Maybe we could begin with the origins of the link syllabus.
Long, long ago, before APV started, I was reading J Krishnamurti somewhere, and he was talking to teachers and suggesting that, along with the subjects they had to teach, if they could introduce Krishnamurti’s teachings also, that would serve a purpose, because the purpose of education for him was enlightenment, in the deepest sense. And then I began to think: are there two kinds of knowledge, then? We are talking about subjects that they teach in the schools- science, social studies, so on- that is one area, and then we are talking about this inward journey, and any knowledge that is relevant for that would then come in this different category. And something like this is also in the Upanishads; they talk about paravidya and aparavidya, which roughly means the same thing, that there is knowledge for the inner journey and knowledge for the external world. So I started thinking: is there a line that separates these two things? Because a lot depends on communication- how do you communicate a thing? For instance, somebody was telling me that they have started giving marks for meditation in some places, marks for sitting still for so many minutes, and so on. So they are, I think, doing meditation in such a way that it is no longer relevant for the inner journey. The same thing can be said about science, social studies- they can be done in two ways. One that hampers this inner journey in whatever way, and another that facilitates the inner journey. So it was in the early Nineties that I coined this term ‘link syllabus,’ and I was trying to say that whatever you do with the child should help the child to expand the boundaries of his personality. At that time I didn’t use the word ‘brain’- so I talked about personality and this mind-body relationship, which I talk about a lot in my book Holistic Education- that it should be harmonious, the demands of the body and the demands of the mind. They should not conflict. So then, slowly, came neurology on this subject at the end of the decade, but I only came to know about it very recently; maybe five or six years ago I started finding out what these neurologists are saying. And now many things are making sense. Basically, the minimum that we can do through link syllabus is not to create tension in the child’s mind, not create stress, not create any negative emotion, and to awaken the child. The child becomes more awakened, more curious, and wants to learn. And then it doesn’t matter what the subject is, as long is the child is asking questions and wants to know more, and is not under any pressure. If we can do that with the link syllabus, then I think we are helping the child to achieve a kind of brain or personality that is more suitable for evolution.
How does the link syllabus function in practice?
If you want to see it from the largest perspective, then our whole lifestyle here comes under the link syllabus. The teachers meditate at four in the morning- that would come under link syllabus, in a way. It’s an activity; we are learning a subject, vidya, in a way, that is helping us move inwards. And that is connected with our activities in the class. But if we narrow it down to subjects, which is useful for most people, who only want to know: ‘What you do in the classroom? What do you do with the subjects that children have to learn everywhere?’ So in that in the link syllabus you have to eliminate all traditional examination and competition, because these are the things that hamper this inner focus- the child is then worried all the time about these external things. ‘Will I be able to get better marks? Will this subject be useful?’ The child becomes utilitarian. ‘Will this information be asked on the exam? Will it be useful there?’ Similarly, the child becomes selective; if a topic is difficult, if the answers are difficult to memorize, then the child will probably start calculating: ‘Okay, if I need to get a grade of eighty, then I can probably do this and this chapter and not this one.’ But if you don’t have that, no exam, no marks, no grades, no competition, no compulsion- you are not terrorizing the child into learning- then it is another question: ‘What will you do in the class if these don’t exist?’ Many people argue that then the children will not be motivated to learn, which is entirely wrong. We have discovered that it is the other way around. So with these negative things being absent, there are two aspects. One is to prepare the child’s brain, to expand it in such a way that it is more capable of learning, and this can be done through energizing, inspiring music which has a spiritual focus, which is what we do here. Every day we start with meditation followed by music, which is its own kind of meditation, with everybody participating- we can see even KG children trying to participate. If they cannot sing we see them pretending to sing, or they want to try and play an instrument, easy instruments like the cymbals. So through those activities you are preparing and expanding the brain. Then comes the second aspect, which is that you can teach in a creative way, in fact have to teach in a creative way, because you are linking so many things, and the child is learning creatively, which means that the child is encouraged to ask questions that relate the topic to many other things. And if possible- it depends on the creative capability of the teacher- even the writing work that children do later can be much more creative than usual. In most schools, when the teacher has finished a lesson, there are questions at the end of the book, and the answers are already there in the chapter. Sometimes teachers also help with the answers- ‘for the first question look here, second paragraph, lines two to five.’ And they want children to reproduce what is there exactly so they can easily evaluate the students. It helps the conventional teacher. But if the answers are already there, why are you asking the child to re-write them? The child is not going to think, because the child does not need to think. So you can give questions in such a way that the child has to research, or think creatively. I think, basically, these two things: this element of creativity in teaching as well as in enabling the child to relate the topic in a very creative way with other things, and expanding the brain of the child through meditation and mindfulness. These two things I think we have here. But it varies from teacher to teacher. Some teachers are more creative, naturally, and some are less, and some are new and some are old. Many times we don’t have any material ready for a new teacher. So a new teacher is at a loss at the beginning, then gradually becomes more and more capable.
So it seems the first step of the link syllabus is to remove a subject from this constraining and directing context that it is placed in at other schools. The link syllabus seems to, paradoxically, strive to confuse at first. There is no delineated element of a topic that you ‘should’ be learning.
That’s true, and teachers do get confused at first. Also we don’t have any boundaries in the syllabus. So what we have done in the past, we tried to jot down the key skills in various subjects that they teach in other schools. For math- because math is so clear- we did that and we were able to do a lot with math; how to present those things. In other subjects we are still very open, like in science. The problem is that in science there are many things that children already know. We don’t know whether there is any relevance in doing those things again. For example: in a 3rd grade book you may find an experiment- put some water into beakers, put one beaker outside in the sun and one in the room, and after an hour check the temperature. The children already know that- you put one in the sun and it is going to be hotter! So those things are maybe fun to do, but they’re not science. We are actually trying to find out what should be there. Right now what we are doing is based on the children’s questions. Children ask, and then we do research on it, and that triggers other questions in other areas, and we do research on that. Things like history- we use historical information for making dramas. Like Alexander invaded India in 327 BC. So this is just a piece of information, but we can use it for drama. Was he mad? Why did he keep fighting for ten years, from Greece to here? What kind of person was he? Why did some historians give him this title of ‘Great’? Is there really greatness in killing other people? Today nobody would accept that. Today we have governments, and it is not treated as a good thing to capture another country or to kill another person. So you can use that information in order to say what you want to say through that drama. We are open there. We do a lot of history through stories and drama. But to have a body of facts and say ‘this is for 4th grade, this is for 5th grade’ doesn’t make sense to us. Similarly for other subjects, like geography. Until very recently there was hardly anything on the geography of Uttarakhand, or even the history of Uttarakhand, because it was not a separate state. Still it doesn’t exist- you have to do a lot of very tangled, confusing research. So what we do is we start with local culture and environment. Things that children already know, and from there we expand it. Like the other day, a teacher was telling me that she was teaching the children about the Indus Valley civilization, that there was a civilization here that disappeared, and people used to live in this way and that way- and the children got so curious, and they started asking so many questions that the teacher didn’t know the answers to. So that is the opportunity for us teachers to do more research. Right now that is the process. We don’t have what we call a ‘core syllabus.’ Core syllabus means what others just call a syllabus. So we coined the term ‘link syllabus’ in order to say: ‘Okay, this is the core syllabus, but it can be presented in many ways, and it can be presented in a way that links things together.’ So link syllabus then would be a body of material that contains concepts and some ways of presenting those concepts. And the link syllabus is always changing, because the children are always asking new questions, and out of that new links, new activities, will emerge. It is an ongoing thing. But if we had a body of these activities written down, that would help the new teacher, and the new teacher would then be challenged to go beyond it. ‘These are some of the ways that may be useful for you to begin with, but then you can find out new ways- you have to find new ways, because the children will ask new questions.’ Every day is a new day, and every year it is a new class. Children change, there are new children, the world has changed, and so on.
It’s interesting what you mentioned before, the idea of using something very local like the Indus Valley civilization- the idea that people lived this way here- as a hook to get the children interested before ballooning the subject out and taking it wherever you wanted- to the empires of India, to Alexander, to Greek civilization, to Greek philosophy, to Indian philosophy, wherever.
Yes, and another way of saying it could be: ‘Is it interesting for me?’ If the child is interested in something, then it is worth learning. It is the child’s mind that is demanding it. Once, towards the beginning of this APV experiment, we tried to create our own syllabus. So we placed the child at the center, and asked: ‘What is related to the life of the child?’ We couldn’t go very far, because it involved writing a lot and doing a lot of research and so on. But some of the simplest things could be something like talking about the body, different systems of the body, and asking ‘in what way is that related to my body and mind? Do I need this knowledge now, today?’ And then I thought of acupressure. You could start with acupressure, pressing different parts of the body, and the child asks: ‘What is the link between touching this point in my wrist and the headache in my head?’ And then you talk about those meridians, energy lines- that is one science. The whole body is related. When you press a certain point here it is going to affect this meridian, which passes through your head and your throat and this side of the chest, intestines so on. You are talking about organs, but you are talking about them in a relevant way, a local way. Acupressure is local for the body- you are touching the very body of the child. And then you are talking about these systems that are common for all human beings. Similarly, you could begin with local life, local environment, local culture, and then move beyond. Another example could be Delhi- in what way is Delhi related to me here, as a child? It is the capital of India, but that is so vague to me. Okay, it is a city, politicians live there, but is that useful to me? But the teacher can start by asking: ‘Where does your father work?’ Because in every family here there is somebody who works away somewhere, in a city to earn money, because there isn’t enough agriculture here. And somebody says: ‘Yes, my father works in Goali’, or ‘my father works in Madras.’ So you ask the child: ‘Your father came last month, didn’t he? He works in Lucknow, right? So how did he go to Lucknow from here?’ And the child says: ‘He caught the first bus, the 7:30 bus.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then the bus went to Rishikesh.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Then my father told me that from Rishikesh he catches another bus to Delhi…’ and so on. Then you can trace it on the map. ‘Here is Anjainisain, so first your father goes there-‘ and the children start looking at the map and asking questions. ‘What is this line, a road?’ ‘Yes, on this side of the map there is a box telling you what each line means. This kind of line is a road, this kind of line is a railway,’ and so on. You are introducing maps and cities in an interesting way. And if nobody talks about Delhi, you can say ‘I lived in Delhi some years ago,’ or ‘My uncle lives in Delhi.’ So here we are relating these different cities of India to local life, because people are connected to those places from here. There is a link. Relatives send letters from these places. So then the next project could be having the children ask their relatives who are working somewhere else to send some information, some pictures from that city, what is important about that city. So there are these ways of making this classroom teaching very interesting. But as soon as you have a fixed syllabus, and you have exams, and you have these timelines- within three months you must finish this, this, and this- the real learning stops happening.
Over the decade that you’ve been at APV, how do you think that the link syllabus idea has changed, or evolved?
When I introduced this term ‘link syllabus,’ there was no school. I was doing teacher’s training, but I had a dream of possible schools. In my book Holistic Education there is a vision of a school, and one day at that school. But I didn’t have the concept at the time that teachers would live in a community, and they would practice mindfulness everyday, and so on. And I would say, though its ridiculous to talk in percentages, but just to convey a feeling- I think 90% of the link syllabus happens through meditation and music. I think that is 90% of what we are doing, and I am not undervaluing what we are doing in the classes, but I think that is only 10%. And I know that the world will be more interested in that 10%. The education systems, the NGOs, whoever wants to learn from APV, most of them will only be interested in our class activities.
The part that’s detachable.
Right. And they have been very attracted to our math activities. They did a survey all over India and discovered that math is the most dreaded subject. At APV math is the most loved subject. Children love it. But within that 10%, that for other people I think is the most important, we have been able to do relatively very little. Recently, for the last three or four years, we have been doing worksheets, which have proved to be very effective. In the beginning we did those only for English, for practicing written English. In a worksheet there is a picture that is already described. And then there are two more pictures, and the student has to describe those pictures. So the structure is already there in the first description; the child is helped with the structures, and also with the vocabulary, because the other two images are similar, but with a different arrangement. So the child has to look at the picture very deeply. And I wondered why the children were so interested in these worksheets, from class 1 to 8th grade, all of them. Probably it is because the picture is dominant; language is serving the picture. And the picture is already there; even if you don’t know language you can look at the picture. There are some children who can’t describe the picture, but they still demand worksheets. There is still something for them. And then they may catch some words. ‘What is this, in English?’ This is a house.’ ‘And this?’ ‘This is a tree,’ and so on. That has been very successful, and it is ongoing in its evolution. And the idea is that teachers can make their own pictures, and ask the children to describe them. Children can make their own picture, then describe them. That has been one thing. And then dramas- we keep doing small dramas, and sometimes the children present them in the assembly. Many times they want these dramas for Independence Day and Republic Day, special days. I think because of those two days a lot of learning happens. Children learn these five and ten page dramas. Then we try to create activities that have a presentation element- and again, it is open-ended, it depends upon the sensitivity of the teacher, but here every day we sit for some time to discuss any problems in the class. We try to create activities that the children can then present in the assembly. And that often makes the activity interesting for the children, having to present it. So my idea, actually, is to create activities in such a way that they need to be performed or presented in some way. We have done a little bit, but forgot to document it. So a lot of that has gone away, and we need to recreate it.
That’s interesting, the idea that the measure of whether a child understands something is not if they can reproduce it for an exam, but if they can teach it to others.
Yes. In the conventional schools the way they test is so limited. They test only what the child is able to write. That is a very tiny part of it. But if the child can teach it to another child, if the child can present it, that would be a real way of knowing whether the child understands.
A sign that they understand it in multi-faceted way; that there is a way they represent the knowledge internally which they can then translate to others whose level of knowledge they can’t presume.
In a way, we could also say that the more complex a relationship, the more elements that are related in an activity, the more it moves towards link syllabus. For instance, that children have to present what they have learned. The child is learning these dialogues- suppose one is about migration, why do some animals migrate? This is a science question. If the child is just reading about it, what motivates the child to read about this information? They have to reproduce it on an exam, in other schools. But here, if the child has to present it as a drama in the assembly, then they have to create a drama out of it. Imagination is triggered. What scenes will be involved in conveying this thing? Already it is very creative, this task involves many parts of the brain. So you have these facts about migration, and now your imagination is thinking about action on the stage, and then dialogue- the language center comes into play. Though this neurological language is so limiting to me- I don’t think neurology can take us very far, but it is going to be seen as a scientific thing, so we have to use this language sometimes. So these different centers in the brain are now linked together, and even more if you have music. So there is action, there is music, there is language, written and spoken, and there is imagination. All of these things are linked together from the very beginning, when you started creating this drama. And in the end you have to perform it- there is an audience, and the expectations of an audience, your relationship with them, your emotions, your confidence. The more linkages we create, the more the brain is expanding, the more the brain is alive. And the more the brain is alive, probably the more positive emotion is generated. There’s more excitement, more happiness. And I think that is conducive for meditation because this makes the brain more alert. If more of the brain is working, the more alert it is. And in meditation we need this quality of alertness. We have to focus this alertness in a different area in meditation, but basically it is energy. You are creating more energy. When we are talking about drama, this energy has one direction. But once you have more energy, more techniques for focusing, you can turn this energy inwards. Practicing Buddhists, they study as well as practice. Studying aids in meditation, it creates linkages, creates conviction in practice. I think link syllabus does much the same thing.
One more thing I’d like to talk about is experience, and then expression of this experience. When you want to convey something to the children, I think the first task is to make the child experience it in some way. And if the teacher has not experienced it then the teacher cannot do it. So the teacher should first experience it. Then the second step is to help the children live that experience in some way, through drama and so on, and then to base your activities on that. For example, something like this is relevant for KG children. For KG children you can give suggestions. You are in a forest and you are sitting there and you are playing, when suddenly it starts raining- what do you do? And the children start running here and there, and they are so imaginative. There may be one child who stands and another child who sits beneath him. And you can ask them: ‘why are you standing like this?’ And they answer: ‘Can’t you see? I’m a tree!’ And the other says he is standing under the tree. So they made that decision instantly- you become the tree and I will sit under you because it is raining. It is an already lived experience- they know rain. They have gotten wet in rain many times, and they know how to take shelter. After that the teacher can say: ‘Okay, now we will write some of these words. Rain, tree, under the tree,’ and so on. Or there may be a picture, a similar picture to describe. So you started with something to help the child relive this experience, and when they are now looking at the picture or at the words, it is representing an experience they have just relived. Something like that can be done in any area.
And our brain bundles all of these lived sensory experiences into a single memory. So when a child recalls a lived experience all of these other things, a sound, a smell, an association, may be called to mind that wouldn’t be by just speaking abstractly about a topic like rain.
One of the things that has always fascinated me is the question of why children are so interested in story. There is no teaching aid, you are just using words and maybe gestures, but there’s nothing else, and the children are sitting and listening so attentively. And it is because they are living that experience that the story is triggering. If once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters, the children are creating their personal king with his three daughters. There is a whole world inside their head that is active when they are listening to the story, your words and gestures. You are helping the child to tap into those resources, those limitless resources inside. Something like that can be done in any kind of teaching. That you are first helping the child to tap into this vast area of experiences that the child already knows. And on the basis of those experiences the children can create millions of other experiences. I don’t know if much of that is done elsewhere. I remember one day the 4th grade asked: ‘Where did the Earth come from?’ And I wanted to talk about the Big Bang Theory, and I had nothing planned, because I had just walked into this class spontaneously and they asked the question. They had asked the teacher, and the teacher said ‘some other day.’ But now that I was there, she said ‘they are asking this question.’ So I told them: ‘Close your eyes, focus on your breath, feel your body. Now I am going to tell you a story that you have to imagine, so don’t open your eyes. Okay, now imagine a time when there was no Earth. Look up, and there is no Sun, no stars, no Moon, nothing. Look down and there is nothing. You can feel, but you don’t have a body.’ Then I talked about the Big Bang, and this and that, and then the oceans and creatures that moved out of the ocean, and this and that, and then monkeys, and then human beings. And when it came to human beings I talked about civilizations. How human beings created cities and moved around and ultimately moved to all the places on this planet. I think ultimately I spoke for about 12 minutes. And I noticed their faces change; there was a very relaxed look on their faces, as if they were somewhere else. And then I was quiet for maybe half a minute before I told them they could open their eyes. And when they opened their eyes, many of them looked around as if it was difficult for them to relate to this space, the present space. Then I asked them- and the answer was a shock to me, I had no idea they were going to say something like this- I asked: ‘Did you see those creatures I was describing?’ And one child said: ‘I will tell you what I saw.’ So vivid, his description. And he was saying with such conviction that he had seen these creatures. ‘It was there. It was moving out of the ocean.’ They created this whole reality in their minds. And I thought: ‘What presentation could be better than this, about the origin of the universe and Earth?’ I think we as teachers often forget that children have this capacity to create innumerable worlds inside their head. They have this faculty of imagination that is so rich. But we don’t use that because we have readymade things, readymade materials, readymade questions and answers. And later a readymade society with readymade values. So most people believe in this distorted reality, that should shock any sensitive person. We hardly ask questions- we accept the governments and the rules, all these social, cultural, religious systems with all of these contradictions, all of these superstitions. Probably all of that is rooted in the way we educate.