Building Kings with Stories

23 Aug

‘Ek tha Raja.. start most stories told to children. We speak of wise and foolish kings, of spoilt and caring kings, of kings who made things better or made things worse. We hope to keep children entertained, we hope some kingly qualities will rub off on them.

And they do. Storytelling is one of our most powerful learning tools. Stories help us make sense of the world. They embed learning in easy doses, are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And in engaging our emotions – our fears and our fantasies – they have the power to keep on giving of themselves for years.

The tale of how the Panch-tantra was created is of course a part of the story itself. A king with five unruly sons who would not be tamed nor recognise their responsibilities were taught kingship through a series of stories – nominally five. They agreed to listen to five stories, but many hundreds were embedded in layers. In fact the Panchtantra is a masterful work not only for the stories and the lessons it teaches, but also because it teaches teachers how to teach – socratic dialogue, leading by questions, embedded learning, customised discourse, learning styles – all of that is executed superbly by the master teacher.

And one of the first lessons we take from this is that when we teach kings, we do not make the protagonist a king. Arrogance is not conducive to learning. We seek to learn from other perspectives. Understanding and empathising with other points of view develops a humility that enhances intelligences. I use the word intelligence in the plural with deliberation. It is not just academic intelligence that we acknowledge. While ‘multiple intelligences’ are still being debated, we do know that social skills are as important as knowledge and understanding – and none of these is of much use if physical skills to build things does not exist. A king must know of these intelligences and aspire to them. To be worthy of ruling is to train oneself to be more and better – and this is a constant quest.

Yet, as we teach our children via kingly stories, we rarely speak of the hours that Arjuna spent practicing his bow and arrow, and the thousands of bouts that Suyodhana and Bheem spent in deadly earnest. We rarely speak of the texts that kings memorised even as they woke up early to go hunting – hard work by any standards. Our kings in many stories are glorified dependents, consumers of luxury as they get to sit in judgement upon other humans. These are the stories that commoners tell themselves about kings. These are not the stories that make commoners into kings. Commoners become kings by doing more than others ever could think was possible.

Our quest, as teachers in times of liberal democracies is to ensure that each child is able to reach their potential, is able to become the king of what they they can create. We give them the ambition to become the king of their own castle, but do we give them the tools? Or, do we even lead by example? Our children do not become kings by command. A ruler is not one who can dash ahead when traffic stops for him, nor is a ruler one for whom all rules can be waived or purchased. A ruler is one who commands, by respect.

Of the many tools that make a ruler, the first that our children need to be taught is self reflection. The ability to think through a situation, the resources within, the consequences of action and the wise way forward. Today, as I was reminded fortuitously, is the Jain festival, Khammat Khamna – where one reflects on mistakes, seeks forgiveness. It is an opportunity for educationists to reflect and to pass on the habit of reflection on to the next generation.

Reflection need not be a sombre exercise at all. In class, it could be about writing a story together, or just a conversation once a week with the class teacher.It could be via moral science classes, or an occasional discussion about whether a cricketer made the right decision. It could be about a joke, or an article. As the sage of the Panchtantra taught us, all it needs is to be embedded and the child will absorb. And since it is a skill, a bit of practice, so the child knows how.

And then set the children on the path to becoming true kings, with wisdom in their tread and confidence in their hearts. Kings who build with empathy, with vision and with care. As they learn to build their little worlds in the classroom, so they will build their worlds outside.



This article was published in the Times of India blogs on August 21, 2012, linked here



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