Monday, 7 April 2014

F is for First...as in First Principle of True Teaching

In yesterday's paper I spotted an article that brings home the point that in all the current election frenzy in India, hardly anyone is speaking for Education. Hardly any political contender is concerned about this most important issue concerning the future of India. This is quite sad, actually. The bulk of the article was concerned about the sad state of teacher education in India, and the issues concerning the standardization of teacher preparation and the problems with Teacher Eligibility Test - a political gimmick that is doomed to fail and will do more damage than good to the profession of teaching. A measure that is based on an extremely narrow and "industrial" view of what education really is and what teachers should do in the classroom.

This issue of teacher education is, however, very significant. How should a society prepare its teachers? This and some future posts in this series will address some selected aspects in this regard.

According to Sri Aurobindo, the first principle of true teaching is that "nothing can be taught.”

What a profound statement indeed!

It seems that the problem lies in this very idea that one can teach something to another. Isn’t that so? If nothing really can be taught, what is it that we are trying to teach? Perhaps the word “teach” itself needs to be rethought and re-understood. It is not about "teaching" something that is outside of the child, whatever is inside the child has to be evoked through education, with educators playing the role of facilitators. That is what Sri Aurobindo wants us to get from this principle, in my understanding.

Sri Aurobindo explains further on this first principle of true teaching in these words:
"The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught. The teacher is not an instructor or task-master, he is a helper and a guide. His business is to suggest and not to impose. He does not actually train the pupil’s mind, he only shows him how to perfect his instruments of knowledge and helps and encourages him in the process. He does not impart knowledge to him, he shows him how to acquire knowledge for himself. He does not call forth the knowledge that is within; he only shows him where it lies and how it can be habituated to rise to the surface. The distinction that reserves this principle for the teaching of adolescent and adult minds and denies its application to the child, is a conservative and unintelligent doctrine. Child or man, boy or girl, there is only one sound principle of good teaching. Difference of age only serves to diminish or increase the amount of help and guidance necessary; it does not change its nature." (CWSA, Volume 1, p. 384)
The last part of the above quote must be read again. Here Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that this principle can be and must be applied to education at all levels, for learners of all ages.

Educators and curriculum-designers must dig deep into the value of this principle before worrying about how it can be applied in actual classrooms.

One of most essential benefits an educator can gain from a reflection on the first principle is a gift of humility. When I look back at my experience of many years as an educator in higher education (postgraduate and beyond) I see intellectual arrogance as one of the distinct characteristics of majority of the professorial class in the academy. Experts. That’s what professors like to call themselves. Experts in what? Experts who study and learn of the outer knowledge about things. But what about the expertise in embodying the basic ideas that help us become better human beings? Experts on peace study peace, but may not live peacefully. Experts on conflict resolution may be at the root of big conflicts in the workplace. Experts on education may be teaching in the most un-creative ways. Experts in organizational development may be causing more problems for the organization because of their ideological standpoint. What can these experts teach their students? Only to know what can be known from distance, from outside, not to really live the values, not to embody the spirit of knowledge.

If teachers truly become mentors and guides for their students, surely they can’t be “experts” – they have to be humble learners alongside their students’ learning journeys. Experts speak from a position of their expertise; mentors offer suggestions for students to explore and come to their own decision. Experts know the right formula, mentors are willing to say that they don’t have the answer but they are willing to explore with the student. If nothing can be taught, it only means that all can be learned. So teachers and students learn together as they work together – they just may have different roles but they are both seekers in their own unique ways.

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N.B. - In some of the comments I have heard from the readers so far in this series, it has been pointed out that some of the ideas and thoughts I am sharing here are so far removed from the actual reality out there in our classrooms and schools. I don't deny this, not at all. And in fact I think that is the very reason why I am doing this series in the first place. Unless we know what alternatives may be possible, how will we ever want to make any changes in the way things are done at present? Unless we can envision a new way, how will we begin the journey? Let me also add that things don't change en masse, all meaningful and worthwhile change starts small, very small, often with a handful or sometimes even one person at a time. And some of it is already happening...in a few corners here and there, in not really every aspect all at the same time, but certainly in a few areas despite all the challenges and roadblocks along the way, the biggest roadblock being the mindset itself.



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This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in the series.