“My mummy is angry when I (am) not sitting, when I (am) sitting, she is happy…”
This was shared by one of our three year olds during circle time today.
I want us to take a moment to let that sink in. That a three-year-old has observed his mother’s emotions and how they change in relation to his own behaviour. That he was so deeply moved by his observation that he felt it was important to share it with his friends.
What is striking though really, is that he has identified that him sitting down is important to his mother. This belief is probably reinforced by other well-meaning adults and caregivers who surround him, who equate being good with sitting down.
When I was a pre-university student I remember being really frustrated and telling a friend, ‘Schools are designed to keep us sitting, to keep us from wandering about, we just go from one place we sit down to the next…’. It seemed then like nothing more than a beautifully synchronized performance- from one bell to another, from one line to another, from one chair to another.
Later, as a student of sociology and cultural studies the truth of that statement seemed to ring more true in the context of the process of socialization and biopolitics. As any social institution is obliged to do, especially one that is responsible for a human being’s formative years, schools traditionally serve as the right arm of the state. Take Foucault’s take on anatamo-politics for instance:
“that discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and…punished” (Foucault 1976:242).
In other words, it is the vested interest of the state to atomize people to make them easier to govern and control.
Sitting down is therefore agreeable behaviour only from the point of control, of subjugation. I sincerely hope I am not naïve in believing that our days of authoritative teaching and parenting are well past us, that we have, in fact, globally moved on, well past this. While progressive schools around the world and even India (take DRSIS, where I work, for instance) have appreciably embraced flexible seating options in classrooms to a good extent, the teaching community at large still needs to reflect more deeply on its implications.
But before I trash the flexible seating movement for still not taking into account the inherent obvious constraints of sitting/the necessity to be seated itself, in the first place, it is important to ask a bigger question.
What really is the connection between sitting and learning?
I am tempted to trace its origins in India to the Upanisads. A very rich set of texts that are a vital part of our Indian heritage, ‘U-pa-nishat’ literally translates into ‘sitting at the foot of (the teacher)’. While the Upanisads contain vast depths of knowledge about the nature of reality, the self and all things esoteric and fascinating, it remains that it is part of an oral tradition (though later penned down) whose focus was receiving and transmitting information through generations. Given that we now not only have a strong history of written language and documentation, and that we no longer prescribe to a model of learning that is passive or teacher-centered, it is imperative that we probe this still lingering connection between sitting and learning.
Learning as an organic process, certainly does not require sitting down. That much is at least obvious. Our parents never sat us down literally, and pronounced ‘your name is so and so’. Learning your own name happens organically, whenever you are ‘called’, whenever you turn your head and realize you were being referred to, and this happens irrespective of whether you were standing, sleeping, upside-down or sitting. It can of course, be argued that to ‘learn’ a skill such as perhaps, pottery, you may need to be seated. My argument here is that learning, defined from the constructivist perspective (which is one that the IB PYP accepts and endorses) as connecting the new/unknown with the known, can happen at any time, anywhere, seated or not.
Flexible seating then, while admittedly a much better alternative to the traditional teacher-centered classroom, still needs to be rethought. Bean-bags, round-tables and throw-cushions do a great deal to make our classrooms less rigid and authoritative, but I believe we need to rethink the assumptions we are making about the connection between sitting and learning further. Is sitting differently, or on a more comfortable cushion qualitatively a better alternative to sitting on a traditional chair? Or can we move past this notion of sitting, to accommodate and invite learning styles and experiences that may altogether not need chairs? Can we move towards stopping equating sitting with being well-behaved and independent movement with ruckus?
Let’s make our little ones feel happy and confident, sitting or not!
– Ferzine Imtiaz