The question has often been asked of Krishnamurti schools as to how, in the absence of competition, reward and punishment, they educate students and help them to be proficient in academic learning. As we attempted to explore this question seriously amongst ourselves, we felt that the answer does not lie solely in the way we deal with academics, but rather in the philosophy that informs our schools.

Academic study was only a part of Krishnamurti’s vision of learning, although an important part. Learning implies ‘the cultivation of the totality of the mind’ and the being of the child. It can happen only in an atmosphere that is free of fear thus enabling both teacher and student to explore and question the world outside and within themselves. We have over time discovered that the establishment of a right relationship, one of understanding, care and warmth between teachers and students is important. This gives a sense of space and freedom to learn from all life situations. The teacher is as much a learner as is the student. Where there is this freedom, trust and care, students are enabled to enquire, ask questions, both in class and outside. They enjoy learning, and are happy. This encourages children and adults to take responsibility for their learning, be it about their physical environment, their social interactions, or academic work. Underlying all these is the demand that one be willing to critically examine one’s own motives, responses and actions. The question we ask is: is it possible for each one of us to be sensitive and disciplined, choicelessly.

Similarly, the parents who approach the schools feel that there is more to living and learning than acquiring academic and vocational skills, however excellently. To this ground, children bring their living curiosity, freshness, sense of wonder and openness. Nurturing the child’s motivation to learn is to nurture these very qualities.

Clearly, in such an atmosphere, competition, reward and punishment have no place. This is why we have steered clear of these traditional structures that have long been used to motivate students. Such motivators tend to focus on the end result, which is judged in comparison to others. Do we see that comparing one child with another breeds jealousy or pride in them, and brings about in them a fear of not matching or upholding an expectation? This could well destroy the potential of good friendship between them. The atmosphere of the classroom—relationships between teacher and student, student and student— gets distorted and strained. The drive to outperform others, or better one’s position, tends to colour human interactions and emotions even outside the classroom. Very often we may fail to notice the effects of comparison on children, because we concentrate on getting the results we aimed at.

Also, when a teacher compares a child with another, irrespective of his interests, inclinations and difficulties, the child loses importance as an individual whereas imitating the other becomes the goal for him. As a matter of fact, we have to watch the arising of these feelings of comparison, inferiority or superiority in ourselves as well, and how in subtle ways we are moulded by them. Seeking security through imitation has become a way of life for us, and unless it is relentlessly watched and put aside we shall continue to be, as Krishnamurti would say, ‘second-hand human beings’.

Our experience with children in primary classes has taught us that at this age, they learn with all their senses. So time must be given for observation, listening, play, being silent and being in nature. Let us not introduce knowledge too much and too soon at this stage, so that the child’s sense of wonder and curiosity is kept alive. When knowledge is introduced, we find that genuine learning happens when there is a palpable sense of understanding, a growing capacity and even insight into a subject area. It is learning where the process of engagement with the subject matter is more significant than the result. To this end, the teacher tries to create in the students an alert yet relaxed sense of moving into the subject. The student is interested, curious and often self-directed.

Towards this end, a warm and responsive relationship between teacher and students is essential. If the teacher is distant and assumes the mantle of the sole authority, the student feels compelled to be a passive recipient and his mind is not actively engaged. Allowing space for students to question and participate actively leads to a different level of understanding for the teacher as well, even if she already has a mastery over its content.

As they grow older, one of the problems we face is in eliciting good quality work from students. Any assigned work must be seen as part of a learning process, in which there is emphasis and feedback on effort, attitude, presentation and performance. Instead of the teacher making a demand stemming from a position of authority, it is the work itself which presents its own demands. A culture of this kind needs to be constantly worked on.

All this demands a certain fluid quality of engagement with her students as well as self-awareness on the part of the teacher. It means that she needs to develop the ability to ‘see’ beneath the surface symptoms of any classroom situation, to ‘read’ student responses with a mind that does not rest in stereotypes and categorize students, and to ‘share’ her own enthusiasm for the subject without becoming overbearing. She must also be open to feedback about her owntemperament and style of teaching.

Our attempts as teachers to generate lively learning must needs rest on a well thought-out, imaginative curriculum. A good academic curriculum will be dynamic, subject to review and change, so that it is at all times relevant to our lives. We begin with dialogues among ourselves on the essential nature of subject areas, the inculcation of skills, learning styles and methodologies of teaching. We engage in the exciting process of building a curriculum from the ground up.

This is perhaps facilitated in our schools because it is possible for teachers to take initiatives and decisions on curricula. We are encouraged to work closely with each other towards a vision we all create—for a more vital kind of learning that stays for life, not one that is forgotten once the test or exam is over.

What must breathe life into the various practices we have talked about is a constant awareness and attention to everything we do. And a shared communication at every level with each other. For learning cannot fully be addressed outside the context of a life of mindfulness. This is an ongoing quest that lies at the heart of all our endeavour.

You seek knowledge from books. What a shame! ...
You are an ocean of knowledge hidden in a dew drop...

[The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi]