Sustaining vision: replication or renewal?
“Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” – Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” – Paolo Friere
Schools are built around ideas, a vision of how a certain kind of education will make an individual a better human being, a good citizen. Most schools spring from religious or philosophical underpinnings, an idea of man, a theory of evolution, a vision of change. Schools and institutions try to sustain these ideas. When more branches are opened, usually there is a replication with some improvements. However, all schools would know that beyond the words of hope and intention there is a reality that is often dissonant.
Many educational thinkers have outlined their approaches including Gandhi, through nai taleem. Steiner and Montessori schools have created powerful and effective ‘alternatives’ to what might be seen as ‘mainstream’ schooling. Religious leaders have also seen education as an important activity. Economists, political leaders and the state have also seen the value of education for nation building and development. Tagore aimed at promoting ‘international co-operation and creating global citizens’ but envisioned an education that was ‘deeply rooted in one’s immediate surroundings’. Each approach was rooted in conviction and hope, sometimes in strategy.
It is, therefore, not surprising that educational praxis has encountered close scrutiny from all directions. Ideas exercise a powerful hold on our minds, often denying the real, which is not an idea. All ideas also have limitations in praxis. There can be a big gap between the word and the thing described. Krishnamurti pointed out that ideas, words, and thoughts can be divisive influences in society. I will attempt to review the terms ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ and reflect on the scope of learning and institutional renewal drawing on insights from my understanding of J.Krishnamurti.
Schools are also defined by ritualized behaviour, which is not essential to the central purpose of learning. Uniform clothing that reflected hierarchy symbolized rank in the army and also the church. Since the modern school grew out of the church it too had uniforms. The pulpit was replaced by the blackboard, another ritual focus that defines a class. It is interesting to note that though the original meaning of the word ‘schole’ in Greek was ‘leisure to reflect’, it evolved soon to mean ‘a place where lectures are given’. The most enduring ritual is that the teacher instructs and teaches and this provides a sense of learning. If children do not wear a uniform will it be a school? If there were no mandated lectures would it still be a school? Can learning happen without constant instruction? These are questions many have pondered over. Perhaps the ideas of ‘alternative’ school evolved from such questions.
One definition of an alternative school is ‘an educational setting designed to accommodate educational, behavioural, and/or medical needs of children and adolescents that cannot be adequately addressed in a traditional school environment.’
Is care for the child, or integrity or ethical functioning alternative? Is a ‘small’ school, whose primary focus is the child’s learning, and is not designed to make money, an alternative school? By calling such schools alternative we give a special position to ‘large’ schools that deal with hundreds, thousands of children as ‘mainstream’ schools – schools that are ‘normal, established, accepted, popular’. If care and attention are alternative, are fear, punishment and brutality the mainstream? Maybe the terms should be re-aligned.
Shri Dharampal’s seminal work, The Beautiful Tree, draws material from British records to substantiate conclusions about the educational pattern. A humane education for the whole nation, every child, was possible through a system of small multi-age schools across pre-British India, run on the strength of individual teachers. These were the mainstream schools.
Multi-age grouping of students was the norm and not considered a deterrent to meaningful educational process. Students rarely ‘paid’ for education. The economics were arranged through grants by communities, village, or ruler. Lifestyle and study were intertwined. This enabled the Indian population to read, write, and do arithmetic. Skills were passed on by specialists who were practitioners. Higher education was pursued by those with a wish to learn. Would we call such schools ‘alternative’ today?
However this model of school nearly vanished with the advent of the industrial revolution and colonial bureaucracy that systematically de-legitimized the older schools. The industrial model leaned on the economy of scale and got defined as the mainstream. However, like all models, this too is undergoing a change. In the 20th century and early 21st century, an inversion of realities is shaping our thinking and options. The individual has come of age and is seen as important. Marketing, from a scatter experience, has shifted to the segmented approach.
For the past 200 years the teacher has been the principal resource in classrooms all over the world. The information age organized content not just around the capacities of one human being but pooled the effort of many. Educational content now contains the resources of many, not just one, and this is available digitally. Knowledge is no longer a hegemony. Media has ensured that.
We are witnessing an inversion of realities, the last steps in the process of individuation. A fundamental shift in educational praxis is that a teacher teaching many students is being replaced by resources of many teachers available to individuals who teach and learn. The replacement of ‘teacher’ by ‘resources’, the herd in the classroom replaced by the ‘individual’, is visible in every progressive educational environment.
However, choice has become synonymous with freedom. One sees many schools struggling to offer choice and reorganizing themselves to offer facilities, resources and relevant communication to attend to each child. The market models would have us believe that this is possible in the technologically mediated, CCTV supervised school. After all, choice can be had at the click of a mouse. If relationship between educator and learner is a central matter, then surely regular schools need to examine their praxis.
To the credit of school systems in some states in India it must be said that a bold attempt is being made to bring in the so called ‘alternative’ values of care, initiative, and dignity for each child, opportunity for peer learning, diminished use of authority and punishment into the primary and upper primary classrooms. A few of these have emerged from Krishnamurti schools as well. Some refer to this movement as ‘Mainstreaming the Alternative’.
In the World Trade Organization era, school is considered part of trade, economy, and business. Schooling is a business, an avenue for generating profit, transformed from an institution serving a social purpose. Legitimizing profit according to bookmaking practices obfuscates the purpose and the intention of schools. Krishnamurti warns that, “It is immoral to make money out of education.”
All schools experience inexorable contextual pressures from the environment that push schools to change, accommodate and to shift. RTE, fee fixation, and child safety policies are some examples. Computerization and accounting practices also come under this category. These are common and, like laws, universally applicable.
Schools also experience internal pressures, born of practice, reflection, and questions. Teachers have asked, “Is it possible to educate, write exams without fear and invalidation?” Any teacher knows that in the context of learning, the measurable aspect of a student’s work is very small compared to that which is beyond measurement. And schools stay within the boundary, often invalidating a child, quite contrary to their primary purpose. Effort to widen the range and scope of assessments often meet with resistance and avoidance. When a school puts aside fear, psychological authority, comparison and competition, it opens an exploration into life and learning. Teachers for decades have known that punishment and rewards create fear and tension, both detrimental to learning. Exam performance continues to be passports to economic and social viability. Such contradictions are uncomfortable and do not go away.
It is obvious to any unbiased observer that the existing models of education are far from perfect. Therefore mere replication of a model would replicate all the problems as well. Surely, while this may be a good business approach, it is not good for society to have hundreds of schools pushing a model using the corporate metaphor of growth and profit.
Some approaches to education are born of a pragmatic adjustment. Others are born out of an attempt to answer questions like the ones above. Questioning is an investigative journey where one also observes from where one’s questions emerge, what assumptions they carry. Questioning is not just to satisfy a verbal challenge, but to be in a process of observation and insight.
How does an institution work for the sustenance of a chosen direction and how does it respond to new ideas, change, and emerging directions?
Practices and directions are sustained when they are anchored strongly by an individual with drive or when they are worked into the system and held together by many people who find them meaningful. The former will often flounder when the author becomes invisible. The latter requires hard, slow work of digesting the imperatives together. The latter requires a culture that is sufficiently non-hierarchic for people to take initiative and responsibility. In most institutions it is hard to hold together practices coherently in a shared manner among a large number of staff. Usually the management system, paperwork, and accounting systems create enough pressure to do the needful. While compulsion will achieve goals, it will over time, sap the spirit.
Issues that a school deals with do not change – planning for the day and the year, the manner of designing the learning, systems of assessment and evaluation. Every teacher notices many little things, problems with learning spelling, panic when asked a question, potential difficulties, dangerous behaviour and many other issues in the learning environment. Every teacher also has hunches about how to engage and take these forward.
For individuals within the institution to participate in the change process they must experience space and be welcome to weave their doubts, questions, perceptions into the school’s movement, then we have a special atmosphere. All new thoughts, departures from the existing approach, come in raw form, not as finished shiny products. School will still need spaces where people can craft good solutions, a collaborative design laboratory. This needs people to meet regularly and speak over issues that matter so the problems are owned by more than one person. For such a meaningful journey of finding worthwhile solutions, individuals need to feel connected, related and have a ground of trust.
School education does not lend itself easily to change. Teacher-led initiatives stay local, within a class mostly, extended to school on rare occasions at best. There is a great paucity of replicable models, models seen by a large number as relevant, meaningful, and transferable. The humane and sensible teaching-learning interfaces that are practiced in many schools, exist in a context, and often vanish with the practitioners. This is the reason why private schools have not changed much in their pedagogy and structure. Change is wrought when the forces at work make the status quo redundant, when an alternative cannot be avoided and when the investigation throws up ideas whose time has come. This is a complex chemistry.
Private institutions run on the principle of ‘niche’ market. There is little to disturb the stability of the system as long as one is more or less like the others. With the pressures for change in the late 20th century, upgrading facilities was the main thrust. Air-conditioned buses and classrooms, computers and choice of cuisine through vending machines were the main changes one saw. In addition there was a rush to the shelter of international certifications such as IGCSE, O and A Levels and International Baccalaureate. There simply is not enough reason to disturb the status quo in this niche market. The real drive to change is to be found only where the stakes are highest.
However, nothing defines and limits the culture of a school more than the unintended unspoken practices that develop. Change merely for the sake of change is futile. Not reading the signs and thus avoiding movement is dangerous to the well-being of an institution and its continuity. What avenues of change and movement, review and renewal will one utilize and when, knowing fully well that any change brings with it unexpected movement?
The distinction between a service provided and education needs to be underscored. Service is predictable and deliverable. The postal department charges a fee for delivering letters. On the other hand, education is an endeavor, not a predictable deliverable. This positions education as a ‘process of facilitating learning’ and not as a product. Instead of merely teaching academic subjects, the teacher needs to focus on the atmosphere where learning can happen. In such a landscape there are no models to replicate.
I have had the privilege of heading a school and engaging with these issues. The period, from 1991-2009, was one of many changes. The unique philosophical underpinnings permitted the teachers and the head an opportunity to rethink approaches, craft new ones, and take radical steps. While the journey required patience and slow movement, it has been wonderful to see what people can accomplish when they take new steps, thinking about sustenance, accepting the discomfort of change. This has been largely possible because of the clear space created by Krishnamurti’s teachings. He said, for instance that “Each school must work out its own approach”. This meant that imitation is not the way.
Krishnamurti, in 1929, declared: “I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.” He challenged an idiom at its core by stating that truth cannot be found by belonging to an organization or following anyone. He further accentuated that one needs to find out for oneself, and redefined the core purpose of life as discovery and learning. If finding out for oneself without following anyone is the direction of a school there is great freedom for the individual and tremendous responsibility on the institution. How would one then carry out the purpose of schooling?
Today, around the world, schools with 500 students and more are being restructured into smaller units in an attempt to bring greater quality of unforced order. It is also being recognized that learning happens in an atmosphere where there is no fear and there is a quality of relationship between the educator and the learner. All Krishnamurti schools are small as attention to the individual student is a core value. Krishnamurti seems to have anticipated the future.
How is a culture of responsible enquiry to be seeded and sustained among teachers, in a manner that does not become complacent or compulsive? How is a non-hierarchic culture to be held among adults? How can schools transform into learning, moving, creative institutions that regenerate from within? Do institutions wish to invest in such processes or look only for borrowed solutions?
The author is the Director – Secretary of the Palar Centre for Learning (PCFL – KFI) comprising Pathashaala school, Outreach programs and a Krishnamurti study centre. He was Principal of The School, KFI from 1991 to 2009, where he guided several initiatives such as Mixed Age Group Learning in Junior and Middle school, Active Learning for SSA-TN, a dynamic wide learning programme for high school students and establishing a short term teacher training programme. The core of his work has been to facilitate the building of a robust and sustainable staff culture through which initiative and change can emerge in an educational institution. He is now responsible for Pathashaala school which has educator-learners and learner-educators, not teachers, not students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.