Notes From a Small School


I'm not quite a teacher - far from it - and yet I've got classes to give, and students awaiting some form of instruction or at the very least, advice. Having spent a year as a Mature Student at Brockwood Park I then signed up for their new teacher training program which has given me some sort of idea of what education is about, or could be about. These first few months have been a struggle as it is not only new to me, but to some extent to the students too seeing as we're in the process of implementing and developing a new curriculum at Brockwood, focused around breaking down barriers between 'subjects' and avoiding spoon-feeding students in order for them to learn how to learn if that make sense.

Brockwood isn't the first to do any of this though - so I figured what does make sense is to check out other 'alternative' schools who are doing similar things. Two of these I've heard much about are based in India. They're sort of sister schools insofar as they too are inspired by the philosopher Krishnamurti's teachings and I had the pleasure of meeting some teachers and students from one of these schools - Shibumi school in Bangalore - when they came to visit Brockwood last spring. The other school CFL (Centre For Learning, also near Bangalore) I only heard about through teachers and students who have visited, and sounded just as compelling - if not more - than Shibumi.

So I booked some flights, paid a brief visit to my dad up in Varanasi, got food poisoning and was bed-ridden for a few days during which I read Shataram (which I highly recommend anyone to read) and wondered why I think I miss the comforts of the West when what's at stake is just being healthy vs being sick. As an aside, I wouldn't wish food poisoning upon anyone - it's nasty, painful and simply ain't fun.

Arriving in Bangalore was quite the change of scenery. As soon as you leave the airport, just that 1km stretch of road leading out tells the story. Whereas in Varanasi it's a dirt road, with lots of dust on it, surrounded by fields of dust, some half-built or fully-built structures themselves covered in dust, and just generally lots of dust, blowing up in your face left right and centre. Leaving Bengaluru airport, one is immediately surrounded by green. Lush palm trees and well-trimmed hedges on a well-kept stretch of lawn surrounds the road for half a kilometre. The road is made of tarmac, has clearly divided lanes, and is pretty flat. The lanes even have reflective mirrors.

The first shop you see is a MacDonalds - I'm not even joking. In Varanasi the first shop you see isn't a shop it's a tea-wallah pushing his cart away from the car's trail of dust into some more-settled-kind-of-dust. Next up come the Lamborghini service shop and then a Honda shop. Wow. This isn't to put down Varanasi - to the contrary I felt privileged, in some weird way, that I'd come from Varanasi. Like it bestowed upon me a special status of 'I've seen the real India of old - now I get to witness it's westernisation'.

CFL though is a whole other story. An hour and a half out of the city, this place is a real oasis. It's beautiful here. Really. The whole setting is magnificent, very lush due in part to this year's particularly long monsoon, with a nice relief and ancient jutting boulders half the earth's age. The campus is spread out somewhat, little classrooms and dormitories scattered across a rocky/green/palm trees and cactuses area. I'm staying in the Guest House at the bottom of the sloped campus, which is the North side. Just outside my door is a path leading further North into the sanctuary they've kept. This is 20 acres of wilderness, like a real jungle, with a few paths strewn through it, that one can wonder around in at leisure. Beware of wild boars, snakes, bears, elephants and the occasional panther I am told although I'm yet to meet one.

So, in this little idyl of a campus, live around 100 people during the week. The younger kids (6-16) stay overnight twice during the week, while the older kids just go home on the weekends. Most staff also go home on the weekends with a handful staying. Two of these were families this past weekend and it was great to be able to spend time with them and their funny, mischievous daughters Rui and Diya aged 4 and 6. We went up to the local temple for a pooja and free lunch on Saturday, followed by a relaxing swim in a nearby lake.

Mornings are coolish but sunny, and the temperature rises steadily until hot but not too hot by noon. Monday morning started with breakfast with a few teachers, then the kids showed up in their big buses and we did morning jobs just like at Brockwood. This was followed by half an hour of 'silent time' which is really lovely - the whole campus, even the little ones who are like jumping beans, goes dead quiet. People sit on steps, on rocks and in the grass, and just admire the rising sun and the slow rhythm of nature. Then a bell rings - the only time it does so in the day - for Assembly. Announcements are made and then they all sing together - today a song in Hindi and then a Hallelujah song in Latin with four different voices. How great it is to start the day with silence and then singing!

After that I helped out in the kitchen and had a good chat with one of the senior students, Nivi, who was also helping out and got to learn about how the final years at school work. They do their A levels across 3 years instead of 2 (like at Shibumi) which allows them more time to do other important things which otherwise get scrapped in the rush for exams. It also gives them several months at the end of their exams to then go on and do an internship somewhere so that by the time they leave school they not only have exams under their belts but work experience too. This, to me, sounds like an eminently wise way to go about the last years of schooling and hope other schools might take such a curriculum change on board.

Then I sat in a Dialogue - every class has one once a week - with the senior students, and was impressed by the nature of the discussion going on there, about how we relate to our emotions, what we feel they tell us about ourselves, and what, exactly, are 'we', that thing that experiences the emotions, the thoughts etc... Such dialogues happen at Brockwood but are somewhat rare and it's clear that the fact that students are grouped by age affects the subject of discussion, as well as the fact that they are used to such dialogues from a very young age.

It is important to recognise that dialogue is not a technique to achieve a particular end. We cannot have a dialogue with a motive or an end result in sight, whether it is correcting student behaviour or promoting a kind of moral education. Dialogue is not about transferring simple messages and codes of conduct. Rather, it holds out the possibility of a profound scepticism that encompasses all aspects of our social and personal lives and that, ultimately, questions our selfhood and private emotions in the strongest manner possible.

CFL newsletter, 2007

I sat in several younger classes - 10-12 year olds - who were starting various projects. Every term the middle school take up a series of different projects, trying to alternate between science and social sciences. This term one group is doing Food, another Soil and the third Microscopes & Optics. The class starts by simply asking students to formulate questions they might have about said topic - and it is surprising to note the sorts of questions they come up with! 'What makes a food nutritious?', 'Why are earthworms good for the soil?'. It's easy to see how these questions which stem from tidbits of information that get handed down to us without us ever actually knowing the truth of them, can provide great starting points for real inquiry. So while the teachers had certain materials at their disposal - a UNICEF-sponsored workbook on Food for instance, or a Practical Workbook on the Natural Environment with exercises about soil sampling - the core of the engagement and interaction came from the teachers simply prompting the students to think and verbalise their thoughts on the subject itself.

I must say - for the sake of the teachers - boy was that first class a noisy bunch! 8 guys and just one girl... they couldn't stop messing around - I don't really blame them - but I wondered how long I'd be able to handle such a class for... What you gain in ingenuity (in the form of their remarkably poignant questions) you loose in attention, and it seems the inverse becomes true the older they get!

Another inspiring practise is the <i>mela</i> or festival CFL has on alternate years: a year-long project that the entire school in engaged with on some level or another. Last year's was on Water and Sun, so being a region particularly prone to drought and having a limited supply of water, they looked into rain-water harvesting and solar energy. I spoke with a 12 year old who told me she helped plan their (one of three) water harvesting system and learnt how to build a solar oven ("which we did lots of cooking in" she added with a grin). Older students re-built the entire grey-water system which now feeds into the washing-up area, and learnt how to built LEDs which are used all over campus (also powered by solar).

Reading an account of this huge project in CFL's newsletter bears witness to the challenges they all had to face, particularly seeing as they did the brunt of the work themselves, only calling in specialists for advice, and many times things went wrong. "We might have to wait hours for the 'expert' to come and bail us out, or discover that we have the wrong soldering wire and the right store is 50 km away, or that the pipes just don't fit!" But they persevered and were given that unique satisfaction of seeing through a process from its beginning stages to completion, and now the fruits of their hard work are there for all to benefit from.

Melas in the past have covered the topics of caste in society, the Ramayana, and other building blocks of culture. There is a similarity with the projects that middle-school students undertake each term in that they really engage with a topic beyond the confines of a textbook. I was asking a student who was returning to class with a soil sample to analyse, what project she was working on last term. "We went and interviewed local people in a nearby village, asking them about their lives, and then wrote their biography." It's easy to see how valuable such activities are to these students, most of which come from high-income families and scrunch their nose when asked to push home-made compost through a grill in order to sift it properly.

It might be difficult and strained to pull too many comparisons from here to Europe, when there is such a clear disparity in culture and expectations from students and particularly teenagers (there don't seem to be any issues relating to sex and alcohol for instance). Having said that, I feel that what I'm seeing is the incredible value of a sustained education. By this I mean that students are put through a process that numbers up to 12 years of 'alternative' schooling. Most of the students I've interacted with have been at CFL between 8 to 10 years and I think it makes a tremendous difference. To get used to being quiet, going on walks, working with compost, learning about soil, interviewing poor peasants in some lost village, participating in weekly dialogues and building solar powered ovens since you're 6 years old makes - I'd like to think - one significantly more sensitive to the world and one's place within it.

Secondly, it is worth mentioning CFL's lateral staffing structure. They have no Principal. As one teacher put it "I have no boss, no minions; instead, my colleagues and I work on an equal footing." While she is quick to note that this is by no means an easy feat, and that conflict and disagreement certainly occur, it is equally interesting to note the potential benefits - which CFL has undoubtedly reaped - of having to listen to one another until a common decision emerges. "Without the spurious comfort of a headmaster or management committee to lean on, there is no sense of 'us' versus 'them', there is no one to complain to or about." Whereas our natural response is to think that such a structure sounds nice on paper but is eminently unpractical, CFL stands as an example of what can be achieved if a group of people really put their minds to it.

One final remark has to do with the way CFL presents itself. It is very clear about its values and its intentions - being as 'alternative' as they are, I feel this is particularly brave and a source of inspiration for other such schools. Its brochure, for instance, covers all of what I've mentioned above and much more besides, giving as much space to exams as it does to any other facet of the rich, layer-ridden curriculum it provides. I find this important because, at least from what I've gleaned in the few schools I have known, exams take such precedence over everything. At Brockwood - and probably many other places - it feels this is more because of parents than the school, but nevertheless there is an unwritten pressure for the school to appease, as it were, these 'real' concerns. It would be much better, I feel, for statements such as CFL's to be made clear to parents and students so they know what they're signing up to. Here's what's written on the first page of CFL's prospectus:

For us, CFL began as a response to dissatisfaction with career, lifestyle, relationships and the social contexts in which these happen. More urgently, we felt a discontent with existing individual and social responses to these challenges. In a world that is obviously in turmoil at all levels - from the personal to the global - it is vital for us as concerned human beings to explore creative responses to the crises surrounding us. Equally importantly, an inward inquiry that seeks to understand ourselves and the nature of personal and social well-being is essential. This exploration is at the heart of our work at Centre For Learning.

A school that admits that "unlike their counterparts in mainstream schools, who seem largely sure of paths to take beyond schooling, the typical CFL student it unsure, tentative" is one worthy of its name. Better to put off a prospective student than to compromise on the very essence of alternative schooling. CFL seem to have understood this better than most, and they've just celebrated their 25th anniversary. Long may they continue.

Postscript

A day after writing this I had the chance to attend the seniors' weekly meeting - a forum for them to discuss community-related issues and questions with a couple teachers - which shed more light on CFL.

The discussion began around whether the timetable could be changed to accommodate a longer lunch break to give everyone more free time for relaxing or just hanging out. The suggestion (made by a teacher) was to take 1 period out from each day. This was met with resistance from the students, who wondered how they'd be able to cover their syllabus with so many periods taken out. This led the teacher to remark that, if there are two things that can be levelled at CFL, these would be about their overly-structured timetable and their lack of self-sustained learning. Students, he said, rely too heavily upon a structure, and upon goals or punishments as their motivation for studying.

Two things come to mind here. Firstly, that students are pretty much the same in any school, give or take some slight cultural differences. No school is 'perfect' in any sense of the term, and CFL is no exception. When it comes down to it, we'd rather delegate responsibility to a structure than take it upon ourselves, preferring the security structures and goals proffer upon us to the discomforts of what might justly be called freedom.

Second, what was said in that meeting seems like a striking example of the teachers here's willingness to see CFL with a sharp and critical eye, which leads me to think that one's ability to truly see what's going on and be able to talk about it openly, feeling neither abashed nor righteous, is probably one of the clearest indicators of what a 'good' or 'progressive' school looks like. That these conversations are able to occur amongst teachers, students and parents is an important step in being able to explore what it is we think education is really for, and to making it happen.

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