I must begin by setting the scene. I moved to Chennai, India just under eighteen months ago from the United Kingdom, where I have spent most of my life. While looking for a suitable place to educate my son, I found out about The School, KFI. I had heard stories of a school where the teachers not only teach the children but also care about them, and where the children are encouraged to learn at their own pace, without pressure or peer competition and with increasing confidence and independence. When I visited The School for the first time, my immediate impression was one of peace and serenity. The campus was clearly a hive of activity, but it seemed to be purposeful and focused. Later I was asked to come into school and help in the junior school classrooms and—as I have worked for nearly twelve years as a primary schoolteacher in the United Kingdom—to share my experience.
My first visits to the Junior School Mixed Age Group (MAG) classrooms were arranged as observational sessions in order for me to become accustomed to the way the teachers work, to allow the children to become familiar with seeing me and to enable the teachers to share some of their working practices with me. These sessions proved to be invaluable for my own learning. Nothing could have prepared me for the huge differences between teaching over thirty children (of the same age) in the United Kingdom and teaching a Mixed Age Group (MAG) class in this school in southern India.
The first time I entered one of the MAG classes, I was astounded at the minimalist nature of the room and its contents. The main area of the room was cleared of furniture, and there was none of the usual stationery clutter in evidence. I wandered round the room trying to imagine how the teacher managed to teach, organize and motivate the children in her class with so few accoutrements. I was used to resources of various sizes, shapes and colours. I looked at the displays on the wall and here was evidence of a group of children with a clearly defined task that had been completed competently. I have often said that when choosing a school for your child, always look to the displays on the walls to guide your judgements. Children’s artwork can rarely be produced to a certain quality on demand. In order for children to produce good displays, they have to feel secure in the knowledge that they and the art work they produce will not be judged, criticised or denigrated. They must feel valued and confident. This is the best sign of the quality of teaching and learning happening in a school. I saw here incredible displays—ones the children had clearly enjoyed producing.
The main difference in displays between this classroom and my class in the United Kingdom was the amount of paper used. We backed the display boards with very good quality paper, available in every colour and shade imaginable. We were then required to trim the children’s work and double or triple mount the work using the appropriate shade of construction paper or sugar paper. It was only as I spent time in these classes, talked to the teachers and learnt more about the philosophy of The School that I came to the realization that children do not need their work to be mounted or trimmed or framed. The very fact that it is on the wall and is valued for what it is, is itself enough. Children are satisfied with the simplest display.
Children started trickling into the classroom shortly after I arrived, and stowed away their bags and water bottles. They were eager and enthusiastic to get into the classroom and were also curious as to my identity. Most greeted me politely, ‘Good morning, Akka.’ Some wanted to know who I was and whose mother I was. I answered them to their satisfaction and they ran off, barefoot, to have a last few minutes of playing and running before scheduled classes began. Their energy and verve in spite of the immense heat astounded me!
The furniture in the classroom caused me to pause and consider. I was used to bright primary coloured furniture, mostly made of plastics and melamine, and lots of open storage areas with resources all out in view, clearly labelled. Each child had a desk and chair, usually grouped in fours and sixes. They had a tray or a ‘cubby hole’ that was their own, in which they could keep their books, pencils, folders and the million other knick-knacks that the children thought essential for school! We used to have ‘washing lines’ strung in a criss-cross manner across the classroom to use for hanging mobile art and craft projects. We also used these lines for hanging words, pictures and numbers. One has to bear in mind the size of the schools I am alluding to. They mostly have three sections, three classes of around thirty children each, all of the same age.
In this classroom, there were several closed cupboard doors (obviously storage of some sort) and a tall shelf unit. The children did not have desks, per se; instead they had a low wooden table, which doubled as a seat. I came to realize later that the storage of items in the cupboards was due to the threat of insects and other creatures, and also theft. Schools in London usually have burglar alarms fitted and infrared beams in place to protect the computers, audiovisual aids and photocopiers in the rooms. Here, I found that there were purely practical reasons for an apparently bare classroom. Once the children were in class and working, equipment appeared. The children were independent and knew exactly where to locate whatever they needed.
I was fascinated to see the way the teachers interacted with their classes. Their philosophy was crystal clear. They did not see children as empty vessels waiting for the omniscient teacher to fill them by pouring in learning in the form of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Rather, they saw successful learning as being based on a relationship born of trust and mutual respect. The young people were free to question the adults, and each other, just as the adults were equally free to question the children. As Krishnamurti said (when talking about the importance of developing a ‘good mind’), ‘...how one teaches becomes very important. There must be a cultivation of the totality of the mind and not merely the giving of information. In the process of imparting knowledge, the educator has to invite discussion and encourage the students to inquire and to think independently.’ By way of this process, a value system is created that, reflects an ethos of genuine caring, consideration and respect that is taught from the very start. This was very evident in the Junior School classrooms.
The children’s responses to various situations clarified and illustrated the moral code being disseminated. In their play, as well as their work times, the children were totally aware that a certain standard of behaviour was expected and acceptable. I used to be one of a team of inspectors for schools in the United Kingdom, and I can say that I have rarely been in a classroom where the adult is not raising his/her voice, being the dominating force during discussions or the font of all knowledge and the source of all judgements and decisions. The Junior School classes in this school had a quiet working hum as their background noise. The adults spoke quietly and confidently. They turned questions back to the children who asked them, especially when the questions or concerns were about fellow classmates.
It is very easy for teachers to take over the disciplinarian role. It is much, much harder to spend time talking things through and making sure every child feels valued and not ill-treated or overlooked. The children in these Junior School classes had been taught the value and importance of discussing problems or issues that arise, to listen to the other people concerned, and to arrive at a solution together. I feel that this could well lead to them becoming responsible, compassionate adults, who would look for solutions to their problems that do not begin and end with violence. Krishnamurti said that, ‘When behaviour, politeness, consideration are superficial and without affection they have no meaning. But if there is affection (for this I also add respect), kindliness, consideration, then, out of that comes politeness, good manners, consi-deration for others, which means really that one is thinking less and less about oneself, and that is one of the most difficult things in life. When one is not concerned with oneself, then one is really a free human being.’
An important facet of classroom life that I could not but notice was the lack of assessment charts, of reward stickers, of public progress record charts, of spelling test results ...in fact, a lack of any overt competitive behaviour. The teachers motivated their classes in a subtle and effective manner. I did not hear them comparing children, pitting them against each other in competitive activities, or even timing the class to get to the end of an activity or lesson. The teachers encouraged individual children to try their very best every time they attempted anything. They did not hold out the possibility of a reward for success or inflict a punitive measure for failure. They did not coerce the children to perform for them; nor did they try to use the bond between teacher and student to try and reach into the child to get the best work out of him or her. They discussed things with the children, encouraging them to think and reflect, and listened to them.
Krishnamurti made it clear, ‘Most people think that learning is encouraged through comparison, whereas the contrary is the fact. Comparison brings about frustration and merely encourages envy.’ This basic principle is reiterated continuously by him. I came to see that children do not need to be encouraged to be better, faster, and stronger than the other children in their class. They need to learn self-sufficiency, and to eliminate dependency on competition. Krishnamurti saw very clearly that ‘competitiveness is destructive not only in the classroom but right through life’. He also realized that ‘learning is possible only when there is no coercion of any kind… coercion through influence, through attachment or threat, through persuasive encouragement or subtle forms of rewards’. I wished I had read his words years ago. I now regret the loss of hours of my time trying, with colleagues, to think of reward systems to encourage good behaviour, awards for academic achievement and Golden Rules with Golden Points to be awarded or deducted and tallied at the end of the week. A huge amount of time and energy was devoted to finding ways to keep children interested and motivated.
I can honestly say that the experiences that the Junior School teachers at The School shared with me have been invaluable. I was asked to share my experiences, but I ended up learning much more than I could possibly contribute. These teachers do not have the world-weariness of my old colleagues and the bone-deep exhaustion of battling to keep up with constant governmental educational changes. They do not have the urge to battle the authorities within the school. They do not have the cynicism of the colleagues I worked with in the United Kingdom. Instead, they have a refreshing enthusiasm for their jobs. These teachers seem to be ‘...concerned with the total development of each human being, helping him to realize his own highest and fullest capacity...’
- Krishnamurti on Education, 1974.
- On Learning by J. Krishnamurti.