Nuala Dalton is one of the researchers who has been working with the Tagore Centre UK for several months. She has been focusing particularly on Tagore’s ideas on education and has been applying them to her own experience as a schoolteacher. Here she outlines some of the concerns she has been grappling with and reflects on the many questions that arise.
As part of my Tagore project I wanted to spend some time focusing on education. I had worked for nine years in education, initially for a music service and subsequently as a mainstream music and drama teacher and during this time I used meditation in various ways through my music workshops and in my classes. I have been meditating for 12 years, on and off, alternating with yoga, it has been a very important part of my life. I decided that as a part of my project this year I would develop this interest further, as a school project.
However before I did this, I decided to take a break from the school system and focus on developing a short theatre piece. My idea was to get away from a ‘teaching mindset’ and the process of designing the show helped me do this, and so I created an immersive project prioritising sensory experience, diametrically opposed to the usual school requirements of skills and knowledge acquisition and the evaluation of that. I submitted my proposal in July for a short festival being held in October at The Lyric Hammersmith, the piece was received with a lot of enthusiasm by the production team and though it was not chosen for use on this occasion, the process was very useful to me in clarifying what I was interested in creating and why.
After this foray into theatre, I returned to the school project idea, the development of the theatre piece now formed the basis for my approach to the schools project, firmly centring it on creating a sensory and receptive experience.
In the course of designing the brochure, I looked up other projects that use meditation as well and I came across a vast array of ‘mindfulness’ workshops. In one workshop I saw a man in a suit and tie showing primary school children a powerpoint. Most of the information I found online was of businesses that used a corporate style in their packaging, the wording and structure of what they were offering was also very corporate in format – perfect for interacting with the business side of schools buying in a product – but to me it lacked all the mystery, artistry, magic and gentleness that I associate with meditation.
Indeed when it comes to these type of businesses that trade in the corporate world, I felt echoes of the positive thinking industry and the countless ‘get rich quick’ programmes that are touted online. There are a million websites selling the same ‘mind over matter’ techniques that have been around for years, alongside the ever-popular success-in-business books such as the 1936 book ‘How to Win friends and Influence people’. Mindfulness is not this, however mindfulness as a technique to make you more effective in the business world, does seem like a new wave on that older theme, even if it is a more sophisticated and healthy approach.
Indeed there is nothing wrong with anyone trying to better themselves, or using a technique that will help them be more effective in the workplace, but I knew the associated advertising of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘attainment’ were not qualities I wanted to focus on in my project. So I asked myself if I aspired to be a part of the mindfulness market, or were my aims different to these other businesses? Is ‘mindfulness’ just too generic a term to use meaningfully, does it actually encompass a wider range of approaches than I had first assumed? So I put the project on hold and sat with my questions, waiting for clarity, as to whether to invest my energy in the project or not.
In time I came across a comment that summed up my uncertainty about the mindfulness industry in relation to education. I was happy with the content of the schools project, but it was important for me to clarify what position it occupied in the larger scheme of things. I wondered to myself, what would really impact schools? What would make a real and noticeable change? Hardly some workshops, though that would be better than nothing of course.
The comment was by a Mr. David Cooper on an article on mindfulness called ‘How two minutes of mindfulness can calm a class and boost attainment’ in ‘The Guardian’, it went as follows: ‘The better cure is to change the school system, so you don’t have so much damage to undo in the first place. Children’s lives are squandered for them by an oppressive system which teaches them in the most stressful and inefficient ways known to mankind… ‘Mindfulness’ as a means to improve school is like applying a sticking plaster to an amputated head’
I agree with these sentiments and I believe Tagore probably would too. I’m keenly aware however, that the solutions are not simple, teachers work under intense limitations, with on average thirty primary children in their care, or in the case of secondary teachers, several hundred passing through their classroom weekly, they are automatically dealing with a baseline of stress before any targets, evaluations, special needs or challenging behaviour enters the mix. There is also the fact that children are not blank slates, but carry with them a huge variety of issues.
I then came across another article in the ‘Financial Times Magazine’ (March 14th/15th) called ‘All in the Mind?’ by Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini. This article was exploring the phenomenon of mindfulness training in business, health and education. They made a point that echoed my own misgivings: ‘For those who value mindfulness as a spiritual or ethical path, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of concern that something traditionally subversive of mainstream values and goals is being used in support of them.’ and ‘..the danger is that once you remove that [the Buddhist] framework is that you reduce it to something that is just about you, one of simple utility.’ One utilitarian use mentioned was by the US military.
I do accept that teaching mindfulness will add a positive skill to students lives, but I also fear it will act as a substitute for examining the entire school structure and experiences of those who live within it. As Mr. Cooper said, it may ‘act as a sticking plaster’ and distract from more fundamental changes that are needed. Without the well-being of children and teachers becoming a genuine priority, one that includes the implementation of fundamental practical changes, mindfulness will remain a 2-minute add-on, in a system that stays exactly the same. It may in fact just aid becoming ‘well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’ to use the words of Krishnamurti, or increasing one’s ability to cope with stressful structures – when the structures should in fact be changed instead.
This brings to mind another buzzword popular in education in recent years, creativity, it promised a similar energy of change. Perhaps what had turned me off the other businesses was their overly scientific or businesslike approach to mindfulness? While my project would naturally gravitate towards a more creative route. The rational approach has its place, but it has traditionally been given an unhealthy emphasis. Indeed the core function of my schools project was to counter-balance the analytical excess that is the norm in schools, to create an at least momentary oasis for feeling, listening and receptivity. Yet just as with the term mindfulness, creativity is a very broad label with many facets and interpretations.
Creativity as a term in education has become overused. What tends to happen is a surface rehashing of ‘creativity is great’, many agreeing that yes ‘creativity is great’, but the detail of practical application in the school context can often be overlooked. Numerous education bodies and theorists praise the power of creativity, yet so much is simply not practical to implement and often a thought-out practical application hasn’t even been developed.
Adding creativity as an evaluation category can be counter-productive. Adding it as a category for writing schemes of work can become just another box to fill in. Creativity can also mean a huge amount of extra work for teachers and can become over-whelming. Allowing pupils more freedom and choice is great in theory, but it must be balanced with the reality of thirty children in a small space. Creativity and mindfulness theorised about separately from the practical realities of school life, becomes meaningless. Meaningful initiatives must incorporate a solid understanding of the workloads of those who are expected to create the magic – the number of schemes of work, the planning and paperwork, marking, school trips, meetings, extra curricular and supervision duties etc. Creativity should raise energy and be a pleasure, not a logistical headache.
That’s why I believe in the importance of non-assessed units, modules, classes, time allocated into schemes of work, the school day and the school year for experiencing the subjects without having to analyse, be tested on or feed back. Many teachers would love to be more creative, but the tight constrictions within which they must work simply mean they have neither the time nor freedom to do so.
Speaking of the practical realities of school life, schools face huge pressures to provide data. The paperwork schools are required to do and the data they collect came from good intentions, to improve standards in schools. However the time needed for this must naturally be taken from other areas. Paperwork takes up an inordinate amount of school time, time which would otherwise be spent engaging with the students. In order to provide this data children must be frequently evaluated. Indeed schools seem to measure everything – except how long it takes to measure everything, but of course they don’t really have the choice not to.
Therefore it’s the government who should be measuring the impact of their requests for data, the regular implementations of change and the time used up by these. As well as testing and tracking their students, teachers have a large range of other paperwork to keep up to date with – but if anything aids a child’s development, surely it’s got to be receiving a teacher’s time and attention?
Who analyses and measures how long it takes for each of the many expectations teachers are required to fulfil? Do system tests take place? Are time studies ever done? If something is added, what is taken away? If any of this is happening, judging by teacher feedback and union actions, it’s not being effective. The reality is this, if the expectations are unrealistic, then it’s got to crack somewhere, the teacher, the student or both. Unfortunately education seems to be subject to the type of fantasy thinking prevalent in the banking crisis. In neither case has pushing to the limits led to anything useful. Perhaps education needs to be protected from political involvement. Teachers up and down the country are putting in hours and hours of extra work trying to follow through on policy set by the government, yet at the end of the day is it achieving the outcome we want?
I was able to find little literature in English on Tagore and education, so I purchased one of the few books I could find in English called ‘Rabindranath Tagore. Adventure of Ideas and Innovative Practices in Education’ by Kumkum Bhattacharya, which gives a comprehensive overview of Tagore’s involvement in education. The colonial background of education in India, is interesting to note and is something that is echoed through many nations across the world. Education acted first as social reform and later as a system to claim back identity and national pride, including language and culture.
Tagore’s sensitivity allowed his view of education to go beyond society and into the world of the child – he saw Nature as having a vital role in nurturing children ‘he felt that Nature herself would bring up the children with a little help from him’ (p40) however the gritty details of grouping children together in a formal environment became apparent ‘The school went through many rough patches – not enough students, not enough teachers or teachers who did not fulfil Tagore’s ideas; instead of freedom of the students, there were too many rules and regulations..’ (p41) The author also notes here how in the first decade of the school there was a quick turnover of teachers, I wonder if the experience was not that enjoyable for those teachers that left quite quickly.
The principles and philosophies which guided Tagore’s education work are truly powerful and inspirational, but coming from the perspective of a classroom teacher – I’d love to know what the experience of the teachers was, in terms of preparing and managing the learning process of this wide and varied curriculum. I also wonder if assessment was a part of the system and if the school was inspected by a state body. Tagore had ‘devolved the power of school management to a body of teachers who coordinated the administration and management’ (p50), I wonder how this aspect of the school was influenced and sustained by his philosophies – if the school succeeded in being an organised, calm and joyful environment for the staff, as well as for the students? The book provides an intriguing glimpse into a pioneering educationalist, whose philosophies are more relevant today than ever and that deserve to be re-explored.
To return to education today, let me be sure to emphasise I believe amazing work goes on in schools every day and teachers deserve more respect and appreciation for the vital work they do. They certainly deserve more support. It is important to note that approximately half of UK secondary schools have the intense reality of student numbers of 1,000 to 1,500, often in quite restricted space. Depression, mental health problems and suicide is becoming an increasing problem among young people today and bullying and behaviour issues have become key areas of challenge in many schools. Education is a complex topic, with many interested parties, but I do believe ultimately everyone involved would prefer calm, happy students to anxious and stressed students. With the will to do so in place at government level, more steps could be taken in that direction.
Here ends my reflection on education that I began in order to contextualise my schools project idea. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything more than my own experience, but what I’ve learnt from this reflection, is that I see paperwork expectations and the lack of management of teacher’s, manager’s and school’s workloads, as big barriers to creating calm, creative and nurturing environments for students. My workshops would not solve that, but at least they would contribute to redressing the imbalance of the Ida and the Pingala, of the analytical and receptive experiences. I will now sign off with a few questions that I’m reflecting on:
How can schools become more sensitive environments?
How can receptivity be understood and valued as much as activity?
Can non-doing be balanced with doing?
How would non-doing work in schools with poor student behaviour?
What are the negative sides of evaluation and assessing?
How can non-assessed experience be valued more?
How can schools experience more regular contact with art, music and theatre –
not to analyse, but rather absorb it as an essential vitamin?
How can teacher health be valued more?
How can teacher and manager workload be more accurately assessed and balanced?
How can student mental and emotional health and student behaviour, become as important as academic targets?
How can the above be valued as a foundation for academic excellence rather than a distraction from it?
Phew I think it’s time for some meditation. That was a lot of analysis!