that does not come out of attention? Let me illustrate what I am trying to say with two examples. Often, when a student answers a question, it is an automatic and unexamined reaction of memory. It may be right or it may be wrong. But that is not the point. Likewise, reading aloud often becomes mechanical. One gets absorbed in the activity of reading and one is not actually listening to oneself reading. This is similar to a machine capable of a certain activity being switched on, wherein there is action but there is no awareness. This is not very different from the mechanical reaction of memory which constitutes our psyche. Can the brain be alert to this phenomenon of unexamined thought? This is an opportunity to learn awareness. Krishnamurti talked about listening, not only to the word, but to the sound of the word as well. How intimately woven into everyday activity is this movement of awareness!
Can I go beyond the teaching of the subject to show them the state of the world? A student may be isolated in a comfortable bubble which encourages focus primarily on oneself and one’s immediate relationships. Can he see that such a narrowing down is itself a source of insecurity and unhappiness in the world? There is the need to direct the student’s attention to the state of the world, the conflicts, the injustices and inequalities that pervade everyday life. Some subjects like geography or economics or sociology lend themselves to this in a natural way. When an adult is concerned with such questions there will be opportunities to bring up these questions regardless of the subject being taught. In doing so, one can raise questions about the individual’s responsibility for such a state. Would a feeling of responsibility to the whole of mankind bring about the energy to go beyond the underlying cause, which is the disorder in the human consciousness itself?
I am never teaching only a subject. One is always teaching and interacting with a human being. And there are many things operating in the human being, arising from within the structure of thought. Can I speak to the ‘unconscious’ of a student who is getting caught in a movement of lethargy and habit, seeing that reasoning does not help? Krishnamurti often pointed to the possibility of speaking to the unconscious of a person, as the unconscious sees danger quicker. The conscious mind is the structure of the self with its resistance, opinions, and conclusions. All these interfere with the capacity to listen without resistance, without justification or defensiveness. The unconscious, it seems to me, while still being in the field of the psyche, is without the structure of the self that creates barriers in communication.
Many children in today’s world experience a persistent unhappiness, which is different from the passing unhappiness that we all may experience. This unhappiness has its roots in a profound insecurity brought about by the environment in which the child is growing up. The outward manifestations of this are many and even radically different in different children. It could be clinging, anger, restlessness, lethargy, anxiety and many other forms. Fear, unhappiness, resistance are active even as I am teaching. Do I ignore them and come back to them later? Do I deal with them first and come to the teaching of a subject later? Or is there a way of dealing with them simultaneously? Is there a way of touching the psyche without reasoning and persuasion? In our attempt to deal with psychological issues we are constantly invoking thought and time because we take it for granted that time is needed to bring about change. However, conscious thought is not able to deal with this unhappiness, because it is created and sustained by thought. Can the subconscious be alerted to the danger of this movement? Can this be done in simple words? I ask myself (and you, my colleagues) whether it is possible to create this movement of learning in which there is space and leisure to observe oneself and respond to the student without bringing in time.