A few days ago I was helping my son revise his English lessons. There was a unit in his course book which had a story called ‘The Stolen Cake’ based on the theme of ‘The Detective and Crime’. The unit used ample illustrations so that children could be sensitised to the job of a detective, the idea of tools that a detective uses and a crime scene.
Then came this story – A girl called Mandy brings some cake to school only to find it gone by the snack break after her sports period. After school, a fellow classmate Tapisawa approaches her. An upset Mandy tells Tapisawa that she suspects that one of the students in her class has eaten her snack. Tapisawa tells her that there is a way to find out. They both bake a cake and use lots of glue in the icing. Tapisawa tells Mandy, that way whoever would come for the cake would get their hands stuck in the glue.
The next day Mandy has got the cake with the glue icing and leaves it at the exact same place where she had left it the previous day. The students go out to play. Suddenly they hear a horrible howling noise and rush back to class. Two monkeys are sitting with their arms and limbs stuck in the glue with the most frightened and confused expression on their faces desperately struggling to get away. The children laugh. At last, the thief is caught and the mystery of the stolen cake is solved.
I ask some comprehension questions to my son and then proceed to the questions that are supposed to focus on the theme of ‘The Detective and Crime’. I ask: “What do you think about Tapisawa’s idea of nabbing the thief? How will you describe her?”
My son is quiet for some time, then looks dolefully at me and says, “The poor monkeys”.
I don’t care to listen and try to elicit what the book wants me to. I persist: “What do you have to say about Tapisawa’s abilities as a detective?” impatient at his inability to respond and thinking that a cue will bring his focus back on the theme of the unit.
He looks straight ahead of him and says: “I think Tapisawa is a very dangerous and harmful girl for the monkeys”.
The first time in two hours, I pause.…and realise how I have been pushing him, directing him to think in a certain way along the carefully conceived cues in the textbook. It dawns on me that while I had been focusing on Tapisawa’s smartness throughout, my son was probably affected by the plight of the monkeys. I had clearly not given a second thought to the howling monkeys, which for me were inconsequential.
It makes me ponder: Did the writer think while writing the story about the latent violence and cruelty that was embedded in its narrative? While picking up the story, generating a detective and crime theme around it and designing the activities to generate a predetermined and specific response, did they realise that their writing was complicit in alienating humans from animals and reinforcing the increasing anxiety of the human towards the animal world?
The fact that it was the monkeys and not some other student in the class that had eaten the cake also seemed like a convenient way of locating offense in “the other” and not in someone from the community, in this case the class. The trauma of monkeys who had come in search of food and found themselves suddenly trapped in a hostile environment was invisibilised. All that was meant to be noticed and lauded was the smartness of the girl who had come up with the idea of nabbing the ‘thief’.
Institutionalised education, grooms us relentlessly to think, act and respond in a certain manner. The story reminded me of Michel Foucault’s analysis of power – how power is institutionalised and operates through channels to create docile, submissive subjects. Foucault was strongly critical of all institutions like religion, education, family, law and their ways of functioning. Power is not exercised only through imposition. It is also exercised through discursive practices, through consistently influencing and structuring our thought patterns, that are recurrent in nature and help in normalising acceptable social behaviour over time. Docile, unquestioning, accepting subjects are produced through a culture that is subtly coercive.
The choice has already been made on our behalf like the verbal cues and the lead questions preceding and following the story of the stolen cake. The system wants us to be disciplined, to subscribe to and pay obeisance to the grand-narratives that surround us like the air we breathe. Is there a way to resist this process? Resistance is necessary because it is through resistance that we exercise our power and bring about change. Resistance through questioning, through an alternate perspective challenges standards, norms and systems and the set hierarchies, categorisation and binaries they espouse. And these are by no means natural or givens. They are created and constructed.
Why are the students not affected by the howling of the monkeys which is symbolic of their fear and pain? Why is the class happy when they find out who the actual thief is? Is the class happy because the ‘thief’ has been identified and the crime has been detected or is it happy because the thief is not one of the students? Does anyone try to rescue the monkeys? How is the glue taken off their arms and limbs? What effect does this trick have on the monkeys? Why does the story end there, instead of shifting the focus from the children to the monkeys? Can we draw parallels of this narrative with the real world narratives that surround us?
Locating positive attributes in one’s community and imbuing another community with negative attributes is a commonplace occurrence in today’s times. At a more micro-level of daily operation, we can trace this to the unit called the family too – looking out only for our well-being and not bothering about what is going on in the world out there. All of this is something that didn’t happen overnight. It all started when lessons taught to innocent little children stopped where it normalised invisibilising the pain of the other, in this case, a bunch of monkeys howling, laughed at their plight, while we were made to see only the smartness of one little girl.
So what we need is to cultivate a spirit of enquiry and questioning, of enabling children to think out of the box, of enabling a space where children can articulate their thoughts, and that which allows teachers and parents to empathise enough to go beyond the book and consider the possibility of shifting those paradigms.
So a learner-centered approach for me is not the limiting of an engagement with the learners at a spatial, physical or a linguistic level but at an affective and intellectual level. Learner-centered approach is not merely some random activities but the encouragement and facilitation of the development of a keen critical approach, an insight in the child and a certain kind of autonomy that goes beyond participation to an expression of individual thoughts which will allow the child to develop a subjectivity, a character, a vision and a mind inclined to question, curious to seek and not to merely accept. This method and manner of teaching will then enable self-learning because the child is engaged every moment in the learning process and is involved in a continuous cycle of comprehension, reflection, and expression and consequently retention and ideation.
Featured image source: Novocom.top