Reimagining schools

Learning from children's natural process of knowing and being.

Jinan. K.B, and Ranjana Baji

Introduction

Sadhana School was established in 2009 by Sadhana village, Pune, a registered Charitable Trust working since 1994. It is located at Kule, a village about 40 km from Pune. In 2011 the school went through a leadership change and a new initiative was established under the name ' Re-imagining schools,' which was to address some fundamental problems that were overlooked by the present system.

sadhouse

Children of 3 to 12 years come from 12 villages up to 20 km away. There are about 30 children at present. The children come from traditional paddy-growing villages where milk is a household business and sugarcane is new way of earning hard cash. Their grandparents were farmers but now some of the parents do small jobs in nearby industries; some are drivers or labourers.

The villages have largely retained their rural life style. Many people are involved in farming, so there are buffalos, cows, goats, and oxen around. Food is traditional, families are strongly bound together, all festivals and customs are still being followed. Children are able to engage with vibrant social life and various natural phenomena.
The school has not been set up as a model to be emulated. We believe that all children have their own destiny and path to travel, and 'unknown' to unravel. We do not claim that we already know what we must do, but we know for certain what we must not do. Schooling, in the sense of controlling or conditioning, is against the very foundation of living and yet that is what modern schools do in the name of education. To educate is to draw out but we have been filling in! We have come a long way and confused ourselves so badly that now it is a herculean task to look back and understand what we have been doing wrong. We are no longer human beings - we have become human knowings!

In June 2011, when we started the re-imagining school initiative, something happened on the third day that totally challenged the way we had been dealing with children. As we had 'let' children do what they felt like that is what all the children were doing. Some were playing, some were drawing, some were reading and so on.
 
One child was drawing in a drawing book and after few minutes another child came in and started drawing along with her and then yet another child joined and also started drawing in the same drawing. And after a few minutes the one who had started the drawing left and the other two continued.

We learned several lessons from that event. First we learnt that children are co-operative by nature, are not possessive about 'their' drawings, are able to accommodate others. It is possible to draw upside down - that is what the second girl was doing because she sat facing the first child. Respect for autonomy was evident from the fact that there was no objection to people either joining or abandoning the drawing. Maybe 'self-expression' is just another adult invention. The children were not in the least bothered about individual ownership or other people's approval. They did not particularly want to put their drawings up on the notice-board or even to have their names written on them. It makes me wonder how we grow up so possessive, individualistic, selfish  and concerned with personal space.  What mattered to children was being in the here and now. They were fully involved in the act yet detached.

We also noticed that children were drawing anywhere and everywhere and were using anything they could find. They were drawing on the floor, the table, the wall, the ground outside, on slate or paper or even on water. They were using their own fingers, chalk, sticks, pencils, paint, water, powder made by crushing chalk or the ready-made colours used for doing rangoli.  We deliberately began to make several changes to the 'class room' and to our rigid minds. We removed the blackboard and painted the lower half of the walls black so the children could draw large pictures. They were anyway using the floor for drawing, so the blackboard found its place on the ground. That was a symbolic act representing the removal of authority from our school. As we did not have rigid periods and timetables children  had the opportunity for total freedom, self-initiative and autonomy.

 

It became clear that children know exactly what they are drawing and it is always  something concrete that they draw. They will be able to tell you clearly what they are drawing. One day we saw two children moving around and drawing on the floor, all over the class. They told other children that they were drawing water flowing from the water tap.

sadfloor

One day children went out into the farm and drew plants. One boy caught the shadow of a chilli plant on his blank page and claimed that also was a drawing.

Another incident involved a girl sitting down and drawing  on the floor with a piece of chalk. As she was drawing a big picture she was using both hands. She used her right hand most of the time; when the drawing went over to the left she would immediately use her left hand.

As there were no rules and no boundaries children were constantly surprising us with all kinds of drawings. It is natural for children to be spontaneous and inventive but it surprises us adults who have had our spontaneity and inventiveness educated out of us.

We realised how we had been damaging the children's natural tendency for cooperation by forcing them to obey our rules. We realised that we too were victims! The question is whether we can recover by allowing children to teach us.

Biological roots of knowing and being

The processing of cognitive inputs is like digestion, in that it is not under the control of the ego. Learning happens in the realm of silence and experience. People, words, objects, atmosphere, environment and psychological conditions are all informing the child and these inputs are processed by the child to make sense of the world and find a place in it. Modern schooling disrupts this development by totally disregarding the natural processes and so turning the whole business of learning upside down.

Who should learn from whom?

All over the world scientists are enthusing about the creativity and learning ability of the child, but most of the experiments they do are specially designed artificial constructs  and they constantly fail to observe children's natural responses to the world.  It is like studying pet dogs to understand the 'nature' of dogs. If the researcher cannot find wild ones they should at least study the street dogs!

Children belong to the worlds of the senses and the emotions, whereas the modern literate adult belongs to the mental world of text, reason, concepts and categories. Children are holistic and we have become totally fragmented. It could be said that children and adults belong to two different worlds and that we adults fail to see the holistic child because we are trapped in the world of our minds. Learning, playing and working are usually seen, respectively, as serious, frivolous and boring.  they are also allocated to specific spaces and specific times.
Adults tend not to understand the purpose of children's play, and the use they make of their toys. We have gradually eliminated free, independent play from their lives and put them into schools where they are supposed to learn and introduced them to all kinds of 'toys' which we imagine they would like to 'play' with. Educational toys are the latest invention!

When children sit on soft sofas they begins to bounce and whenever they find themselves walking on a smooth surface they try to slip and slide. All children do this and their way of learning is to respond aptly, physically and experientially to the situation at hand. Adults do not consider this to be either play or learning and so they never give it the attention it actually demands. The children are immediately told to behave. Unfortunately the only way the world can be understood is by engaging with it, experiencing it and exploring whatever qualities and possibilities the situation provides. Whatever the child does is important for the child, and children need freedom and space to do what they want, even if what they want might seem totally insignificant to an adult.
Play is universal. All animals play and through play they learn. We are no different in this respect: however much we claim to be superior and try to keep our distance, at this fundamental level we are same.

One of the first things children play is to be mother. They imitate the caring behaviour of the mother and the first thing the child 'learns' is to be mother, to take care. Children's learning takes place in the realm of experience itself and repeated play is nothing but experiential, innovative reflection. Children's natural, autonomous play shows us what they are meant to learn according to the priorities set by nature and context, that is to say by biology and culture.

Re-imagining schools

Re-imagining schools, true to its name, means that all aspects of learning are being re-imagined.  Sadhana Village School is not just an alternative school but a total paradigm-shifting initiative.

The first and foremost aspect of education that is being questioned is the primacy of literacy and language. The second is the very idea of 'teaching'. Cognitive sciences are now full of accounts about how creative and intelligent children are and how they are biologically designed  for cognition.

Language is not a cognitive source and reasoning is not a cognitive tool because cognition happens biologically, in the concrete, experiential world, and comprehension takes place as a result of self-organization.  As children are introduced to the world  through non-contextual, fragmented, verbal information, they themselves become fragmented. Mind is separated from body, the male and female principles are separated,  knower and knowledge are separated, integral and holistic knowledge is broken up into subjects such as art and language.

Building a bridge

Context, content and pedagogy

In natural learning content, condition. context and pedagogy merge in to a holistic process, whereas in the current schooling system they are all fragmented and  distorted.  The context of reality is replaced by the classroom, a national curriculum dictates the content and the various tricks the teacher uses to help the student to pass the tests become the pedagogy.

In natural learning there is nothing to remember and nothing to forget. Whatever the child experiences is the content of the child's learning, so everything the child encounters means learning. Children learn the moment they are born and maybe from the time of conception. Mother, father, other people in the family, the house, the village and so on are the first stimuli for learning. Whatever children experience fills their minds - and this includes value, beauty and knowledge, the important things that we need to survive.

The focus is on the quality of being rather than quantity of information memorised.

Learning is a wrongly used term when it only includes knowledge, and leaves out values,  emotions and so on.
Children imbibe/learn what they experience. If you regulate and structure children's experience they imbibe that act of regulation which results in a conformity that kills their spontaneity and natural being-ness. Everything that happens in the school is the content for the child. Teaching is an authoritarian act. Children learn both to obey and to command, but they lose their independence. True learning is a democratic act because true learning is not regulated, structured, quantified or tested. Democracy is our natural condition, and authority instils anti-democratic values, whether it is the authority of the textbook or authority of the expert or simply the authority of power.

A total paradigm shift is required, and the role of the adult as a teacher, a guide or a facilitator needs questioning because whatever role the adult plays will be imbibed and emulated by children. The best pedagogy may well be to have adults themselves given a free space for learning, and doing what they are passionate about, and so demonstrating what we want children to learn.

These are some of the things we want children to learn:

How to feel awe in the realm of unknown

Being in the realm of unknown ensures awe, humility and deep respect for life and nature. The human being can then begin the task of making the unknown known  with total humility. Children need to have the opportunity to figure out all by themselves and this brings out a different set of cognitive conditions.  When they are dealing with something unknown and do not yet have their rational mind developed they naturally have to use some other process. There are three beneficial results from this: firstly, children are autonomously dealing with the task, secondly they are doing something experientially and thirdly, what is innate in them gets drawn out. It is apparent that all knowledge is not a result of trial and error because there are ways of knowing that are instinctive and instantaneous that are demonstrated in nature.

Self-initiated activity: autonomy

Self-initiated activities for personal satisfaction enable the child to engage with the world autonomously. This requires minimum interference from the adult. Children need a womb-like environment of autonomy, at least until puberty, to allow their natural biological cognitive tools to be drawn out and developed.

Experiencing the world: play and toys

Children understand the world through play. Any self initiated activity done for their own satisfaction is play. A baby trying to bite its foot is play, making noises is play,  bouncing on a sofa is play, trying to slide on smooth surface is play and everything the child does to re-experience through imitation is play. It is through playing and the making of toys that children explore the world - what it looks like, what it feels like, what its nature is and what is possible with it.

Enhancing observation: reflection: senses

As observation is the starting point of cognition and the understanding of phenomena, the task before us is to find ways to let children observe what is happening around them.

Once naming becomes important the cognitive processes related to the senses begin to die and thinking and reasoning take over. As children get entrenched in the linguistic world the world of objects recedes from their vision. They stop being present to the world around. They leave the realm of timelessness and they get caught in the clutches of time. That is why children spend lot of time drawing what they see, what they experience, and what they play with.

Enhancing articulation: language

When a child learns to speak she begins to articulate her understanding of the world. Her language cannot be separated from her experience. She expresses the integrity of her experience in the language or languages she chooses to use. We adults use language to describe what is not actually present. All artificial categories and divisions are imposed on the child through language. The child, if left alone, will learn the way the world actually functions. There is day and night, we sleep in the night and are awake in the day, hunger makes us look for food and so on.

Among the sense-literate societies there neither a category called waste nor even a  word for 'waste.' That means that they do not waste anything. This is not their own decIsion: the reality is not that they do not waste but that nature does not waste. The more naturally aware we are, the  more naturally we function. Their language describes what is, and in the word-literate societies language becomes more and more a symptom of the fragmentation of the individual.

In non-literate societies when they leave the child alone to make sense of the world they are doing something that is most scientific and appropriate. First their children experience the world as it is, and find out how a child functions in the world. What the adult does is create conditions without conditioning.

Creating conditions rather than conditioning

It is the intention of the Reimagining School group to enlarge the scope of school so as to include the whole community and to enable the growth of the natural, biological process in children to lead to sustainable, contented lives, in harmony with nature, culture, society, family and self. We are creating an environment of freedom and trust so that children can grow and blossom naturally, by not dividing their time in the school into separate categories of playing and learning, or into separate lessons in language, mathematics and science, and so on, by not forcing the children into classes divided by age,  and by not making them sit in rows.

School will then become a space for the awakening of intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, observation, individual initiative and self-discipline.

We are still exploring and still open to suggestions as to what should happen in the school. As of now, when the children come to the school we all sit together, sometimes singing, sometimes in silence, and then discuss any matters related to  life in the school. Informal groups of children sit with the adults and talk about whatever they choose. This gives importance to their experience since the time they left school the day before. For roughly 60% of their time children play. 20% of their time is used for drawing and 20% for articulation and sharing. 

As whatever the adults do will be emulated by children they are encouraged to do anything they are interested in. This includes farming, 'waste' recycling, making of food, drawing, reading etc. Linguistic categories distort the natural process of learning,  so we take care not to devise any syllabus, or divide the day into periods.
The children are constantly challenging us to re-examine everything we have taken for granted. School is becoming a space for the adults to unlearn. Children are making us understand the need to include their parents and the village in our enquiry.

Children challenge us to examine the importance of natural, spontaneous activities. Nature has not created anything without purpose. We are re-examining all our intellectual preconceptions.

 

We want to find out how children learn language and what the natural content of the language is, in contrast to the language imposed by the school. What is abstraction? What is reflection in the real world of children? What is the role of reasoning and memory in their natural learning?

These are some of the qualities we hope to encourage:

Values: Children are born with nature-centric minds which enable them to live in harmony with nature. Contentment, completeness and trust are natural characteristics of children. Cooperation, selflessness and sustainability are the values they acquire by living with sense-literate people. Being in truth is our natural condition. We only tell lies if we are afraid.

Qualities: Children are humble, innocent, open, curious, daring, resilient. The condition of being free in the realm of the unknown ensures the flowering of these qualities.

Beauty & Aesthetics: Children are immersed in the beauty of the world and whatever they do has an element of beauty. Art, taught as a separate subject, will damage this quality in children. Allowing children to engage with the world freely awakens the senses and aesthetic sensibility. The only thing we can do is to broaden the awakening of the senses by participating with them in their  experience of the world. Free drawing probably helps children to develop keen observation by shifting the focus of drawing from self-expression to drawing from life.

Phenomena: Children need to experience various phenomena in the world, and this will enable the development of a nature-centric cognitive structure and this in turn will help them to understand the processes of life. Things are happening around them all the time.

Questioning present education

I would like to pose few questions I have regarding the very foundation on which modern education is based. The questions will have to be asked not only to the main stream but also to the alternatives of all shades - democratic, unschooling, home schooling etc.

What kind of cognition is learnt in the realm of words, concepts and mind-built categories and what kind of cognition takes place in the realm of the senses, the body and experience?

The following are my observations and I would like to explore them with you, and hope that you will feel free to share these ideas with others, especially those who are involved in research in the cognitive sciences.

  • Reasoning is not a cognitive tool
  • Language is not cognitive source
  • Conscious memorisation of disjointed facts disrupts self-organisation.
  • Learning is intangible
  • What we learn is the whole experience which includes emotions and sensibility and not just the linguistic aspect.
  • Knowledge is non-quantifiable
  • Experience/knowing is wordless
  • Cognitive process is connected with sensorial/ emotional input
  • The so-called learners are being formed by the totality of their experience, not just linguistic inputs.
  • Objectivity is a myth of the literate mind and when you reflect about you see that it is in fact subjectivity of the mind.
  • Abstraction is an innate process and there is no way of learning so-called abstract knowledge without engaging with the concrete.
  • So we need to go in to this deeply to understand what exactly is abstraction and how does it happen? (The mind can't comprehend this on its own!)
  • Observation and experience are  the only cognitive source
  • Our senses are the input device
  • Senses awaken the inner world as it engages with the outer world. This input response is the basis for knowing and being.
  • Understanding happens by self-organisation in which neither reasoning nor language has any role to play. In fact reasoning short-circuits comprehension!
  • Eye and ear are re-configured in the literate world as a consequence of the over-use of language.  The eye is used for reading rather than seeing and the ear for understanding meaning rather than hearing the sounds, to the extent that we see and hear what the mind dictates.
  • We are creatures of nature and all rules of nature are applicable to our body/ being.
  • Is it possible to go into these questions without reasoning?

saddam

So we must ask, what do children learn? If experience itself is the instructor what should a 'teaching' adult teach? What would be taught in an adult-centred space? How can a space become truly inclusive so that child and adult, male and female are equal? If I make space to include the other, am I not already in a position of power? The very act of making space shows who has the power.

 

How can we even begin to address all this without some fundamental transformation in ourselves?

 

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