The Study Centre at Bangalore has been conducting programs for the school children of The Valley School since 1993. The Valley School and the Study Centre are located on the same campus. As the Valley School is divided into small learning groups of fifteen to twenty children, the children come with their learning groups for half-day sessions. The sessions aim to bring about sensitivity of children to nature and to human problems, and create the space to observe and inquire. The program is designed keeping in mind the age group of the students. For younger ones, we have many sensory activities, some observations, and sharing. For middle school students we may take up themes such as friendship and with the older ones we may take up themes such as responsibility, freedom, justice, religion, and so on.
The teachers need to be sensitive to the kind of questions to raise with a group of children. One can ask a question and wait for a response and meet the children at the level the children are able to take up the question. Once a relationship is established then a challenging question could be posed or a suggestion could be made.
The following are two vignettes from recent Children’s Programmes conducted for different age groups.
Junior School Mixed Age Group: Class II–IV (age 7–9 years)
We began with an activity in which the children were asked to walk alone in a scenic part of the campus. A suggestion was made that they should try walking at a normal pace looking ahead. Without turning their head or moving their eyeballs side to side, they could exercise their peripheral vision to see as much as possible by de-focusing the gaze. They were also asked to listen at the same time to natural sounds, including that of birds. The purpose of the exercise is to bring a sense of alertness and quietness while walking and attempt to see as much as possible. When one looks straight ahead while walking and not focusing on one particular thing, the brain becomes alert and observes the surrounding without words and recognition. One can look without the associations of memory and thought.
Then we watched a cartoon episode from Clifford (The Big Red Dog). In this episode the dogs get influenced by a commercial where a dog called Rexington can jump higher and run faster after eating the ‘Mighty Snacky’ dog food, full of ‘fireworks of flavor.’ Clifford and his friends now want to have this new dog food. After much imagining and anxious waiting they are given the new ‘Mighty Snacky’ dog food. But soon they realize that this new dog food is very much like ‘regular’ dog food. Their hopes of running faster and jumping higher come to a crashing end.
After watching this episode, there was a dialogue with the children.
A number of questions were raised. We pointed out the use of language such as ‘mighty snacky’, ‘fireworks of flavor’ and so on, which were used to captivate the listeners.
The children too expressed the disappointments they had experienced, for instance, due to promises of ‘free offers’ such as toys when a particular product is purchased. Most of the time they did not get what the commercial had promised and even when they got the free toys they were either of poor quality or did not meet the children’s expectations. Most children could recall examples of how TV commercials keep advertising new products with a slight variation in flavour, such as, flavoured milk or juice to make a sales impact on children.
Then a question was asked: Why do companies make false promises and false claims about their products?
Child 1: They want to sell more and make money.
Teacher: What do they do with all the money they get?
Child 2: They want bigger and fancier houses.
Child 3: They want more and more.
Child 4: They are greedy.
Teacher: Why are they greedy?
Child 1: They are lonely.
Child 5: They are bored.
For a child to perceive loneliness and boredom as a root cause of greed was revealing. As teachers, we wondered how we could keep this inquiry going, so that the child begins to discover the causes of loneliness. What are the escapes from loneliness? What are the implications of loneliness in our lives? We felt that these questions could be sustained as the child grows up in a nurturing environment.
A suggestion was made to the children not to be passive listeners when they are watching TV commercials. One can ‘talk back’ at the commercial by asking questions such as: what makes them claim that the product XYZ will give ‘mighty power.’ Is it really true? Why are they making such claims? One can check with a parent or teacher if the claims of commercials are true or false.
The answers to such questions may not be apparent immediately. However, the act of asking questions makes the mind alert.
Class IX Program: Dialogue on Living with Discontent
We were discussing rebellion and discontent. We read a passage written by an ex-student of Brockwood Park School. Some of the statements made in the article were discussed.
‘There is conformism, an act of accepting the world as it is offered, and there is rebelliousness. And what is worse, there is conformism in the disguise of rebelliousness.’
The article ends with the statement:
‘A rebel is, finally, the one who is not stuck in his or her own concept of rebelliousness.’
This was followed by a passage from J Krishnamurti speaking to students on discontent: ‘Don’t be afraid of discontent, but give it nourishment until the spark becomes a flame and you are everlastingly discontented with everything—with your jobs, with your families, with the traditional pursuit of money, position, power—so that you really begin to think, to discover.’
The students found this statement too radical. They were troubled with the analogy—‘spark becomes a flame’.
Student 1: If we are discontented with everything, then we will come across as ungrateful.
Student 2: People will think we are unhappy because we are complaining all the time.
Teacher: Perhaps when Krishnamurti is speaking of discontent it is not a permanent state. One can never remain in one state all the time. When one sees some good things happening one could be appreciative and not find fault with it just for the sake of being discontented.
Student 3: If we are totally discontented with everything, then we will not be able to do anything because we cannot change everything.
Teacher: One can be discontented with many issues. However, one has to find out where one can contribute. Some people are good with working with hands. Others can write well. Some can speak well. One may take up an issue one feels is important and contribute by bringing a creative response.
Student: Are you saying all this because Krishnamurti said so?
Teacher: I am exploring what is involved with discontent. I may be right or wrong. You can challenge whatever is being said.
Student 1: Discontent means dissatisfaction and therefore unhappiness. Why should one be totally unhappy?
Teacher: Generally when one considers ‘discontent’ then one is considering a particular issue. Then one wants to change a particular thing and get a result. When one does not get a result, one becomes unhappy. Whereas, I think Krishnamurti is using ‘discontent’ in the sense of complete dissatisfaction with the whole structure of thought and what thought has brought about in the world—the wars, corruption, ecological destruction and so on. Not to be easily satisfied with the various political, social, economic, justice systems that further complicate the problems of existence.
Happiness is a byproduct of something that one loves to do. When one is discontented one can still be happy by discovering what one loves to do.
Let’s not imagine a completely discontented state and imagine unhappiness or happiness. Most of us are never completely discontented. We are partially satisfied and find comforts, and partially we remain discontented. Is it possible to be completely discontented and see whether one can be happy?
The students remained unconvinced. As a teacher, one could allow for the lack of seeing together of discontent and its implications. However, one may come back to this issue later and start the inquiry afresh.
The dialogues that we have with these students suggest that they are quite open to learning in a format where a question is used in order to probe and the response comes out of the background of one’s thinking, which can then be observed. As teachers, we have to create the right learning environment for this to happen more frequently and as the student progresses through the school, the dialogues could take place at greater depth and subtlety.