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Who Will Teach Emperor Akbar?...Who do we learn from? Who learns from us?

I always look for something deeply meaningful to start the new term or the new year and this one seemed like the perfect read for my first class of the New Year, 2022.

The length of this book, belies its scope. Just half the usual length of a picture book, this simple story with it’s beautiful, illustrations will leave the reader not just poring over the details but also reflective.

At first, this may seem like a simple Akbar-Birbal story, but take this on by encouraging reflection and sharing and this slip of a picture book, packs a punch.

Emperor Akbar thinks that he is not smart enough. There are so many things that he does not know. One day, on watching a few scholars deep in discussion, he expresses that he would like to learn everything. He orders Birbal to arrange classes for him starting the next day.

The next morning, when Akbar arrives at his durbar, he is shocked to find the hall full with all kinds of people. From children to elderly people, from scribes to merchants, from sages to simpletons, from dancers to warriors and more people than he could identify.

Angry that Birbal had not understood his brief, Akbar demands an explanation.

Birbal, in his trademark style poses a series of questions to Akbar.

“Do you know how to amuse yourself for hours, playing in the sand, Emperor?”

“Do you know how to get stains off clothes?”

“When to harvest a crop?”

“Who to manage your house on a poor man’s budget?”

The questions go on and Akbar’s answer to each was…NO.

Then, says Birbal, every one in this room has something to teach you.

Understanding what Birbal means, Akbar poses him a question…”Then you are a learner too, Birbal? I thought no one could teach you!!!”

What do you think Birbal’s answer is?

This story is simple, yet the text and illustrations pack such a punch that it gave my students plenty of food for thought.

My idea is using this book at the start of the year, was for them to be able to look at their friends and classmates and appreciate them for their knowledge, skills and qualities. It was easy for them to think about what they could learn from each other…and the sharing was just the sweetest.

I expanded their thinking by prompting the to think about the adults around them and then further to people they may notice around them, but to whom they may never have spoken.

As an educator my idea and hope was that they would be able to appreciate everyone around them. Unfortunately, even the best of intentions, planning and prep can sometimes not be enough. Most of the younger children were unable to think beyond their immediate circle.

I did use this with older students 9+, who were able to appreciate the strengths and talents of the others around them, more easily.

Children also reflected on their own strengths. My prompt was to think about themselves...what did they think others could learn from them? This one was met with silence, and I realised that we hardly ask children to think about their own strengths. Helping children look at themselves and learn to appreciate themselves can build confidence in their abilities.

Often, mid-session, I find that I need to revisit my expectations and make the most of the responses that are offered to me by the children. Post session reflections, have me going over what I would do differently next time.

Looking beyond the short story that this is, I would look at using this book along with a book about the dignity of labour, a book which challenges out preconceived ideas of those who do menial ’lowly’ jobs,

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land - Dignity of Labour in our Times, by Kancha Illaiah is one such book.

Paired together, one will support the idea of valuing those around us.



Social Awareness: Respect for others, appreciating diversity, perspective taking

Self Awareness: Recognising strengths, accurate self perception


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What a helpful pairing of titles. And very interesting age division that you identified. I imagine that village v. city students might have a different take. Your key point: valuing the people around us, is a huge lesson in democracy! May I suggest another prompt?: what do I learn from people in the books I read.

JoAnne Saldanha
JoAnne Saldanha
Feb 28, 2022
Replying to

That is a wonderful prompt, Anne. I will tuck it away and use it with a suitable book soon. Thank you.

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