Tag Archives: teacher

The meaning is the method

This article was first published in the Teacher Plus Magazine, January 2016 issue

In the 1980s, when I was growing up, one of my favorite games was to build a house inside which I could just ‘be’. Bed sheets and mosquito nets would transform into camping tents and discarded bricks, sticks, and leaves in the garden would be put together to erect a shelter. Building a house was my constant preoccupation. Yet, it was something I needed to steal time to do – outside school, during holidays, after homework – on the sly.

Cut to 2014, a group of children spend hours outdoors trying to build a small house in their school premises. A few children bring in the resources – bricks, wooden planks, and dried coconut leaves, while the others put the structure together. Sometimes the structure starts looking tentative – the wooden plank gives way, the bricks reveal their instability and the children rethink their plan and quickly rearrange the bricks. Their teacher stands not too far away from the site, keenly observing the process, sometimes video recording it, but never speaking out of turn, or giving unsolicited instructions. This is a regular day at Sadhana Village School, an alternate learning space 30 kms away from Pune. The school is a space for natural learning, where a simple game such as building a house, can become a lesson in planning, visual thinking, designing, team work, leadership, creativity, and managing expectations to name a few. If someone had told me about this place when I was growing up, I would have called it – Paradise.

“At Sadhana we don’t teach. In the first year, there was absolutely no teaching at all. The children would come to school and play. They played organically; we didn’t give them any toys. A child does not need it at all. Anything that a child picks up, he considers it a toy,” says Jinan K B, the brain behind the ‘Reimagining School’ initiative at Sadhana Village School. “The idea of the school is to enlarge the scope of school to include the whole community which enables the growth of the natural, biological process in children to lead a sustainable, contended and harmonious life – a life that is in harmony with nature, culture, society, family, and self.”

Learning to see
Most learning is not the result of instruction. It’s rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting – Ivan Illich

Most mainstream schools consider learning to happen through reading, through understanding and comprehending the ‘knowledge’ that resides within the pages of a book. There is little emphasis on its application in real life. Yet, the fact is, we are all natural ‘doers’. “Let’s assume we want a child to learn to climb a ladder. Most conventional learning methods detail how the child should lift her leg and put it on the first step. It might also design an activity to balance on one leg. Instead, place a ladder in front of the child and encourage her to climb. The child would then try different ways to reach the top of the ladder. In the process, she learns to climb the ladder on her own. An adult can be around to help, if needed. The adult may even climb the ladder to excite and show the child how it’s done. The point is that the objective of the child is not to learn to climb the ladder, but to reach the top. And learning to climb the ladder is just a by-product of all her efforts,” says Pramod Maithil who founded Prakriti Initiatives based in Bhopal that runs an after school centre, Tinkering LAB that follows the principles of natural learning. The centre has a learner centric system where children are encouraged to freely pursue their own ideas and questions.

Learning happens by doing, not by mere intellectual comprehension. One may read as much literature as one wants about how to climb a ladder, but one would never learn until one does it. When learning becomes experiential, knowledge is not something that resides within texts and books, but something that is created through the transformation of experience.

What does it require to be a learner? Jinan emphasizes, “Humility. The humility to see – to allow things to happen. Things reveal themselves. I feel what we really require is not knowledge, but the sensitivity to see. This seeing is revealing what is happening. So see what is happening. Don’t conclude. Don’t reason. I feel reasoning short-circuits comprehension. Comprehension has to happen by the whole being. But we unfortunately use just our little heads to reason and comprehend.”

Between organized classrooms, lecturing teachers, competitive environments, pressure to perform, and the mad rush to acquire ‘knowledge’, the modern schooling system fails the children in allowing them to develop this humility, to stop, to see, to comprehend beyond their minds. “Most schooling systems underestimate the potential of a child. Children are not only natural learners, but can also own and construct their own learning paths,” says Ratnesh Mathur, who along with Aditi Mathur founded Aarohi Life Education, an alternate space for learning about 60 kms away from Bangalore.

Self-directed learning
Most alternative learning spaces that have been exploring self-directed learning methodologies have radically questioned the purpose of schooling and its structure. They have said no to classrooms, subjects, syllabus, homework, uniforms, discipline, deadlines, exams, and lecturing teachers. Ratnesh explains the model at his school, “At Aarohi, children plan their own learning path. Each child chooses a topic from the content and sets the goal based on this. Then she decides what she wants to do, how much she wants to do and how she wants to do it. For example if a child chooses ‘story’ as a topic from the content, she makes a mind map of what her understanding of a story is, chooses what she wants to do, reads different types of stories/writers, writes her own story, makes a video of her story, etc. So the child moves to choosing how she wants to explore this content – make a song, meet different writers, watch plays, or experience a few things related to the story and share those experiences. Children pursue it until they feel they have reached their goal and have got what they want and then move to doing other things.”

At Sadhana School roughly 60 percent of the time children play, 20 percent of the time they draw, the rest of the time they are talking and sharing their experiences. Jinan says, “In modern processes of schooling, we discard everything that we are today. We think that schools will provide us with knowledge, so we need to go there and learn.” Then, he questions, “How do we bring about a learning process that does not differentiate between what is happening in the village, their homes, and their school?”


To teach or not to teach
I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn – Albert Einstein

One may wonder what the role of a teacher is in a space where children own their learning paths and become independent learners. A self-directed learning space is one of the most challenging environments for a teacher. “One of the key roles of a teacher in the self-directed space is to keep up the child’s motivation by encouraging them to question, think critically and come up with creative solutions,” says Pramod.

The role of the teacher is not of someone who mouths theories from a textbook, but of someone who guides and directs the thoughts of a child. Ratnesh gives an example, “A few days ago, one of our children faced a problem. He had to lift and transport a bucket that was very heavy. We got talking and I probed him to think about what could be different solutions to the problem. He didn’t want to get help. He said he could take just half the bucket of water, but he didn’t want to do that either as that would increase the number of trips he would have to make to carry the bucket. He finally came up with another idea and used a trolley that is otherwise used to transport heavy gas cylinders. The solution was a big hit with the other children and they have come up with a new bucket trolley game which has since then become quite popular.”


One of the most important lessons for a teacher comes from educator John Holt – Trust Children. Yes it’s as easy as that, but it’s also that tough. I ask Ratnesh, how easy or tough it is to teach in a method that you were not taught in? “I understand the cognitive damages that mainstream schooling has done to me, yet I think all of us still retain our natural learning instincts. Before schooling, and after college, that’s how we have learnt. Haven’t we? I nurture this instinct to learn naturally. I join the children and learn with them. I think the community of teachers that I work with has also been a great inspiration. If I lose my way, they are there to remind me gently. “The teachers in a self-directed learning space are much more involved in the child’s holistic growth. “In fact what makes us different from most mainstream teachers is how involved we are in the social, emotional, and psychological growth of the children we work with.”

Is technology a threat to experiential learning?
Apart from this the teacher needs to make accessible and available rich content and resources that will benefit the individual learner. This content could include books, magazines, artifacts, experiential tools, visits and interviews, access to experts, and digital tools. All these become tools for learning. However, the tools that are chosen impact the learning itself. If the activity is to build a mud house, one could consider building it with hand, or simulating it on the computer using a design application. The learning happens in both cases. But what is learnt and what is missed in the learning depends on the specific method and tools used in the learning process. While with the hand the learning is sensual, employing multiple body faculties, on the computer, it remains devoid of any such lived experience, and hence incomplete.

So, does the arrival of the digital era, and the easy access to information pose a threat to self-learning and independent thinking? Pramod answers, “Unlike other learning spaces where there is heavy dependence on technology, children at our centre hardly use the computer. They are encouraged to come up with original designs and this challenges them. There is no pressure of performance, so the children are not afraid of making mistakes and experiment freely. Even in the rare case that they use the computer, it’s usually to refer to a picture or watch a video. So, I see technology merely as a tool.”

According to Jinan the digital era can pose a threat to the way we learn and experience the world. “We are formed by the cognitive conditions that we engage with. In the rural tribal communities it’s the nature and natural processes that are their souls of cognition. The structure and nature of our beingness is the structure and beingness of our cognitive souls. Biological cognition is something that happens in real time and real space. But when we are dealing with text, we are dealing with something that happened elsewhere in another space, another time and to somebody else. The way the future of education is predicted and is likely to follow is along the digital technology path which will be a mere extension of the existing paradigm. All the struggles are merely to change from text mode to digital mode. It seems to change everything at the surface level but in essence the process is the same and this illusion of change will be far more harmful. The change that will happen is that the student will have access to a never-ending flow of information masked as knowledge. External authority of knowledge remains and only the process of accessing it changes.”

As teachers, we need to be cognizant that we don’t take away the ‘experience’ out of learning and keep technology as an aid, a tool, and not an end in itself.

Note: Readers are invited to visit the following links to know more about the learning spaces discussed in this article:

Sadhana Village School: • http://sadhanavillageschool.org/ • reimaginingschools.wordpress.com
Tinkering Lab: https://www.facebook.com/Prakriti.Initiatives
Aarohi Life: http://www.aarohilife.org/

The author is an educationist from Bangalore. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.



Beyond shock: learning from conflict

This article was first published in the Teacher Plus Magazine November 2015 issue

“The fish don’t go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake,” says Horwitz to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye when asked about what happens when the lake freezes in wintertime.

As an educator, seeing how our society has been imploding for years through communal tensions, riots, and separatist movements, I wonder what happens to our children during such political and social uncertainties. Though the scale and timeframe of conflicts in our society has not been as drastic as the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional war of the 20th century, or the three decade long and continuing conflict against occupation in Palestine, we know that in our conflicts it is our children who suffer the most – they become civilian victims, they are displaced, jailed, indoctrinated into becoming child soldiers and/or even forced into sexual or labour exploitations. Worldwide statistics from the last decade show that more than 5,00,000 children were recruited into state and non-state armed groups in over 85 countries. The numbers of active child soldiers currently fighting is 300,000, in government armed forces or armed opposition groups worldwide.

Recently, I was at an international artist residency program in Germany that brought together artists from different parts of the world. During my time there, I had the opportunity to speak with a few artists who had grown up witnessing these times of wars and revolutions. We spoke about what happens to schools and to learning spaces in these conditions of political uncertainties. Do children just fall prey to propaganda? Or do they find spaces to learn despite these harsh circumstances? How did these events shape their educational journey and what are the lessons that left a lasting impact on them.

Space to learn
Iranian Revolution (1979) and Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)
Hamed Taheri – Tabriz, Iran

“Three… I was three years old and I participated in all the demonstrations sitting on the shoulder of my mom,” says Hamed Taheri, born in 1975. Hamed is a theatre director and author from Iran, who now lives in Stuttgart, Germany.

“During those days my father was a student and we lived in a very small room – my parents, my brother, and I. The room’s walls had large images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and so on. And there were pillars of books from the floor to the ceiling – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Engels. For my parents and their friends these were the holy leaders of revolution. Each time I came home from a demonstration, my father felt so proud to have a son who went into the streets with his mama and chanted slogans.”

As a child, Hamed was a part of the civil resistance movement against the regime of the Shah. By 1979, the strikes and demonstrations had paralysed the country and the Shah fled with his family. Ayatollah Khomeini, the conservative leader, was invited back to Iran and he became the supreme leader of the country. “The day after the revolution, my father burnt all his books. I remember helping him carry the books one after the other. This image of my father burning his books has never left me. When I could read, I wanted to discover each of these books my father had burnt.” Soon, owing to their political beliefs, Hamed’s family had to move from one city to another to escape the new fundamentalist government.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran via air and the Iran-Iraq war started. “There were so many bombings that schools shut down or in school we spent our time in underground shelters.” The glorious days of the revolution were over and the brutality of the war had taken over. More than 144,000 Iranian children were orphaned as a consequence of the war. “Suddenly everything moved to another level – the level of survival.”

I ask him what he learnt at school. “I don’t think my education in school had any effect on me. My father was a teacher. When the schools shut down, he taught me for a few years. But I didn’t learn much from him either.” Why? “Because he always wanted to teach me something. He had an agenda.” Hamed pauses, looks at his fingers, and continues, “My mother was not a very well educated woman but I learnt a lot from her. If I told my father I want to learn something he would ask me to bring a pen and a paper, sit at the table and then teach me. But if I told the same thing to my mother, she would become excited, create a beautiful space in the room for me, and ask me to go inside and try to learn. So she always gave me the ‘space’ to learn…in everything. And this is why I think my mother is the only teacher who has made a huge impact on me.”

Hamed evokes one of the most important aspects of education: creating safe learning spaces – not just a physical space, but a space of openness and trust. It shows how irrespective of the uncertainties in the outside world these spaces can open a child’s mind to independent thinking and growth.


Community charge
First Intefada 1987-1991
Sahar Qawasmi – Jeruselem, Palestine

“Yes, I remember my first day at school,” recollects Sahar Qawasmi, a Palestinian architect, daughter of a civil engineer, whose work is in rehabilitation of historic buildings in rural Palestine. “I went to school and there was no room for me. My father told the principal that he was ready to build a school room for me.”

“Every Palestinian child is a migrant many times over. I was born in Kuwait and I went to a very fancy school. There was a tremendous display of wealth – children came in big American cars, the school building was extravagant and the school playgrounds were massive. Soon we moved to Iraq, I went to a public school that was dilapidated, and children came to class barefoot in their pyjamas. That is all they had. As a child it left me very disturbed. In Kuwait, we studied in English and in Iraq I had to learn Arabic. Once the Iran-Iraq war broke out, we moved back to Kuwait and then to Amman. I joined a considerably modest school which was in a way a normalizing experience. By the time I was in fourth grade, we moved to Palestine.”

Ever since the UN resolution in 1947, the Palestinians have been fighting the Israeli occupation for their land and resources. I ask Sahar about the first Intefada in 1987, the first stone-throwing rebellion against Israeli repression. Stone throwers were largely children and teenagers. “When the first Intefada started there was a very strong community feel to the movement. I was about 10 years old. I remember seeing older girls walking down the street and shouting at Israeli jeeps and throwing maybe a stone and then the Israeli jeeps would rush into them and they would run in all directions.”

“I remember being tear-gassed a lot. If anyone from school had been involved in stone throwing, the entire school would be tear-gassed.” Stone throwing was defined as a felony, with a maximum penalty if convicted of 2 years imprisonment. “My cousin who was four years older than me was put in jail. He must have been one of those kids who wrote on the walls. Something like ‘Free Palestine’. That was a movement too, to write on walls. For many years after he was released he remained ill. His kidneys had collapsed. May be because they did not have enough water or the water was bad or maybe because he was tortured. Everyone was tortured in jails.”

With the civil disobedience movement gaining steam, schools and educational institutes were shut down. The Palestinians started an underground education movement. “Each neighbourhood started organizing their own schools. The community identified an expert on each subject in the neighbourhood and the children would go from house to house to learn. It was very well organized. We had time tables and lesson plans.”

Sahar brings to light the community responsibility of education: to break out of seeing education just as the responsibility of schools and parents. It shows how a community’s sense of ownership towards the education process is redefined when it becomes involved and takes collective responsibility.


Breaking barriers
Township Revolts (1984-1989)
Desiré Davids – Cape Town, South Africa

“In my first ballet class, I was always in the back row. Always,” says dancer-choreographer Desiré Davids as she looks intensely into my eyes. Desiré grew up in South Africa during apartheid. She left that ballet studio and joined another one. “This dance studio was mixed; there were coloured students and white students.”

“The teacher made no distinction about race or colour within the classroom. “But the freedom that her teacher could create remained within the classroom. Desiré soon found out that the world outside was very different. “I had made friends with a white girl from a rich family. One day after class I was walking down the stairs with her and at the door my teacher held me back. I later realized that she did that because she didn’t want the girl’s parents to see me with her when they came to pick her up. My teacher would have got into trouble for letting us be together.”

Desiré’s work today draws inspiration from her experiences of growing up in South Arfica as a coloured person. “The Apartheid system of racial segregation and oppression created a narrow identity – a grey zone between the highly articulated bands of black and white. Occupying this nervous territory of an unimaginative racial identity crisis, are people of mixed race – the Coloureds.” During the 1950s/60s, the government carried out large scale removals of Africans, Indians, and coloured people to implement the Group Areas Act, which mandated residential segregation throughout the country. “If you were coloured and you looked white, you had the right to choose to become white. But if you were coloured and had dark skin, the authorities would tell you that you are black and send you away from your family and friends to the black neighbourhood. You would never see your family and friends again.”

“What pains me is that this created so much discrimination within the coloured community and they still remain divided. There is a huge aspiration to get to the whiter side, for better opportunities, jobs and better standard of living.” The Soweto uprising, which began as a series of protests led by high school students in South Africa, had gained steam by the late 1980s. “During my high school, riots broke out. But my ballet teacher would still come into our community to teach. It was dangerous, she could have been killed. My mother was very concerned. The whole family could get into trouble if we were seen with a white person. Yet, my teacher came, risking her own life. This showed me something very important. That unlike what the slogans outside our homes were saying, not all white people were bad and that one could never put people into boxes.” Till today, Desiré’s dance teacher remains her primary mentor and guide.

Desiré’s story shows that it is those teachers who don’t fall prey to sectarianism and propaganda, who inspire their students. These teachers contribute to not only their student’s pedagogical growth but become a catalyst in changing the way they understand and experience the world. Often these teachers define their student’s life journeys.

Keeping your wits together
Yugoslav Wars
Ivana Ivković – Zagreb, Croatia

“At age 14, I am in Yugoslavia and we have a class called Marxism taught by a crazy wonderful teacher. I still remember his classes on Aristotle and Plato. Age 15, that class does not exist anymore and the country is now called Croatia. Age 16, religious studies is introduced with only Roman Catholicism,” recounts Croatian dramaturge Ivana Ivković.

Through the 1980s, starting from Josip Broz Tito’s death, there were several incidents that pointed to the breakdown of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “I remember this one clearly. Around 1990, the then Croatian government lined up its own military forces for photo opportunities in Zagreb. That was something that was impossible to understand. While there was a Yugoslavian military in place, the Croatian government was lining up its own military force. It was a show of arms, secessionism.”

As Yugoslavia broke up, children suffered severely. Between 1992 and 1995, Serb militias fighting in Bosnia and Croatia as well as the Bosnian Muslim regular armies used children as young as 10 years old as soldiers. Over 35,000 women and children were held in Serb-run ‘rape camps’. A majority of Croats wanted Croatia to leave Yugoslavia and become a sovereign country, while many ethnic Serbs living in Croatia, supported by Serbia opposed this. In turn the Serbs sought a new Serb state within a Yugoslav federation, including areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and attempted to conquer as much of Croatia as possible.

“There was a great moment of denial. My parents refused to discuss this. They did not want to divide their neighbours, family, and friends along the lines of nationality or religion. This denial grew as the war became more aggressive.” The uncertainty lasted a decade.” In those years, I saw fascism grow. People changing their names. They were overnight baptised and indoctrinated into religious practices they were earlier opposed to. I was the odd one out. I had a Muslim boyfriend and probably the only one who did not attend the religious studies class.”

Ivana’s story showed me how it’s not only the children or the education systems, but even the religious and nationalistic beliefs of people that are vulnerable to propaganda and misrepresentations for political gains and the only way to survive is to keep one’s wits around oneself.

In conclusion, these personal stories show the importance of widening the spaces of learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Especially in India where often the dominant narrative of violent ‘othering’ negates the simple humanistic impulse to provide a continuum in our pedagogical systems because finally at stake is the lives of young children who will become future citizens. I wish for such open spaces with the hope that they will multiply and reach the children who need them the most.

Illustrations by Natasha Taraporevala

The author is an educationist from Bangalore. She is interested in understanding how children learn and how later as adults they reflect and talk about these experiences. The interviews in the article are part of her under-production film After the Revolution. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.