Learning is effortless

Principle 1 of true teaching: Nothing can be taught
All learning happens within the child. No teacher can have direct control over it. The teacher is a helper and a guide. They can only attempt to draw the attention of the student to where the knowledge lies and thus assist him/her to see it.
– From ‘Learning to learn’ (More details and link to buy the book is available here)

(In the Hindi version of the book we changed it to make the same idea clearer:
सिद्धांत 1: समझाना और समझना पृथक प्रक्रियाएं हैं।
शिक्षक समझाने का प्रयास करता है और उसके लिए तर्क विधि का प्रयोग करता है। विद्यार्थी उसे समझने का प्रयास करता है और उसके लिए अनुभव विधि का प्रयोग करता है।)

It was under Pawanji’s close guidance that this small book, ‘Learning to Learn’, was conceptualized and written in 2018 but it lists my name as the author. I bring this up as the prelude to this blog post because what should have been one of the central insights of the book revealed itself to me only last week. Let me explain.

I had gone to Purnapramati school in Bangalore to run the prototype of a science learning program I have recently developed. In this program the learning process described in the ‘Learning to Learn’ book is encoded in the study material. The children learn science by following the written instructions given in the learning material and without any ‘teaching’ input from a teacher. In other words, the program is an effective demonstration of the inherent self-learning ability of children.

While the children were busy with the program, I was talking to the science teachers trying to convince them that their job should be to be inspirational science educators and not people who transact the simple content that is in the NCERT textbook. I was also telling them that although self-learning is natural and, on introspection, may turn out to be how we have learnt everything, but we will still have no confidence in the process. This may be because we have been brainwashed through long experience into thinking that it is teaching (and teaching only) that results in learning.

While this conversation was going on, I had my moment of insight, my epiphany. Nothing can be taught is one aspect of it but the other important aspect is that learning (समझना) is effortless. The children are putting their effort in following a learning process but the learning itself is a natural outcome of this process and is effortless. It will become clearer if we look at the effort of thinking, reading and following the learning process in other ways as an external process (in the realm of doing/gati) and learning or understanding or समझना as an internal process (in the realm of being/sthiti). All effort is in gati. There is no movement or effort in sthiti. Or, again, if we use the Hindi version, समझाना तर्क विधि से होता है (tark implies effort) लेकिन समझना अनुभव विधि से होता है (there is no effort required in anubhav).

I felt that it was only now that I fully understood what ‘Learning is natural’ really meant.

Advice to a young educator – Part 2

(Continued from last week…)

Young potential educator (Ype): I am not saying that I agree with you but you have certainly given me some food for thought. Tell me some more about modern education.

Me: Let us look at it from two perspectives. Think of a large school. A school with thousands of children, hundreds of teachers, dozens of school buses and huge buildings. In such a school, a teacher stands in front of 40 or 50 children in a class and tries to ‘teach’ some uninteresting, obscure content. If each child is unique, doesn’t this way of ‘teaching’ seem an impossible, insurmountable task? Also, considering the huge infrastructure and the crowd of people moving in it, it is obvious that the school’s focus will be on logistics and administration and classroom management rather than on ‘teaching’. Now let us zoom out and think of the entire Indian education system. The MHRD document ‘Educational statistics at a glance’ which you can download from the internet had the following interesting data points in it. Of the 2.6 crore children who join 1st standard only 90 lakh pass the 12th standard exam. This means that 65% children fail and the 90 lakh who pass through the system are fighting for the less than 1 lakh seats in the ‘good’ colleges. This is how the system is set up at the macro level. Modern education is an impossible-to-succeed exercise in mega-scale logistics.

Ype: You paint a very depressing picture. Surely there are national level efforts to correct this situation. And isn’t what you describe the perfect scenario for the holistic education I want to create?

Me: You must have heard about the national efforts. I have no faith in them but I will only say that making incremental changes in a system that cannot work is no recipe for success. A Sanskrit scholar told me that in our decentralized, indigenous education system that the British destroyed, we used to focus on vyakti-nirmaan. Today’s education is fully focussed on training students to get a livelihood. Vyakti-nirmaan is a natural process unique to each student that cannot be fitted into a ‘system’ or into textbook lectures. An inspirational teacher is probably a basic requirement. All the effort in modern education is in trying to ‘fix’ teaching. What we probably need are environments where children learn on their own with minimal teaching. I hope that also answers your question about creating a holistic learning environment. The World is one such environment and all of us are students in it.

Ype: I think that what you are telling me is that I should not leave my corporate job to start a school.

Me: You are a victor of the extremely competitive game of school and college education, and you have won the prize that modern education is pushing every student towards – a good job. If you leave that and go and start teaching children, will you be working to take these children in some other direction? And how will you succeed if the entire system that you are working inside is geared in the direction of only getting a good job? And even if you want to steer them in some other direction, do you know what that is? Yes, I think you should stay in your good job and not get involved in the sad, crowded, confused field of modern education.

Advice to a young educator

I was talking to a young man who wanted to leave his corporate job and go back to his town to start a school and I thought that the (slightly exaggerated version of the) conversation we had may be useful to other young people interested in education. The conversation went something like this…

Me: Why do you want to start a school?

Young potential educator (Ype): Most children have no interest in what they are learning. They learn by rote to pass exams without understanding anything. Also they have no idea of what they can do after they finish school. The only goals seem to be engineering or medicine and, if unsuccessful, to do whatever graduation is possible and then try for a government job.

Me: What kind of school are you thinking of starting?

Ype: We would like to create a space where holistic education is provided that creates strong, knowledgeable children who can contribute their knowledge and talents to the world in a meaningful way.

Me: That is a very noble idea. How are you planning to go about it?

Ype: I am still reading up and visiting alternative schools to see how they are doing things. I think that our school has to have an environment where children can learn with freedom and without fear. Also we have to make the academic content interesting so that the children don’t need to do rote learning.

Me: A philosopher I read says that the opposite of a bad idea is not a good idea but a bad idea in the opposite direction. If you think schools foster rote-learning and you create a school that has zero rote-learning, you will be creating a bad idea in the opposite direction. Rote-learning has its place and we have to neither over-evaluate it nor under-evaluate it. Is it not true that small children ‘rote-learn’ and remember any number of songs and poems without apparent effort? Is there anything wrong with that? Similarly, if you think that too much discipline is the problem with the current school system and you choose to provide 100% freedom to the children of your school, you would be creating an environment as toxic as the one you wanted to get away from. What do you think?

Ype: I will have to think about it. What about making the academic content interesting? Do you have any problem with that?

Me: Gandhiji has written that modern Indian education (which was set up by the British to subjugate us and which we suicidally continue to propagate) alienates us from our culture and our roots. If you read the works of scholars like Dharampal, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Professor C.K. Raju etc., you see how badly distorted and intentionally demeaning our academic content is. If you think a little, you will realize that the academic content is also arbitrary, needlessly excessive and of little practical use. Because we cannot change it immediately, what we need to do, ideally, is to minimize the damage it does to our children. To me, spending effort to make it interesting seems to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week…)

Shiksha and Education

Today morning a friend read out some poems of Bahinabai Chaudhuri. Bahinabai was a Marathi poet who wrote about the life she experienced in rural Maharashtra. One of her popular poems titled ‘sansaar’ starts with the lines:

अरे संसार संसार
जसा तवा चुल्ह्यावर
आधी हाताले चटके
तव्हा मिळते भाकर!

(O, life, life, like a tava on the flame, first you burn your hand and then you get the bhaakar/roti)

All the poems my friend read out used very simple imagery to show life from new perspectives. I was deeply moved!

Now, here is what Wikipedia says about Bahinabai:

“Bahinabai Chaudhari (24 August 1880 – 3 December 1951) was a Marathi language poet from Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, India. She became a noted poet posthumously. Bahinabai was born in a Mahajan family at Asode in Khandesh region of the present-day Jalgaon district on the 24th of August 1880. . . . she was married to Nathuji Khanderao Chaudhari of Jalgaon. Following her husband’s death in 1910, she led a very difficult life . . . . She had a daughter named Kashi and two sons, Madhusudan and Sopandev (1907-1982). Bahinabai composed her songs verbally in ovi (ओवी) metre in a mixture of two dialects: Khandeshi and Levaganboli. Her son Sopandev, who became a well-known poet, transcribed them. According to one account, Sopandev read the story of Savitri and Satyavan to his mother from his textbook, and by the next morning, she had composed a song of the tale. Impressed by her talent, he began writing down her songs in a notebook. Her poetry is characterized as reflective and abstract with iconic and realist imagery. It captures the essence of her life, reflects the culture of village and farming life, and presents her wisdom. After his mother’s death on 3 December 1951, Sopandev found the notebook and shared one of her poems with Prahlād Keshav (Acharya) Atre. Atre recounts calling the first of Bahinabai’s poems he heard “pure gold” in his introduction to the collection published under the title Bahinabainchi gani (Bahinabai’s Songs) in 1952.”

In the customary box giving the personal details, Wikipedia, under ‘Education’ says – None. In our current way of looking at things we would have called her ‘illiterate’.

I thought this was a good topic for some deep reflection on the difference between Shiksha and Education. What do you think?

Shiksha in the Indian tradition – Part 2

This is the second part of the talks I had with Dr Prabhakar Pandey, a professor at Sanchi University. The first part is available here. The main points made by Dr Pandey are:

– The Upanishadic sutra says – ‘sa vidya ya vimuktaye’.
– Vidya or gyan is the goal and shiksha is the technique to move towards it.
– The sutra says that vidya is what liberates. (from the three Rin’s dev-rin, pitr-rin and rishi-rin)
– Dev-rin is our indebtedness to sacred nature and we work it out by doing yagya.
– Pitr-rin is our indebtedness to our parents and we work it out by nurturing our children.
– Rishi-rin is our indebtedness to our teachers and we work it out by growing the knowledge that comes to us.
– Vidya also liberates us from avidya (the confusion about what is real) and develops the drishti that tells us what to do and what not to do (All of Bhagawad Gita is about this. In the beginning Sri Krishna is saying what is right and what is wrong but at the end he tells Arjuna that since he has understood the difference between right and wrong he should now choose for himself. This, in a compressed form, is the philosophy of what Bharatiya shiksha is designed to do)
– Holistic development as advocated in Indian thought means development of all the 5 koshas (Annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vignananmaya and anandamaya)
– Gurukul, indicates that it was the ‘kul’ of the guru or the family of the guru that was considered important.
– The idea of a kutumb or parivar is central to Indian thought.
– Common words like chandmama, billimausi etc. show us that the idea of family was not limited to our close relatives but was very extensive.
– Life at the gurukul WAS the curriculum (not something like the academic transaction that goes on in schools today).
– Dattatreya speaks of his 24 gurus. These include the sun, sky, ocean etc. To prepare a person who can learn from everything around him was the objective of Indian shiksha.
– The activities connected to real life (not making thermocol models) at the gurukul were the main focus. This along with the availability of the guru and the ability to learn from everything ensured shiksha.
– The practice of tending to the agni at the gurukul and of bhiksha, begging for alms, were very powerful learning practices.
– The practice of begging for alms ensured that the student was directly connected to and aware of the contribution that society made towards his shiksha. This practice also kept the ego of the student from getting bloated by the knowledge he was gaining.
– Graduation from the gurukul was based on the guru’s assessment of the student’s understanding. There are stories of gurus who did not graduate their students but put them back to work more.

– Today, we have no understanding of the form and objectives of shiksha. Looks like the new motto is ‘sa vidya ya niyuktaye’. 🙂

The full video is available at:

Shiksha in the Indian tradition – Part 1

I recently recorded two videos about Shiksha in the Indian tradition and found that it opened up many new perspectives for me. The videos are each almost one hour long and I don’t think many people will go through them. I thought of extracting the main points to generate interest in seeing the full video. The main points of the first video and the YouTube link are given below.

– ‘Bha’ is gyan, so Bharath is a civilization that is ‘rath’ in ‘bha’, or steeped in knowledge.
– We have two paramparas: Shruti parampara (Tatva chintan, universal truth, codified in the Vedas) and Smriti parampara (vyavahar chintan, that changes over time, detailed in Puranas/ Dharmashastra etc).
– Basic tenets of Bharatiyata include Samagrata (holistic thinking) and Ekaatmata (interdependence and integration in the diversity of life, for example, a lamp made of a cotton wick, oil and earthen container work together and give off light).
– Vedas have two main subjects – Yagya (a productive work done by a group of people, all work has the possibility of being a yagya) and prarthana (a prayerful bhava or feeling).
– In Bharat the objective of Shiksha has been vyakti-nirmaan (man-making towards becoming a useful member of the family, society and world) and not livelihood (as it is in modern education).
– Our idea of Shiksha is not limited to schooling but something that continues over our many lifetimes.
– In the Indian tradition the subjects are all interconnected (Bhasha, Darshan, Vigyan, Ganita etc. all interconnected) (Bhaskaracharya’s ‘Lilavati’ about Ganita has exquisite poetical verses)
– Saraswati means ‘with rasa’. In our tradition knowledge has been something full of rasa, full of ananda. Modern education is therefore not Shiksha but probably only transfer of burdensome information.
– Taittiriya Upanishad Shikshavalli has a prayer by the student for ‘sahano yashaha’, that the student and teacher move towards the goal together.
– Shiksha has been seen as a process of creating the environment in which the knowledge inside (the student and teacher) reveals itself.
– The teacher knows that in his relationship with the student, he is working towards his own and not the student’s growth.
– In the Indian tradition a lot of emphasis is placed on bhasha, language. The purity of knowledge is considered to be linked to the purity of the language.

– About the current scenario: Nature has its self-correcting mechanisms and materialism is also part of Nature. (If everything is Rama then Ravana is also a part of Rama). Our civilization has always looked to the future with hope.

The YouTube video is linked below:

The impact of schooling

As part of the videos that I have been creating for the Asli Shiksha YouTube channel, I did an interview with two of my three children and something that I consider important emerged from that exercise. When people find out that our children are homeschooled, one type of question that comes up repeatedly is about the academic content of school education. People ask, how did the children study? Did we engage tutors for various subjects? Or, are we, the parents, qualified to teach all subjects till the 12th standard? And, do we understand how children learn without ourselves having gone through a B.Ed. program? My response to these questions has been that I have zero interest in the academic syllabus and I consider it excessive, useless and, in a large part, propaganda designed to create and maintain our subjugated mindset. This response usually puts a quick end to the conversation :-).

In the video I asked the boys what they remembered from their homeschooling journey. How did they prepare for their board exams? What was their normal ‘school’ day like? What came up was that both the boys found it very difficult to answer these questions. They found the academic part of homescholing so unremarkable, so easy, that they remembered very little of it. They were living a busy life and ‘schooling’ that is such a big burden for most parents and school-going children passed by without them noticing it too much. (Mahatma Gandhi and many educational reformers after him all talk about the distancing between home and school as a big problem with modern education)

I was talking to Manjunath and Shashank from Udhbhavaha school about this and they told me about an exercise they do in trying to link History (the school subject) with personal experience. They ask children to write their personal histories. What Manjunath and Shashank found was that, in every single case, of the children they have tried this with, school takes up a large part of personal history. (I was in X school but I was having some problems there and things became better when I shifted to Y school… etc.) Of course, children spend a large part of their childhood in school and their memories will naturally be affected by it. But, is nothing else, nothing more memorable, going on in their lives? Why are family, friends, holidays, festivals, melas, adventures etc. not the first things that come to their mind?

We cannot draw out any general rule from this Udhbhavaha anecdote but it points to the huge impact of schooling on the lives of children. It is as if some part of the brain is set aside permanently to deal with our schooling experience. Acknowledging that there is a problem could be a good first step in trying to see what we can do about it. After that, the Asli Shiksha byline ‘Learning is natural’ could give us some ideas on the next steps we will need to take to come out of the unnatural pressures exerted by modern schools.

The Asli Shiksha video I was referring to is:

The pond and the swimming pool

Some years ago, we lived in a house with a pond and our two boys spent long hours swimming and lounging around in the water. It was like having a private swimming pool of our own. However, there is a fundamental difference between a pond and a swimming pool, and in this post I would like to talk about it.

What you notice about a pond is that it is alive – its an ecosystem, a self-contained world in itself. The plants and insects and animals that live in it appear to all be components of an ‘alive’ pond. The distinction will become clear when you see that swimming pools have energy-guzzling aeration, filtration and circulation systems that work hard to keep the water clean. Like a person on life support with a machine doing what occurs naturally and effortlessly in healthy people. In other words, a pond is a self-sustaining, effortless, natural system and the swimming pool, in contrast, is an energy-draining, effort-full, artificial system.

We can think of other natural/ artificial pairs like pond/ pool – for example, meadow/ lawn, forest/ plantation etc. An ecologist friend used to say that all of Kerala is one giant plantation. I point this out so that you are not deceived by the greenery in the photo above. It may look natural and forest-like but it is the greenery of an artificial plantation.

The pond/ pool idea serves as a good metaphor when applied to education. We can see that modern education is artificial and effort-full and pool-like. We need to move it in the direction of becoming natural and effortless and pond-like. I like to think that if we succeed, what has happened is Asli Shiksha.

What do you think?

A slightly disturbing idea about education

I have a slightly disturbing idea about education that I want to present to you in a slow, roundabout manner that resonates with the leaves dancing and shining outside my window against the backdrop of a bright blue Bangalore sky…

Two days ago, I was on a call with some close friends and the question came up whether I was against vaccinations and why I had not got my first dose yet. I told them an old story to make my case.

Long ago, I was friendly with a nice couple who had a 3-year-old son. Whenever you asked the boy a yes/no question (for example- Do you want an ice cream?), his instant response would always be a ‘No’. Then he would think about it a little bit and sometimes he would change his mind (As in- Yes, I want an ice cream). The world is always pushing us, telling us that we ought to do something or the other because it is good for us and I remember thinking that the young boy had figured something out that would serve him well as he grew up.

Like the little boy, I find it convenient to say ‘No’ first and take some time to think about whatever is being pushed at me. It has been my experience that when something is being pushed at me, it MAY be good for me but it is DEFINITELY (economically or emotionally or in some other way) good for the person pushing it. I told my friends on the call that I was not against vaccinations but against being pushed. 🙂

Which brings me to the disturbing idea about education that I wanted to present- As parents and teachers, or educators, are we not all the time pushing things at children? Some introspection can reveal to us that teaching and learning are two separate processes and as a teacher we can only have control over one part of the process. It is not only the push of the teacher that makes learning happen inside the learner but the readiness or paatrata of the learner.

Let me extend that and try to express it in another way. You will probably agree that what we are trying in education is the creation of a good human being with some skills useful to society. But, how do we go about creating a ‘good’ human being? Even assuming that we ourselves are good and that we have some robust industrial process for transmitting our goodness, what the previous paragraph is indicating is that there is no guarantee that the learner will become good.

Therefore, does it not mean that as educators we must realize that the project of education we have embarked on is doomed? That, we are only throwing seeds that may or may not sprout? That, the learners who are ready will find their own ways and will anyway learn, with or without our teaching effort? And, should this realization not make us educators take ourselves a little less seriously?

Long ago, I bumped into a hostel-mate at an airport. We were both rushing and in passing I asked him, ‘You look like you have made it big, what are you doing nowadays?’ He responded with a smile, ‘Still doing what I used to do in the hostel – logo ko bewakuf banane waala kaam kar raha hoon.’ I think that when we educators become sahaj enough to say this about our work, we would have moved closer to Asli Shiksha. 🙂

What do you think?