The learning teacher

G. Gautama

Are not teaching and learning of ancient descent? Is there something new that is happening? Is there something that we are avoiding?

Have human beings not been always learning? Without learning how did the pots change shape? How did knives and metal objects emerge? How did cloth and machines become common? And more recently, how did we learn to surf channels using a remote? How did we learn to use mobiles and new tricks each year? And train booking, mobile banking, messages, short, long and social media broadcasts? And has not the teacher moved from multi-age single teacher gurukuls, church schools and madrassas to same age classrooms focused on subjects? Has not the teacher adapted to whiteboards and computers to function in CCTV air conditioned environments?

So what is new about learning? It has been happening for ages and continues now too.

We earlier bought clothes and shoes to last years, now we are content if they last a year and feel little compunction to discard them. That we will do somethings differently next year is the new normal. This shift in sensibility took time, a few decades, nearly a century. But attitudes have shifted… the ground shifts more quickly than it did earlier. Organizations recognize this and words such as ‘agile’ and ‘nimble’ point to a new kind of relationship to yesterday, and to tomorrow. While recognized as unsustainable, there has been no easy way back to a low waste, low consumption, sustainable way of life. Requirements of existence in the present was with a long-term vision of life and living, relationship to others and the earth, sustainable practices and our responsibility to future generations.

gautama-1 Change hovers in every corner; it has taken hold of our minds. The major thrust to infrastructure and the rapid acceptance of technology has conditioned our minds to anticipate change. Few spheres of human activity have remained unchanged, untouched. We ‘know’ what we are familiar with today will shift, get modified, change, and we will have to do somethings differently, very soon. We have moved from writing letters to emails and instant messaging, from dropping in on friends to fixing appointments, from standing in queue for tickets to instant booking on a phone!

Schools and colleges teach subjects, etiquette, values and more, a lot of learning. And of course schools have teachers. People have learnt many things with or without teachers, and with or without going to school and college. People learn when it makes a difference to their lives. Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and philosopher, discovered that unlettered peasants could start reading the newspaper directly, not using the usual schooled route of alphabet, words, phrases and sentences, in a week!

What have schools learnt from such radical approaches and thoughts? Would schools need to see the limitation of all handed-down methods and structures? Paulo Freire was possibly the first one to speak about how important the context is. Malcolm Gladwell points to the ‘power of the context’. VS Ramachandran, well-known neuroscientist, points out that our brain fills gaps in perception based on past experience or extrapolation of the past. What have schools learnt from this? What have teachers learnt from this and other such insights?

The word ‘learning’ has now acquired many meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Often this is very confusing. Learning used to mean acquiring knowledge and skills. Does this definition still hold?

Is learning a process of acquisition? If defined as acquisition of knowledge and skills, this is easily done by machine mediation. For example, spelling or grammatical use of language can be easily practiced with good programs or apps. So is the acquisition of dexterity with numbers, the four operations and visual connection between formula and graph.

Or is learning, the process of finding meaning? This would mean not only understanding knowledge but discovering the sense it makes in one’s life and context? This would mean seeing the hidden operations within our brain, those that connect what we perceive, read and experience to past associations. Individuals can pay attention to how they construct meaning, and become aware of their own ways of making meaning. Thus making sense of the world, through our experiences and assumptions, opens the possibility of understanding ourselves. Given one talk or passage or event, multiple meanings can be constructed by different individuals. Not only does this offer a rich opportunity to understand one thing through different lenses, but provides a window into our own preferences, our own coding. Can appreciation of multiple meanings be called ‘learning’?

Meanings that we make are our understanding of the world around us. And understanding is rarely in a vacuum. Understanding leads to action – to speech, physical action or a non-verbal taking of a position. Should learning be devoid of action or should it be a preparation for action? And can they be separated? One learns to play the cello by playing the cello. One cannot learn to basketball by reading about it alone. Trying to do things, when one is not feeling fully ready, is part of learning. And this is not to suggest that there is no preparation needed for driving a train or an aeroplane.

Therefore does learning encompass, include awareness of the fear and uncertainty one feels when trying something for the first time? If one understands the assumptions from where one draws conclusions, feelings are very much part of this domain. Is an understanding of how we function, how we relate and act, a part of learning? Learning, meaning making, feelings and action are all connected. This leads one to ask how would one call oneself a learner? More importantly, does schooling have anything to do with this?

Conformity was a pillar of education in the past centuries. This has yielded ground to questions and enquiry. Children are no longer asked to merely conform to adult expectations, but invited to question, think for themselves. Good exams look for demonstration of ability to think rather than rote expression of facts from a text. Application of knowledge in unknown situations is considered a test of understanding.

The processes followed in education have revealed many layers over the past century. But the praxis, largely, has not altered very much. Who is the teacher and what is his/her role in this shifting landscape? Where can one draw the lines in defining the educational role of a teacher? Or is the teacher responsible for the ‘whole’ as Krishnamurti points out?

Often one hears blame in the voices of the critics – blame for the system, for the teacher and society at large. The teacher is blamed for not doing his or her job. The schools are not doing their job to get good teachers. And the Government is not fulfilling its obligations to the citizen.

Knowledge and information is no longer the raison d’être of schools and educational institutions. The role of the teacher has become enormously complex and difficult as the underlying realities reveal themselves. The transition to the new schooling and new teaching is hampered by two factors. First, the new schooling is to be built on the same physical foundation of the old school. Classrooms, blackboards and age wise grouping of children. Second, the transactional processes – lessons, teaching, exams, marks, pass-fail, etc.

It is said that if one finds oneself in a familiar situation, one behaves as one is habituated to do. For example, if I am used to having someone wash and iron my clothes, it does not occur to me that I can do this myself. Further, even if such a thought occurs, the weight of earlier practice will inhibit a consistent new movement. One sees this strong patterning in the choice of seat at a table, and such everyday actions and responses. Form has a heavy impact on the behaviour of individuals. And schools have not found new forms. And therefore it has been that much more difficult to discover new pedagogy. If people have struggled and managed some changes, it is despite the weight of the form and, this deserves high appreciation.

There is one more significant element. Schools have not invested in the learning of teachers. Schools and governments have been content with the factory model of school where the teacher is like a factory worker, fulfilling a slot. It has become unviable for the teacher to occupy this slot any longer. The model is collapsing and merely running on old steam. Forms cannot be changed easily. For a teacher to display a different approach in the same setting, with a group of students who are also patterned by the same processes, is not a trivial challenge.

Teachers who love their role and wish to hang on, despite being highly motivated, despite the swirling changes in the environment, who choose to be part of the lives of the young in a meaningful way with hope and possibility, have a challenge before them. Schools have a high challenge before them as it is unrealistic to expect all individuals to have a high motivation for change. This is understandable as change is scary and unsettling and sure to disrupt the status quo. An additional complexity is that no one can fully predict the unintended consequences of changes.

gautama-2 The emergence of new pedagogy will embody holistic learning – information, meaning making and action, all the while understanding our own emotional and unconscious underpinnings. The approaches have to rapidly enable dignity and a learning sensibility for the young, not one that seeks approval of the teacher, or the exam board. This is no longer an option. India is churning out unemployable graduates and breeding frustration in the young. Without location of respect as a key pillar of education, with all its implications, whatever we may do, we will fail to do justice to the needs of our young.

Passion contains the seed of abandon, a certain madness, that risks failure, but does not stop trying. Krishnamurti reminds us, that “to go half way up the hill is mediocrity”. There have been mutants in the teacher community who, with no support from school or system, have functioned in the learning-teacher mode, risking much and often receiving heaps of criticism. But they have been the stuff of legends, who addressed themselves with unwavering attention to the holistic development of the child/student, who never abandoned their mission for the passing requirements of marks or status. Maybe this is the time for individuals with passion and a quality of abandon, who can strive and not fear failure.

The learning teacher is a new species whose metamorphosis is overdue. The learning teacher is required to embrace the same cycle that he/she would like for the young in his/her care. Exposure, examination, reflection, construction of meaning, review of the process. A consistent dose of this is inescapable. This is obviously not an orientation just for the functional role of a teacher in school, but a way of life. For the individual to find this discipline is of importance. When institutions and organizations decide to support this direction, we can see movement in schools.

Till such time, it will be the time of the dragon riders in school education… for those souls who are open to learning, who embrace learning and are not wedded to one method, who see the student as a learner and themselves too, who refuse to give up by merely doing what they have been told or who will not give up. The teacher’s role is only for the bravest of the brave. Parag Kar writes, “Leadership is about taking extreme ownership. It means you alone are responsible for all mishaps. You cannot pass the blame.” It is the rare teacher, and rare head of school who sees the truth of this perception.

Preserving form easily retains the status quo, and the new century requires us to move, shift, rediscover, reshape. What Krishnamurti demanded “Move Sir!” is terrifying and yet at the same time possibly the best invitation one can receive.

There is one question that hangs over this direction? Is there a responsibility that institutional leaders wish to take? Do they see this picture and commit themselves to the rocky journey of transformation of educational processes. Further, recognizing and appreciating the challenge of this movement, commit themselves to teacher support with its fuzzy emerging directions and be willing to give up security of the predictable, niche model of schooling. School managements and governments need to create enabling conditions for change.

The new approaches or structures in education will be disruptive of the earlier approaches. The government created enabling conditions for digital payments that disrupted a century of habit. Can state and central governments do the same for school education opening the possibility for holistic, empowering, dignifying education for all?

Tiger Woods decided to change his swing even though he was No.1 in the world golf rankings. He was willing to see if he could do it better, swing differently, invite a perturbation. None had succeeded in doing this before. Do institutions dare to walk this road of institutional transformation for enabling the emergence of the learning teacher? Tiger Woods risked money and status. Without a new pedagogy we risk whole generations!

The author serves as Director, Palar Centre for Learning, a KFI centre around a school called Pathashaala started in 2010. He has worked as Principal at The School-KFI from 1991-2009 and Director from 2006-2012. He has tried to answer if a shift in pedagogy can happen where the teacher and student coexist meaningfully with dignity, depth and symmetry. Simultaneously he has tried to create space for participation, growth and empowerment of teachers. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply