“The 21st century should be the century of peace and non-violence,” says the 14th Dalai Lama. Before one can dismiss this as naively optimistic, the 84-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader adds that this doesn’t mean a world without problems. Rather, problems should be faced through non-violence and dialogue. “Through education, we can achieve that kind of mental attitude,” he tells reporters in Delhi, ahead of the launch of a project he has been quietly overseeing for two decades now.
The SEE learning (social, emotional and ethical learning) — described as an education of the heart and mind — is a school curriculum for all classes from kindergarten to Std XII, developed by Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Sciences and Compassion-Based Ethics in the US, in association with the Dalai Lama Trust. Building on psychologist Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence in the early 1990s, SEE learning focuses on developing critical thinking, ethical reasoning and compassion and stresses on commonalities rather than on the differences.
Its non-sectarian approach makes it universally relevant and adaptable to diverse cultural settings. “While a lesson in discrimination can be taught through the lens of refugees in Europe, it can use local examples of the caste system or patriarchy to explore the same lesson in India,” Brendan Ozawa-de Silwa, SEE learning associate director, tells BL ink . “It’s not just about telling people to be kind. Students investigate something, and critical thinking informs them that it is more productive to be kind and compassionate,” Ozawa-de Silwa, who was in Delhi for the launch, adds.
In one of the early activities in the curriculum, children stand in a circle and play a ‘step in, step out’ game. “How many of you are girls?” the instructor asks. The girls step in. “How many of you like pizza?” Pizza lovers step in. “How many of you have felt sad?” “Or felt happy?” Almost all the kids step in. Each time they step in, the children look at each other and recognise their commonalities. The session ends with the children realising they have more in common than they imagined.
“As adults we often find ourselves focussing on the ‘other’ so much that we forget our common humanity,” says the Emory academic.
Another lesson, this time on empathy, involves narrating the story of a boy named Nelson. A school bully constantly harasses Nelson by snatching his ball whenever he plays with it. Angry at the bully, Nelson is naturally puzzled when he notices his teacher talking to him in a loving manner. He soon finds out from the teacher that the other boy’s mother is terminally ill and his father has abandoned them. Nelson learns that the bully is actually scared and lonely. The next day he walks up to him and invites him to play ball.
Ozawa-de Silwa points out that children have to understand what these concepts mean. Take lying. It is one thing to tell children not to lie. And it is quite another for them to realise — after perhaps weeks and months — that lying leads to people losing trust in them, because of which they lose friends. “If they go deeply into it, they will not lose it, even if the world outside convinces them to act against their grain,” he says.
The concept is now gaining ground. Nearly 15 lakh students in Delhi government schools were introduced to a ‘Happiness Curriculum’ last July . “Our efforts to teach emotions, values and ethics were limited to preaching. But you can’t preach ethics,” says Delhi’s deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. “We have borrowed from the teachings of the Dalai Lama. The results have been tremendous.”
Many of the children in government schools belong to poor families. The curriculum has helped them understand the complex faces of poverty and the struggles their families undergo, adds the education minister.
A mother, recalls Sisodia, was amazed at the change it brought in her son — from an angry boy always looking to pick a fight, today he checks if there is enough food left for her before eating his share.
The SEE learning team is next working to take the curriculum to 700 Tibetan schools, as also schools in Ladakh and Sikkim. “This is the solution to ending violence, the only solution to bring oneness in all human beings,” says Sisodia. The Dalai Lama mentions New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate approach after the Christchurch mosque shootings. “This is the only way. There is no other option,” he says.
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