Learning to teach

February 5, 2017

A refreshing primer from across the border on how to teach school children, redefining terms like ‘authority’ and ‘creativity’, making it extremely relevant for our own context

Learning to teach

I could hear the glee in my friend Neelam’s voice when I told him that I was at home, in Punjab, and that I’d been going to the school every day, ‘taking care of it’ so to speak.

"With great power comes great responsibility," he said once again.

He says that often and in fact embodies the responsible young farmer -- as opposed to my carefree wanderer self -- taking care of his farm and creating employment opportunities for a lot of people in his village in Assam; especially for the ones who need it the most.

But the way I’d been looking at it was that "with great responsibility comes great power". My mother was away in London helping Cim, my sister, with her baby and I was the substitute caretaker/teacher. And a rather poor one, I must say.

When my parents, both doctors, decided to start a school close to Papa’s ancestral village, about 10 kilometres outside Batala, they had little clue what they were getting into. That was 17 years ago. Gradually my mother, a tough practical woman, took over a major chunk of the responsibility of running the school. It seemed to come quite naturally to her -- maybe the fact that my grandmother was a teacher, an odd one out in a family of doctors, has something to do with that.

On my first day at the school, the children were all thrilled to see me in her stead. "Do you promise to come play with us?" some of them were asking me a few days later, "in the games period: the fourth period; Monday." And then they turned and asked again, "Ghuman Ma’am’s not going to be back by then, is she?"

I was even there for the parent-teacher meeting. That’s when the grandmother of one of the class tenth boys, while asking me to make sure he paid attention to his studies, confessed that he was very scared of my mother. "Even I’m terrified of your mother," she added after a pause.

I think a silent and disciplined kindergarten is one of the greatest injustices that schools today perpetrate, a disservice and a travesty in the name of education. The teacher there needs to be a guardian rather than a jailor, an entertainer rather than an authoritarian tyrant.

You need someone like that to run a big school I guess.

Though I never thought I’d be a teacher, and though I do not think of myself as one now, I do go into their classrooms and try and explain things that they find hard to understand. In two weeks I taught science, mathematics, poetry, history, geography and moral science to children aged 12 to 16. But along with that, they get a liberal doze of free-thought, for how can I help it if words have so much meaning in them! Often they’re like real-time fireworks going off in my head: convention, equality, freedom boom, boom, Ppffffffffffff……….    THHAAA!

And anyway what brought me there in the first place, and what gave me the courage to stand before them, was the idea that if I wanted to bring about a change in society, this was the place where its seeds had to be sown.

Teaching is by far the toughest job I’ve ever done. You need to bring this phenomenal amount of energy to the classroom every single day to match that of the children; and even more if you need to rouse them on the slow days!

What makes teaching so difficult is also that it is a form of specialised communication. This becomes obvious when seen from an animal cognition perspective, if you look at it like a sophisticated behaviour. To successfully teach something, the teacher must not only know the matter that has to be taught, but he/she must also understand the learners’ mental state -- the level of their knowledge as well as their perspective -- and then from there bring them step by step onto their own mental state.

Little wonder then that humans are the only animals known to be able to teach!

I had, until last year, blindly lashed out at our education system, lambasting alike people who prepared the teachers as well as those who prepared the books. I’m happy to state that I was pleasantly surprised to find the truth and stand corrected on both counts.

To be better prepared to teach, I glanced through the syllabus for the Bachelors in Education course here in India and found it as progressive in its outlook as it is comprehensive. One-third of it deals with the matter that is to be taught, one third with how it is to be taught, and one-third is dedicated exclusively to understanding children and childhood!

Front visual

And though there are books that I felt like asking them to tear up and throw in the dustbin (like in the Dead Poet’s Society) -- like the one called a moral reader for Class 5 that says boys are like their fathers and girls like their mothers; that fathers earn for the household while mothers keep it going by cooking and cleaning -- the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) books were a revelation. The Class 10 history book for example begins with a beautiful message for the teachers about how best to use the book and has thoroughly engaging chapters, each one written by experts in their field.

And the books provide ample opportunity for the teachers to draw the children out into discussions on topics that are socially relevant to them. Like the exercise in the Class 9 textbook for mathematics which first asks the children to plot the graph for the leading causes of illness and death amongst women worldwide, or the sex ratio amongst various demographic groups, and then asks them to discuss the possible reasons for the trends they see.

Another problem that I had been grappling with was that of authority. When you have 30 or more people -- children or adults -- in a room, it is no easy feat to hold all their attention simultaneously for any considerable amount of time. Add to this, the onerous task of trying to make each one of them understand sometimes tortuous concepts without any of them getting bored, and it becomes nearly impossible. I did not want to intimidate the children into silence and thus force their attention, which is what most classrooms in schools today force the teacher to do.

We got around the problem when my cousin Komal, and I were teaching a crash course in basic maths, by teaching them in batches. This was at the elementary school for street children run by the Guru Nanak Charitable Trust, at Gurmat Bhavan, Mullanpur, where we go and volunteer whenever we have the time. I’d teach the kids addition and subtraction, test them to see if they had understood the concept, and then send them over to her class to learn multiplication and division. But I could not do that here since this was a more organised school and I could not just send some of the children out to play while I taught the rest.

So I tried my best and sometimes failed as chaos prevailed and nothing could be taught or learnt; but then my occasional reward was the eerie moment of pin-drop silence when the whole class would have their eyes on me, all ears following my every word, all the faces turning in unison as I walked back and forth, weaving facts into tales of fiction, so that when I finally drew away the curtain and the smoke cleared, they’d have before them to freely see and touch -- the truth!

I  think a silent and disciplined kindergarten is one of the greatest injustices that schools today perpetrate, a disservice and a travesty in the name of education. The teacher there -- as elsewhere, but especially in the kindergarten -- needs to be a guardian rather than a jailor, an entertainer rather than an authoritarian tyrant, an intimate friend rather than an intimidating adult. It is a tall order and true, the remuneration is not commensurate to those job profiles yet, but we’ll get there someday I guess.

Children are individuals and you have to be able to know them as such. Each one is unique, and you have to learn about them before you can teach them.

It was at my Basic Mountaineering Course a few years back that I seriously began to think about authority. There I was, for the first time since leaving school, back in a hostel with a warden and the instructors to watch over us. I walked in in shorts and slippers, only to be told politely that that attire was fine as long as I stayed within the dorm -- pants and shoes were required everywhere else. That’s not what I signed up for I thought, but we didn’t really have a choice since the institute is run on the lines of an army institute.

Then came Shyam, a fellow coursemate from Tamil Nadu who spoke hardly any Hindi and was therefore, sadly, dubbed the Indian foreigner. No shorts, they told him, and he turned up in his vest instead of a t-shirt the next day. Shyam is a teacher at an alternate school in Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. When one of the teachers at that school shouted at the 50 odd kids to keep them quiet while eating lunch, Shyam took it up with the teacher later. "How can you ask 50 people who have no problem with their behaviour to change it as per the preferences of a minority, the 10 or so teachers?" he asked. "And what gives you the authority to shout at them?"

Their school at Thiruvannamalai is an interesting place. There is no concept of authority, and they strive to build all relationships based on mutual respect.

When I went there a couple of years back, I would often tag along to Shyam’s maths classes: him and two or three of the older children sitting under the neem tree. He would try and explain how speed was related to distance and time while the kids tried to guess the next word he would utter so they could jinx him into shutting up.

I find it strange that the children who, if they were to meet me at someone’s wedding or at their own house, would have talked to me normally now stand with their hands behind their back and take everything I say for granted, or are utterly unable to speak up, just because I’ve been introduced to them as a teacher in a classroom. No wonder they become someone completely else when the teacher’s back is turned; or when they’re fighting on the playground.

Children are individuals and you have to be able to know them as such. Each one is unique, and you have to learn about them before you can teach them. In 1983 an American developmental psychologist, Howard Gardener, described 9 types of intelligence: naturalist, musical, logical, existential, linguistic, interpersonal, intra-personal, bodily-kinesthetic, and spatial. Each one is indispensible for an all-round development, something utterly neglected in the assembly-line factory model that most schools are currently run on.

It is time we incorporate these into teaching and looked beyond making them skilled workers fitted out for a thankless job market.

When Mr. Manbir Bhullar, a Professor in the Department of English, at a university in Amritsar invited me to talk to his students last year, we weren’t sure what I was to talk about. He wanted me to tell them how I managed to dabble in poetry, and painting, while having studied science. So it was that I decided to talk about creativity, finding therein a link to string together poetry, art and the scientific world. Creativity is to look at things in a different way, I think I said then. But in the months since, I’ve begun to think of creativity as much more than just that.

I think it was while living in the field with Pilot many years ago that I first saw what practical creativity looks like. Pilot Dovih is a Naga of the Poumai tribe, who grew up in Senapati, a small town in Manipur. But, unlike my almost entirely urban childhood, he spent considerable time in the village with his grandparents. We were doing fieldwork in North-East India for and with our friend, Tamma. It was a study on rodent biogeography that required us to trap rats in undisturbed forests for tissue samples; and Pilot was also looking then for suitable questions for his own PhD.

At first I used to be exasperated by what seemed like his mindless destructiveness, as he’d carelessly hack away at trailside bamboo, almost as if in passing. But then later he’d have a new bamboo brush-holder outside his tent. And then in Fakim, the last village in Nagaland that we worked in, he actually proceeded to cut steps in the little mud slope in the middle of the village that everyone would just skitter down. I could never have thought of doing that in a million years!

My urban living, I realised, had left me so depauperate that I had begun to think only in terms of things that could be bought with money. I found it, and still often do, so hard to imagine making things on my own. It is like starting an essay with a quote that I wrote myself; or a poem!

All art is creative, and so I won’t dwell on that much. But in the classroom, I make it a point to stress on creativity as much as I can, because an education is supposed to supplement creativity, not subdue it. The children must believe that they have indeed been hoisted onto the shoulders of giants, and be able to reach up from there.

When teaching physics, for instance, I make sure that I don’t present it as a bundle of knowledge, finished and wrapped to be handed over from the teacher to the students. I try to present it as a niggling question that might have kept Edison or Newton awake, along with the premises that he was aware of, and then allow them to think of all possible answers. Why is that wall over there green? If we see things because they reflect light; and white light can be split into its seven component colours; then what indeed is colour?

History, more than being about just ‘what’ and ‘when’, has to be about ‘why’ and ‘how’. God forbid if they should begin to think of the laws of physics or the formulae in mathematics as static, given premises that cannot be questioned! Even in knitting, for instance, only if you know why you use a particular stitch in a certain place, can you then think of alternatives to it! Morality is not about a list of the good and the bad, but an instinct to know the good from the bad.

And whenever I see them thinking for themselves, I always strive to link it to the real world, to their immediate surroundings; because an education should prepare them for life. A good education should enable one to ask serious questions and be able to independently pursue their answers. It should allow them to formulate informed opinions and be able to back them with sound arguments. And they should be able to judge for themselves if something is right or wrong, over and above its legally or conventionally accepted status.

They should be able to think for themselves, for without that urge to think for themselves what hope do they have in our world today? And what hope have we, as a world?

Learning to teach