Learnings from Shanti Niketan
Written by Vandana Gautam
“Those who do not learn cannot teach”
I have heard a story regarding the famous medieval scholar, Al-Biruni. It is told that when he was on his deathbed, he appeared a little disturbed. His mind was trying to solve a mathematical problem. One of his close friends could guess his problem and he helped Al-Biruni solve that problem. Soon after, Al-Biruni died with a great sense of relief on his face.
The story may or may not be true, but it offers a great lesson. We all need to be a life long learner.
As a teacher, I have always been inquisitive and have realised and believed to the core that teaching and learning cannot be seen as two distinct processes, rather, they go hand in hand, enriching each other. Hence the quote in the beginning of this article which underscores that one cannot be a good teacher if one is not a good learner. However, at the institutional level, it was believed that once you become a teacher you didn’t need to learn anything. There were fewer opportunities for the teachers.
The introduction of the Mentor Teacher program in 2016 by Delhi Government, brought about numerous learning opportunities for teachers. Beginning with the educational exposure trips to the most brilliant models of mainstream and alternate education models in India and abroad, it culminated in mentor teachers themselves initiating and investing in their own capacity building whether through online courses or workshops. Either ways it has been a worthwhile journey. Through this article i share my learning from one such opportunity which I availed at Shantiniketan, the abode of the brilliant poet and noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
The Shantiniketan Vidyalaya or Patha Bhavan – Delightful memoirs from a ‘Living Institution functioning in a heritage building’.
The Patha Bhavan School or Visva Bharati at large, established by Tagore is confronting the dilemma of opting to remain an austere example of an age-old ideal or negotiate the challenges of modernity attempting to strike an equilibrium between continuity and change. I may not have an absolute answer, but the simplicity and austerity of this legendry institution are remarkably unique, charming any educationist or layman alike.
It was like a fresh breather of air to see how children expressed themselves freely, engaging in meaningful conversations with their teachers, without the fear of being judged, beneath the most robust banyan trees which served as their natural classrooms. What could be more joyful to learn about Art and Renaissance in a History class when the murals of the verandah are painted by the likes of Abnindranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore themselves? The campus was a lovely example of peaceful co-existence where humans, trees, monkeys, birds, worms so beautifully existed at their unhindered, expressive best. They were just ‘let to be’.
Shaking the trees to gather dates, guava, mangoes and Jamrul, picking the white flowers beneath the super loaded tree, admiring the acrobatics of the black lagoon and monkeys on the adjacent tree and yet completely engrossed in one of classic plays of Tagore in their English Literature class is something to be seen to be believed. You feel compelled to agree with Tagore that mother Nature is the greatest teacher and in the boundaries of dead bare white walls, a child’s attention is never hit by the chance surprises which come from Nature.
In the words of the poet himself ” When nature sends her message, we ought to acknowledge its compelling force. When the kiss of rain thrilled the heart of the surrounding trees, if we still behaved with undue propriety and paid all attention to mathematics, it would have been positively wrong, impious”. One cannot agree more.
I was forced to contemplate what we were doing every single day instructing our children ‘ Never keep your mind alert, attend to what is before you, what has been given to you’. How joyful learning is fettered and imprisoned through disciplined formal schooling, and, Nature, the greatest of all teachers is thwarted at every stop by a human teacher who believes in machine-made lessons and not lessons of life.
When the state owns the responsibility of imparting education, operating in its own context and limitations, it may or may not choose to opt for a natural set up such as Patha Bhawan or Vishwa Bharati but what it can definitely choose is to inherit and imbibe the values from these legendary institutions which can be imparted to our students in an urban set-up as well.
I am happy to see that through our ventures such as happiness curriculum we have been able to go beyond academics, helped our teachers and students connect with each other, with themselves, with nature and society at large. This has actually helped them believe in the value of peaceful coexistence.
Writer is a Mentor Teacher at Delhi Government School. She is also a Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Fellow. She can be contacted @firstname.lastname@example.org