In our ongoing engagement with the daily business of teaching and more generally with education, we come up against the question–what are we doing with our children? Yes, we teach them particular subjects with care, we talk with them about the problems of life, about relationships, about the state of the world and so on. We want them to be integrated and healthy human beings. We want them to be deeply interested in the world–curious and engaged. Behind all this, we remind ourselves, lies the urgency of nurturing an inquiring mind.
An inquiring mind is central to living a life that is not mediocre, that does not perpetuate suffering. We wish for our students a life that is not caught in conformity, rigidity, conflict, not weighed down with cares. Else they will be shaped by the grooves they have grown up with and by the pressures of an increasingly complex society, and hence tacitly supporting of social structures that are full of contradictions. It is this mediocrity that leads to a loss of quality in living and in relationships, and perpetuates suffering for oneself and for others. When we look around, we are struck with the suffering that we have created in the world. We see it at all levels. Human beings suffer and cause others to suffer. And with them other living creatures and the Earth suffers. There is also the possibility of joy, and tremendous beauty. Yet we cannot help being aware of the thread of mediocrity that runs through each one of us and darkens our lives with suffering.
What can cut through this mediocrity? In our own lives, we see that an honest inquiry into all our feelings and motives can bring about clarity. We begin to question assumptions, both those held personally and those held by society at large. This is not a hotheaded reaction wanting to judge or condemn, but a quiet, thoughtful exploration of the consciousness common to us all. When we inquire in this way, our mind remains awake, tentative, and watchful of its own tendencies as well as that of others. This is not simply a logical inquiry, but an inquiry born of a feeling of care and responsibility. An inquiring mind can allow us to live sanely and creatively, leaving a window open to joy. We see this is as a necessary response to the mediocrity of human society.
What is there to inquire into?
Everything! This is not a facile response, for in fact young children seem to have this openended curiosity about all aspects of their world. Their questions are sparked off by their daily observations, by encounters with other people, with situations they get into, through stories they hear and in the wanderings of their rich imaginations. Children are also very impressionable and there is a tendency to form beliefs, leading to a crystallization process, which begins to operate very early. This too is part of a deep rooted human conditioning–to form ideas of good and bad, heaven and hell, to identify with things and people, to develop a sense of ‘me’, ‘mine’ and the ‘other’. The movements of the ‘self’ that inevitably seem to take multiple forms within the growing human being also invite an inquiry. Such an inquiry is intimately tied to an awareness of inner movements, and this is crucial for sane and wholesome development of the person.
As young persons grow, fields of inquiry ought to widen and deepen. They are interested in how things work in the physical world, in their bodies and the whole biological world, in technology and economic processes they see around them, the social and cultural patterns they are becoming aware of. There are issues in their personal and social world that they want to inquire into, and there are also deeper questions about issues such as inequities, corruption, violence, the place of religion and the purpose of life itself.
But there also arise blocks to inquiry. Apart from habit patterns that they may fall into (such as unthinking pursuit of particular comforts and pleasures) and the pressures that may narrow the scope and focus of thinking (examinations, specialization and career choices); in recent decades the proliferation of the entertainment media has created another kind of block. The potent images it generates and the allure of vicarious experience may constrict the mind, leaving less room for an authentic inquiry to flourish. That is unless the media themselves are viewed critically and become a subject for inquiry. An inquiring attitude is necessary to deal with all such blocks to inquiry, so that continued growth and learning become a part of one’s life.
Creating the ground for a ‘curriculum for inquiry’
Can a concern for inquiry be reflected in an educational curriculum? As long as the aim of education is restricted to developing literacy and leading the young through a predetermined curriculum in order to equip them for social success, it can hardly promote an attitude of inquiry. The word ‘curriculum’ is normally understood, in its common limited sense, as a list of knowledge and skill objectives to be achieved through the teaching of subjects. Usually added to this are the ‘co-curricular’ or the ‘extracurricular’ activities. Yet it is possible to see curriculum more broadly, as the entire set of experiences which shape the child during the school years. Children learn from everything: the lessons and the activities that are planned and explicitly stated, the rhythms and rituals of school life as well as the situations and interactions that they are exposed to. How we conceive of and plan for the broader curriculum is intertwined with how we understand what learning is. If we are conscious that there is a ‘having learnt about’ something and also a quality of mind that ‘is learning’ a curriculum can perhaps be conceived that shifts the emphasis in education to a process that encourages an open-ended inquiry.
We would like to examine here what it means to create the ground of a curriculum that reflects the need for inquiry. Such a curriculum must extend into the entire educating environment of the child. It would concern itself with learning about the world and about oneself, the outer as well as the inner.
We recognize at the outset that a central factor in the creation of such a curriculum would be the attunements of the teachers (as well as parents). Supporting the learning of children requires a quality of relationship of the adult with the child. Whatever may be the content of a lesson, it is this relationship that determines what is learned, how it is learned, and whether a learning mind is simultaneously being nurtured.
The quality of this relationship rests on adult sensitivity to the need for a feeling of security, space and strength in students’ minds. In an atmosphere of insecurity that many children experience, much energy is spent in anxiety. Thinking more and more of themselves and what is to happen, they grow withdrawn or develop other kinds of self protective reactions. Similarly crowding students’ minds with large doses of information, and the school day with continual occupation, pushes them into unthinking action. If there are too many strictures, or conflicting signals from various adults, the student finds himself in situations of having to narrowly evaluate the consequences for himself. The capacity to see directly, think clearly and act – which lends strength to inquiry – is stultified. Teachers concerned with nurturing inquiry would thus need to be alert to such factors as they work together to make up the overall atmosphere of the school.
Another key element is to consciously enable contact with nature. There is a qualitatively different sense of contact with the world that the child can experience if he is placed in open landscapes, or even if a tiny school garden or some patches of green in the city allow him to be in the company of trees, plants, and little creatures. A sense of living things, growing things, and a feeling of sensitivity and beauty are evoked when one is not engaging continuously with man-made artifacts. The qualities of observation, patience and quietness are nurtured in the slower rhythms of nature, which increasing levels of stimulation and mechanization tend to draw us away from. When the curriculum provides for contact and immersion in natural spaces, it creates the space within for an inquiring mind to emerge. The curriculum should be filled with opportunities for students to do things and make things–with body and mind, using the hands and the senses. Learning through doing develops a sense of resourcefulness, a discipline of working with materials and tools, even as the student attempts to construct something out of imagination. The student is then not a passive recipient but finds the space for creative expression. This whole body engagement too slows down thinking and furthers the scope of the inquiring mind.
Finally, the curriculum should create opportunities for learning about oneself in relationship with others, with plenty of scope for conversation, discussion, hearing various points of view and articulating one’s own. Through listening and observing oneself as well as others, a feeling of relatedness can grow. The student becomes aware of multiple points of view and gains a perspective on his own thinking. In watching a friend one becomes sensitive to her feelings. This relatedness takes one outside a preoccupation with oneself into a space where one can respond honestly and unhesitatingly.
The Place of Knowledge and Skills
How do we see the place of knowledge and skills in a curriculum that aims at nurturing the above? We often speak of knowledge as ‘content’ of a curriculum or even as ‘information’ to be delivered. This then becomes a static aspect of the curriculum and there is a danger of veering towards a rote-oriented, memory-driven approach that has become the bane of much of education. The development of knowledge may, however, be seen as a much richer field of learning for the child if it can be characterized as a dynamic way of engaging with aspects of the world. Aligned with the child’s propensity to make meanings, knowledge in any field arises from curiosity, the asking of questions, and the finding of provisional answers. These may be applied to one’s surroundings, which may then evoke further questions. Knowledge remains living if one makes and remakes the connections for oneself, not merely treating bits of information as finished products to be held in memory.
The implication here for teachers of subjects is that they need to, on the one hand, partake of the wonderment behind their subject, and on the other hand, draw the specific themes and topics of study keeping in mind the context–geographical, social and cultural–as well as the age-group of the children they teach. A somewhat different knowledge curriculum may derive from different contexts, and yet there would be essential common threads that are relevant for all children. In developing the curriculum in subject areas, the teacher needs to make space for the students to ask their own questions, and support their efforts to find answers. In this way, he draws in the students to become fellow inquirers.
As they become older, students need to be introduced to the rigour of a ‘disciplined’ inquiry within the disciplines. An older student can appreciate and understand the nature and implications of a subject, and find those questions that are worth pursuing. She must develop the stamina to follow the implications of a principle to its logical end, do independent research, and express her ideas and thoughts cogently. To awaken these abilities in a student the curriculum needs to be intelligently organized by the teachers, without becoming narrowly exam-driven.
When speaking of skills, we need to move beyond the restricted meaning of ‘techniques’ or ‘procedures’ for doing things. Building a skill, whether manual, intellectual or artistic, often begins with a sense of play, with relating to the material or process in a ‘dynamic repetition’. The skill may then be cultivated with guidance and practice towards the development of precision and range. Students at all levels of ability can enjoy the process of skill learning, and find meaning in it, if there is not a sense of constant measurement against some fixed standards. Exposure to as wide a range of skills as possible would in effect help the child to explore her capacities fully and perhaps begin to discover a talent or joy that may become the basis of one’s later vocation or means of livelihood. Finding out what one loves to do is, after all, one of the enduring inquiries ino ne’s life and can have a tremendous life enhancing implication.
In a curriculum that aims to promote inquiry, evaluation of knowledge and skills would be seen as a part of the learning process, not as just a means of measuring content and marking or grading the level of achievement.
Drawing from the above discussion, an efficient way of planning the knowledge and skills part of a curriculum might be to ensure that the student is not burdened with too much content so that slowness and in-depth engagement are encouraged. Perhaps the entire syllabus could be organized around key questions allowing space and providing support for learners to pursue their own questions. It is also necessary to touch the essence of a field of knowledge while establishing the connections among different fields. In this way it is possible to avoid fragmentation of learning and to create an overall sense of coherence and deepening.
Nurturing an inquiring bent of mind in developing knowledge and skills, is, in itself, certainly a worthy aim for us as teachers. Education needs to nurture good brains, capable of excellence in ideas and innovations: this task itself requires a great deal of imagination and hard work on all our parts. Yet this is not the totality of our intention. For to turn that inquiry inward is rather a different movement. It begins when we pause and observe ourselves, attend to the movements that lie below the surface of our thinking and become aware of our whole surroundings. This can happen with students in a classroom when we, say, begin a lesson with a quality of silence, or pause in our flow of exchanges and reflect on what is just then happening. When a question arises and its facets are unravelled in a slow exploration, when in the act of thinking, writing or listening one comes upon a point where there is no pre-determined response possible, we touch something new and original. Such a quality of mind can perhaps become aware of and penetrate its own mediocrity, its own habitual patterns. Here lies the possibility of awakening a creative response that carries within it a sense of caring and responsibility.
Such a possibility gets woven into the curriculum, not through any specific means or methods, but only in our intention as teachers to nurture, in ourselves and in our students, an inquiring mind: a mind that is not only curious and engaged, but has the capacity to see and act beyond the movements of the self in daily living.