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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 21 March 2011

Lighting a Fire

“Such fire in the heart of the twig!
Without being struck,
How will it ignite?”  (Kabir, Baahar Kyon Bhatke?)
Kabir, the 15th century mystic poet, poses this rhetorical question, and then goes on to suggest that self-discovery is the means to striking and igniting this twig.  As an educator, I believe that Kabir’s question is central to the very purpose of education since an educator’s goal is to help students discover themselves and unleash their own potential.
As a high school teacher, I spend much of my time contemplating the very idea of learning. What does it mean to learn? And how does one learn most effectively? And, importantly, what is the connection between learning and teaching? Oscar Wilde once wisely commented that “education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” The more I ponder what it means to learn, the more I become convinced that learning is an active process. We cannot learn by being taught. When we learn, we must be the subjects (not the objects) of the learning process.  We can only learn by actively engaging with an idea or a problem, and then constructing and creating meaning for ourselves. Memorizing information is not learning; it may be useful, but I don’t really think it is the same as learning. To learn, we must understand and/or create.  If learning is in fact something that the student must do on his or her own, then what is the role of the teacher? And what is teaching? What is the connection between what I do in the classroom and what my students learn?
The first step towards effective teaching is gaining an understanding of what it means to learn. Once a teacher fully acknowledges that learning has to be active, that it cannot be passive, then the teacher has to cede much of the power in the classroom to students and create a classroom environment that provides students with opportunities to engage actively with texts, problems, ideas, words, technology, art etc. Popular educational jargon advocates that teachers should be the “guides on the side” instead of the “sages on the stage.”
When I think back to my most memorable learning experiences, I realize that many (most) of them occurred outside the classroom. I have vivid memories of warm summer days in Kodaikanal, when I was seven years old. Every afternoon, I would take my book and sit quietly under the shade of the big wide tree in front of our summer house. I’d open up to a dog-eared page and enter a magical world of enchanted forests and adventurous lands. I would slowly work my way through a couple of chapters each afternoon, and finally, a few days before our Kodai vacation ended, I finished that last chapter. Even today, I remember the exhilaration I felt as I read an entire chapter book independently for the very first time. I learnt many important things that summer: that I could read on my own, that reading was magical, that ideas and imagination are wondrous. I learnt new words and new ways of structuring sentences and narratives. No one taught me anything, but I learnt so much. Since that first book, I have had many, many intense learning experiences through my engagement with books, stories, and ideas. And, most often, I have not had a teacher guiding me through these learning experiences.
Much of my learning has come from my experiences. When I watched my father suffer and die, I learned powerful lessons about the human experience, and similarly, when I experienced the miracle of pregnancy and birth, I learned equally powerful lessons about life and humanity. One cannot be taught these things, but they are incredibly powerful, moving, frightening, and humbling learning experiences.
Through my travels and my various teaching experiences, I have learned much about people, culture, history, politics, language, and life. As a child, I understood the brutal inequities that characterize Indian society because I saw them all around me; I could see the stark contrast between the privileged life I led as a child and the tough lives that our domestic helpers lived. As an adult, I began to fully understand the ways in which privileged people like me cause and perpetuate these inequities. I began to see the mechanisms that cause and sustain these brutal disparities.
Similarly, I began to fully understand the politics of race and class in America when I worked as a teacher in a failing middle school in Baltimore city. I began to understand the rage that simmers and explodes in disenfranchised Black communities across America. And I began to see how institutionalized racism works to create a two-tiered world in the richest country on our planet.
And of course, as I supplemented these real world experiences with books and conversations, I began to understand these experiences more fully. I learn when I see, when I interact with people, when I read, when I think. That is how I learn. I know that for many people, learning occurs when they engage with the natural world, with a machine, or with objects. That is how visually-spatially oriented people learn.  Regardless of what or who one engages with to learn, the key to learning is the process of active engagement. Of reading, of thinking, of painting, of programming, of talking, of looking. We learn when we use our brains and our bodies to do something active. We don’t learn when a teacher talks unless we are really listening carefully and thinking critically about what the teacher is saying. If learning is, in fact, a process that occurs independently of a teacher, then what are teachers for? What’s our real role? What do we teachers need to do to facilitate the learning process?
Once a teacher begins to understand the nature of learning, she must alter what she does in a classroom. She must begin to focus not on her own teaching but on the learning process of her students. How does one do this? Is the key in the choice of topics and texts to give students? Is it in the design of activities and tasks for students to work on? Is it in the conversations (discussions and debates, for example) that one has with students, or, better yet, that one facilitates between students in the classroom? Is it in the feedback we give students as they work through sustained projects over time? Is teaching really about motivating or inspiring a child to begin that process of active engagement? And if so, how should a teacher motivate or inspire? By modelling a love of learning? By designing tasks that motivate and inspire? By rewarding effort and initiative? How should a classroom be structured to truly facilitate deep and thoughtful learning?

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