Tag: education

Last lesson of the day: welcome to the real world.

Image: The Burghers of Calais, August Rodin

It’s the last lesson of the day. My students file slowly in, like Rodin’s Burghers. I decide to shelve the lesson I’d planned (a Southern Gothic sojourn through To kill a Mocking Bird via Childish Gambino’s brilliant This is Americaand Rammstein’s Amerika. I was going to start with a question. Where is America outside of text? It’s not happening today.I’m really looking forward to it. But, this could be more important. Something tells me things are about to get real!

They’re unusually quiet, too quiet. They’re not even trying to look interested. I don’t blame them. They’ve just written a test, the third in as many days. They write another one tomorrow and exams begin next week. Days like this I feel more like a production line manager than a teacher. It’s a lesson in time management, at least that’s what I try to tell myself. But, I can’t say that to them and that makes me wonder whether it’s the truth. What exactly are we doing here? Them, me, all of us? My career as a teacher has brought me to this class on this day and it doesn’t feel right. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. 

I know the standard response to this scenario. I’ve heard it all my life: “They’ll survive, they’ll have to in the real world. We’re preparing them for the real world.” 

The “real world.” I’ve always wondered where that is exactly? I know what is implied by the term. It’s a reference to the working life, you know the one. The five day week of 7–12 hour workdays to pay off the mortgage that has us strapped to banks until we retire, or die, or retire to die. The world of interminable responsibility, diminishing energy, flagging passion and expensive annual holidays where we travel far to bicker and fight with the people we bicker and fight with at home, that world.

I thought we only had one world?

Why do we lie to our kids? Why do we tell them we’re educating them to think for themselves, and when they do we punish them. We tell them to follow their dreams but by the time they reach their final school year they’ve forgotten what that was because we’ve only taught them how to write examinations, not how to turn their passions into a livelihood. We tell them they can be whoever they want to be but at school we train them to be just like us, focused on what needs to be done to get the money to get through the next week, month, year. We’ve trained them to chase the carrot. First it’s year 6, then it’s year 12 and the school leaving certificate after which it’s either University or an apprenticeship of some kind to get the car, then the house, then, … then it’s holding on for dear life until they have kids, while holding on tighter, getting them educated while dealing with career crises, mid-life crises, deaths, relationship collapses and while we’re losing grip they’re bursting into full bloom and they’re wide eyed and eager to live and you, after just barely getting through the same bad day you’ve been having everyday for the last 10 years, you catch them by the scruff and say “wait until you get into the real world!”

You don’t see the light fade from their eyes straight away, that takes time. But, if you’re lucky, and you’re a teacher, one day you look at them, and you see the light flickering in their eyes and you put aside the curriculum and tell them you’re taking them outside to sit or lie in the sun while you read Walt Whitman or Shakespeare sonnets to them. If you’re lucky enough to do that you grab the chance because you can feel the light flicker inside yourself too, and, sometimes you just have to sit in the sun and read poetry to get it back. At least for a while longer. It’ll fade in time. After all, the world out there is real, it sucks up light like a black hole. I guess that’s how Shakespeare imagined Denmark was for Hamlet.

*One of my favourite authors on the subject is Sir Ken Robinson. Check out his TED talk here . His book Creative Schools is a must read for anyone who cares about learning and education. 

I learn, therefore I doubt.

Until I spoke to Ganesh, I thought I understood what learning was. I met Ganesh in 2003 in Mumbai. He was a blind in one eye street kid. He spoke some English, we talked a bit about his life, where we came from, the weather, the usual stuff. He showed us around for a while and we came to a local supermarket somewhere off the Colaba Causeway. To thank him for his help I bought him rice that came in a white linen bag with carry handles. He was grateful, so were we.

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He had attended school but now needed to help his mother care for his siblings. He said he could read so I told him to read as much as he could, more, as much as possible. In the Cafe Leopold I sensed the absurdity of such contrived advice to an 11 year old boy whose priority was survival. How uselessly abstract in this world of poverty, and I called myself a teacher? For days after, for years beyond that I felt I had ridiculed my own faith in literature. I began to doubt the power of books to change anything. Change is either loose coins in your pocket or an ideology. Reading had expanded my world, made it bigger. I had the luxury of imagining possibilities beyond my circumstances. Later studies in literature affirmed my devotion to writing but taught me to respect words the way you respect the sea for fear of it drowning you.
My time in Mumbai reminded me that Art, like God, is a personal thing. One’s own journey through either is not a template for humanity. Ganesh shone a light on my doubt. It has remained illuminated. I’ve learned to live with my ignorance. Maybe I don’t really teach. Sometimes it feels more like I’m assembling data as determined by policy makers who are in turn determined by elected officials whose priorities are in turn determined by elections. I feed a gargantuan social mechanism whose primary function is consuming basically functional, highly maleable cogs. I myself am also a cog.

So I don’t know much about learning. Twenty five years of teaching doesn’t build a skill set, it elevates ignorance to a more sophisticated level. It has enabled me to recognise the academic pretence of “experts” and see the greatest obstacle to learning is that their rhetoric has become the language of education. Teaching has become the craft of bureacratic window dressing, of marching young minds painstakingly through the ever narrowing arch of the final examinations. Years of ‘rigorous’ assessment press fresh minds into stale social moulds.

The term education is derived from the Latin word ‘educere‘ which means ‘to draw out’ or ‘to bring from’. Learning should not be about placing knowledge into people, that is what propaganda and politicians try to do. Besides, what is knowledge? Something to talk about another time perhaps? Education, in the real sense of the word, works from the inside out. Teachers ought to ignite within students the desire to know more about themselves and their world in order that they might extract from within themselves the means for living a meaningful life. In this respect I believe that teaching is a noble profession for what it professes to do-draw out of young people the best they have. Teaching, therefore, doesn’t pass knowledge on, it shows us where to look and where we start is where we end, with ourselves.

I believe schools are inherently places where learning is desired. I suspect it happens despite teachers or curriculum. It is possible that what we learn is simply what we need to know to survive life. And survival is what all of us do. Some do it in style in expensive mansions, some in surburbia and others in shanty towns or on the streets. I believe wisdom is what we learn about being alive and education is the commodity we purchase to make living comfortable. In the interim, between the wisdom and the knowledge, there is something far more important, love. Despite the trudgery and sadness of this flash of existence, we have to keep an open heart.

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I photographed this lady as we passed a beach close to a small community near the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai.

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I never saw her face and would not have photographed her if she were facing me. She walked to the edge of the beach with graceful dignity as waves crashed into shacks lodged precariously on the side of an embankment. She fixed her gaze on the horizon and did not look back for a long while.

Featured image: A washer takes a break in Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air landrey where the linen from the best hotels in the city are sent for cleaning and pressing.

What is progress?

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I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.”

As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress. Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system.

Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators.

Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.

After 25 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?” Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe. Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them.

Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music. Would Sisyphus be progressing each time he summited the mountain with his boulder? Perhaps mankind’s progress is an ongoing struggle with himself? We must assess progress alongside our brutality and our ability to be gentle. We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.