Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Teachers as Nation-builders

Teachers as Nation-builders
(First published in The Island/22nd Friday, October 2010)

A nation comprises the people of a country, not its land, buildings, or natural features, though these may help identify a particular nation as its possessions. Nation building, therefore, means the development of the human factor along with the other resources of the country so that its people are able to enjoy a comfortable, happy, contented life in a free, fair and peaceful land.
The greatest asset that a country has for achieving such a state of existence is its youth. The education of the young is the heaviest responsibility that any nation must shoulder. Since it is teachers who play the central role in educating the children, they may be described as the foremost nation builders.
From time immemorial, Sinhalese folk wisdom has accorded pre-eminence to three occupations: ruling, healing, and teaching. The saying “rajakama neththam vedakama” (If you can’t become a king, the next best thing is to become a physician) shows the high esteem in which healers are held in our society. However, neither rulers nor physicians have ever been assigned any divinity as a tribe, though perhaps our ancient kings might have been formally called “god” or addressed as such. Yet, good teachers are even today honoured with the “god” title: “gurudevi” (teacher god). At school felicitation ceremonies, it is a deeply emotional sight when sometimes senior university professors, administrators, and army generals among others pay obeisance to humble old school teachers who had taught them, guided them, praised them, and even punished them on occasion in their childhood, by falling at their feet.
In moral terms, teaching is arguably the noblest profession in our culture. This is not to belittle the other professions, but to stress the fact that people’s acquisition of knowledge and skills in any field, and the assimilation of sound values and a good moral sense always originate in the formative years of their lives as school children; above all, it is from good teachers that children learn how to educate themselves in later life. No other professions are possible without the profession of teaching.
In our country, it is usual for teachers to enjoy the privilege of having their former ‘golayas’ (pupils) who offer to help them in any government office or other institution they visit. Persons in exalted positions in society often remember their school teachers with more affection and respect than their university professors because of the greater personal influence that the former had on their education and their life in general. A teacher’s work is thus praised, and respected as an act of generosity and service by the beneficiaries of such ‘nobility’, which means the whole society feels grateful to teachers. Such adulation is a recognition of the contribution that teachers make to the personal development of individuals and thereby, of the nation.
This sentiment may sound a little too idealistic under the current circumstances, for like the medical profession, the teaching profession is unfortunately losing its traditional aura of respectability as a result of being highly commercialised, and politicised: business is usurping the space earlier occupied by service, while labour politics is displacing professional ethics.
However, in spite of this, teaching in the formal education system still continues to relate to the life of the individuals, and through them to the life of the society at large, in a vitally important way that no other profession can. A teacher’s work involves providing the learners intellectual guidance for exploring the world of knowledge, and for imbibing the moral values of their society, in a word, educating them. No other professional affects a client’s life so intimately, so profoundly, and so permanently as a teacher does.
While there has been no change in the way teachers influence the life of the individuals and the society, how teachers teach has been subjected to fresh thinking, and improved a great deal. The traditional view of the teacher as the repository of all knowledge whose business is to fill their pupils with learning as if they were empty pitchers became obsolete decades ago, although it is still more or less dominant in our country. The concept of teaching has undergone radical transformation, especially over the past century due to new research findings in educational psychology, teaching methodology, and other allied fields of study, and also due to the phenomenal increase in the number of sources of information resulting from revolutionary innovations in Information and Communications Technology. Whereas in the past the teacher was at the centre of the teaching process, the more modern insights into how learners learn have tended to locate learner initiative at the centre of the educative process. Educationists began to see that learning belongs to the learner, and that a teacher at best could only help a learner to learn; teaching is today considered to be teaching learners how to learn, rather than just dispensing information.
However, the rational idea that learning is the responsibility of the learner was already a couple of thousands of years old when it began to be stressed again in modern education. In a short essay entitled “Teaching” in his book The Prophet (1923) Kahlil Gibran (1883-1933), Lebanese-American philosophical essayist, includes the following aphorism as spoken by the prophet to his audience: “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.” This actually echoes Socrates (467-399 BCE), the ancient Greek philosopher, who saw teaching, not as a telling, but as a drawing forth. The Socratic method involves developing a latent idea in a pupil’s mind through questioning that guides him or her to think independently. Kahlil Gibran, in the same context, makes his prophet say: “If he (the teacher) is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
The traditional model of teaching encouraged rote learning, in which students committed to memory ‘undigested’ bits of information that the teacher presented. Today supplying mere information is the least of a teacher’s responsibilities, because the available sources of information for the learner to tap are many. Instead, a modern teacher needs to provide the environment for the learner to create knowledge in collaboration with other learners.
The principles of constructivist learning are based on the assumption that knowledge is socially constructed through collaborative engagement; it is neither delivered by an all-knowing teacher nor generated by one’s own unaided effort. Constructivist principles are embodied in new models of teaching.
Since the learner has moved to the centre of the teaching-learning arena one might say that education is more a matter of learning than teaching. But this doesn’t mean that the teacher’s role is being written off. In fact, the truth is that the new models of teaching that have been developed based on decades of research make the teacher’s responsibilities even more onerous than before. To be a successful teacher one must be an inspiring and persuasive presenter of information, skills, ways of thinking, ideas and values; a teacher must engage the students in cognitive and social tasks, and teach them how to use them in the future to further their education. Two examples of models of teaching (out of many) are given below:
The first is based on inductive thinking. Inductive thinking is thinking that enables you to draw a general rule to explain a number of specific ideas or observations. Promoting this kind of thinking is one of the many modern models of teaching. Analysing information to create concepts is used not only in the sciences, but in other subject areas as well. Rules of grammar can be worked through inductive reasoning. (Below, I am using an example found in Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil’s book “Models of Teaching” (5th ed. 1997.)
Children are seated in pairs for the lesson. In front of them is a pile of small objects. Each pair is given a U-shaped magnet. The teacher tells them that the object is called a magnet, and that she wants them to do a bit of exploration using the magnet. The children are asked to sort the small objects according to what happens when they bring the magnet close to or touch them with it. The teacher also takes notes on the categories the children form, and use these categories to begin their study of written vocabulary.
Here is my own second example of a model of teaching: The brief short story “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway presents, in his characteristic compact style, (probably) the last of many quarrels between a young woman called Jig and an American (who is not named in the story) who are enjoying a tour, visiting many different cities. In the course of this tour, the girl becomes pregnant. The quarrels are over the man’s insistence that the girl agree to a simple operation to end her pregnancy. But the girl apparently wants to have her baby, marry the man, and perpetuate their loving relationship. This story, which I think would be suitable for an English literature lesson with a (preferably) mixed class of our twelfth graders (presumably adult enough for such a story), would invite what is known as “the group investigation model of teaching”. With this model, the teacher has the students read the story, and share their reactions to the plot, characters, setting, action, central theme, etc. of the story and argue out about the moral issues involved, positions they would take, and the values they would adopt. Then, the students are provided with copies of another story by the same author for home study: “A Very Short Story”. They come ready for a discussion comparing the two stories in terms of their themes, issues involved, attitudes expressed, etc. After sharing, the students are asked to write a homework assignment about the two stories compared. (Incidentally, interested readers are invited to visit my literature blog heli29.wordpress.com for the texts and short discussions of these stories, though they may be of little relevance to the subject of this article.)
The two instances given above are just random examples. In this type of teaching, instead of the teacher dishing out some prescribed information, the children engage in active inquiry in a social context, and discover new knowledge with the teacher helping them as a guide and a partner. Such teaching-learning activities are intrinsically interesting, challenging, and rewarding at the same time for both the students and the teacher; the teacher also learns in the sense that s/he gets the opportunity to understand how different pupils respond to challenges, how they cope up, how classroom management may be improved, and also to reflect on his or her own practice. When teaching is managed this way, it helps to inculcate useful attitudes of mind in the children such as independent inquiry, rational thinking, sharing with and caring for others, and collaboration instead of competition.
One of the major tasks we assign to education is citizenship training. Qualities of self-reliance, critical thinking, mutual helpfulness, and broadmindedness are essential for the citizens of a democracy such as ours. We are a diverse society, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically. A normal classroom in Sri Lanka is a microcosm of the society outside, and therefore is a suitable venue for citizenship training. How teachers conduct their teaching has an important impact on students developing the correct perceptions and attitudes that promote harmonious co-existence between diverse racial, religious, and cultural groups, and a sense of common allegiance to the motherland.
An adequate level of literacy and general knowledge is absolutely essential for citizens to take part in a democracy. They must be able to read and write well enough to become aware of, and assert, their democratic rights; they need the same ability to discover and discharge their responsibilities. These things too, people usually learn from teachers at school.
All categories of workers contribute to nation building by performing their specific jobs for the benefit of the people. Of these only two categories of workers have to deal with persons as their direct objects of attention: medical professionals and teachers. But there’s a significant difference between them: doctors and nurses usually work on their patients whereas teachers work with their students; a teacher cannot produce good results by trying to work on their pupils, instead of working with them. That, in essence, is the difference between the traditional approach to teaching and the new models of teaching.
Teachers are the prime nation-builders, not by default, but by the very nature of their profession. To do their job well, they need to be knowledgeable and cultured (that is, educated, in the real sense of the word). There are teachers who deserve to be worshipped as ‘teacher gods’. But obviously, there aren’t enough of them. If there were, repulsive scenes like the recent mayhem that certain university students caused at the Ministry of Higher Education wouldn’t have occurred.

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