Sabbatical Update #1: July 2019
[Better late than never…]
Nestled deep in a beautiful and remote valley three hours from bustling Bangalore, birds and butterflies flutter from tree to tree, and children shriek with laughter, breaking the steady back-and-forth of creaky swings. A metal kitchen ladle clangs in a distinct rhythm that calls students to breakfast in the dining hall at one end of the campus. This same sound rings for breakfast, lunch, tiff (afternoon tea time), and dinner every day of the week, inviting students to a communal refuge from their daily endeavors. Outside the dining hall, there are tall green shelves for students to neatly leave their chappals and sinks for students to wash up before the meal. We are also asked to leave all belongings near the door and bring only ourselves to the table. A teacup clangs once during the first half of each meal and students freeze wherever they are until it clangs again. Without sound or movement, the school does not prescribe a method for giving thanks or saying grace. Students are invited to use the moment of silence as they wish. Phones are strictly prohibited for students and strongly discouraged for visitors anywhere on campus.
Such simple, age-old rituals are core to the environment Krishnamurti designed for The Rishi Valley School. In 1926, Krishnamurti founded this school (and later, a handful of schools around the world) to provide students with an environment in which their minds could flower, something akin to concepts of holistic education or developing the “whole child” that we often talk about these days in the West. He warned against preoccupations with academic prestige, wealth, or other single-faceted notion of success, a concern that maintains its relevancy in most of today’s testing-heavy, economy-driven education systems around the world. Students are not allowed any personal technology — no phones, computers, or tablets — at all, encouraging them to develop deeper relationships with themselves, their surroundings, and each other. Instead they fill their time with morning assemblies in a beautiful outdoor auditorium (where they sing bhajans, spiritual or religious songs sung together in various Indian languages, or where passionate students, school alum, teachers or visitors give a talk), sports in the mornings and afternoons, culture talks that explore the way we live, documentaries on Tuesday nights, a one-hour, teacher-supported homework period every evening, and a variety of activities like woodworking, chess, Batik, bird-watching, yoga, and origami. Without a default companion, my phone, I become aware of the way it serves as a social crutch, of my frequent instinct to disengage from conversations to “check something” or to avoid new conversation when feeling low in energy. Put simply, here, I have fewer excuses to distract myself from being fully present — both with myself and with others. I suspect we need this much more than we imagine.
Students stay in hostels with house parents from grades four through twelve, and, as is the case with many schools in India, have school from Monday though Saturday. Though students adhere to a rigorous schedule jam-packed with activities, they tell me they don’t feel stressed the way they did at “other schools” in India, the UK, America, Singapore, and the UAE. They say their teachers are more “friendly” and they “care more about whether or not they understand something”. And though The Rishi Valley School is a top-performing school in India, students don’t feel competitive; after all, students eat the same food, have access to the same teachers, and get the same “familial support” during the school year. With the ability to control for these other factors during the majority of the year, boarding schools are quite an interesting equity experiment. I wonder, when students at boarding (residential) schools are provided the same environment for support and nourishment, do outcomes converge across diverse student backgrounds? Many teachers here believe it is the responsibility of the school environment to ensure they can.
Krishnamurti fervently denounced the notion of educating students for the purpose of academic excellence or earning a high wage. He wanted to “maintain at all times in these schools a way of life that cultivates the total human being”, against the will of parents and society who may prioritize a child’s future career potential. As a boarding school, institutions like The Rishi Valley School involve themselves in all aspects of a child’s life, unlike day schools which are often challenged by a diversity of parenting styles. Krishnamurti urged students and teachers to prioritize what he called the “flowering of the mind” which is not what to think but rather how to think — clearly, free from conditioning, opinion or prejudice. He aimed to create an environment where students could reflect on the intention and impact of their actions, to engage with the surrounding nature and local communities, and to explore their reactions, instincts, and habits in order to observe not judge or analyze. Many spiritual practices incorporated rituals to this end — meditation and yoga being most popular at the moment — to quiet the mind in order to truly observe, engage, and listen. In a world full of conflict, we have so much to gain from practicing these perspectives.
The Rural Education Centre
My first 6 weeks in India will be at the Rural Education Centre affiliated with Rishi Valley. The REC first designed the Multi-Grade Multi-Level (MGML) pedagogy in the 80s to support schools where students of five grade levels often share one or two teachers. This activity-based, student-driven approach has been implemented in hundreds and thousands of villages across India, and adapted for use in rural schools in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka, and for students with diverse learning needs in Germany and France. While I’ll be supporting their technology efforts to report meaningful learning outcomes to state government stakeholders, I’m excited to learn the way they’ve reimagined what school can look like for students in under-resourced schools. Rather than defaulting to the minimum possible, they’ve taken a different approach where students direct their own learning, often outside in play, learn together, teach each other, in a way that’s relevant and relatable to their surroundings.