Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Teaching: Myths and superstitions galore

Myths are always enchanting: they charm us away from the harsh realities of the world and keep us complacent.  Established beliefs and institutions thrive where myths thrive.  And, in order they would thrive, the myths about them are perpetuated in enlightened self-interest. 

The school is one institution which owes its long and ubiquitous existence to the hoary myth that learning takes place as a result of teaching.  As the institution grew, the myths around it grew, too, with the newer myths strengthening the older ones and all the myths together fortifying the time-honoured seminal myth of teaching producing learning.

When I was a student, I didn't learn much – at least I thought so.  I thought I was too stupid to learn in spite of what I believed to be my teachers' excellent teaching, and so my veneration for my gurus remained intact.  The scales fell from my eyes only much later, when I overheard two of my students soon after I had become a teacher.  "Mr Ramanujam is an excellent teacher", said one.  "Of course, he is", replied the other.  "But we're too stupid to understand him."  This innocuous comment dealt a severe blow to my pedagogic ego. But it set me free, at the same time, from a superstition.  I began to see teaching in a new light.  The light was ruthlessly uncomplimentary when it focussed on my gurus.  It was an agonizing experience.

Among the myriad minor myths mushrooming morbidly under the motherly care of this mammoth myth is the old wife's tale that teachers are effective communicators.  If there is one thing that has struck me in all the academic staff programmes I have taken part in, it is the fact that we, teachers, are awfully bad at expressing ourselves.  There are, of course, oases in that vast, dreary teaching desert, but how few they are!

Once I attended a panel discussion.  The panel consisted of three college teachers, a banker, a chartered accountant, and a sugar mill owner.  I listened in admiration to the sugar mill owner who was an enviable combination of a wealth of knowledge and effortless expression.  The banker was precise and to the point, and the chartered accountant was much more economical with words.  But the professors were a pathetic sight: they were waffling away in unhearable English.

Am I overgeneralizing from my own limited experience?  I wish I was.  But the voices I hear of people who are genuinely concerned about the state of affairs in education seem to chime in with my own.  Over three decades ago, when I was a novice teacher in a small town in India, Professor Yashpal, an exceptional teacher, wrote an open letter to us, college teachers in India, in his capacity as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission.  The purport of the letter was: You are not very good.  For God's sake, improve yourself!

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