Observing the observer

Transformative learning in human development

Rachana Bhangaokar and Sara Bubber

Sara and I sat under the tree, near our department. She had graduated recently (with a few University gold medals!) and I was 15 years into teaching Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS). Over a cup of coffee, we started talking about what brought us into this discipline, and what about it enlivens us enough to continue? Unbeknownst to us, J. Krishnamurti the philosopher, quietly joined us. He decided to express himself in italics!

SB: So ma’am, tell me about your first day of teaching?

RB: Oh…15 years ago, when I entered the classroom to teach a course on adolescence, I thought I had it all in me to be a good teacher. Half way through that class, I felt rather ill at ease….I thought something was missing…you know, that vibe… with the students. I tried a couple of ice-breaking strategies but to no avail. I wondered why students hesitated so much in telling me something about themselves. Did they feel pressured to give the “right” answers? That day, I could have taken the predictable path of ‘lecturing’ them, without bothering about their comforts or interests. Instead, on the spur of the moment, I gave them a take-home assignment – to write 20 statements about themselves, or draw, paint, sculpt – express themselves any which way. Believe me, I felt just as relieved as the students to end that class early!! On my way back, I realized – teaching Human Development (or anything, for that matter) was not really about content…it was about keen, sensitive observations of oneself, our realities and responding mindfully….wonder why no one ever taught us how to teach this? The next class was better. Before asking the students, I shared 20 statements about myself. From that day to this, asking myself tough questions along the way – what did I learn – has been the best reward this field can offer!

JK: I think, this basic factor that we are the world and the world is us, that the world is not something separate from me and me separate from the world. We have divided ourselves into fragments, opposing each other, so, where there is a division there is conflict. The moment I say to myself, and I realise that I am the world and the world is me, I am not a Christian, nor a Hindu, nor a Buddhist – nothing, I am a human being. (In this case, teacher or student as categories of identification.)

SB: You know, I always wanted to make a career in education…but was not sure what. After finishing school, I had not even heard about HDFS. Many people still do not know what HDFS is…and that’s a pity! Perhaps they find it easier to understand child development…. but in simple words, I can now say that HDFS is the study of the human life span. I too find it fascinating that this study is not just about some generic ‘other’, but it is about me, you and the world around us.

Growing up, I had my own troubles with schooling…. learning how to write….coping with school. It felt so weird and scary at that time. I had so many questions about why I was taught only in a certain way and why I was expected to perform in a set pattern. Maybe I was upset, but I really wanted to bring changes into our education system. I only knew training in HDFS was related to children and education, so I enrolled. Believe me, the more I started knowing about developmental processes above and beyond childhood, the more I could understand my struggles. I was looking at myself, my own development and the place of education in society, all at once! I could see where the teacher is in this whole system…and what she can choose to do differently.

RB: That is wonderful! Influences on human growth and development cannot be explained in a vacuum. That is why we understand the person embedded in a context… just like in biology we study how organisms and ecologies are interdependent. We need different disciplinary perspectives to understand this dynamic person-in-context model, so we draw from psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, nutrition, paediatrics and allied fields. That makes it an interdisciplinary, applied field in the social sciences.

Unlike many other fields, this approach gives so much freedom to use more than one lens to look at self and society. And… it is not all talk, we translate theory to practice…. evidence-driven research and application is so integral to the field. So when we study Human Development and behaviour, we try to:

SB: P.O.E.M…… A POEM! I love that acronym….just like I love writing poems!!

JK: The outward is the inner. The inner is the outward. There is not the difference between the outward and the inner. They are totally related to each other.

A human being, each human being. It does not matter whether he is a politician or a businessman or just an ordinary person like me in the street, it’s our business as a human being to realise the enormous suffering, misery, confusion there is in the world. And it’s our responsibility to change all that…. (Change starts) With each human being. Therefore the question arises from that: does a human being realise with all seriousness his responsibility not only to himself but to the whole of mankind?

RB: Social change, yes…. all of us are concerned about that. While teaching about changes in the human life span, we touch upon a wide array of interlinked concepts about gender, health, education, culture and the like, with an aim to change individuals and society for better. All of that begins with a human being, all of us, doesn’t it?! Students often have very pertinent questions and they want to be a part of the solution. Of course, it is impossible to solve anything without understanding oneself. This understanding alone brings clarity, to see oneself as a part of the problem as well as the solution.

SB: (with a confused look) How is that possible? If I am the problem, or a part of it, how can I be the solution too!? (Thinking).

RB: Let me explain.… Once a class discussion turned to gender discrimination. It was easy to list down ‘hard’ discriminations like sex-selective abortions or domestic violence. A set of students then said, “Ma’am, gender discrimination does not happen in our families…may be only in poorer families or in the slums.” Now this was critical juncture #1….it was too risky to simply lay the facts and say gender discrimination exists everywhere due to patriarchy blah..blah…blah. But would that be effective? No!!! It was challenging to respond, but it was also a splendid opportunity for learning! How could I generate a response to the issue that touched the students and enabled them to see it as ‘it is’! Very carefully, without passing judgments about their families, I shared relatable gendered experiences of ‘well-meaning’ curfew time, norms for work or career choices, division of labour or advice on appropriate clothing. They could no longer ignore the elephant in the room. They realized the gender problem is not yours vs. mine, but ours to participate and resolve. But, once the unfairness became evident, the first reaction from students was that of anger, followed by frustration at how resilient these gender norms are. Of course, these were ‘automatic’ conditioned responses that could quickly turn into male bashing, apathetic helplessness or disengagement. So now came critical juncture #2! It was important for me to help them identify their spaces of negotiation where a compassionate dialogue on the issue was possible…may be with their mothers, cousins, fathers, brothers, or friends?! It was during this follow up discussion that students shared their optimism about possibilities to support each other as well as fears of alienating significant others. So, the path is not always straight-forward….but enabling students to reflect on their own life, without judgments is critical. In Human Development, we are truly our own labs!

JK: When we are discussing change we must be, I think, fairly clear that we mean the change in the psyche, in the very being of human beings. That is, in the very structure and nature of his thought. At the root. And therefore when there is that change he will naturally bring about a change in society. It isn’t society first, or individual first, it is the human change which will transform the society. They are not two separate things.

SB: That’s really insightful! You are right…. as students of HD, we are usually exposed to the subject as adolescents or emerging adults. Courses on adolescence draw our attention immediately because we face changes and challenges in this particular phase like none other. As we seek answers into what is going on in our life, we not only understand the theories better, but also our own emotions and values. Gradually, we understand why people around us respond to our behaviour in a certain way. After this deep chord is touched, we can transport ourselves into various age and life stages aided by practical exposure and teacher guided activities. But nothing compares to field-based experiential learning and engaging with real-world problems. All my field placements were opportunities to apply HD theories I learnt in class…plus, it was fun to work in groups and learn from peers.

RB: Exactly…. it is from the field experiences that students and teachers think of new ideas for research and teaching. Straight from the real world! Do you know the biggest advantage of our field? – It will remain relevant as long as human beings do! Today’s challenges of human survival and sustainability cannot be resolved with old tools. Innovation and fearless thinking are partners in crime. As human developmentalists, we must have the courage to question the known, including our own methods of teaching and learning. As we advance technologically, we seem to be convincing ourselves that we have all the answers…. Google knows, doesn’t it?! But as human beings, are we even asking the right questions? In a few years from now, perhaps our lives will completely depend on Artificial Intelligence. It is now that we will need to reconceptualize what it means to be human…a complete revamp of sorts. The earlier we gear up for this challenge, the better. So, gone are the days when teachers expected “correct” answers and students regurgitated obediently. Today we must all learn how not to fear, how best to question, how best to resolve conflicts, how best to live together, how best to save the planet…. how best to be human, really! We must explore possibilities of being, the doing will follow! As a teacher this also means thinking and learning with students in a boundless manner, overcoming pre-ordained limits and known methods. With us, the field will also flourish and regenerate, undoubtedly. We can all make the error of reducing Human Development to a series of predictable life stages – fixed and unimaginative. Or we can explore immense possibilities of what it means to express oneself as human at different points in life – free, boundless, true, and beautiful!

JK: What place has knowledge in the regeneration of man? That is the basic question. There must be freedom from the known, otherwise life becomes repetitive, a continuous superficial scratching. It has no meaning.

I have no name

I am as the fresh breeze of the mountains.
I have no shelter;
I am as the wandering waters.
I have no sanctuary, like the dark gods;
Nor am I in the shadow of deep temples.
I have no sacred books;
Nor am I well-seasoned in tradition.
I am not in the incense
Mounting on the high altars,
Nor in the pomp of ceremonies.
I am neither in the graven image,
Nor in the rich chant of a melodious voice.
I am not bound by theories,
Nor corrupted by beliefs.
I am not held in the bondage of religions,
Nor in the pious agony of their priests.
I am not entrapped by philosophies,
Nor held in the power of their sects.
I am neither low nor high,
I am the worshipper and the worshipped.
I am free.
My song is the song of the river
Calling for the open seas,
Wandering, wandering,
I am Life.
I have no name,
I am as the fresh breeze of the mountains.
(Krishnamurti, 1931 – The Song of Life)

• Krishnamurti, J. (1931). The Song of Life. New York: Horace Liveright Inc.
• Image sources: https://www.google.com/search?q=theory+research+practice+triad&tbm
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Rachana Bhangaokar is an Assistant Professor and Sara Bubber is a Research Scholar in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Faculty of Family and Community Sciences, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. They can be reached at rachana.bhangaonkar-hdfs@msubaroda.ac.in and sarabubber@gmail.com.

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