For a second we stop and look upwards.  There in the tree are three small owls, their downy heads and piercing, unblinking eyes face us whilst their bodies are hidden by the dark branch.  It is late afternoon in Santiniketan in West Bengal and the sun is going down, easing us from the heat and bringing a crowd of bicycles and cycle rickshaws as students and workers begin their journeys home.  Even now there are mercifully few cars.  We are at the place where Rabindranath Tagore began his experiment in education which began with the School (Patha-Bhavana) in 1901 and then extended to the University (Visva-Bharati) in the 1920s.  They are both now Government run institutions on a heritage site attempting to cling on to the original influence of the remarkable poet and educator.  Having had their fill of us, the three tiny owls fly away noiselessly.

 ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, awake.’
This well-known poem was published as part of Gitanjali by the Nobel Prize winning poet and educator, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1910.

There is a distinction about the school set up by Tagore in Santiniketan, even now; and this is that all lessons are taken outside.  We have walked around the sprawling campus and watched the children sitting under the trees.  They sit in a semi-circle with the teacher facing them, birds sing all around them, dogs come and lie nearby, cows meander past.  There is ample opportunity for day-dreaming, for letting the attention wander from the teacher.  And when the lesson is over the children move on to another class, sometimes they stop and play, or they become involved in chatting or an individual might find her or his gaze caught by something that is much more engrossing than the prospect of another lesson.  In all this the teacher’s authority is significantly changed by the loss of the four walls to contain her or his students: there is an equalizing quality that happens when learning takes place outside in Nature.
In a conversation that Paramahansa Yoganananda recorded in his book, ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ he noted that Tagore ‘fled from school after the Fifth Grade’.  ‘I could readily understand how his innate poetic delicacy would be affronted by the dreary disciplinary atmosphere of a schoolroom,’ stated Yogananda .
Tagore added,’ a child is in his natural setting amidst the flowers and the songbirds.  There he may more easily express the hidden wealth of his individual endowment.  True education is not pumped and crammed in from outward sources, but aids in bringing to the surface the infinite hoard of wisdom within.’ (My italics)

Certain aspects of freedom are beloved by the vast majority of children.  Watch them as they spill from their schools, as they race out into the open and metaphorically spread their wings in the relief of physical freedom. 

‘ Rabindranath believed in helping children realise the great potential human beings are born with… Freedom of man was the basic assumption and an interaction of man and nature; man and man; man and higher truth were considered the highest value.  Individual differences were not only respected, but were actually nurtured.  At the same time selfishness was condemned. Under these conditions competition was totally discouraged; punishment and stifling had no place in the system; stereotyped examinations were discarded….’
Supriyo Tagore  Principal of Patha-Bhavan for 22 years.

My wife, Maggie, and our youngest son, Josh, have made a short film based on interviews we held at Santiniketan and Rajghat-Besant Education Centre in Varanasi for a presentation at the Tagore Festival at Dartington Hall in 2011.  It contains a flavor of Tagore’s approach to education and extracts from two songs composed by him.  The link is if you care to watch.