Monday, 21 April 2014

Unleash the Power of Collective Imagination

     The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. That is the beauty of human civilization.

     Look around you for a few moments at everything that makes up your home – the fan, the television, the light bulbs, the carpets , curtains and sofas, the kitchen ware and crockery…did you make any of these? Did you make even the simplest clamp or screw that fits the beautiful artefact to the wall? Perhaps the artistically inclined amongst you created the lovely wall painting or piece of embroidery to adorn your walls. Certainly I cannot claim any such competencies. It is a matter of wonder to me very often that we live in a world which we have created collaboratively over several centuries. I marvel at and salute all those people existing and those gone by, who have made it possible for us to use all of these products. Everyone of these products is again produced by some collaboration – if you painted the masterpiece on your wall, someone made the paints, brushes and canvas. Someone, or more accurately, many hands at some factory produced the hammer and nails which the carpenter uses to put up your masterpiece on your wall. It is mind boggling to think that collaborative effort of totally disconnected people has woven this beautiful tapestry of civilization that exists today. It is the brilliant power of collective imagination that actually has made all this possible. It could be one tiny discovery, invention, or innovation which triggers another. It then has a seemingly cascading effect, and many innovations lead to a totally new product, perhaps. When Apple launched the iPhone with a few hundred Apps, little did they imagine it will lead to the flood of Apps we see today. All it did was create the platform for people from anywhere in the world to create Apps that many, many more people could use.

     We build on what is left to us by previous generations in the areas of Science and Technology. Every now and then a breakthrough comes out of the blue and speeds things up at a phenomenal rate and the world is never the same again. Like  the leaps and bounds human civilization made in the 20th century…Like the digital revolution…Like the revolutions in communication…Always, however, it is up to the users, be it the leaders of the most powerful nations, or the teenagers at home, to make judicious choices when using these products of collective imagination laid down at their feet by civilization.

     Our daily world is filled with just so many examples of the products of individual creativity, collective imagination, collaboration and critical thinking. Yet, we have not picked up the pace of consciously building these skills into daily teaching and learning in the classroom. It is time to create the conditions that will make these skills an implicit part of facilitating learning. The way forward is to surely, consciously build skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking in our schools. Jobs today are very different from what they were a few decades ago. Even clerical jobs have changed. The person who sits at the computer in a call centre today has to be discerning - it does not suffice if he or she merely speaks with a good accent and answers politely. Newsreaders do not merely read the news any more -merely good diction and an unaffected style of speech do not suffice as essential attributes for the newsreader today.A person with an authoritarian style of work is no longer considered good material for being a manager. Today a manager should be a person who is able to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively   and   who is able to work collaboratively with team mates and other stake holders to get the job done.

     When we quell choice and stress on implicit obedience in overcrowded classrooms we instantly create conditions that stifle creativity. When we foster conditions that encourage competition we build conditions to eliminate collaboration. When we rate skills of arithmetic higher than knowledge and skills in the fields of languages, humanities and arts,  we foster the “only one answer is correct approach”, and we are training our students to shut off many areas of their brain.   I will relate one small incident which happened some years ago. My daughter had drawn and coloured a pond with lotuses and ducks – a typical scene a kindergartner draws in India, immaterial of whether he or she has ever seen an actual pond with ducks and lotuses! Her teacher in Kindergarten had to “correct” this and place her signature on this in her drawing book! So, diligently, she corrected in red ink and wrote the remark “use light blue for water”!  My daughter had used dark blue from her crayon set. Perhaps the ducks would also have to be coloured blue because they drank blue water and swam in too? ! I certainly wouldn't want light blue or dark blue water supply from that pond for my house! She was an otherwise kind teacher and I can’t say my daughter did not learn anything from her or from that school which she attended for a brief three months. Although she was upset, I am glad that this incident did not dissuade my daughter in any major way, and to this day she continues to sketch, paint, and write poems and articles, while she pursues a degree in Chemical Engineering, which she claims is the best course ever in the world! Kindergarten is not the gateway to University!

     However, imagine what would happen eventually if this were the attitude adopted time and again by a majority of teachers in that school. Believe me, this is not uncommon. I have come across many teachers who behave in a similar manner. Not that they are to blame entirely. Are the teachers even trained to foster creativity? Can the average Primary School teacher in India recognize what creativity is? Are our teachers allowed to be creative at all in a profession which is essentially a creative one? If allowed the time and given access to professional development and the right conditions with small class sizes and limited “teaching periods”, is it too difficult to invest time and effort to foster creativity?

     It is time we realized the only way forward is by collaboration and not by competition. When we compete against one another, we build walls of distrust. Ever wondered why for most of us our college days were probably the most enjoyable times of our lives? Probably for the first time we were given more freedom of choice – both academically in choosing our majors or ancillary courses, and even personally. By then parents stop  supervising your daily work, you should have learnt to manage your time effectively and you can choose when to go for a movie or ice-cream with your buddies. Above all, it is time when you experience the collective generosity of your friends. They share notes with you, help you to study and get a better grasp of concepts that seem foggy, appreciate your talents unconditionally, criticize you and cut you down to size when they have to, but again stand up for you in what could be dire circumstances you put yourself in with a Professor, and in some cases may even give you the daily morning wake up call! And you would do the same for them any day. You collaborate with your friends to run your daily life, study long hours, get your dissertation done on time, and also have fun. And you also collaborate with your Professors who essentially are there to help and guide their students. Everybody is working collaboratively towards the common goal of ensuring that you and your friends get that much coveted degree with flying colours! And that is why the whole process turns out to be so joyous. But what happens when you enter the work place? Why does it seem so different? If your workplace is one that pits one against the other and declares an individual as a topper every month based on the volume of sales or number of phone calls one attends or number of pleased clients, well it is one that is merely focusing on competition and not collaboration. The joy of a job well done returns when you are part of a team that works creatively, solves problems, communicates effectively, acknowledges the contribution of its team members, but always recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

     Some years back, when I said 5-6 year olds should begin to work collaboratively in a reading class, a math class and then eventually even do small projects together, teachers in a school were flabbergasted. They said this wouldn’t be possible.  But then they had to face with my conviction that it is perfectly natural for even little children to work together and the fact that I spoke from prior experience with little kids working together. When things beyond their lesson plans began to unfold in the collaborative classrooms, the same teachers were overwhelmed! Here were little ones sharing their thoughts about the story they had read, making little story books together, communicating with one another, explaining  to each other, helping one another to understand better, and above all, resolving conflicts! If this is an example of what we saw in Grade 1, similar wonderful scenarios opened up in all the other grades. It is indeed possible to foster creativity and critical thinking, through skills of collaboration and communication, at all levels of the school.

     Like it has been said time and again, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, let us unleash the power of collaboration and collective imagination in our classrooms.

- Dr. Gayathri Deepak

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Towards Liberal Education...

Dr. Gayathri Deepak is the Director of Centre for holistic Empowerment of Teachers, Children and Adolescents, [CHETANA] which is CHILD's school mental health wing. She has successfully led International Schools in India and abroad and is now executing revolutionary training protocols with educators to usher in the practice of emotionally literate pedagogy in mainstream education.

     It is that time of the year again…time for the scramble for college admissions. Despite the huge variety of jobs available now, what are still the most popular courses? Engineering, Medicine, Commerce… has anything changed in the past few decades?
Why should we think that the sole goal of school education is to prepare students to enter University? And in particular, with emphasis being placed mainly on Mathematics and Sciences, the jar of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be that much coveted seat into an Engineering college or Medical college. 

     As the Principal of an international school in India, I was often questioned by parents who sought admission to Kindergarten, whether our school   and the curriculum prepare their child to face entrance exams to join IIT. Well, quite frankly, it didn’t. We could not give such promises because we did not believe that is what education should be all about. And we ran a school, not a coaching centre for entrance examinations! And it baffles me no end that there are several parents out there who think that certainly Kindergarten is the gateway to University, particularly a foundation for a  career in Engineering or Medicine!

     Let’s take a few moments to ponder about the status we in general give to subjects other than Mathematics and Sciences…
We as a nation celebrate the achievements of our cinema stars, and deify them. We celebrate the achievements of our authors, classical dancers and musicians too. We are justifiably proud to belong to a nation that produced such all-time greats as M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Padma Subramanyam, AllaRakha, Rabindranath Tagore, to name just very few of the stalwarts.  It seems such a paradox that we as a nation celebrate performers in the classical or modern arts, perhaps more so than any other country, and yet fail to give due place for the performing arts or literature in our school curriculum.

     Time and again research has proven the immense benefits and powerful impact of Drama or Theatre in the curriculum, but we steadfastly choose to ignore it and refuse to bring it into mainstream curriculum. Even in schools which do offer Drama, it is offered usually only up to Middle School. In schools where it might be offered in High school, it might get about 2 periods a week, compared with 5 to 8 each for  English, Math and Science.
In fact, we seem to have regressed rather than progressed in providing holistic education. In my grandfather’s days, schooling placed emphasis on areas like Languages and Literature and Philosophy, apart from Math and Science. They even had to learn Greek and Latin, apart from English!

     How can we now claim to have progressed in providing education when our focus has largely become narrowed to the Math and Sciences alone?The general perception amongst some schools, parents and larger society is smart children are only those who excel in these subjects! The only “other” stream available in most Chennai schools is the Commerce or Business stream. How many schools are actually offering courses that prepare students to seriously pursue streams like Design, Geology, Sociology, Sports, Drama, Music, Media, Hotel Management?

     And all schools actually claim that they cater to “holistic development” or “wholesome” development! Most modern schools in our country today claim to base their pedagogical practices on the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Are schools really justified in making such claims when they totally neglect the Arts, Humanities, Languages and Physical Education?

    Let us for a moment consider simple facts…Drama and Dance come naturally to little kids. Even a kid left alone enacts little scenes by herself or stands in front of the mirror imitating her mother or teacher. When a group of kids get together, it is perfectly natural for them to enact scenes in a school or home setting. It is a natural way of expressing themselves and making better sense of their worlds. When we see toddlers or  young children, the natural grace with which they move fascinates us. Children love to move – it is normal for them to break into a skip even as they are walking. It is natural for them to spontaneously tap to music or dance. Their whole body seems to be happy when we see them move, act, sing, run or play.
Research has proven the value of the Performing and Creative Artstowards emotional development. Literature and the Humanities kindle the finer aspects of human nature and make us the social beings that we are.

     So, why do schools feel compelled to allot little or no time to physical education and the performing arts? It is sad and actually dangerous that it is increasingly becoming the trend to allot these important areas of learning to “after-school activities”.

     Given that Universities set almost impossible “cut-off” marks for admission, schools and parents blame them for fostering the “rat race” for top scores. Statistics year on year show that stress levels during Standards 10 and 12 are just so high, causing serious mental health problems like depression, anxiety and even leading to suicide. It is time for Universities and Colleges to base admissions on the overall achievements and talents of aspirants and not merely on their marks/grades in their qualifying and entrance examinations.

     It is time we wake up to the importance of encouraging inter-disciplinary learning and providing a liberal education in schools, colleges and Universities.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


Handshake And A Half!

          Any social situation can cause a certain amount of nervous energy in most of us, but none more so than the highly uncertain “first meetings”! In an age when self-presentation is a key priority in interactions, it becomes even more important for us to strike the right first impressions on a stranger. What truly goes into our attempts at making favourable impressions on others?

          There are two main tactics we employ to build a positive social image of ourselves. One is the rather obvious tactic of “self-enhancement” that involves looking our best to constructing positive self-descriptions of ourselves to making use of appropriate “props” such as putting on a cool pair of glasses to appear well-read and so on. Good social skills have been shown to be very good predictors of promotion at the workplace by many research studies. 

          The second tactic we often use is “other-enhancement”. This involves inducing positive moods and states of mind in other people through lively conversations and pleasant interactions, showing genuine interest in others’ ideas and opinions, and even performing small favours for them. People also hope to create a good image by offering flattery, praise and agreeing excessively to the opinions of the other, particularly when they are perceived to be superior to oneself. 

          The chances of this tactic backfiring are quite high when executed without tact, in which case the person gains a highly negative evaluation as opposed to creating a positive impression! This effect was described by Roos Vonk  as the ‘slime effect’. One will do well to avoid such overly ingratiating behaviours being as the term doesn’t really ooze with appeal!

          We have a strong desire to be associated with attitudes that we perceive to be honourable. In many situations we look to further our self-image by expressing such desirable attitudes where appropriate. Understandably we also tend to hide or suppress attitudes that may not show us in the right light, such as our prejudices.

          In any attempt at self-presentation, there is always the risk of failure such as when our efforts backfire or when our performances yield unfavourable outcomes. Imagine talking to a teacher you really admire about the time you lost out in an important tournament. You may attempt to manage the possible embarrassment by explaining them  away as caused by uncontrollable external factors and downplaying the effect of personal factors.

          Impression management can be a little challenging for people who find social situations uncomfortable and distressing. But despair not, as research suggests that cognitive distractions such as activities that the person really enjoys doing and is likely to be successful at can go a long way in reducing their social anxiety and making them appear sociable and extroverted!

          Striking the balance between our desire to appear in a certain way and genuinely having a good time in a social gathering is the trick to not let the pressure get to us! Social psychologists assure us that despite all the challenges and obstacles, the art of self-presentation comes quite naturally to us.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013


Keep The Change!

          An old house that has forever stood at the end of the street has been replaced by a multi-storey apartment complex. Uh oh, unease. The affable elderly gentleman who sold stationery and soda pops at the small shop next to school retires and is replaced by someone else, unease. New neighbours, unease. Friend leaves school, or worse, the country, awful unease. Friend comes back with an accent and new ideas, well that’s tragic!

          Some people really hate change! So much so that just mere contemplation of it can cause apprehension and anxiety. But why?

          Change is a very effective reminder of how we are not in control of everything that happens to us. And that is OK! It is alright to not be able to control everyone and everything around you. It is a free world and no one should be controlled and manipulated to suit the needs of another. The point is, the kind of control that matters is the one you have over yourself and how you make change work for you!

          It is true that a reasonably stable life without too much flux offers security. But when our living conditions change, such as when you have to move because of a parent’s job, a new sibling is about to enter the family or a family member falls sick, they signal the arrival of an important milestone in our lives. It can be quite anxiety provoking but how well we deal with such transitions determine how much stronger and well-adjusted we emerge.

          When the change is self-initiated, like when you choose to shift to a new school, or take up a new extracurricular commitment, one would expect the transition or adaptation to be easy. But that may not always be the case. One would still need to deal with how different the actual situation is to how one had imagined in their mind. There may be a few challenges to overcome and few adjustments to be made to settle in. What makes the transition successful is staying committed to one’s decision and a dedication to have fun and learn more, no matter what!

          In case of change which is externally imposed, the resistance to accommodate is much higher, making successful transition more difficult. Adaptation then, depends on what one makes of this change. If it is seen as an opportunity to break away from the monotony and grow, one’s commitment to acclimatize is higher and one can develop into a free agent whose outlook is evolved and more open to experience than ever before.

          To deal effectively with change, be it situational or relational (like the problems with the “new” old friend!) requires one to be a flexible individual who is willing to transcend the limitations of their preferences and characteristics. “I can’t do this”, “I don’t like this” and many such self-defeating declarations keeps a person from achieving their potential to be more, do more and give more.

          Rolling with change can be very freeing and liberating as one doesn’t need to feel like a victim of the situations they are in but instead take charge of how they can ride this change with  dignity and purpose. Stagnation is after all, not for the life-affirming human spirit!


Thursday, 6 June 2013


Success In The Big Picture

In other astonishing news today, it has been learned that the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word schole which can be translated to mean, hold your breath, leisure! Given today’s scenario where school education is inextricably linked to a fifteen year chase of ‘success’, this piece of trivia sure boggles the mind.

The ancient Greeks, bless them, meant school to mean a leisurely time set aside to learn the nature of our universe and of human life, not for cracking competitive exams but quite simply, for the sake of knowledge and enlightenment. An activity was taken up in leisure purely for the love of it. This belief that pursuing knowledge could liberate the mind and spirit was strongly held in ancient India too. A key aspect of education, then, was to support a student’s spiritual growth alongside intellectual exercises and social awareness.

In order to stay relevant to the socio-political context we live in, education has been subjected to repeated alterations in terms of subject matter as well as modes of transmitting information. But what has been largely left behind in the times of yore is the wide-eyed wonderment with which to look at the vast universe around us. There is now a significant distance between the individual and what he studies.

Children, in their most natural state are curious. They explore their environment in any way that their current development allows, be it through investigative touching or unceremonious yanking, on all fours or on tottering twos. If you have ever witnessed the unrestrained mirth of a toddler after “figuring out” how something works, you know that their reward lies in the joy of discovery.

To imagine we were like this once upon a time when today, mastering a lab experiment holds only as much enticement as an A+ is disheartening. Maybe the hunger to learn diminished when one realised whatever one learns is only as good as the grades and applause it fetches. Appreciation and acknowledgement from one’s family and peers are very important in that they offer us a warm and supportive environment for us to apply ourselves better. To hold an inadequate definition of success as meaning top grades and a high remuneration at the workplace is very narrow-minded, not to mention fraught with potential causes of mental distress and fatigue.

Success may mean material accomplishments to some, effective relationships to some and joyful involvement in activities or fields of intellectual/emotional value for others. A rich businessman and a passionate stay-at-home mother are both successful in their own rights. What makes them successful is giving themselves wholeheartedly to their duties and treating failures as unavoidable yet valuable opportunities to learn from, without lowering their expectations or standards of performance.

There is nothing wrong in looking for money and fame in one’s life. It is, however, important to realise that these are inevitable “by-products” that will happen to you anyway if you remain committed, competent and confident. Einstein put it best when he said, "We have to do the best we can. This is our scared human responsibility." How is that for some good "old school" wisdom?


Thursday, 9 May 2013


Social Networking, NOT Working!

     Deepa came home after a long hard day of tuitions and tests and threw herself across the bed, thoroughly exhausted. As sleep crept over her, she wondered, in the last moment of heavy-lidded consciousness, if her latest profile picture had received a new comment. Her sleep drew back  a little. Had she edited her picture just right so that the lighting and colouring flattered her features perfectly? Sleep struggled to take over but Deepa’s anxiety managed to keep it at bay. What if Sneha, Arjun, Karthik and Chitra had posted “funny” comments really designed to just annoy her and make her feel silly about herself? Sleep gave up trying to bring her under its calming oblivion as she forced herself out of bed to take a “quick look” at her profile.

     How about you? Do you check and recheck your response to others’ online posts so that you appear at your humorous best? Have you convinced yourself that the number of “likes” you get on a post is a direct estimate of your value as a person?

     Our primal need to belong to a certain social group in which we feel loved, appreciated and approved of, is beginning to manifest in quite an interesting way through our contemporary obsession with social networking. To be connected with friends and family on an informal platform where all our quirks are celebrated and accepted whereas at the dining table they would be frowned upon, can be very liberating. One is also encouraged to take a moment to understand what they are feeling at a particular time and what opinions they hold on a particular issue so that they may be updated as statuses or tweets. 

     This ability of these platforms to stimulate reflection and thought is a wonderful thing. They promote dialogues between people from different disciplines and backgrounds, thereby providing everyone with an opportunity to expand their sphere of experience and knowledge. Right? Well, maybe not if our understanding of social networking is limited to its potential to generate a flawless image of ourselves that completely disowns our imperfections and shortcomings. 

     Such a “construction” of ourselves and our lives takes an inordinate amount of time to craft and maintain! Sources estimate school-going students spend 7 hours a day on an average on these sites. That is just a criminal waste, considering there are actual people to meet and make eye contact with, real footballs to be kicked, real saplings to be planted, real rooms to be tidied up instead of virtual villas, not to mention an actual person to improve and nurture (thy honourable self), rather than a virtual avatar!

     Everyone has self-doubts, including the circle of friends whose approval we seek so much. The identity you have for yourself is such an intimate part of your growth. To invite others’ opinions and judgments in shaping your self-concept is unfair and harmful. To contribute to a trend of “watching” what others do with their lives and to exploit the anonymity that internet affords us to sling harmful comments at others robs the growing generation of integrity and personal accountability.

     Try to look beyond the superficial and you may be able to experience the joy of genuine human connectedness that goes beyond mere popularity.


Friday, 26 April 2013


Scaling Morality

     Toddler Shiva was forbidden from biting his brother as his mother said it hurts him very much. Well, thought Shiva, why else would I bite him if I didn’t want it to hurt?! So his mother tried another tactic. She would emit a shrill, frightening shout when he attempted an assault on his brother. If this doesn’t succeed in stopping him, his mother’s palm would meet his backside in a loud thwack. This did the trick.

     The fear of punishment and threats of an all seeing God who will poke our eyes if we did anything wrong was the first ever moral code of conduct we learned. Our morality then was something external to ourselves and not an integral part of how we lived our lives. This is described by Lawrence Kohlberg as the first level of moral development.

     The second stage is when we begin to understand there is no absolute right and wrong. We have the freedom to act in ways that meet our interests. Ria might fight for her friend’s cycle as they had decided to ride it in turns and her friend doesn’t want to share. A smaller child might reason that since the cycle is her friend’s, Ria shouldn’t fight for it but an older child recognises that it is not quite so simple as the friend is not being fair.

     The third stage is when we want to live up to the expectations of those whom we respect such as the elders in the family and figures of authority like our teachers. Our moral reasoning now goes beyond fear of punishment to holding good intentions and operating out of concern and empathy for others. This may be why we celebrate the idea of modern day Robin Hoods who act in questionable ways for the larger good of the poor and underprivileged. 

     If you believe staunchly that no matter what, one shouldn’t step over the law for the good of society as a whole, you are in the fourth stage. Staying on the good side of the law isn’t to avoid punishment but to preserve social harmony. The idea here is, if everyone starts to live by his own rules then the society will be ruled by chaos.

     In stage five, our morality expands to respect individual values and rights of people in the society and this can lead to revision of laws that are unfair to certain sections of society. For example, legal Acts were amended declaring that daughters should also benefit from parent’s property and not just the sons.

     It is important to not just understand which stage we are at but to aspire to the next level too. As your social circle expands, you will come across a variety of people who have their own ideas of morality and many times this will differ greatly from yours. The most important responsibility as a citizen of this world is that we don’t exclude or condemn a particular person or group because of their moral codes. A non-judgmental and inclusive mindset driven towards justice and equality for all is the true sign of moral growth.