Ever since I heard Taryn’s story at the #IBSG2018, I have been reflecting deeply on my teaching and learning journey over the last two decades and more. Her talk was inspiring and it was almost like a coming out story that resonated with many of us who have earlier struggled to come out of the classroom closet! She had the courage to come out and share her humble yet powerful story… a simple act of human revolution I’d say, for lack of a better word (I find ‘rebel’ to have this popularly clichéd negative label and now through this blog, over-used). She had the courage to come out and confront constraints and challenges and turn them into opportunities… there was no more room for fear or worry. She had the courage to come out and review and reflect on her teaching practices, so that they ultimately contributed to making learning real and meaningful.
Over the last couple of months, each blog on this alliance has been such a lovely revelation into our own interpretations of Agency in the classroom. Whether through the glimpses into a learning journey, or through some personal reflections, each post has been like a jigsaw piece helping in co-constructing the IB rebels’ understanding of Agency. Interestingly, when I reflected back, I realised that my journey into teaching from Day 1 had been filled with Agency… just that it was not very explicitly talked about or consciously acknowledged by me. Agency had been like the oxygen I was breathing in and out in my classroom, but I had not been mindful of the same.
I take this opportunity to share some of those experiences, simultaneously acknowledging the contribution of some great educational visionaries and leaders, and in many ways educational rebels of their times, who have directly or indirectly mentored me on my own journey.
Where it all began…
I got into teaching by chance at the young age of 21, after a disillusioned year of work in the corporate world, which I was officially trained for. With a historian and author father and a mom who was a college professor, I had teaching in my genes, so to say… and hence, took to the world of education much like fish is in water.
One of my earliest mentors in education, apart from my parents, was Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore needs no introduction. He was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for his famous work ‘Gitanjali’. Being Bengali, I was also steeped in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, as a cultural mandate.
Tagore advised, much before the IB era, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” His educational models of schooling and higher education at Shantiniketan are still matters of research interest, as people from across the world travel to study and learn from one of the earliest global universities of modern times. Reading, singing, acting and dancing to Tagore’s stories, poetry and plays, all through my childhood, I realised early on, that there are many artistic languages that can be used to express our thoughts and emotions and that aesthetics in whatever we do is something worth striving for.
His famous poem reads:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
This was my first immersion into real Learner Agency.
When students make you a teacher
My first teaching experience was in the most amazing Sahyadri School, founded on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti. He was a noted philosopher and educator who talked greatly about the inquiry model and learning through observation. The Krishnamurti Foundation of India runs some of the oldest and most reputed schools in India and I was fortunate to join one of their newer establishments.
The environment was free, students did not have a uniform, the classes were structured flexibly through the day, and the learning spaces were accessible (especially the Art Room and the fields) through the day. Students were exposed to a wide range of arts and they organized an annual Art fair selling the products they designed and created through the year. The first two batches of students I taught there, walked me on the path of becoming a teacher. And Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education, helped me understand what it meant to be an educator.
In his 1st talk to students at Rajghat School Banaras, on 4th January 1954, he posed the question “Don’t you ask yourself why you are being educated? Do you know why you are being educated, and what does that education mean?” and after discussions, summarized it as “Proper education is to help the student to meet this life, so that he understands it, he won’t succumb, he won’t be crushed under it as most of us are…. Your education must enable you to understand this pressure, not to yield to it but to understand it and to break through it, so that you, as an individual, as a human being are capable of a great deal of initiative, and not merely traditional thinking. That is real education.”*1
The air was filled with students and teachers having voice, choice and ownership in what they learnt and how they learnt… agency infused the learning environment and culture, so to say. This, being my first experience in teaching, became an anchor in forming my own educational beliefs.
A simple school with a visionary leader
I was fortunate to thereafter work in a school, where the philosophy was simple… a school is a place for children, and hence, must be run by what children need and want. The students designed the uniform of the school (which included denim bottoms for comfort), the classes were broken down into large group and small group instructions, where students could go for specific lessons of their choice in the smaller groups. Jenny Mosley’s Golden Time and Circle Time were fundamentals of students’ behaviour management, as again the choice to behave in a certain way was placed in the hands of the students themselves. Classes could be held under the shade of a tree, on the field or in the computer lab. Learning could be expressed through the arts.
It was a happy place where students and teachers felt empowered, important and inspired! A simple school that was led by a visionary leader, Ms. Madhavi Kapur… became the training grounds for me to not only acquire technical skills, but also to understand the emotional and psychological dynamics of learning. A balance of the head and the heart was guided by Ms. Kapur, and implemented by a great team of teachers and leaders. Today, the foundation in her memory continues to do active work in the field of making learning and education agentic and empowering through its own school called Aman Setu and its own curriculum and training centres!
When paths cross and merge
I had the good fortune of encountering a spiritual and humanistic life philosophy around this time in my journey, based on Nichiren’s Buddhism. As a member of Soka Gakkai International, I began exploring the principles of Soka Education founded by the founding President of the organisation, Mr. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who himself was a reformist educator by profession in Japan in the early 1900s. The current honorary President Dr. Daisaku Ikeda writes, “Education must inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”
The Soka schools and the Soka Universities (see full list here), follow this basic principle in teaching and learning through their efforts to spread peace, culture and education. Though, I have neither studied nor taught at any Soka institution, practicing this philosophy helped me absorb the tenets of Soka education.
Reminiscing on a teacher’s reflection, “The smallest failure can destroy a child’s confidence, and the smallest catalyst can trigger explosive growth. The challenge for the teacher is to believe in each child’s potential.”*2, I realised that truly believing in students is the best way to empower and inspire them. When we truly believe with our heart that children can become successful in what they wish to pursue on their own interest, we are already opening up the path towards their success! In a way, I realised that if I believed in my potential as an educator, my faith would manifest in my students in the same manner… what could be a more powerful expression of agency than this?
Encountering the IB way
As my educational beliefs continued to strengthen and get rooted by my personal and professional experiences in life, I was headhunted to work in an IB school near Mumbai. The initial year at the start up got me some IB training and soon I landed myself into a new school, Pathways World School, where I spent close to a decade (Jan 2005 to June 2014). I grew from being a specialist teacher, to being a home room teacher, to becoming a Grade Level Coordinator, followed by leading as a PYP Coordinator and finally doubling the role of a Primary School Coordinator. More recently, I have been heading the Primary Division at my current school, which is Singapore International School, Mumbai. I was also lucky to make it to IBEN in 2011 and also was selected to lead workshops online. Before this begins to sound like my resume, let me explain why I am sharing all this. The IB allowed me to explore so many avenues as an educator thereby giving me so much ‘Agency’. I could play different roles, don different hats and yet at the end of the day, call myself a teacher first.
The IB Mission Statement itself talks about developing ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ and creating programmes that ‘encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’. From its inception, Agency has been latently embedded in the IB ethos. Whether it was working as an educator, or as a student, it allows every one to enjoy the process of learning. Everybody becomes a life-long learner.
If we are to promote true international mindedness, we will need to develop the attributes of the Learner Profile and the knowledge, the conceptual understanding, the skills and attitudes and eventually lead students to taking meaningful action. None of this is authentically possible without agency. The process, which reflects in the curriculum as well as the pedagogy, has to be an experiential one, wherein students and teachers together work together to construct meaning and reconstruct new ideas and innovations. Students, teachers and parents need to explore choices and share their voice on issues they feel close to, thereby, taking ownership of that learning.
Student action, as originally conceptualised, could not have happened without Agency. Agency too, has all the attributes of the Learner Profile embedded in itself and here is a correlation I did for the same, which is of course not the only way to represent it.
At the end of the day, agency as a concept is not new at all. We are becoming more conscious of education being a process of developing independent, life-long learners capable of taking meaningful action. Agency is thus, a journey of inspiring our learners in every possible way to take steps towards good. The culture of a school’s leaders, teachers and parents ultimately determine how authentic agency is at a school.
I end with a quote that seems to summarise it all:
“A school’s CULTURE resides in the hearts and souls of its leadership, teachers, staff and students. A true Culture of Learning will tend to transcend the physical walls of the school and flow out into the community.” Robert John Meehan, Educator, Author, Poet
Sources (except for the ones which are hyperlinked):
Image of Rabindranath Tagore: Wikimedia Commons
Image of J Krishnamurti: http://domainededieu.over-blog.com/article-krishnamurti-se-liberer-du-connu-74291562.html
Image of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda: http://www.sgipanama.com