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Friday 21 November 2014
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Cutting across learners' minds

A teacher who cannot connect with the learners is boring a generation to death. He is guilty of culpable homicide. If he is not killing them, he is creating permanent learning disabilities, observes Debashis Chatterjee .

During a question and answer session with teachers, Mahatma Gandhi was asking them about the subjects they taught. The answers were predictably around each teachers’ expertise - history, geography and mathematics. Gandhi turned around and asked a crucial question; does anyone teach a student here?

Here is another question that can amplify what Gandhi was asking; what is more important to a teacher - the content of teaching or the brain state of the learner? If downloading the content is all that matters, then teachers end-up becoming content fillers like those gas station salesmen who fill cars with petrol.


The teachers’ obsession with finishing syllabus truly makes learning a function of periods rather than in line with the mental capacity of learners. Some learners may take one period to learn the laws of thermo dynamics while some others may take several periods. Students learn best, not when they are racing against time but when they are able to set their own pace and learn in their own way.

Discovering learners

Covering the curriculum is a perennial obsession that teachers have. This is like a still photographer trying to capture the journey of a flying plane through the lens of a camera. The lens only captures a small image of the plane – it cannot really cover the entire dynamism of a huge jet plane roaring through the air. Learning is like a jet plane moving up against gravity and the resistance of the atmospheric conditions. You have to be inside the plane to experience some of that. Teachers who are only hung up with the curriculum do not quite experience the thrill and adventure of teaching or learning. They are like a still photographer trying to capture learning from the outside.

 To use another more familiar example, the curriculum is like the menu card in a restaurant. Discovery of the learner is like eating the dish you ordered from the menu. The proof of a pudding is not in the description of it in the menu, but in the tasting of it. Once a teacher samples the enchantment that is inside the learner, she has truly discovered the learner. Once the curiosity of the learner is evoked by the teacher, the curriculum is spontaneously covered.

Teachers who enliven

Professor Yash Pal is of one India’s most iconic teachers. A doctor in physics from MIT, he has been an institution builder and a great communicator of complex science subjects. He has demonstrated that science can be enlivened.  If a student asked a good physics teacher what ‘gravity’ was; he would get an explanation that would be largely conceptual or mathematical.  Here is how Professor Yash Pal would explain gravity to students.

He would draw a circle representing the circumference of the earth. Then he would draw pictures of tiny human figures standing around the circle. He would point to a human form on the top of the circle and say, “He is standing upright right at the top. That is not so surprising. But look at this fellow standing upright at the bottom of the earth. Do you now know what gravity is all about? The whole class is enlivened by the mystery that gravity is.

Great teaching is the ability to distinguish between what can and needs to be explained and what cannot be explained. The working of a computer needs to be explained as it is made by the human mind. But a butterfly need not always be explained. A butterfly has to be seen with the lively eyes of wonder as it is a natural expression of life and not of the mind

Nurturing values

Think of what a traffic police or a doctor does for a living! The traffic cop regulates the flow of chaotic traffic. The physician strives to bring your physical body to its orderly functioning. How do they do it? The traffic cop does it by mastering a consistent set of rules by which traffic moves, slows down and stops.

The physician does it by measuring and regulating the vital signs of the body such as pulse rate, body temperature and respiratory rate. The physician addresses the value of health and a traffic cop upholds the value of orderly traffic.

The educator in a school, regulates behaviour of students in and outside the class. This is just the outer aspect of the teacher’s role. The real goal of the teacher is to bring about coherence of values that binds the school as a community. Three of the values that create learning communities are; commitment to truth, absence of fear, and reverence for life and nature.

Mastering the crafting

Qualified teachers are aplenty, but quality teachers are so rare! Teaching is a craft rather than a qualification. Learning to be a quality teacher is like learning to make vintage wine. Both require time and years of culture. I served as an apprentice to a great teacher who asked me to just sit in his class and listen, just listen for two years! Each time I would want to utter a word, he would signal me to keep quiet. Listening, though somewhat forced like a bottle of wine locked up in a cellar, ultimately helped me in my maturation as a teacher.

The real problem in the schools of today is the teacher.  Most teachers are not happy being teachers. More often than not, they are forced to take up the profession because of the security of a ‘job’. After acquiring a degree in education, many teachers get into a groove of subject teaching. They start teaching to tests.

Their minds and hearts harden prematurely without the inner maturity that comes from Self awareness. Qualified teachers who lack those qualities of head and heart such as authenticity and empathy for students are like teaching machines. They churn out an assembly line of students for the competitive world outside.

In the process what the world gets are unthinking, ruthless and corrupt men and women who lead our societies.Quality teachers evolve through constant practice of their craft and diligent self reflection. If they are lucky, they get inspiring mentors who give them valuable feedback and insights into their own strengths and vulnerabilities.  I have heard that it takes no less than ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery over any craft.

That would mean three to four hours of practice every day for ten years at a stretch. Teachers can spend ten thousand hours repeating the same lessons over and over again till the cows come home. Alternatively, they can reflect on how they teach, and learn from their own mistakes. This way they can eventually master the craft of teaching!

Transmission loss

A fundamental truth about the teaching profession is that nothing is taught until it is learnt. This means that a teacher may be very learned, yet the students in his class may not learn much at all. I have had a teacher who would appear in class like Hamlet mumbling monologues.  The moment he entered the class there would be a ripple of yawns from a large cross section of the students.

While the class was on, they would pretend to blow noses, throw paper missiles at each other and even vigorously shake their wrists wondering if time had stood still inside their watches.

Between a well intentioned teacher and a disappointed learner there is a huge transmission loss. This loss happens in the battle field between the current of knowledge broadcast by the teacher and the resistance of succeeding generation of bored students. What gets lost in transmission is not just information but also energy and enthusiasm for learning.  A teacher who cannot connect with the learners is boring a generation to death. He is guilty of culpable homicide.

If he is not killing them, he is creating permanent learning disabilities. One way to prevent transmission loss between teaching and learning is to ask each student at the end of the class to prepare a note on what they learnt. They can then share their notes with each other in groups of four or five.

This will ensure not just learning from the teacher but also from the peer group.  The critical thing here is knowledge that a teacher possesses will have to cross the brain barrier of students in order that this frozen knowledge begins to flow through the minds and hearts of learners.

(The writer is the director of IIM, Kozhikode.)

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