WORK AND EDUCATION ARE INSEPARABLE- and when we separate them we create self serving humans who become parasites that feed on the labour of the hardworking creators of food, clothes and housing – the basic needs a AND electricity, automobiles, furniture, roads, trains and airplanes- the luxury needs! Count Leo Tolstoy has written at length about the reasons for inequality in society in his book “What Then must we do?” His concept of ‘bread labour’ is indeed very logical and can show the way ahead for a planet where each human is living a dignified life and all of nature too is respected!
Work is work, only because we named it so! For children the major work of their life is to understand themselves and their role in the life unfolding around them. And all this work happens through play. Play is the work of childhood and work is the play of childhood!
Every adult who has spent time with children knows their teeming desire to do exactly what the adult is doing. To understand why children are so keen to do everything that adults do is to find the key to human evolution, emotion and empathy. To understand this need in a child we must understand the process of learning to be human!
I was blessed to have parents who were simple village folk who had just moved to the city of Bombay, now Mumbai. They lived within their means and spoke out their thoughts with honesty. The never indulged in pretending they are richer, more knowledgeable or better. They were just themselves. And that meant we could be ourselves too! Me and my brother were never pressured to perform in school. The minimum was all that was expected – to get promoted to the next grade.
I guess many people of that generation knew the labour of creation. They knew the redundancy of great thoughts with out the ability of proaction. So we were raised to partake in the everyday chores and be responsible for our actions. My dad often said,”You have only one childhood and you must enjoy it!” Apart from the contribution to maintenance of the house and ourselves we were free to do what we chose. Climbing trees was not forbidden. Cycling, swimming, painting, craft work was encouraged. Games for fun were cheered. There was no pressure to win the game. It was an activity we indulged in for the sake of entertainment only. Every year we went for a holiday to the village and spent our summers helping with harvesting the wheat crop, eating sugarcane, caring for the animals and running in the village streets which were very safe as there were no vehicles! This kind of childhood gave us a lot of time to reflect, think, observe and question. And my parents always answered our questions with respect and serious thought. I guess, therefore, in spite of the rote learning of facts in school we escaped the formatting. School was a place to go to for fun. The books were read only for the exam. And the rest of the time was ours! This made us creative in our play and proactive in making changes that we wanted in our surrounding. Today children are more reactive. Their lives are controlled by the expectations of their parents and society. And their minds are controlled by the advertisers and the news in the media! They are always afraid they are losing out on something.
“Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment, if the weather is good they feel good. If it is not it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them!” Steven Covey
There are enough studies that have tried to understand human personality development through the lenses of NATURE VS NURTURE. But common sense tells us that the two are not a dichotomy of influences. The two are in fact the unifying influence of our being and our experience of life itself.
When nurture takes the form of repetitive definitions and regular tests, it creates a cynical human who is afraid to be himself/ herself, who is afraid of being judged, who is afraid of failure, who is afraid to live! This is the challenge our children are facing every day- the challenge of being who we want them to become, the challenge of living up to our dreams for them. The challenge of pretence vs presence!
As I observed my children grow, I saw that learning is a primal instinct. Learning is the instinct that comes before hunger and is the driving force of life! I saw my children learn every moment and I was amazed at their observations. I watched as they grew, each one at their own pace and each with different skills. Each one unique in their learning and their behaviours but all of them pure of intent; full of self confidence; happy and mindful; content and wilful; caring and compassionate; fearless and curious; eager and proactive! I realised that I had nothing to teach them except literacy. Numeracy was integrated into their observatios! It helped make sense of the world. I watched how they were looking up to me for inspiration. And I was moved to learn with them!
My search for fairness and justice had led me out of the bustling city of Mumbai where the discrepancy between the rich and the poor made it difficult for me to continue to inhabit. I wondered why humans were living such undignified lives! I wondered how a society like that evolved where each of us felt pitched against the other rather than feel supported by the other.
My thought process and innocent questions, which my parents answered with the resources they had, brought me to the conclusion that human society was built in schools and as long as schools were not changed there was no hope for the human being! I wrote an essay on ‘My school’ in my 9th grade where I described the kind of school I wished to be in. It was a school without teachers, without exams, without classrooms! A school with lots of trees and no objection to climbing trees, a schools with lots of books and space to make what we wanted to make.
After my 10th grade exam, my father gifted me membership into a library and I found Gandhiji’s book -My experiments with truth. Reading that book changed my perspective of life. I was inspired to experiment with my life! My father also gifted me “The story of Philosophy” by Will Durant in which he marked out the part where Plato’s Utopia was described. He said my ideas for a school were not stupid. That I was on the right thought process when I thought about schools and that it was for me to bring my thoughts into action. He often said that criticising others was not going to change anything. The only control we could exercise was in our lives and change our ways to experiment and experience the effects of our thoughts on our action. Change he said was a slow process.
So that is what I set out to do. Create my own Utopia. My own experiments and my own learning at my own pace with my own values. I was introduced to Laurie Baker and Auroville during my third year in Sir JJ College of Architecture, in Mumbai just when I was toying with the idea of dropping out of Architecture. I had written a post card to ‘Shantiniketan’ Rabindranath Tagore’s school in Calcutta now Kolkata to see if I could work there. As serendipity would have it, HUDCO had organised a workshop for college students to learn about the use of mud in architecture. The 15 day workshop was held in Trivandrum now Thiruananthpuram in Kerala. I go to meet people who had implemented change and experienced with their lives. Auroville was an attempt to create a new society. But when I went there it was clear to me that spirituality was a function of sensitivity and compassion not of personal gain and comfort. So I decided to start from scratch. At Dharmapuri in Tamilnadu we bought our 12 acres of completely degraded waste land and I started learning. Learning how to regenerate the land from books, from people and from observation. As the children arrived one by one they observed better and sharper and supported me in whatever I was doing. They watered the plants, weeded and planted the garden, cared for the animals and played in nature observing learning and experimenting on their own.
Work and play were interchanged and work became their play. I made many mistakes as I struggled between the need to do things and my conscience. My children forgave me generously and corrected my self as I stumbled with the idea of freedom of thought and action and the provision of the basic needs. I learnt compassion, empathy, honesty, and integrity all over again. This has evolved into a different pedagogy over the last 20 years. Now at Puvidham, our learning centre, the work of living together is the most important aspect of learning.
Work as pedagogy: As a pedagogical approach work can facilitate many attributes in the growing child which are prescribed for a happier, healthier and safer society in the future of mankind. As we work in the garden we learn biology, zoology, chemistry,physics, measurements, logical thinking and literature! We write about our experience, we record our observation we share our work and learn to be a cooperative community while socializing. We also cultivate the important attributes too!
INCLUSIVENESS: When the child along with adults is involved in the basic work of cleaning and maintenance, growing food, segregation of waste, caring for the animals, crafting things and cooking, there is a lot of learning that happens unconsciously. The natural learning process is indeed unconscious and a continuum of growing up for children. Their inclusion in the activities happening around them give children the understanding of how plans are made, how activities succeed each other and how life unfolds! They understand that there are always challenges to be faced and failures to be learnt from.
SENSITIVITY: When children are included in processes of caring they understand the needs of others. They remain sensitive, observant, and available to support adults as much as they are being supported in the process of inclusion. They know the value of everything they receive because they have engaged in making the effort to provide for the community in their own way as per their capacities. There is no comparison and there is no judgement. This ensures that feelings of ineptness and incompleteness are not harboured. The children learn that there are as many ways to do a job as there are people and that they can evolve their own processes! Their hand eye coordination, finger dexterity, space organisation and self-discipline are nurtured through the process.
CREATIVITY: As children work they find creative ways of making work easier. They design tools and they invent processes that they try out and find out the usability and appropriateness of their thought processes. They actually think! Even if they are making excuses to not do the work there is the process of explanation and reasoning that goes along and supports their logic or can be challenged by better reasons to continue the task at hand. There is mutual respect in all communications. The child here is not someone that is to be ordered around to do the task. The child is a willing participant because he/she sees reason and mutual benefit in the transaction.
Like Herbert Read says “A child’s (art) work is its passport to freedom, to the full fruition of all its gifts and talents, to its true and stable happiness in adult life. (Art and craft) Work leads the child out of itself. It may begin as a lonely individual activity, as self-absorbed scribbling of a baby on a piece of paper. But the child scribbles in order to communicate its inner world to a sympathetic spectator. ”
Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “If educational processes are created to aim for the unity of the whole humankind, the beginnings of this are in the growth of love of the baby for the mother, for the immediate family and ultimately to universal love. But the foundations of this unity are laid in creativity.”
SELF ESTEEM: Self esteem is the value that we hold for our selves. When the child sees that he/she is trusted with important work, his/her self esteem rises and makes them want to increase their ability and effort. The way the adults respect the most trivial contribution of every child sets the standards for mutual respect and great regard for the adult in the eyes of the child.
SELF RELIANCE: The children when given the freedom to clean themselves, dress themselves and make decisions of what they want to help out with become self reliant and independent. Instead of needing care all the time they become care givers!
SELF KNOWLEDGE: When the child works at different jobs supporting and helping the adults they learn about themselves. They learn which jobs they enjoy and which they find very taxing. They also learn that whether or not they like it they must do certain tasks because they are necessary for survival. They also learn to respect others who are able to do easily, the tasks they find taxing. This lays the foundation for challenging themselves and evaluating their abilities.
ABILITY: The ability of the child becomes their pride. When they are able to carry loads that are carried by adults or walk faster than the adult during hikes and treks or running errands, they feel empowered and enabled.
AGILITY: All this activity keeps us all agile and healthy.
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS: The work of growing food, cleaning and segregation of waste create awareness of what and how the resources off the environment can be optimised and how our existence can be less polluting. Minimalism begins to make sense. And competition for more goods and material come into question. Sustainability of life on the planet comes into focus.
MANAGEMENT SKILLS: The children learn to manage their resources, create minimum waste, learn re-cycling and up-cycling of things extracted from the earth with so much destruction and learn to live meaningful lives where there is no need for pretence because they are themselves all the time. There is no duality of character to go into the good books of the adults around. There is truth and enablement in the community not judgement and critique.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION: While working with their hands and working with others conflicts are bound to arise. These conflicts are resolved by the adults with nonviolent and amicable processes. There is understanding and supporting instead of accusing and blaming. The onus of creating a space where conflicts are resolved in a Democratic fashion. In fact Sociocracy- the new and evolving form of community organisation must become the model of communication. Acceptance of mistakes and forgiveness should be modelled by the adults. Letting go of our ego is a huge exercise in Sociocracy while including all the others in the process. The community and the individual both work in tandem one not sacrificing for the other nor personally progressing at the cost of the other.
COMPASSION: Compassion must be experienced to become compassionate our selves. So the adults in the learning space or living space must work upon themselves to observe their actions and stand corrected when the children or other adults point out an inconsistency. Every one must listen with compassion.
EMPATHY: Happiness in indeed the only thing that all of us long for. To be in eternal happiness is to accept yourself as you are and to be accepted and appreciated by your community as you are while giving you positive criticism and dealing with your lapses with empathy. This state of happiness or mindfulness is what the child is born with. Each child is a little buddha. Children have the ability to forget and forgive themselves and others. They are capable of living in the present moment. But we steal this ability away by our methods of evaluation and judgement.
RESILIENCE: As the children touch, feel and work crafting and creating an understanding of the world around them deeper than ever before, they will blossom as individuals, sympathize with the environment and will help each other rather than compete with each other.
They will learn to handle and care for simple tools improving their hand eye coordination, space organization and discipline. They will learn value of hard work, they will feel the contentment of creating something and their confidence and self-reliance will improve far beyond our imagination. The beautiful and useable articles they will create will make them see themselves in the work. Reflection, diligence and pursuit of perfection will become second nature to them. Something will begin to work up on their body and soul and they will grow up to be graceful, honest, creative, hardworking and content.
PROACTIVE BEHAVIOUR: All the care we give in making the space completely free of evaluation, competition, stress and consumerist attitudes make it a happy place for the child to be and create. In conventional schools we make them live in fear of the consequences of non-conformity. When children are allowed to evaluate themselves and even that only informally, they blossom into human beings that have a huge store of compassion and empathy. They become adept at conflict resolution, both internal and external conflict is managed with sensitivity and clarity. They question injustice and they don’t just talk about change- they become the change they want to see.
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world- that is the myth of the atomic age- as in being able to remake ourselves.” – M.K. Gandhi