- Observation: attitudes of students have changed…
- Guru is not necessarily a brahmo or devo. As a service provider, there is no leeway or tolerance for a teacher,
- Teacher has to enable the student to reach their goals, without the student willing to learn.
- Entire paradigm or process of education is based assumption that the student wants to learn or shares some of the responsibility for their own learning. Looking at today’s folks, I get an attitude like similar to them in a theatre… “ I am here and now let us see how you entertain us, even if I don’t want to be entertained” like saying make something go into my head, inspite of me.
- Am finding schools that are doing everything like photocopying or emailing notes. So kids don’t write. They just have to listen/read/vomit. Where is the synthesis part, the part of education that makes students go through certain actions, rituals that have a certain impact on the mind somehow… or is there a need to rethink the ritual from the goal a bit like rethinking business because of the eBusiness paradigm?
The dilemma of the modern corporate enter-trainer
One of my friends who is a corporate trainer/teacher/facilitator, wrote to me on Teacher’s Day and talked about how the nature of training/teaching has changed.
Having been a trainer/teacher/facilitator/consultant for the past 35 years I have had the opportunity to observe the change in the environment, especially in the Indian corporate world. There was a time when the teacher was someone who was right by default. Teacher’s tolerance levels were low. Students had to accept what was told to them. Questioning the teacher was tantamount to being impertinent and disrespectful and was not acceptable. Arguing or disagreeing with the teacher was not even heard of. The archetypical model of the ‘rebellious’ student was that of Eklavya in the Mahabharat who had to pay the Gurudakshana of his right thumb to Dronacharya for daring to learn what his teacher did not intend to teach him.
Today we see a total change with the proverbial boot on the foot of the student. Trainers eat or starve depending on the fickle likes and dislikes of students. Teachers are judged not on the basis of what the students learned, realized or felt able to practice in their lives, but on the basis of whether or not they ‘liked’ the teacher. Giving critical feedback to the student (many of whom incidentally as my friend says do not even consider themselves in need of learning nor are they even called ‘student’) is an activity fraught with danger. The danger that the fragile ego of the student may get bruised in the process and his lovely self-image of being God’s gift to mankind may be shaken and he may be displeased. Being ‘liked’ by students seems to be the single most important consideration.
This means that the price of giving some well deserved adverse feedback or of challenging some pet position of a student can mean that on the Trainer Dashboard the trainer’s rating may go down by one or two sub-points from 9.8 to 9.3 which translates very simply to kissing that client goodbye. In some cases of course the HR professional who handles training is also a trainer and understands the complexity of the job. They sit in the training class and know the style of the trainer. They also know the profile of the students well enough to know what must have led to the feedback. They are focused on what is good for the organization which is why the training was being done in the first place. So they simply ignore the feedback and a trainer who has the commitment to say what the students need to hear and not what they like to hear, retains his job.
On rare occasions s/he is even appreciated and thanked for saying to the student what everyone else was dying to say but dared not. On the other hand when the HR professional either has no training experience themselves or if their personal anxiety is so high that they are totally focused on the training being ‘liked’ and the students having ‘fun’, then you have the scenario that I presented above. In such situations ‘intelligent’ trainers become ‘entertainers’ to ensure that they continue to eat and leave the fate of the student to himself. One can hardly blame them for focusing on being liked, when being liked is more important and gets rewarded more than being useful.
Truly it has been said that we get what we pay for. When we focus on fun, we get ‘funny’ trainers. People have fun and may learn something in the same way that if you throw seeds on the ground some will germinate irrespective of all conditions. But if you had taken the trouble to prepare the ground first by ploughing, harrowing, irrigating and manuring and then you carefully planted the seeds, a far higher percentage would germinate and more importantly, grow and bear fruit. So also if an atmosphere of serious learning (which can still be great fun) is created, with students wanting to learn, believing that they can benefit, be willing to invest their time and thought in learning and be willing to listen to feedback, then the benefits of learning would be far higher. Naturally in such a case what the organization would need to measure is the size of the harvest – what did the students learn and what are they able to apply. Not whether or not they liked the trainer per se.
Now having said that, and being aware that what I have described above is not what happens in most organizations and probably is not likely to happen, what is it that the trainer can still do both to ensure that he continues to eat as well as not compromise his own integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or experience in order to ensure that he continues to have work? In my own life I have always held my own integrity as a teacher above all other considerations, including future business. I have said what students needed to hear even if it was what they did not want to hear. In two cases I lost business on that account, but I have no regrets about that. In every other case in 35 years, people have come back to me time and again and thanked me for putting them back on track when they had gone off and nobody else had the courage to ‘tell it like it is’. In this process of doing what is essentially a very challenging and complex job I developed some techniques which I will try to share with my fellow professionals in the hope that they will find them useful. I call them my 7-Point Formula.
1. Today I will teach like I’ve never taught before
I have said this before and I will say it again: NEVER compromise your own integrity as a teacher. When you enter that room, the only responsibility that you have is to your students. Not to their company. Not to the HR or Business Manager who hired you. Not to your own family or yourself. Your first and only responsibility is to the students and that is to ensure that they get the best that you can possibly give them without any compromise. So as a trainer/teacher I tell myself: TODAY I WILL TEACH LIKE I’VE NEVER TAUGHT BEFORE. I am a religious person and so before I go to my class, I pray for the class. I ask Allah to enable me to do my best and to give them the very best of what I know and to enable them to benefit from it.
2. Own your responsibility: Don’t blame the student if he does not like what you tell him. I ask myself, “How could I have put it differently so that he would have accepted it more easily, even if he still did not ‘like’ it?” After all, my effort in this direction can only do me good by helping me develop my own skill. Blaming the student will achieve no purpose at all, either for myself or for the student. Now how can you do that?
The first requirement is to ask yourself why you want to say what you plan to say. Is it to ‘get back at’ or to ‘retaliate’? Or is it because you are genuinely concerned for the student? Granted that it is very difficult to be ‘genuinely concerned’ about some obnoxious stranger but if you are not, it shows. Just as it does when you are. I am always amazed at how much I can get away with if I have ‘passed’ my own test of genuinely caring for the student, first.
One of the ways to help people swallow bitter pills is to ask good questions that lead the student to the only possible option. Let them conclude. Don’t tell. But in the end, even if you lose the contract, say what you need to say without fear. Because your integrity is worth more than the fee.
3. The third thing that I remind myself is to be patient. Ideally I would like the student who has just received some ‘straight talk’ from me to become transformed and fall at my feet in gratitude for having changed his life. But that is as likely to happen as it is for the cow to jump over the moon. So we need to be patient. I remind myself that an egg needs 21 days to hatch into a chick. Jacking up the temperature will cook the egg and put paid to all hopes of the egg ever transforming into a chicken. “Hang on!! Old egg,” I tell myself.
4. I ask myself, “How can I become more ‘liked’ without compromising my integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or insights? After all what is wrong with being liked?” It helps me to remember this especially when I have to give anyone critical feedback. What I do if it is feedback concerning one individual is to give it privately and not in the class. I do it with seriousness, concern for his/her feelings, but I do it directly without beating about the bush. I never give that critical feedback concerning one person as a general comment before the whole class. For example if there is someone who is vitiating the learning of other people by too much of misplaced humor, I don’t say, “I think it is a good idea to be serious,” or some such thing. I NEVER USE SARCASM. I wait for a break and then take the individual aside and say to her/him, “You know, I love your humor but I find it seems to be giving others an escape route not to look at uncomfortable things about themselves. I know that is not your intention in laughing, so do you think you could watch for that and ensure that people get to look at insights seriously?” I say this with a smile because it is my experience that if you say it with a smile you can say almost anything and get away with it.
5. I remind myself that the student who can instigate people and distract them while I am teaching has just demonstrated amazing leadership qualities. My challenge is not to put them down but to ensure that those leadership qualities are channeled in the right direction. So I treat such people as potential allies and ‘co-trainers’. I have never had an instance of this confidence being misplaced.
6. People pay attention to things that they think will benefit them. So how can I show ‘What’s in it for them’ to my students by giving them a glimpse of what I can do for them, if they allow me to? How can I give them a sampling of my knowledge and experience in the context of their needs? How can I show them that I know enough about them, their lives, their culture, organization, circumstances, challenges and aspirations to be able to give them implementable solutions that will help them to succeed? How can I demonstrate to them that they are the most important people for me and that there is nothing within reason that I will not do to ensure that they have a beneficial, enjoyable and memorable experience? Especially since that is the truth.
7. When I start my class I ensure that I greet each individual personally and then I do my best to remember their names. This is easier than you may think and has a huge effect on people and shows respect for the individual and is the best way that I know to build a rapport very quickly. Show me someone who does not want to be respected.
I also try to speak to students in their language. Since I speak 5 languages, that’s fairly easy to do. It is not necessary to speak at great length in their language. A few words do very well to break the ice and to establish a connection and a level of comfort.
I then draw attention to the fact that the student needs to invest time, energy and effort in their own learning. And I do that humorously.
For example I say to them:
“There are three kinds of people who come to a training class:
Prisoners: Who have been sent (sentenced) to the training.
Tourists: Who come because the location is reputed to be good.
Learners: Who come because they genuinely believe that they need to learn.
My submission to you is that whatever be the reason you came, it is a good idea to become a learner as quickly as possible. Believe me that will not spoil the location or the taste of the food and it will release you from your ‘prison’.”
Listen is not equal to obey: It is very curious that in most languages (certainly true for the ones that I know) listen means ‘to obey’. For example parents are heard to lament about their children: ‘My children don’t listen to me.’ But the truth is that if you gave all the kids hearing aids, it would still not solve the parent’s problem because it has nothing to do with listening but everything to do with obeying. So I say to my class, “There is no compulsion on anyone to accept or obey anything that I say.
Or anything that any of your colleagues say. In this class, listen means to listen only. Do you think you can listen to whatever someone says, consider it, hold it in your mind, play with it, ask questions to clarify any doubts, before deciding if it is applicable, useful or interesting for you? God gave us two ears so that we can take in all inputs from one and let them out from the other. But he placed them on either side of the head so that the input goes through the brain before it is allowed to leave through the other ear. Do you think you can practice this for the duration of this program?”
The benefit of this approach is that it lowers barriers and breaks the ice. When you draw attention of people to the fact that many of us react defensively because we are conditioned to believe that listen = obey and so fear that unless we interrupt the speaker or react defensively it will be assumed that we have accepted what he/she has said. When you clarify this behavioral process and show people the alternative of making the communication a ‘batch’ process instead of being the default ‘real time on-line’ process that it usually is, then resistance to new ideas becomes significantly lower.
I give people the example of the motor mechanic (or any mechanic for that matter) and his toolbox. I ask them, “Who is a better equipped mechanic? One who has many tools or one who has only one?” Then I say to them, “If you asked a mechanic about the tools in his toolbox it is entirely likely that he would have one or more tools which he would not have used in a long time. Imagine that you said to him, ‘Since you haven’t used this wrench for such a long time, why don’t you just throw it away?’ What do you think the mechanic would say? In the same way, consider all learning as tools and keep it in your toolbox. You never know when you might need it. Variety gives you flexibility and options. On the other hand as the saying goes – If the only thing you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”
Finally I draw attention of my students to the issue of applying their learnings. For me that is the most important consideration and I do everything in my power to ensure that whatever I teach is applicable in real life. I do my best to help my students to find practical solutions to their problems and do all I can to encourage them to feel comfortable to apply whatever they learn from me. This is where my own 16 years hands-on experience as a line manager helps enormously. I am able to give work-life related examples of challenging situations that I have been in and how what they just learned can be applied.
I use this diagram to alert them to the fact that most learning means changing behavior and that is not easy or painless. Depending on how drastic the change is, the pain of trying the new method is proportionate. Most people don’t anticipate this difficulty and when they encounter suspicion, resistance or disbelief from those who have become used to the old behavior, they tend to give up the new way after a while. So the potential benefit of the change is never realized.
It is a very good idea therefore to be prepared for two things:
1. Practicing the new behavior is not likely to be easy and may cramp your style for a while and make you slower and less efficient in the short term.
2. Others are likely to see your new behavior as being ‘put on’ and to view it with a mixture of suspicion, distrust and amusement. Especially if the new way is a drastic departure from the old way.
However what is equally true is that if the new way is practiced consistently and sincerely, then people start to trust the new ‘You’ and to enjoy the change. Then you will start getting some positive strokes which will reinforce the new methods. Behavioral change is possible and enjoyable, but it takes a little time.
In conclusion I would like to wish all my colleagues the very best in their efforts to make this world a better place. Believe me; the results justify the effort and energy that it sometimes takes. I teach not because I have no choice but because I do and I would rather not be doing anything else including fishing or golfing. Because in the end, if you have worked sincerely, with professional integrity, sensitivity and awareness and have tried to do the best that you could have done; then you will be the biggest beneficiary. Now why would I want to do anything else?
Finally it is good for all concerned, teacher and pupils to remember these words of ancient wisdom from the Smruthies:
Achaaryaath paadam aadatthe;
paadam sishya swamedhayaa;
paadam sa brahmachaaribhya;
sesham kaala kramena cha
A person can get only one quarter of knowledge from the Achaarya – the teacher, another quarter by analyzing himself, one quarter by discussing with others and the last quarter during the process of living by method: addition, deletion, correction, and modification of already known aachaaraas.
Of late I, have been reading many articles on ‘Homeschooling’ – which term when written like this seems to have acquired the status of legitimacy instead of being wrong spelling. The need for a hyphen is apparently no longer felt. ‘Home’ and ‘School’ are evidently no longer two different places, either geographically, physically or emotionally.
The latest of these articles is below. A very dear friend who homeschools (verb) sent me this article http://read.bi/2iRMo7E which got me motivated to write my own.
My own education was simultaneously in a Madrassa (Jamia Ilahiyat Nooria) and one of the finest secular schools in India (Hyderabad Public School) and the equivalent of homeschooling with Mohini Rajan and Venkat Rama Reddy (read about it in my book, ‘It’s my Life’, Kindle http://amzn.to/2cAtAJi). Later I graduated in History, Political Science and Urdu and post-graduated in Management (IIMA) and Applied Behavioural Science (ISABS). My father was a medical doctor with a love for literature and poetry which he shared (even imposed) on his children. And a mother who was a poet (among many other things). My childhood and upbringing was not ‘normal’ in any sense of the term. And there I believe lies the trick in making learning effective. It is less to do with the location (home or school) or the child and his or her ability to choose (more on this later) but much more on the quality and variety of input the child receives.
Take this quote from the article: “If Milva McDonald’s girls don’t like the subject, she told Boston Magazine, then they move on to something else. “I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at,” she says.”
To be in charge of making choices one must first be informed about what they are and what they are likely to lead to. Choice can’t be left simply to subjective likes and dislikes. I don’t mean to imply that Milva does or did that. My point is that people can’t make intelligent and productive choices until they understand the consequences of their choice. I am making a point relating to the ‘qualification’ of parents to become homeschool teachers and saying that homeschool teacher education plays a huge role in the quality of homeschooling. For homeschooling to adequately prepare positive and productive citizens of the world, whether or not they go to Harvard, it is essential that the child is exposed to a variety of life experiences, challenges, joys and grief, success and failure, competition and collaboration. It is essential that the child is grounded in his culture, faith and religion and is then exposed to other cultures, faiths and religions which are very different from his own. It is essential that before being exposed to difference and diversity, he has the tools to deal with this experience so that he learns without confusion or anger and is responsive and not reactive.
My specialization as a leadership development expert with a global practice is in helping technical specialists transition into leadership and management roles. What I have noticed with great alarm is the effect of a totally skewed ‘education’ that prepares people with advanced technical knowledge but with an ignorance about the world that would have been alarming at best, were it not for the fact that it is into the hands of such technical experts that we have given over the most dangerous tools and toys that we own. We didn’t stop to ask while training them what the value was of learning about the world that they were going to apply their technology to.
As a result of this skew in learning at its most benign level we have the inconvenience of bad design. But at its most malignant level we have weapons of mass destruction which as we speak are being used by the most powerful nation in the world in seven theatres of war, killing millions of people and rendering tens of millions homeless; destroying lives and economies and doing all this without any sanction from their own people and without any reference to democratic process. I bet not a single one of those making life and death decisions about others has read ‘War and Peace’. Ask, ‘What if they had?’
I also have an interest in politics which is the greatest soap opera in the world with consequences that should give us sleepless nights. Shows the value of ignorance, that most of us sleep happily having made choices – actively or passively – which can potentially result in the complete destruction of our world. Choices made by people who don’t understand their consequences are not free from consequences. Ignorant people are still capable of wreaking great havoc as we are perhaps liable to discover in the coming years, having handed over our world to people that most homeschooling parents would never have chosen to mentor their children.
All this is not the fault of homeschooling of course but underlines the importance of schooling the ‘teachers’. Hometeachers (my coinage) must be exposed to a holistic experience of life or at the very least an appreciation of the need for holistic experience. Sadly, with many technologists (who all seem to be clamoring for homeschooling) I have seen an arrogance about their own ignorance about the rest of the world apart from their technology which should have been embarrassing. I have been horrified to hear some of them brush aside facts about natural history, literature, poetry, art and biology as being of no consequence. I would love to become a bionic man but I am not. I live, breathe, love, hurt, laugh and cry. I grow strong and weak. I get sick, feel hungry, need clean water and air. My spirit soars when I hear a song written a hundred years ago, or listen to the recitation of a supernatural book that was sent to earth fifteen hundred years ago.
Yet my fate on this earth, opportunities in life, what happens to my money (taxes), what is given preference over what (medical research over military research) is to be decided by someone who doesn’t know the difference between a Constable that hangs on a wall and another who directs traffic. But the benefit of ignorance is that it saves you from embarrassment. Therefore, such a technologist is happily able to create ‘bug splats’ playing computer games and go home at the end of his or her work shift to sleep with a peaceful conscience. High technology with low humanity is a deadly combination. Ask the bug spalts.
If people with such attitudes about what is important and what is not, homeschool their children, then you can imagine the results. I have read Sir Ken Robinson’s book, ‘Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution’ and fully endorse his views. But this as well as all others who I have read, assume that homeschooling parents are somehow adequately prepared to fulfill the hugely complex task that they have chosen to undertake. The importance of education in values, ethics, morals, literature, poetry and humanities has decreased over time and we have learnt to value education on one parameter only. How much money can I make in it? That is why IT engineering is the most popular subject while pure science has no takers. Even though it is pure science that pushes the frontiers of our understanding of the world. But pure science graduates generally have career prospects (high paying jobs wise) going south while IT grads’ careers go north and so everyone and his mouse wants to become a geek and leave seeking knowledge, broaden the horizons of humanity, create uplifters of the spirit and moral alerts to, who?
Human life is too short for one to live it fully, learn from it enough and teach it to others. That is why we have language and books. Books transcend the boundary of death and allow the voice of the author to talk down to generations unborn when the book was written. Generations who have a choice. Read, or painfully learn lessons which had already been learned.
Most homeschooling parents that I have met (granted that may not be a statistically valid sample size) seem to have one overriding concern; to protect their children from the ‘big-bad-world-out-there’, which begins in the state (or private) school. The reality however, and I am sure they realize it even if they don’t want to face it, is that the big-bad-world is not out there but that we are immersed in it. We and our children. So, what must be done is not to simply protect our children from it, but teach them how to cope with it and give them the tools to change it. That is the only way to truly save them and to ensure that the badness ends with them and others don’t have to inherit it and its evil. I submit that to be able to do that, you Mr & Mrs Homeschooling Parent must upgrade your knowledge and skills. You can only give what you have and so the question to ask is, ‘What do I have?’
While you are about it, remember the village. It takes an entire village to bring up a child – as they say. So, what and where is your village? Who live in it? What resources can they bring to the table and why should they? The last part relates to your relationship with them. Why is more important than what because unless the why is answered, the what will remain out of scope. Above all else it comes from holding the absolute and unshakeable belief that everyone in the village is important; critically important. That it is their difference and not their similarity which makes them so valuable and so that diversity must be respected, protected and honored. It is when we learn to accept our own ignorance without blame, accept the diversity of others without judging them according to our own values, hold confidently to our own values (your difference is also equally important and so no need to be apologetic about it); that we will be able to re-create the world into a form that we will not be embarrassed to own as our bequest.
Negative people look for things to complain about and find them.
Positive people look for things to be grateful for and find them. Make your choice
I’m sure you’ve heard this before that every day we wake up, we have a choice. We can choose to see the day as positive or negative. And guess what, the way we choose is the way it turns out.
This is not magic.
The reality is that the way we expect the day to be drives our own behavior and that produces the positive results for us.
I had a friend who was my mentor and continues to be an inspiration every time I feel that life is tough. He was my manager, my first manager when I lived in Guyana in 1979; my boss, my friend and as I mentioned, my mentor. In Guyana, he was the BOSS. He ran the whole Kwakwani Mining Operation and I was his assistant. New, foreigner, wet-behind-the-ears, first job, zero experience. Yet in the five years that I worked for him, he made me a man. He took what I came with – the training and upbringing of my parents, the mentoring of Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama, of Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and Nawab Habib Jung and K. Kuruvila Jacob and my teachers in school and life – and gave it a finish. Learning is never finished but it goes through stages. One of the major thresholds that I crossed was when I worked with Mr. James Nicholas (Nick) Adams. I have written about these years in my book, ‘It’s my Life’, so if you are interested, please read it there. I left Guyana in 1983.
I returned to Guyana in 1997 when I was invited by the Prime Minister, Mr. Samuel Hinds, who was an old friend from my days there when all of us worked in the same company. My dear friend Arjun Reddy and I spent a very pleasant week in Guyana as guests of the Prime Minister. God bless Sam and Yvonne’s hospitality. Nick by then had retired to Linden and we spent some lovely days together. Nick told me that he was planning to migrate to the US as his family was there. I didn’t think that was a great idea because he had his own house in Linden and had a very nice and comfortable life. But life has its decision points and only those who live it can make those decisions.
I next met Nick in 2009 when I was in New York and discovered that he had a job as a doorman in an apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. I almost wept, until I saw the big smile on his face and he said to me, ‘You know Yawar, I am so fortunate. I sit in a cool air-conditioned lobby all summer when New York is sweltering and in a nice heated lobby when it is freezing. I get paid just to be here. I am so grateful to God for this because at my age I still need to work and if this job wasn’t there, what would I do?’ I took a deep breath and said to myself, ‘Boss, this is about you. Not him. This is Allahﷻ telling you something. Nick is the means by which this message is coming to you.’ In the course of conversation, he said to me, ‘There is an old Jewish lady who lives in a small but very nice flat on the top of this building. She lives alone. Every once in a while, especially in winter, she calls me and requests me to get her a sandwich from across the street. She is old and it is difficult for her to wrap herself up and go across the freezing and often slippery street, so she asks me. I always do this for her. My colleagues, other doormen, object. They tell me that I must not do it as it is not part of my job description. How to get the sandwich is her problem, not mine. But I don’t listen to them. I just do it because that is the right thing to do.’
I am listening to him and saying to myself, ‘This is what he taught me all his life – that life is a bank account. Deposit into it when you don’t need it and you will have it when you need it.’ Here was a man who radiated positivity in situations where others would have given up and curled up, ready to die. At the age of seventy-five, he lost his job due to cancer and had hip replacement surgery and so couldn’t work any longer. His lovely wife Kathleen was working but they needed a home. Then the old lady in the apartment died. A couple of days later, her son comes to Nick and says, ‘My mother wrote in her will that you should live in her apartment as long as you live. I have come to inform you and to make a request.’ Nick says to me (on the phone, when I called him as I did from time to time), ‘I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for what God did for me. I needed a house and He gave me an apartment in Brooklyn in one of the best apartments, rent free for life. So what was the man’s request. The man says to me, ‘My mother had her furniture. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t need it and to store it would be prohibitively expensive. So, can I please leave it in the flat and you are most welcome to use it?’ Nick says, ‘Every time you think God gave you something and are grateful, He gives you more. I needed a home. He gives me a furnished home, free for life.’
I am saying to myself, ‘Here is a man who is living the Ayaat of the Qur’an where Allahﷻ said exactly the same thing – if you are grateful to me I will enhance my blessing.’ Nick’s cancer continued and towards the latter part of his life it became very painful so he was mostly sedated. But on the occasions when I could talk to him and asked him how he was feeling, he always replied, ‘I am very well. I can’t thank god enough for what He has done for me.’ I thought to myself, ‘Here is a man who has the option to think of so many negative things that have happened in his life, but he chooses to think of the positives things and is grateful for them and not a negative or ungrateful word from him.’
Allahﷻ appreciates those who appreciate His blessings and refuse to complain about the trials that are also part of life. I saw that in the life of Nick Adams. Two weeks before he passed away, he accepted Islam and died a Muslim. His memory illuminates my own life, especially when things are difficult. And his mention and story do the same to many others all over the world. May Allahﷻ who gave him Islam, give him Jannah.
That’s a picture I took flying over South Africa. The patterns of fields is a factor of the ariel view. Perspective is a factor of distance. And so is learning in life. That’s why documenting incidents, reflecting on them and trying to conceptualize learnings is so important. So is sharing. And that’s why this blog. To share what I learned with you. Why? Why not?
As I mentioned earlier, the funny title of this blog (and the book) is the date on which I was fifty-five years old. I don’t believe birthdays are things to ‘celebrate,’ cut cakes, blow out candles, or have parties. Being alive is not my doing, so what is there to celebrate? Rather, birthdays are an opportunity to reflect on what we did with the time that passed, to be thankful for the good, to be aware of the mistakes, to ask what we learned, to ponder over opportunities we seized and let go, with the intention to learn from mistakes, leverage wins, and add value to the life that begins on that date. The past is only good as a means of learning lessons, not to brood or gloat over. It is past and done with. However, it can teach us things if we are willing to learn. And it will repeat if we don’t learn until we do. So birthdays are reminders to reflect. Birthdays are also reminders that our life will end; there will be a year when you won’t be alive on your birthday. If only people understand the symbolism – blowing out the candles – and then strangely people clap and laugh, instead of recognizing the symbolism of the extinguishing flame.
So what did I learn in fifty-five years of living? Let me see what I can recall.
They won’t remember what you did but they won’t forget
how you made them feel.
how you made them feel.
Perhaps the most important learning in half a century and a bit of life is to be thankful. First and foremost to Allahﷻ. I truly feel His presence and guidance in my life. Then to all those who were good to me in many different ways. They are too many to be named here but I remember them all with honor and gratitude and pray for them. Some have passed on, but their memory lives on in my heart. As my mother says, ‘People pass on, but memories stay back.’ I remind myself to be conscious of what memories I will leave behind when I pass on.
The Prophetﷺ said that the one who is not thankful to the people is not thankful to Allahﷻ. I learnt that it is essential not only to be thankful, but also to express that thankfulness. People need to hear from you how grateful you are. Even if they know that you are grateful, there is something about hearing it acknowledged which makes a huge difference, much more even than receiving a cash bonus or other material reward. People tend to take the reward as their due – which it is – but they give far more importance to the words. So simple and inexpensive, yet so powerful are the words – Thank You – yet we are so stingy in saying them. Thank You is the lever that moves the hearts of people and leaves behind memories. That’s why I say, ‘They won’t remember what you did, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.’ I’ve always made it a point to thank everyone for everything and have reaped the rewards all through my life.
Sadly, we take people for granted, especially the ones we deal with every day, who serve us, whose value we realize only when they are not there. I was once teaching a course in Chennai once to a group of engineers who were all Tamil Brahmins. In Tamil Brahmin homes there’s an invariable morning ritual – the lady of the house wakes up before anyone else, bathes, and then makes coffee (brilliant filter coffee from freshly ground beans) for all the men of the house, no matter how young or old. To make my point about expressing gratitude I asked them, ‘Do you enjoy the coffee in the morning?’
There was a chorus of ‘Yes Sir!’
Then I asked, ‘Would you miss it if it wasn’t there one day?’
Once again a chorus, ‘Yes Sir!’
Then I asked, ‘Did you ever thank your wife or your mother who makes that coffee for you every single day without fail?’
There was absolute silence and some very sheepish looks. I didn’t belabor the point any further as I thought my point had been made. At least they were honest and I hoped that my reminder would yield some good results. I didn’t think any more about this interjection and continued with my teaching.
The next morning one of the men came up to me and said, ‘Sir, my mother told me to thank you.’ I was surprised and said, ‘Well, thank her very much, but what did she want you to thank me for?’
He said, ‘Sir, last night I went home and thanked her for the coffee.’
Her reaction was, ‘Who told you to do this?’ I tried to say that I was doing this on my own, but she refused to believe me. ‘I know you,’ she said. ‘Someone told you to thank me. Who was that?’ I told her about your conversation with us. So she told me, ‘Go and thank your teacher on my behalf. I wish there were more like him.’
We take service for granted, be it from family or others. I learnt that it is essential never to take service for granted and always to thank people for doing anything for us.
I am writing this to share my anguish at what we are doing in the name of schooling. By ‘we’, I mean educators and the education system in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, South Africa and most of Africa, state schools in UK and America. That is more than 60% of the global population of school-going children. Those that don’t fit the picture that I have drawn below are to be congratulated. I hope everyone else can come on par so that one day very soon, this paper will be read as an interesting piece on how bad things used to be.
“Education is the art of making man ethical”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Let me try to define the problem:
We have managed to create a global society which is almost exclusively focused on amassing material wealth and possessions. A society where worship of personal desire is the predominant religion and selfishness its primary virtue. A society which defines success in terms of the ends without any thought about the means. A society where compassion, cost to others of our achieving our goals, cost to the well-being of the environment, hopes and aspirations of the less well-endowed; have all lost meaning and are not considered even worthy of passing thought. The reality is that we are burning our candle at both ends and are about to be plunged into darkness from which nobody can emerge unscathed. As someone once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth, is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ In this case, look in the mirror and meet both the cancer cell and its victim. In the words of J. Krishnamurthy, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ We are profoundly sick.
It is for this reason that we need to rethink education because our present education system which was stared during the Industrial Revolution in the UK and later America and was exported to the rest of the world is spectacularly successful. You may be surprised to read this but it is indeed successful in creating what it was designed to create – unthinking, unquestioning, obedient workers. Education was and continues to be modeled on the needs of the military-industrial complex with children being treated as raw material. Something to be altered to suit the need of the manufacturer, in which the needs of the raw material are of no significance. Standardization is the key, with conformity being the cardinal virtue. Individualism, imagination, curiosity, diversity, non-standard ways of learning are all seen at best as a nuisance to be ‘cured’ or at worst as a virus to be ejected. Standardized testing is the tool to convert oppression into a virtue and force all square pegs to fit into round holes. Questioning is treated as rebellion and dealt with exactly as questioning (also called rebellion) is treated in industries (suppressed by force calling it unionization and labor unrest) or in the world (suppressed by the military calling it insurgency). Scant if any attention is paid to addressing issues that led to the unrest because after all the need of bosses (read teachers, school authorities in collusion with ignorant parents) that ‘production’ must not stop, whatever the cost, is supreme.
What we need today to cure our potentially fatal global malaise is the opposite of what our schools are designed to produce. We need people who are thinking, questioning, positively rebellious leaders with the commitment to work for the benefit of others. People with the skills to diagnose, define, conceptualize, strategize, communicate and monitor. But before all that, the integrity, compassion and energy to continue to work in the face of disappointment, discouragement and opposition.
I submit to you that we don’t have an implementation or quality problem. We have a design problem. A railway carriage is not designed to fly. It is designed to be dragged along behind an engine. No matter how much power you add to its engine or how luxurious the interiors, a train will never fly because flying is first a design issue. A microlight aircraft on the other hand flies even with fractional horsepower because it is designed to fly. Our education is not designed to create leaders. It is designed to create mindless, obedient followers. Fancy infrastructure, using state of the art technology in teaching, high or low fee or teacher salaries will still not produce leaders because we are building railway carriages, designed to be dragged along behind an engine. We can’t build planes in a train factory. If we want to fly, we need to build a plane factory. We need to rethink our design based on our objective of taking to the air. Design dictates performance. We need to redesign. Not alter trains expecting them to fly.
In effect the focus must be more on the tools of learning than on accumulation of random data. Focus must be on the spirit of enquiry on asking the right questions with the best question being the one which has no answer; yet. So the search can continue and the student doesn’t sit smug like a bug in his rug, content that he has the answer and need not look any further. Real education is to deliberately put yourself into a state of positive confusion, of productive stress, where you are forced out of your comfort zone of certainties.
This thought, that confusion is good and pat answers are bad, is uncomfortable and even painful as it forces you to look at yourself as the start of the process of education. Real education is as much if not more, about educating the teacher as it is about educating the student. Both are companions and partners in learning. I know we educators pay lip service to these thoughts. Unfortunately, that is a sign of our hypocrisy as our every word and action gives the lie and exposes our inherent arrogance as being ‘people with knowledge’ who have to teach the ‘ignorant’. We need to create an atmosphere where there’s a premium on questioning and teach the art of asking good questions instead of the mugging up of someone else’s answers. This doesn’t mean that all other’s answers are wrong. It merely means that the answer was right for that person. But you have to arrive at the answer yourself independently for it to be right for you – even if it is the same answer. That makes you stronger in the end.
One reality that is clear from all this which takes us to the core issue of all learning is the importance of variety and diversity of life experience. Not standardization but its exact opposite – diversification. The question for us therefore is, ‘How do we help students to have a widely diverse menu of life experiences so that they have a sound basis for diagnosis and decision making?’
In summary therefore, real education is the result of integration of academics with structured life experience designed to teach applicable lesson and teach students the tools they need to succeed. In my view this can’t be done while keeping our current so-called education system in place. There is only one thing to be done with our production-factory-style-worker-producing
education system which is to give it a decent burial. We have to start afresh, with a totally new approach arising out of accepting the reality about children (that they are not little boxes to be filled and labelled, but living breathing, thinking human beings with opinions, likes, dislikes, differences in how they learn, what interests them and what doesn’t and above all, the need to learn how to apply the learning).
Our biggest challenge and the greatest resistance to this new philosophy will come from our own minds and hearts. Truly it is not easy to accept that we have successfully destroyed several generations, including of course ourselves in the process and to accept that we were totally, gloriously, shamelessly wrong in everything we did in the name of education. It will not be easy to accept that we – the educators of the world – are responsible for the totally immoral, greedy, toxic and suicidal society that we are now living in. But that is the truth. The beauty of accepting responsibility for a problem is that, then and only then, are you given the ability and strength to solve it. You can’t solve what you don’t own. So let us begin by being brutally honest and own responsibility for the problem and pray for success in solving it. The solution is:
I believe that education must achieve four things:
Awaken and strengthen the conscience
The purpose of all education is to civilize. The hallmark of civilization is concern for others. That is why moral education must precede technical. People who know tools but have no moral bearings are people who can drop an atomic bomb on a city and sleep peacefully that night. People who are the opposite use drones to hasten medical aid instead of killing people by remote control. The distinguishing fact about human beings that differentiates us from other animals is compassion, concern for others and the willingness to stand up for another person who is oppressed when that oppression doesn’t affect us personally. The Wildebeest herd doesn’t defend one of their number who is being killed by lions. Each one thinks about himself and as long as he is not affected, he doesn’t care. That is why when he becomes affected, others don’t care and the cycle continues.
We humans are supposed to be different and our homes and schools are the places where we are supposed to be taught this cardinal differentiator. But how can that happen when we preach discrimination at home and teach individual competition and non-cooperation, even to the extent that we punish cooperation and collaboration between students in school. The insanity continues because once our students learn non-cooperation and destructive competition and graduate from our schools and enter the workforce, we then spend a fortune doing team building, mutual collaboration, active listening, boundaryless working and all such kinds of training workshops trying to undo years of what we taught them at school.
Our challenge is to build a foundation of moral values, ethics of behavior and good manners that give precedence to consideration for others and the commons. All this arising out of compassion, empathy and a total lack of self-centeredness. I don’t say ‘selflessness’, because I believe the moving spirit is what I call ‘positive selfishness’; which means to feel satisfied and happy when you see smiles on the faces of others. It is not that you are not concerned with the results of your actions but that you are concerned about achieving good results for others – not only for yourself. And you do this because you get true satisfaction from it and because you are aware that it is only in the overall good that your own safety, happiness and development lie.
Integrity, justice, freedom, honesty, courage, standing up for the unpopular opinion, raising a voice against the oppressor no matter how powerful he/she may appear to be, generosity, facing success and failure with equanimity, commitment and industry – all seem to be values which are not mentioned any more. Integrated Education must not only mention but champion them and teach them by practice. Success case studies where people have applied these values in their lives; stories of their struggle and the question of evaluating their success – not in conventional terms alone of whether or not they achieved what they set out to do but in real terms of the number of others they freed and encouraged through their own struggle, to take the unpopular stand for justice. All this must be done with the clear understanding that values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do.
Create excitement for new learning
As I have mentioned earlier, the biggest problem with our current so-called education system is that we give answers, insist that there is only one right answer and shut down all questioning, enquiry and dissent. We not only don’t encourage but actively discourage approaches other than the ‘approved’ ones. I am speaking about our school systems. Strangely at the university level, in the West, this is overturned and there is great freedom to try different ways to reach the goal. The results are clear and obvious. What I have failed to understand is why our school system continues to work at cross purposes with our university system (only in the West). In India, the Middle East and South Asia both school and university are in the same pit of darkness. But at least in the West, where the two systems are opposed to each other, I don’t see why change hasn’t come yet except in exceptional cases like Finland.
Be that as it may, the critical need today is to forbid the killing of imagination, rebellion, dissent, questioning and putting activity before reflection. Forbid, not only by word and decree but make it impossible by making structural changes in what we teach and how we teach it. Imagination, questioning and reflection are all part of being human and don’t need to be taught. What needs to be done is to ensure that they are not suppressed and killed because they are inconvenient and troublesome. This is what happens effectively today in our schools.
Who are we teaching?
We have to realize and accept the fact that our challenge as educators is to prepare our students to face a future that we know nothing about. This means that we have to teach them tools, not try to give them answers from our experience. Our experience at best has historical value and that too only if the student has the tools to conceptualize learning from the incidents and stories that he/she reads or hears from us. If not, they are at best entertaining stories and at worst a boring waste of time. So teach tools, not answers. The most difficult challenge in this is to accept that we don’t have relevant answers since we don’t know the future, yet retain the confidence that from our experience, we can teach the tools they need to find their own answers from their experiences in life. But that means that we must first learn the tools to be able to teach them. Those who have understood this will tell you that it is an amazing relief to accept that we don’t have all the answers and frees us from the stress of always being ‘right’. You give yourself the permission to be wrong or to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Imam Malik bin Anas, the great Muslim jurist said, ‘I don’t know; is the shield of the scholar.’ This is potentially our greatest contribution, if we can make it.
Question our beliefs
For this to happen, we have to examine and change our basic beliefs about children; that they need us to learn, that they don’t know what is good for them, that they must always be directed, ordered and if they don’t obey, punished. That they must be supervised and are not to be trusted; that they are incapable of independently handling responsibility and that their contribution is essentially useless which may be tolerated up to a point and then shut down. Every single one of these beliefs is manifestly and completely false, but we continue to act on them. All this may sound extreme but this is exactly how we behave vis-à-vis students in our schools. If you don’t agree, please reflect on the following:
What do you call a place where when you enter, a gate shuts behind you and you can’t leave until the gate opens again? Where your day is divided arbitrarily by others without any consultation with you and these divisions are indicated by bells or sirens, because you can’t even be trusted to be your own timekeepers? What do you call a place where you can’t speak without permission, can’t even go to the toilet without permission, can’t eat when you are hungry and must eat when you are told, whether you are hungry or not? You can’t play when you want but must play when you are told, whether you feel playful or not? You have nothing called ‘free time’, where ‘doing’ is everything and reflection is nothing? What do you call a place where you are segregated not according to interests, or talents, or your friends but by your date of manufacture (age) and are taught whatever the powers that be, think you need to learn, without any consultation with you about whether you want to learn that or not?
What do you call a place where regimentation is the name of the game, where compliance is the cardinal virtue; only obedience is rewarded; questioning, especially of the system is considered rebellion; and punishment is meted out publicly so that the humiliation overwhelms the pain? Finally, what do you call a place where what happens to you is not decided by you; indeed, you have nothing to say in it at all; but it is decided by those who own you and those who own the correction facility? No, I am not talking about prisons. I am talking about our schools. Although everything I said, applies equally well to prisons. Our schools are prisons.
What is amazing is that we actually pay for our children to go there when we have ourselves been through them and should have realized the evil they do to the young impressionable mind. But we have been conditioned to accept the dominant narrative and have suffered enough punishment or seen others punished; to have learnt the danger of questioning. Finally, ask why we have an august body called the Parent-Teacher Association. Have you ever heard of a Parent, Teacher, Student Association? I haven’t. Ask why not when schools are supposed to be for children, not for teachers or parents?
The amazing eye-opening research of Sugata Mitra (see appendix) proves that teachers are unnecessary to teach skills provided there is enough curiosity and desire in the students to learn and they are given research resources. So the role of the teacher is not to enforce learning on unwilling subjects but to excite curiosity and ignite desire and then open the doors to resources. The last is the easiest because resources are available easily and cost free.
Our teaching today, barring exceptions, consists of filling boxes (children) with random information which they have no idea how to use or what to do with. They have no idea how one piece of information (geography) relates to another (history) and how that relation has relevance today (current affairs). The same is the situation with all other subjects including science and math. Having suffered this, their success in measured not by understanding of what they learnt but by their ability to regurgitate unprocessed data, in response to random questions in a specific time frame. Those who can do that are deemed to have aced the exams. What did they demonstrate? Memory. I believe that our current exams are a reflection of our own admission that what we teach can’t possibly be understood and applied, so there’s no point in asking any questions about that.
During this time (exams), the individual destructive competition that we encourage in the entire system comes to the fore and any student who helps another is called a ‘cheater’ and thrown out and disqualified. What is his crime? Collaborating with another citizen, helping someone who needed help, sharing knowledge or at least information. Yet we insist on calling this education. And then we are surprised that the most highly ‘educated’ nations in the world are the most barbaric. That is why I say that the most difficult task is to bring about a mindset change. But sadly without that nothing else will work. I have proposed solutions later so please bear with me.
Make sense in terms of application of learning
As I have mentioned before, since understanding and relating what we understand in one area of knowledge to another is not even on our menu, it is hardly surprising that application of learning is not the most important thing on our mind. So we have the completely incongruous situation of our brightest pupils landing in the field of life completely incapable of taking care of themselves or of applying what they learnt to anything useful, productive or remunerative. In India the situation is alarming to say the least. Education has been made into a business, a seller’s market where the customers are helpless and quality is the last thing on the seller’s mind. This is not simply a rant. I am speaking on behalf of those who are suffering this injustice of paying for an education which delivers nothing valuable. Data speaks volumes:
What do you call a system where 97% of the graduates of a professional course are unemployable? I don’t think calling it ‘education’ really fits. But that is the sad reality of our system. The tragedy is that the only people who suffer at the end of it all are the students. The college owners make money with the fees they charged which is not refundable if the student can’t get a job. Teachers get their salaries whether or not the student learns. If the student fails to learn, the teacher is not held responsible at all. I don’t say that the entire responsibility is of the teacher’s but shouldn’t teachers at least share the responsibility of learning? But in our system they don’t. Everyone walks free except the poor student who had no say in what he would be taught or how. All he/she did was to choose a subject. Everything else happened without his say. Yet he/she is the only one who pays a real price.
Solutions: What we must do to break out of this prison
Three things must happen in education which are all complementary to each other:
1. Through the study of history, language, literature, poetry, art, culture and religion the student must be linked to the sum total of human knowledge, experience and development so that he understands his roots. Our roots and origins must be taught truthfully as being in the entire human race and not in our own narrow false interpretation of it in terms of some caste, nationality or race.
2. Science, math or technology must be clearly related to its application in real life. This need not be restricted to how it is applied today alone but the door must be opened for students and teachers together to explore application possibilities in the world of imagination. Imagine solutions for tomorrow.
3. Principles of citizenship: equality, universal brotherhood, justice, responsibility, dissent, dignity and diversity of belief and practice must all be taught and emphasized so that a feeling of personal superiority and arrogance doesn’t take root in the mind.
The purpose of real education is to prepare students to deal with life and to create and live in a society that is beneficial for everyone in it. What passes in the name of education today fails on almost all of these parameters. It is true that if we’d had a society that reflected the best of these principles, our educators would have claimed credit for that and rightly so. Then where must we place the responsibility for the kind of society that we have ended up creating, which is the opposite of all these principles; except at the door of the same educators?
The idea is not to blame or condemn but to express the pain and anguish at the kind of global community that we have created and to raise the call for the need for urgent and sweeping change. As I have said before, the time for cosmetic or even incremental changes has gone, if ever it was there in the first place. It is now time to make transformational changes if we are to survive as the human race. It is not a question of saving the earth but of saving ourselves. Today we have people agitating to save everything from tigers to the most minor beetle. I ask you, ‘Who is ready to agitate to save humanity itself?’
For humanity is in far greater danger than the tiger and the need to save it from itself is far more urgent.
So what must happen? How is real education to be done?
I believe that what we need to do is to integrate education and teach children according to the ways human beings learn. What do I mean by that? Let’s begin:
1. Citizenship is what schools must teach and inculcate before anything else. Citizenship means respect for one another and the willingness to participate in the good of one another. The way to inculcate this is to show respect for the students by involving them in all decision making that affects them. After all we consider this to be justice and practice it in all other aspects of our society. We must do three things for this to happen:
a. Students Council
i. Create a Students Council to which representatives will be elected by the students practicing the best principles of democratic participation. This Council will have the responsibility to discuss and decide on any matter that involves them and present their recommendations to the Principal (or Governing Council of the School). These may be any matter including the daily timetable, class duration, games to be played, school uniform, extracurricular activities, hobby clubs, sports, holidays, special interests and needs or anything else. The school must be a microcosm of life and society and students must learn how to engage in it and influence outcomes while ensuring that the main purpose of their coming to school – to study – is fulfilled.
b. The Principal/Council will inform the Students Council about any non-negotiables concerning any matter and will in the normal course of things, accept the recommendations. Where they feel that the recommendations can’t be accepted, they will give reasons and request the Students Council to come up with fresh recommendations. No recommendation may be refused without giving reasons. That is the real meaning of respecting people.
c. Teacher Effectiveness Appraisal
ii. Teaching is not simply a job but a major responsibility with long lasting consequences on the lives of people. So assessing the effectiveness of a teacher is critical to quality. The purpose of such assessments is not to punish teachers but to help them to become better teachers and more effective in their roles. The assessments must be done professionally by an independent agency on internationally accepted parameters but one of the most critical elements of that assessment must be student feedback. This feedback must be sought with data and collated anonymously and fed back to the teachers as part of the post-assessment debrief so that they can know how they are viewed by their customers. Like all assessments and customer feedback results – these must also be linked to annual bonuses and promotional opportunities for the teachers. Only then will they be taken seriously.
2. Humans learn from peers and together; not in segregated groups. Organizing classes by age is against human learning habits. After all you don’t forbid your older children at home from interacting with their younger siblings. On the contrary you encourage them to take care of them and teach them what they know. That way learning is accepted more readily by the younger ones and makes meaning to the older ones. Yet in our schools we follow the factory model and segregate children according to date of manufacture. So this is the first thing to change.
a. We must organize multi-age classrooms with children of at least a 3-year age gradient studying together. This is how human beings learn best.
3. Class size must be reduced from what it currently is (in India) to not more than 20 per class.
4. Teaching must become client based – not even answering questions, let alone dictate notes – but helping students to ask good questions and then helping them find answers. By helping I mean directing them to resources they can search for the answer, help them in the research if they need help as well as encourage them to explore new areas, hitherto unused for such answers. This will be an excellent way to show the relatedness between different bodies of knowledge.
5. Learning comes from different sources but the differentiator of human learning is the ability of human beings to take learning from one place and apply it in another completely different place with a completely different contextual setting. So the more variety of life experiences a person can collect, the bigger is his/her database to search for appropriate life lessons to apply when he/she needs them.
One of the finest examples of this is the ‘training of prophets’, through the shepherding of sheep. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be on them all) were all shepherds of sheep. And through this activity they learnt the fundamentals of leading flocks of people, caring for the weak, standing between their flock and the wolves that always stalk the unwary, leading them through the easiest paths through potentially dangerous territory. The shepherd puts his flock and its needs ahead of his own. He stakes his life to protect them. He is awake while they sleep as he looks out for them. His primary concern is for them. And he does all this because he understands that his role as a shepherd and its success depends on one thing only – the welfare of his flock. So if he wants to be a considered a successful shepherd his flock must ‘speak’ for him.
The Prophet Muhammadﷺ was a shepherd in his childhood, thus taking responsibility at an early age and being alone all day and sometimes even at night while he was still not even a teenager. Then he started accompanying his uncle on his cross country trade caravan journeys traveling through hundreds of miles of desert and sometimes hostile territory. There are no passengers in caravans. At least not men. Everyone has a responsibility and that for first timer youth is usually to take care of the animals. The two most difficult animals to take care of, are camels and horses. But that is what the Arabian trade caravans consisted of. Then was the wealth of learning in the great trade centers of Palestine and Damascus of meeting and dealing with people from different nationalities and races, speaking different languages and following different religions. Here came the learning of pluralism as well as the importance of being able to deal with people in an environment where you are the stranger who has no power or authority, yet you have to strike the best deal for your trade goods. You need to learn to communicate across cultural boundaries, learn other’s ways, learn to handle conflicts, negotiate, take risk both personal and financial, make mistakes and learn from them and deal with success and failure with equanimity. This is where reputations get built and so it was in his case.
Muhammadﷺ used to spend long hours in isolation, in contemplation, meditation and prayer, alone in a cave of the top of a high rocky hill near his hometown of Makkah. Once again a very different type of experience of being alone, especially at night, watching the world at his feet and the sky above. What was in his mind? What did he feel? We don’t have a diary of those days but from my own childhood when I used to spend many hours on top of a rock in the wilderness, several miles from my home, outside the city of Hyderabad, I can try to imagine what it must have felt like. My only companion most times was my Labrador Ben who would clamber up the rock with me and simply lie by my side, the symbol of living happily in the moment.
The point I am making is the value of diverse life experiences which all lead to overall learning which can be applied to all sorts of leadership challenges in life which are contextually very different. I am not saying that all children must necessarily become shepherds or sailors but connecting with the earth and nature and being given responsibility at an early age is a great advantage.
So schools need to create a way to give a wide variety of experience as part of the teaching curriculum. I have suggested ways to accomplish this later in this paper. Parents and schools that shy away from this are doing a great disservice to their wards. Each school can do whatever is practicable for them but diverse learning – not merely sightseeing excursions – must be an important part of the curriculum.
6. Make the classroom exciting: I can perhaps guarantee you today that barring exceptions, if you ask a student of any school or Madrassa today to name the top three exciting places that he would love to be in, he/she will not list his/her classroom in them. If you ask for the top thirty also perhaps, the classroom would meet the same fate. The reason is because our way of educating is a burden to be borne and endured until we come to the welcome breaks during the day and the eventual final break at the end of the school term. It is interesting that we use the same word that you would use for a sojourn in prison – term – for schooling. Very appropriate indeed. That is the reason why I have yet to find a child who even looks at a school text book at the end of their schooling. If they are smart they sell them at a discount and make some ice cream money. If not, they simply trash them. What more do we need as an indicator of what our clients (students) think of our service? What amazes me is that despite the fact that we all went through the same process, we still continue to perpetuate it and pay for it. Why?
So how do you make the classroom interesting? By understanding that discovery is interesting. Being told things which you have to memorize and regurgitate is not. So make the classroom a place of discovery. As I mentioned earlier, don’t give answers. Lead them to ask interesting questions (best question is the one that nobody including the teacher can answer right away). And then lead them to places where they can discover the answers for themselves. Teach them that not to know, to be wrong, to be lost and confused are all acceptable and signs of being engaged, interested seekers. That is the essence of being a student. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer.
Teachers must also believe and accept that they are students and seekers. This has to come from within, not lip service. Only then can you really add value in class. I am always amazed at the difficulty that most schools (Indian) have in organizing teacher training. That educators should resist being educated must tell us something, right? But apparently it doesn’t.
Project Based teaching
The way to achieve the above is not to teach discrete, distinct subjects unrelated to each other but to take up Projects and then use them to teach all the subjects you want to teach. In this way teaching gets inter-related, interactive and collaborative. Students own responsibility for their own learning and take initiative to seek answers to questions that they generate themselves. Educators learn to respect the intelligence of students, appreciate their struggle and share in the joy of their discovery and above all, learn new things about the subject and more importantly, about themselves. Let me illustrate with one example:
· Geology: Isostacy of mountains: Stabilizing effect on tectonic
· Chemistry: Minerals, rock formation, volcanic activity and its effect
· Geography: How do mountains effect climate and rainfall?
· Biology: Mountain flora & fauna
· History: How did mountains affect the history of nations?
· Culture: How do mountains influence the culture, traditions and beliefs of people who live among them? What has changed today thanks to technology and connectedness? What do these changes mean for us in modern society?
· Literature: Poetry, prose, drama, allegorical reference to mountains
· Mountaineering: Physics of balance, load, atmosphere
· Trips to mountains, mountain climbing, camping on mountains, photography in mountainous areas
· Time for reflection, introspection, journal writing: Let the mountain talk to you then ask, ‘What did it say?’
· For faith based schools: You can talk about what values mountains symbolize in your faith and how this can be applied in our daily lives. You can draw references from your scriptures and history of religious leaders to see how what they did relates to the values you see in mountains today.
Add your own.
A typical class for this, as mentioned earlier would consist of children of multiple ages with several teachers in the classroom, not only one. This is to ensure proper supervision as well as to help them in different ways from their different subject expertise. Many of these teachers can be (very easy to do this) international subject experts who come into the classroom on invitation, personally or virtually. You can have someone from the International Space Station send photographs taken from space of whichever mountain range you are studying. You can have scientists from different areas who will gladly give time to teach students. Those who won’t, you don’t need.
You can work interactively in real time with classrooms across the world, collaborating with teachers and students from different cultures, working on the same project. Remember that it is children who must do all the learning, taking initiative to connect with people and experts. All that teachers or the school need to do is to provide the infrastructure, which in today’s world is increasingly easy and cheap and then sit back and learn as well. All you need for most of what I have said is imagination, a simple high speed internet connection and a computer. You can upscale to smart boards, personal iPads and so on, but all that is optional and not essential. Nice to have but you can still do what I have mentioned with much less than that provided you have the willingness to try. The results will energize you and there will be no looking back.
Your children/students can publish a newspaper of lessons learnt in the course of their project. They will learn the fundamentals of research and publishing. They can publish books at the end of the project. They can make films and have TV shows (YouTube) about their excursions and experiences while working on the project. They can publish or broadcast interviews with subject experts, astronauts, scientists, practitioners. They can take on developmental projects locally or internationally and experience the joy of helping others in need; not by donating money alone but by living and working in those communities. To travel with a mission is the best way to see the world and learn about others but even more importantly to learn about yourself. It is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that learning takes place. That is what happens when we work in societies where their realities are sometimes the stuff of our own nightmares. It is when you live through that, that you wonder how they can still find it in themselves to smile every morning. That tells us more about ourselves than anything else.
The possibilities are endless and their potential to produce young people with real, experiential knowledge of the subject is something that makes me wish I could be born again to study in a school like this.
The same process can be repeated with different projects generating different things that you can and need to learn from each of them especially how each is related to the other. For example, oceans, cities, wars, food, agriculture, animal husbandry, IT, classics of literature and poetry, film making, insects, disease, politics, government, health care, ecology, space, rivers and riverine systems, animal and bird migrations, entrepreneurship, money, economic systems, pollution and its effects on global warming, energy use, carbon footprint, mutual responsibility to all humanity and all creation. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do. That is why we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t kill it, as ours does so effectively and early. The benefit of this system of teaching is not simply that it is exciting but that it directly links with practical application in life and opens doors for lifelong learning. Our students will no longer be unemployable. They will become employers with a conscience.
7. Faith education: Islam
I am preempting the question that I am sure to be asked, ‘How will you teach theology, especially Islamic theology using this method?’ My answer is specific to Islamic teaching but I am sure other faith educators will find it useful and will be able to modify it to suit their needs.
Allahﷻ said about people of intelligence and how they teach and learn:
A’al Imraan 3:190. Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding. 191. Those who remember Allah (always) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, AND think deeply about (research, discovery, invention) the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Rabb! You have not created (all) this without purpose, Glory to You! Give us salvation from the punishment of the Fire.”
In Islam there is no contradiction between religion (knowledge of the Creator) and science (knowledge of the world He created). Allahﷻcalled those who are engaged in studying the world (every aspect of it), ‘intelligent’ people. He then went on to describe what real intelligence is and said that it is to first recognize the Creator and then to see His signs in His creation. That leads to acknowledging Him as the Creator and to worshipping Him as it is His right that He should be worshipped by those who benefit from His creation. The entire universe, all that we know today and all that we will come to know as we learn more and more, is an open book of the Creator (Allahﷻ) which points to His power, creativity, ability and above all, His love for His creatures. This is what the Prophet Muhammadﷺ was ordered to read when the first Ayaat (revelation) of the Qur’an were revealed. “Read in the name of your Rabb who created everything.” The reference is to Allahﷻas the Creator of everything because His creation is visible everywhere to us, who are ourselves His creatures. That is why the great scholar and jurist Ibn Al Qayyim said, ‘There are two books of Allahﷻ– an open book (His creation) and a book that must be opened (the Qur’an).’ Islam invites us to read both the books but first the open book.
Why this method? This is because Islam recognizes that all knowledge is from Allahﷻ and the purpose of all knowledge is to connect the person to His Creator (Allahﷻ). The purpose of learning is to love Allahﷻ as He loves us. To obey Him because we love Him and because we recognize that whatever He orders is for our benefit, not His; because He is free from all need, including the need to be obeyed. Obedience benefits us and disobedience harms us. Faith education adds value to basic human values that are common to all people by showing us the reward for them when we meet Allahﷻ. Faith is the connector that completes the cycle so that the current of the power of the Creator flows through the person who understands who he/she is and how he/she is connected to his/her Creator (Allahﷻ).
How can we apply Project based learning to theology at the school level?
A word about why it is necessary to teach in the Project based way instead of our traditional way of teaching Islamic studies as an add on. Today two systems of teaching Islamic studies are prevalent globally. In Madrassas, math, English and rudimentary history, geography and occasionally science are taught as an add on after the main classes of Islamic studies. These subjects are non-core, don’t count in exams and are taught by people who are usually retired teachers from elsewhere who teach them as a means of earning some pocket money. These teachers also have a lower status (albeit unstated) than the Ulama who are the ‘real’ teachers in the Madrassa and so it is not a job that they like very much. Most Madrassas in India at least, are under-resourced in any case. And so these subjects are treated as a necessary evil to be endured. What happens is that what is taught here raises questions as it apparently doesn’t sync with what is taught in the Islamic studies classes but these questions remain unanswered as there is nobody who can integrate the two and answer them.
Islamic studies themselves are taught in our age-old rote learning method, with almost total focus on memorization and very little, if at all on understanding. Questioning is usually discouraged and beaten down by the club of the threat of impertinence and disrespect for the holy. The spirit of enquiry and challenge that we read about in our history books which was the way our great classical scholars taught, remains in the history books to be faithfully and respectfully read about and put away. Never to be applied today in our teaching. It is not difficult therefore to understand why our graduates from the Madrassa who are really high school graduates but called ‘Aalim’ (Scholar) come out so maladjusted with a conflict between what they know and what is expected of them especially after being bestowed with such an honorable title. Find me one high school kid who is called ‘Scholar’ or ‘Aalim’, and you know what I mean. The title is a burden that they have to bear and becomes a barrier for most to ongoing learning because it makes them shy of asking questions. After all, if you are an Aalim, you are supposed to know it all. So how can you ask questions? Just ask any you know to name the books they have read since their graduation and you will see what I mean. Since they come from an environment that discourages research, asking questions and dissent and which is techno-hostile, most don’t even explore the possibility of learning on their own. Thanks also to their very narrow focus on learning, those that do have no parameters to compare and understand what they may see on the internet.
The exact opposite happens in our Muslim schools where Islamic studies is taught as an add on with exactly as much importance as so-called secular studies gets in the Madrassa. The results are the same with the saving grace that since Muslim school graduates don’t come out with the illusion of being Ulama, they are not as much of an embarrassment as their counterparts. The entire system is highly inadequate to put it mildly and kindly and actually harmful to put it truthfully without any sugar coating.
So how do we apply Project Based teaching to Islamic studies? I believe that at the school level we must not teach Islamic studies exclusively as we do in our Madaaris. We must teach in the Project Based method so that the students emerge well-grounded in all subjects including Islamic studies. This means that the Islamic studies curriculum must be changed and the Dars-e-Nizami (in India) or its different variations that are taught today must be replaced by a new syllabus that covers all the different Islamic sciences at a basic fundamental level. The period of education must also be brought on par with normal schools, from the current 6-8 years to 12 years, so that there is enough time to teach all that I have mentioned. The Project Based approach will ensure that what they learn will be done thoroughly and with a sound understanding of the subject. So in short – no pure Madrassas at the basic education (school) level but schools teaching Islamic studies and modern education subjects together in an integrated manner.
Once basic schooling is over, the students can go to specialist schools to study pure Islamic sciences for their graduation and tertiary education. There they need not do any of the modern education subjects because they have enough of a grounding in them already from their schools. This is the way to cure our present situation of graduating ‘Ulama’ who are at sea and totally out of place in society after having studied 6-8 years of pure Islamic studies without anything else. This is a major lacuna in our system which begs correction.
In Islamic schools also, do projects in the same way with the addition that you also ask questions about what Ayaat, Ahadith, incidents from the Seerah and rulings of Shari’ah that may apply in the case of the project that you are doing. So in the case of mountains you look at Ayaat which mention mountains. Which Ahadith mention mountains; we have several of both? Which incidents in the Seerah mention mountains? See if there are any rulings regarding mountains. How is sunrise and sunset affected by mountains so that if you are camped in a valley how will you determine the time for prayer? Camp with a shepherd on a mountainside especially in the Hijaz or other desert area to get an idea of what the Prophet Muhammadﷺ would have experienced. Spend a night in a camp in a cave on top of a mountain to experience what he would have felt in the cave of Hira. Once again your imagination is the only limit to what you can do to bring Islam in all its aspects, alive in the class. Remember that this is not a theology class. But it is a class where you bring Allahﷻ into the class and let everyone connect to Him. This is a class where in the same breath you are talking about the Qur’an, Sunnah, Fiqh, Seerah, Tafsir, Physics, Chemistry, Math, History, Geography and a host of other things, marveling at how they relate to each other.
This is the beauty of the integrated system of teaching. It makes knowledge relevant, vibrant, exciting and challenging.
7. Social Skills Basket
I believe that entrepreneurship is the best way to teach both leadership and citizenship. When people learn to take responsibility for themselves and their output and move mentally from ‘entitlement’ to ‘contribution’, they become valuable members of society. That is when they start thinking outside their selfish interests and think of others because they realize that their own benefit it is linked to that of others.
- Start a Vocational Training Centre in every school. This must be done in every Government and private school and Madrassa. Every child must learn a skill. Products can be sold and the income can be used for the Center. This will also provide employment opportunity for artisans/professionals who are unemployed at present. Parents and community members can be encouraged to participate in this venture by lending their time and skills.
- Working with the hands is instructional, therapeutic, engaging and teaches the dignity of labor. It teaches people that simply throwing money at some service provider doesn’t solve problems. It teaches them to value the services that they are now accustomed to receiving without a thought to what makes the service provider valuable.
- Funding can come from CSR of companies who I assume, will be happy to fund such ventures. Other sources like Government grants, private philanthropic agencies and philanthropists can also be explored. The funding needed is only to start up. Running expenses will be generated by the center. No fees must be charged to the students. This is important to encourage them to participate.
- The building infrastructure already exists. If the timetable is an issue (usually there is enough time in the normal day itself) then the Vocational Training can be done after school and on weekends. In my experience children get so interested that schools will have a task to have adults to supervise on holidays and weekends. But that is a good problem to have.
Entrepreneurship Development Training
Simultaneously an Entrepreneurship Development Training Plan must be established teaching students of the Center how to turn the skill into a business. This will ensure interest in the Vocational Training Course itself as people will be interested if they see how they can make this into a viable business and career option.
I suggest opening both the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship Development Training to local communities also to help everyone and gain popular support. The Entrepreneurship Development Training course must consist of the following skills to be taught in a completely practical mode. NO LECTURES except as initial explanations. All teaching by practitioners.
- Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
- Budgeting and P & L Accounting
- Hiring and Team building
- Selling and Service Orientation
2. Leadership Development
Leadership education is a field in itself and I don’t want this article to get too long. But suffice to say that the school must devote time and space to this. One of the good ways to do this is through team sports and outdoor challenge activities. Sailing, mountaineering, abseiling, social work, working with people with various physical challenges, visiting hospitals, hospices, old people’s homes. Taking leadership roles in raising funds for civic projects, working with police in crime prevention, drug abuse and other areas, working with journalists on current political and democracy issues; all these and more are places to learn to lead and demonstrate leadership. Parents and schools must encourage, enable and support all these initiatives.
Communication, public speaking, presentation skills, active listening, cross cultural, cross religious, inter-community interactions. Making others welcome. Neighborhood service. Exploring your prejudices about others and shining the light of reality on them. Meeting people face to face to break stereotypes. Participating in parliamentary proceedings, hearings, court cases and public issues as observers. Teaching children from deprived backgrounds, adult literacy programs, working with craftsmen on different handicrafts to appreciate their work and help them to preserve and promote those arts. Special attention to the work that women do in our society, unsung, unappreciated and unremarked; yet absolutely critical. Schools must inculcate respect for women and the underprivileged; not create yet another elitist class.
4. Physical fitness
Team sports, horse riding, archery, swimming and anything else that promotes physical fitness. Special consideration must be given to endurance activity because that teaches the most important lesson about the need for perseverance in life. So long distance running, hiking, jungle lore, orienteering, kayaking, trail riding and all such activities which teach survival skills must be done. Interschool competitions, participating in national tournaments, sports reporting, organizing sporting events and using sporting events to tell the wider, more important story of human enterprise.
5. Connect to the earth
Agriculture, animal husbandry and gardening. These are therapeutic and healing. A connection to the earth is something that we have lost to our great detriment. We need to regain it. The feel of good earth dribbling through the fingers as you plant a tree is something that I can feel and taste to this day. This is what we need to teach. The earth will be saved only by those who love the earth. And only those who are connected to the earth can love it. There is nothing that does that better than agriculture. Agriculture must form a part of all schooling. Children must get their hands dirty, work with water and soil, create compost, use it, plant crops, ornamentals and trees, learn how the entire ecosystem works, learn what is beneficial and what is harmful and feel the joy of a good harvest. They must learn about and practice water conservation techniques and invent new ones. They must work with and use alternate energy. They must learn about and use alternate sources of fuel. They must live in villages without toilets, running water, electricity and learn to regulate their lives according to the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, cook on open fires using animal waste briquettes and use hygienic self-made toilets.
They must learn to handle animals. Learn how to take care of them, treat them when they are sick and feel the joy of their companionship. They must spend time in the forests, learn jungle lore, drink from a jungle stream, sleep under a tree, learn the sounds of the forest and what they mean, learn what is dangerous and what is not, learn to read sign for it is reading sign that leads to a life of happiness. All these varied experiences will build their bank of knowledge which can be applied cross context all through life.
For anyone who thinks that this is all too much, let me tell you that I have done every single one of these things; some in school and some outside on my own and I did them all while having my normal education. So I can assure you from personal experience that this is all possible provided you have the will for it. To read about this please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’ Kindle http://amzn.to/2bQaE99
In conclusion I would submit that the goal of all our basic school education is and must be the building of moral, ethical, courageous people with open minds who are accepting of others and their differences. Citizens conscious of their role in society, able and ready to contribute in multiple ways to build a world that is holistic, compassionate, intelligent and healing.
I think we have all had enough of the highly toxic system that we have built and inherited. It is time to end this. Before it ends us.
One of our leading thinkers who speaks about this today is Sir Ken Robinson. His explanation of what I have mentioned above is priceless. Please see this TED talk:
Many more on YouTube which I strongly advise you to listen to/watch. Here’s another:
Do schools kill creativity? Indeed, they do. It would be extremely unusual if they didn’t.
Another educator who promotes the idea of children teaching themselves is Sugata Mitra.
Listen to him here:
Finnish School system
What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success – The Atlantic