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September 03, 2018 Monday 11:15:12 AM IST

THE THEATRE OF LEARNING

Cover Story

Theatre person, movie actor, storyteller, NLP practitioner, but above all, an impassioned alternate educator, Manu Jose has been a well-known face on television, where he anchored ‘Chirakukal’ (Wings), a children’s programme on the Malayalam alphabet, literature, and general knowledge. In 2005, he teamed up with DC Books for a project called ‘Story on Wheels’, spreading the message of reading across Kerala. He has acted and worked with theatre masters such as B.V. Karanth, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, Indira Parthasarathy, Maya Tangburg, and several others. Manu has since built ‘Aala’, meaning a smithy, a space for alternative ideas and practices. Manu doesn’t intend to send his 4-1/2-year-old son to school. Most recently, Manu has been involved with his meandyou performing company and DC Books to provide succor through music, performances, and theatre to the tens of hundreds of flood-displaced people, including children, now living in relief camps across Kerala. Manu looks at the right to ‘break free’ as a fundamental human right for children. “There is room for breaking free…The child has the autonomy to choose and decide on the type of learning she would like to have,” Manu, ably assisted by his wife Dr. Sanitha Sathyan, says in an interview with Pallikkutam.

So, to teach or not to teach, that is the (fundamental) question. Manu, what, to your mind, is to teach?

I believe that no one can ‘teach’ anyone anything, but can only ‘facilitate’ the process of learning. ‘Learning’ happens within the student and that ‘Aha! moment,’ which is a very organic one, cannot be created by any teacher. I remember trying to ‘teach’ cycling to my 4-year-old son. After a few trials I thought to myself, what a fool I was trying to ‘teach him’ cycling after which I only kept motivating him and then one fine day, one fine moment, he did it! That was real learning – transformation. Once you go through that process, you will never be able to come out of it. So, teaching to me is facilitation in all possible ways.

The essential ‘structure’ of the teaching-learning process hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. So, in most schools and colleges around the world, the broadcast model of teaching continues to run classrooms. Why hasn’t the ‘broadcast’ or ‘talk-down’ model changed in our classrooms where minds and bodies are uniformly clothed, arranged, and disciplined? There is no room for breaking free.


The ‘broadcast’ model hasn’t changed because that’s the easiest way for the ‘Teacher’! There is room for breaking free, provided that you are willing to accept that autonomy is the cornerstone of education. The child has the autonomy to choose and decide on the type of learning she would like to have. I would like to see this as a basic human right. This child-centric/child-guided system of learning (which we claim to do) is based on the fundamental concept of acknowledging and respecting the uniqueness of the child. But, in my experience, this lack of autonomy in learning is the biggest problem that exists in the school system.

In my school days, I remember being referred to as one of the smartest kids in the class, since I use to sing, act, dance, and perform. But it was always someone else who got referred to as the most intelligent kid in the class, who scored high in all big subjects such as Maths, Science, Language, History and so on. Acting and singing came only at the end of the list. I lost count of the years I suffered trying to match with those ‘gigantic’ figures, living in low self-esteem while putting up a mask of macho-ness... It is in this context that I would like to touch upon a theory, which most teachers of today have learned in their teacher training programmes — but conveniently forget — the Multiple intelligence Theory (1983) by Howard Gardener. It was a theory that held that intelligence was not one but many and that each child had their own unique set of intelligences (to be nurtured).

In the broader sense this means creating versatile expertise, guided by the child’s interests. The role of the educator is to provide circumstances for this growth. For this, the educator needs to be creative and sensitive about the inner rhythms of the child. But trust me, even after 34 years, most of our teachers still believe that Intelligence is one, or even if they agree to avoid a tussle, many secretly believe that ‘Logical Mathematical Intelligence’ has an upper hand over others.

The child or the learner ought to be at the centre of the learning process. In a system where learning process is dominated by the ‘teacher’, how do we invert or flip this deeply entrenched system?


To flip this deeply entrenched system of education, mere polishing of the existing system is not enough. We need to address and reform the core values of the existing system in order to make any longstanding impact.

The present system of schooling in India is a vestige of the British education system, origins of which can be traced back to the Catholic-Protestant educational thoughts of the 15th and 16th centuries. The basic idea behind these systems was to tame the “willfulness and free will of the child” in order to transform them into “socially and religiously disciplined citizens”, who were integral to the uninterrupted running of the State and Church machineries. In order to accomplish this “systematic psychological brain drain”, indoctrination and obedience training were the methods employed. This has been poured down over the generations and what we follow today is a rather undiluted version of these “ancient” schools of thought.

True, this sort of training served its purpose during the grand schema of the Industrial Revolution, but it resulted in raising vast armies of Macaulayesque clerks. However, today when artificial intelligence and machine learning are replacing many of the traditional spheres of employment, when the present generation literally have to acquire skills for “unseen” jobs, these systems are fast becoming obsolete. What is in vogue today are the concepts of creativity and innovation. Taking this into consideration, any contemporary model of education should focus on unleashing the creative potential and imagination of the child. Such a system cannot be but child-centric or child-guided.

What, to your mind, then are the most fundamental issues ailing the traditional system of learning? Are power and power relations at the heart of the system?


Like the question of multiplicity of intelligences, another fundamental issue is that we all differ in the ways we receive information, a major component of Intelligence. We all could be predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic and these dimensions can be influential in learning and so, in teaching. This classification has its underpinnings in evolutionary psychology and neurobiology.

Predominantly auditory children, will find didactic lectures quite useful. This may not be the case with a predominantly visual child, who relies on visual images and written language or a kinesthetic child, who learns best by doing. To cater to a heterogeneous group of students with varied faculties, it is necessary for the teacher to be resourceful and creative in the classroom. In order to introduce a concept, it may not be enough to talk about it alone; the teacher will need to draw it or even physically demonstrate/act it out. This is difficult when you have 50-70 students in a conventional classroom, trying to learn a particular concept from a single teacher. This is a great challenge physically and psychologically.

The inherent hierarchy of the structure, the invisible threads of patriarchy, and the dynamics of power play also add to this complicated broth. In order to cater to children with differing faculties, the teacher needs to be a ‘performer’ in the classroom. This demands a lot of flexibility and resourcefulness from the teacher.

In other words, the teacher has to leave the authoritative hierarchical role of a class teacher to the rather vulnerable shoes of an actor. What if the teacher is concerned/scared about this role change? Will some ‘techniques’ such as yoga or body movement training help them in this changeover? The answer is NO. Because the core issue lies at the deep-rooted belief in the systems of gender, sexuality and patriarchy. Those inhibitions to ‘perform’ are imposed on a teacher’s body through years of social conditioning, brought about by a caste-based patriarchal society, which has failed to address development in a gender perspective. As long as teachers are not ready to take up that personal power to look deep inside, understand and challenge these belief systems, they will tend to fall into the more comfortable ‘preacherly’ style, without insight and are likely to ignore the needs of majority of students with different learning styles. 


You have been a theatre person, a performer, and actor. How do you correlate theatre and learning?

I had the experience of interacting with hundreds of school teachers through teacher training workshops in different parts of Kerala and outside. One interesting phenomenon which I came across was the power battles in the minds of the teachers. An average teacher, when confronted with the harsh reality about being ineffective in the classroom does not try to overcome it through self improvement, by finding the natural child (in terms of TA –Transactional Analysis) in her, but rather with parental arrogance and negative exercise of ‘power over’ the students. Other than using ‘power with’ and ‘power to’ to help develop the ‘power within’ the child, they end up using ‘power over’ and by using these models of power hierarchy, only to deepen and widen the gaps.

This underlines the need for democratising classrooms by making them a more inclusive and pluralistic platform. Here comes the role of theatre in education. This term is often grossly misunderstood and is commonly interpreted as “presenting subjects in the curriculum in a theatrical manner”. This is a very limited interpretation of this great idea. I believe that the tool of theatre, if used with psychological insights, will give ample opportunity for students and teachers to break the negative conditionings over body, imposed by the patriarchal gender roles and free the inner child energy, which will, in turn, help them to be better performers. Also, as theatre encompasses all art forms that are rich in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic experiences, the practice of theatre helps to develop Multiple Intelligences in a more playful manner and helps the teacher to develop a creative mindset. I believe there is a ‘nudge’ in theatre. The ‘Nudge’ theory was put forth by Richard Thaler who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017. As Thaler and Sunstein put it, “Putting fruit at eye level counts as nudge. Banning junk food does not.” And, being an ensemble art to the core, theatre gives immense opportunity to experience and learn democratic values.

Storytelling, music, the arts are integral to the soul of learning. How do we restore the soul of learning in an increasingly cross-disciplinary world?


The compartmentalisation of the Arts and the Sciences is a relatively recent phenomenon. Art underlies even the most complicated man-made invention, even if we fail to recognise it.  So, when we talk about the soul of learning, we have to be clear that what we imply is a complicated but beautifully interwoven and interdependent web of ideas and thoughts.

Coming to the practical ways of involving artistic ideas in learning, we will have to unlearn many of the traditional concepts. Art has the capacity to transform the learning of even the so-called ‘boring’ subjects into more fluid and organic ways. The challenge lies in finding ways to incorporate it in creative and child-friendly ways.

One attempt done in this regard using the theory of Multiple Intelligence is the MI lesson plan matrices. A child who ‘hates’ Maths can understand the concept of ‘pie’ using a chappathi or pathiri (visuo-spatial and body-kinesthetic intelligences), by making students form a circle and involving them in a game (interpersonal), by narrating the personal discoveries (intrapersonal), by making a rhyme out of the basic concept (musical/ linguistic), and by introducing the golden ratio in nature (naturalistic). So, such innovative ways are possible; only we need to find them.

So, the art of learning involves exploring a web of interrelated disciplines. No discipline stands alone. True learning should realise these inter-connections and aim at providing a holistic outlook for the students.


Finally, how do we free learning from teaching?

My answer is this story.

Empty your Cup

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.


Nan-in served tea. He filled his visitor’s cup but then kept on pouring more tea. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Let all of us in the facilitators’ role empty our cups… that will be the beginning of our journey to free learning from teaching.



K G Sreenivas

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Pallikkutam. He can be reached at editorinchief@rajagirimedia.com

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