About 7,000 feet up in the Indian Himalayas in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand sits a little school tucked precariously into the slope. The children begin their day in prayers of gratitude, followed by meditation, mindfulness, songs, music, and storytelling. There are no chairs or desks at this school, there are few textbooks, and no power point projectors. The children sit around the edges of the room on a mat, cross-legged, in stillness. Some of them wear school uniforms held together with safety pins and hand stitches where the seams were coming apart. There are bouts of coughing, sniffling and sneezing, yet they manage to make the daily trek from villages several miles away, in the middle of Monsoon season, to attend class.
Their eyes convey warmth, peace and kindness instantly putting you at ease. Their bubbly, enthusiastic mannerisms and smiles are contagious. They pay careful attention, take pride in the quality of their work, and are respectful of others. All the students at APV School share these qualities because the school’s mission is to cultivate compassion, confidence and a deep connection to the natural world. The school is rooted in mindfulness, community, and creativity; teaching traditional subjects through drama, demonstrations, art, and music. Spontaneity abounds, and lessons are taught in no particular order because the main philosophy at the school is that everything is interconnected. The teachers believe this approach to education preserves children’s natural curiosity, and results in resilient, intuitive, and empathetic people who are well-prepared to face difficult coursework or life challenges. I had never experienced a school like this. Reflecting on the college classes I instruct, my primary focus is on cultivating ‘higher-order thinking skills”. Most of my time is spent teaching the students to separate, classify, and recognize differences. I don’t spend equal time emphasizing the underlying connections between lecture topics, or other seemingly unrelated disciplines, and there is scant room for spontaneity when trying to cover 18 chapters in a 15 week semester. I began to think more deeply about what it means to be an effective instructor.
The APV School made me question my personal beliefs about the purpose of formal education. It became clear to me that although I began teaching courses at the University in 2009, I have yet to develop my own educational philosophy. I have been guided by the philosophy of a few professors I admire -- organized, focused, intellectually-gifted people with high expectations. I will continue my efforts to embed those qualities in my teaching, but the view I have of my role as an educator has shifted. Of course critical thinking skills remain vital, but education is best when balanced. If the goal is to cultivate compassionate, whole-minded students who are able to think deeply on a variety of subjects, it makes sense to provide guidance on emotional development along with academic development.
If some of this sounds familiar, I’m not suggesting that APV is the only school to be grounded in such ideas. Rather I wish to emphasize how their methods struck me on such a personal level. It has occurred to me since my time in India, that true, honest curiosity cannot be assuaged with curt ‘facts’, it will be drowned by them. Sometimes I point to proof that explains away the ‘why?’ and miss the veiled opportunity to answer deeper questions rooted in broad underlying truths. These types of questions take more time to address, are usually riddled with uncertainty, and may be outside of the stated course objectives, but they are sparks of genuine curiosity. Who am I to snuff that out, when I should be stoking it? Maybe it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ more often. Maybe it’s okay to spend more time on topics without clear answers and let students wonder about the subtle connections that exist beneath divisions. Intuitively, they know there is more to a subject than textbooks full of bold terms. This semester, before I saturate their left brains with classification and detailed differences, I will zoom-out to the big picture and offer their right brains the buoyant net of connection. I will follow a lecture that is less structured and more organic; a lecture that fearlessly leaves room for the ‘awkward pause’, more off-topic digressions, and for the development of heart as well as brain.
So although I went to APV to teach the children about volcanoes and mountains, the unanticipated lessons I learned were far more compelling. Approaching education holistically, as a mindful and inclusive experience imbued with warmth, acceptance and compassion in turn preserves and deepens student’s curiosity. It develops their sense of connectedness and responsibility to self, society, and the natural world. In fact, this may be the most important type of critical thinking there is -- Realizing that our behavior does not exist in a vacuum, and that our actions can generate waves of energy, nudging grains of sand on distant beaches we have never visited.