Teaching in a school and being involved in its institutional aspects, studying education formally, working with teachers, and teaching students of education can, ironically, shift one’s certainties about what education of the young should concern itself with. Each of these encounters with education, with their particular impetuses, has created synergies and tensions in understanding what the aims, methods and material of learning must be. What has come up repeatedly and steadfastly, though, is the significance of reflection, empathy and the action born thereof, as touchstones in educational thought and work.

There are numerous conceptions of ‘education’. Depending on a focus or interest area such as philosophy, psychology, or sociology, the question ‘what is education?’ can produce at least three different kinds of answers. Another way of answering the question has been through the binary of theory versus practice. This article does not concern itself with creating a conception or definition of education. It attempts to bring to the fore certain key aspects of living—reflection, empathy, and action—and how they play out in the work of education.

I use three incidents picked from various contexts of teaching and learning to explore this perspective. The first is a scenario, from work done with teachers, which was inspiring for us. The second was a teaching moment that was challenging. The third was a conversation with a student that shed light on a quest that I consider important to pursue.

Story One: Permissions, possibilities and paths through reflection

This story is from a time when I worked as a project coordinator for a nongovernmental organization with the aim of supporting school administrators and teachers of specific low-cost schools for the underprivileged in making shifts towards a more meaningful education for their students. In a school serving the children of daily wage labourers, teachers sought ways to teach so that their students learned better and developed the right set of values to live well. In light of the burning need for interventions and support for teachers in these rapidly failing aspects at school, a move to initiate weekly teacher-run staff meetings, meant for sharing questions, thoughts and discussion of ideas, was met with a mix of awkwardness (around sharing thoughts), cynicism and inertia. The teachers’ resistance was evident in thoughts which they, after months of ‘icebreaking’ and deconstructing authority, began to share: “It is taking us away from ‘actual’ work”, and “talking won’t solve problems we face in the classroom”. So we came to a consensus to try out the meetings until there was a unanimous feeling that they were not serving us in any way. (The meetings did stop taking place eventually, after about a year. This was not because the teachers felt they were not relevant but due to a possible insecurity in the leadership about growing autonomy in the teaching group).

In the beginning, the teachers struggled with the notion of sharing thoughts in a group. It was foreign to them and they did not really understand its worth. I struggled with feelings of disappointment around this, having experienced and benefited from staff meetings that helped me grow as a teacher. We persisted with the meetings, nevertheless, to keep the promise we made to ourselves. With time and attention, the teachers began to notice some of their patterns of expressing and sharing. These included directing questions and thoughts to me rather than to the whole group, using the meeting time to complain rather than contemplate, and restricting themselves to functional statements such as reminders and announcements. It became apparent that the scope and possibilities of staff meetings had to be demonstrated in some sense. So we came up with and sifted through conversation topics. We deliberated on how we might talk together about these topics in ways that made the educational work of the school a collective effort. What emerged was the necessary structure to encourage and support the process of reflection. This involved adopting certain guidelines such as:

  • Asking questions without judging them and at the same time actively noticing different kinds of questions that others may be asking.
  • Not viewing questions as criticism but as tools for exploration and clarity building.
  • Being aware about why I say/do what I say/do and how the reasons change over time.
  • Recognizing/sorting opinion from fact, and recognizing/understanding one’s biases.
  • Appreciating each other’s ideas and creating an environment that is respectful.

The next step was to find elements that could infuse life into the conversations and make the meetings valuable to its members.

For instance, we were thinking of creating a school that was a friendly environment for children. This fundamentally meant a school that did not operate on fear and one that regards children’s feelings and thoughts. Infrastruc76 ture, policies, and norms were changed to meet the aim of creating such a school. However, the teachers realized that creating the culture for a fearless school rested squarely on their shoulders. In the initial meetings they realized various fears that existed within them: fear of authority, fear of speaking, fear of not being heard, fear of doing things differently and of being judged, to list a few. They realized that they could not create a fearless environment for their students if they could not speak about their own fears. This, in itself, was very significant!

Apart from sharing in staff meetings, many of the teachers wrote down their thoughts in a weekly journal. Through this mode of reflection, many of the teachers seemed to notice that getting in touch with themselves made it easier for them to get in touch with children. How did this happen? I saw this as a movement within them, of inward looking leading to outward looking. The reflective journal allowed them to acknowledge some of their thoughts to themselves. Thoughts that they felt could be shared were brought into the meetings or discussed with colleagues (myself included). Over time it emerged that reflection was not an idea. It was a practice, a daily aliveness. We came to realize that we had to look inward every day in order to look outward every day. Through this, teachers saw their responses change towards children and each other in small measures.

As I have been a part of educational environments where introspection and thinking through matters is taken for granted, certain patterns of conversation, ways of articulating questions and making meaning of thoughts or actions may have set in. This could lead to a limited understanding of other ‘cultures of conversation’ as well as other triggers and material for reflection. Therefore, I had to shatter these set patterns and notions of conversation, questioning and responding that were in me. This was imperative to meaningful dialogue with the diverse teacher groups I was a part of.

What then did our conversations look like in the life and substance of the staff meetings at this school? We consciously stayed with our feelings from instances of daily interactions that each of us was a part of. We resisted the move to explore our feelings and thoughts through abstraction. As an example, we talked together about one teacher fearing another’s judgement. That the teacher felt free to bring to the group something as vulnerable as this was remarkable. We all tuned into her articulation of a sensorial experience of fear. These moments provided her and us a factual base from which insights about fear could be drawn.

These meetings were inspiring for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they helped me see that reflection needs to be built from first principles: looking without preconceived notions and listening without the urge to supply a reason or to make a prediction or conclusion. What was particularly moving was the realization that building these cannot come about if we do not hold ourselves and others with tentativeness and care. An idea about what reflective sharing must comprise and sound like could come in the way of extending this care. Secondly, these meetings put me in direct contact with the enabling nature of reflection because of the way it helped many of us build a relationship with ourselves and with colleagues. These relationships were empowering; they created the base for strength that arises out of an active, informed and thinking collective.

Story Two: The challenge of shifting perspective

While teaching an undergraduate course on human development and teachinglearning, one of the classes was a discussion about corporal punishment and the impact it could have on the development of children. One student felt quite strongly that a whack to discipline a child is fine as many people, “do better in life because of it.” It was a statement of conviction inferred from her lived reality and, therefore, not something I had the right to dismiss in any way. Actively keeping aside my own and others’ reaction to her resulted in a state of empathy and curiosity. This took on the form of openended questions that all of us, irrespective of our positions, could consider. The questions were: “What does ‘better in life’ mean that we need corporal punishment to get us there?” “While a whack may have got us to the study table and kept us there (due to fear), what else was lost in us?” While I was clear about the right position on corporal punishment and could have presented various theories to gently challenge the student’s view point, why did I end up talking around openended questions?

My cue was their faces and body language that seemed to communicate some of the discomfort that comes from being judged. As a respectful learning space was something we had all committed to, it followed quite naturally that I be aware of the assumptions I was making about these students’ reality. When I did not immediately understand why punishment was a ‘life saver’, I realized I needed to explore it with them more. These students felt that their perspective was legitimate, given the contexts and trajectories of their lives. Thus, while I found myself reacting to the position held by this set of students, I also found myself empathizing with them, trying to understand their situation. Why did they hold this viewpoint? What ‘worked’ for them as a result of this upbringing? I felt that challenging their perspective without empathizing with it first would have been an insensitive response based solely in ideology.

Empathy made the open-ended questions equal for everyone; our starting points for exploration were roughly the same. Grappling with the second question, on what was lost due to corporal punishment, was emotionally difficult and as such was not opened up too much. Nevertheless, they did come to a point in the exploration where there was a faint acknowledgement of the disrespectful, violating and debilitating nature of corporal punishment. The first question, ‘What does ‘better in life’ mean, that we need corporal punishment to get us there?” revealed answers pertaining to having a better quality of life, which is ensured only if, in many of their cases, they managed to graduate from class 12 and an undergraduate programme. Overall, a better quality of life, they felt, is marked by discipline and self-regulation so that they can keep down a job or higher studies, contribute socially and economically, and thereby, flourish in their lives. When it was agreed that ensuring such a life is a legitimate concern, what we did go on to challenge was the use of adult power, fear and punishment to create discipline and self-regulation. This created the ground for us to brainstorm other ways to develop perseverance, consistency, responsibility, regulation and initiative—factors leading to a better quality of life. It helped us see that the purported results of corporal punishment could be achieved through other means.

Theoretical perspectives were then presented. For some students, the linking of their reflection to findings from studies was disconcerting. We stayed with this feeling as I felt it was essential to the process of creating a shift in perspective, which is something that did happen for some of them. With others, I could not tell how they were processing it at all—the open-ended questions, the brainstorming, and the theoretical perspectives. This was a particularly challenging moment for me as an educator teaching young people who hoped to become teachers one day. I learned from it that any topic in the study of education needs to be looked at from theoretical perspectives and engaged with through self-reflection. Theoretical perspectives are relatively easy to present. However, those perspectives alone do not seem to trigger a radical shift in one’s deeply held positions. What is perhaps more challenging is to create appropriate openings for self-reflection and weave insights into theoretical understanding. Relying solely on self-reflection to explore a topic is problematic in that it could tend to confirm one’s already held position. Utilizing only theory to understand an issue often relegates it to the machinations of the intellect. The specificity of the challenge therefore seems to lie here: At what points in the engagement with a topic or problem do we bring in knowledge born of the experiences of the self and at what times theoretical knowledge? How do we facilitate personal reflection and exploration in learning contexts, in emotionally safe and appropriate ways, to yield insight? How and when do we point out the limitations of both theoretical knowledge and knowledge of the self?

Story Three: The way of mindful action in education

Curriculum is a vibrant topic of discussion and study in education. The primary point regarding what should constitute a curriculum is that of aims and objectives.

Once, such a conversation with a student of curriculum studies seemed to capture some prevalent perspectives with regard to what education ought to do. With great depth of emotion, the student believed that education should have only one purpose, that of enabling social change. He felt that the aims of education and curricula in schools must be developed keeping this in mind. Early in the conversation I noticed that two aspects were being pitted against each other: ‘thought’ and ‘action’; in another context, ‘the individual’ and ‘society’. Interestingly, the former and latter binaries were used interchangeably in the student’s argument which stated that ‘indulging’ in thought or the individual self leads to inaction and lack of engagement with society. I found myself responding with a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when asked if I agreed with his argument. My affirmative came from observing the tendency, both within myself and in others, to enclose oneself in the long and enticing journey of understanding the mind. Indeed the possible fallout of such a journey could be self-absorption. The aspect of his argument that I disagreed with stemmed from this perspective: essentially as social beings, each of us is a component of the various relationships we are a part of. If society is an aggregate of relationships, how can we engage with it meaningfully without understanding ourselves simultaneously?

We spent some time trying to get a feel for what makes something ‘meaningful’. We saw that the intertwining of our inner selves with our outer lives is what makes engagement meaningful. With our unique set of experiences and viewpoints we make sense of a matter outside of us, and that ‘sense-making’ feeds back into our perspectives. Further, through this conversation, and several others, it appeared that a couple of challenges exist in the process of meaningful engagement with society. One challenge is the absence of a language of communication that is built by first acknowledging and allowing, for oneself, a range of feelings and thoughts. The next step is to be comfortable with communication. All this is contingent upon an emotionally, not necessarily intellectually, safe environment. The second challenge is a genuine lack of experience in the ways of dialogue, a mode of exploration with people that could help us make sense of how our personal experiences integrate with goingson around us.

Now, assuming that the language, skills and comfort for dialogue exist, a deeper implication for equal engagement with the inner and the outer is revealed. This is the ability to discern a ‘personal’ response to any issue or situation from a serious, impassioned one. A ‘personal’ response, though a legitimate one, is often immune to examination by oneself or by others. This is perhaps because ‘personal’ responses often seem to be marked by the need to have one’s theories or stand (sometimes, maybe, the entire self ) validated, and as such seeking the formation of a similar community or group. Accepting, empathetically, that this is a very human need or movement of the mind, what can free us, however, of its fear-filled and narrowing nature? By keeping this question alive we could perhaps find out what it means to respond to and engage with the world in non-personal but serious and im passioned ways.

The call for social change, especially through education, is urgent, justifiably so. The pull into the difficult and much needed work of responding to inequality, injustice and destruction that is around can be very strong. However, what would make the response, action, effective? Essentially it would mean being aware of one’s relationship with an ‘other’, be it a group or community or a cause or issue. This is vital so that we do not conflate our feelings that have a particularly personal genesis with quiet, wisdom-filled outrage towards all that is inhuman around us. It is this very discernment that brings clarity to the process of understanding a cause or issue and removes the ‘individual’ or ‘self ’ from it.

As a teacher, student of education, and interestingly as a teacher of education, I found several theories, frameworks and approaches compelling. What has enabled critical engagement with theory, eclectic practice, and growth, has been reflection and empathy—Reflection about why I am compelled by or resist a theory / approach / framework / perspective and empathy for where I am and for where my students and colleagues are. This kind of reflection and empathy has almost always provided the much needed pause before and during ‘action’. And so it appears that ‘mindful action’, something that I am slowly learning about, seems to involve being aware of one’s limitations and capabilities with equanimity, recognizing argumentation that is led and fed solely by the intellect, seeing how one’s feelings drive a conditioned response, trying to explore something with another from his or her ground as much as from mine, and most importantly, always being aware of my motivations to ‘act’.