Saturday 21 December 2013

Exposing children to the strengths of Solitude

Sitting all alone in the jungle
My mind roams in darkness,
Even an ant looks like a Tiger
Amidst the stalks of wild sunflower.

So writes a teenager of TVS school, Hosur who was put through an activity called Lone in the Jungle. With a general instruction to stay alone by themselves without any communication with anyone was the task. Every boy and girl was given a specific location in the forest; -a shade under a bush, a rocky ledge, a ravine or a stream bed.  Every one chose to be where they felt convenient. Most boys selected a rock ledge as they probably wanted to be at a good vantage point. Girls found it convenient to sit in the shade of a bush and very few of them went up a rock. Some wanted to be out in the sun, visible to others. There were 37 students and were kept on guard for safety by five teachers. The idea was that teachers kept an eye on them but never showed up or communicated with any.

Even for the teachers the hour was long and lasted-for-ever. They could observe several new behaviors in their students. Simply sitting through for an hour was the greatest challenge for most students. They pelted stones at bushes; some never even settled down at one place but kept walking around to see what the others were up to. A boy ran back to the dorm with an excuse to use the wash room. While a couple of them huddled under a bush and kept talking most of the time a very few of them did what was said to be done. One of them slept in a shade and dozed off.

School educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal of New York Public School observes the behavioral inconsistencies and inability to focus on a subject is a consequence of too many distractions at a given time in the environment we have made for them.   In her book, “The Republic of Noise,” she reasons for such problem is the students’ loss of solitude: the ability to think and reflect independently on a given topic. Schools have become more concerned with the business of keeping students busy in a flawed attempt to ensure engagement of the student. Compelling to memorize phrases and passages and repeatedly writing to learn are activities which do not enhance the spirit of learning in the child. In some schools children at a very young age are subjected to imposition writing in the name of punishing, learning spellings or improving handwriting. Such students at a later date will lack the ability to express independently and look for others standpoint, feeling that it would be more acceptable.
 At the end of the hour all the students were made to share their experience of being alone in an unknown environment. Most students explained why they chose that place and how bravely they had managed to be isolated from their friends. Of course every single one of them who had not accomplished the task blamed upon a growling leopard or a grunting wild boar which probably they imagined for not accomplishing their task. One girl had engaged herself in making a stone tool by chiseling and polishing a piece of rock to resemble a caveman’s axe.
Many students across different age groups who I have subjected to this activity have involuntarily shed tears. Not because of some kind of grief but with joy which they could not put in words! It must probably be the joy of being free for first the time or experiencing their strength and courage to take on for themselves.

In most schools, students are not given the time and space to devote for themselves or to completely study and understand of one specific thing. It’s a need Senechal finds reflected in our culture as a whole: We are a generation glued to smart phones and computer screens checking email and twitter in our need to stay in some loop by reading and responding to rolling updates.
 This observation is not advocating that we give up our iPhones or unplug from social media, but rather that we think more slowly, give ourselves time for reflection — as such practice would only serve to enhance the very conversations new media and technology is making possible.

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