Unlocking each learner’s potential

Steven Rudolph

Recently, I was reflecting on what it means to be a teacher, and wondered if I could distill the essence of the profession into a single expression. I sat for some time, combing through my 40-some-odd years in this world – half as learner, and half as educator/learner, in an attempt to identify an appropriate and succinct definition, when the word “locksmith” suddenly emerged. Within moments, my mind was inundated with similarities between teachers and key masters. Here’s what I discovered.

mind-lock Students’ minds are like doors with locks, which when open, enable them to access the unlimited ocean of knowledge that exists in the world. However, years of exposure to factory-style education has caused many of those doors and locks to become stuck, making it difficult for teachers to get their students interested in what they are teaching. The challenge for teachers, therefore, is to figure out which key to use to open them. It’s not enough for a teacher to teach the same thing to all students in the same way, as her unique style of instruction will cater to certain types of students, just as a single key might fit certain keyholes and not others. She needs to know the unique qualities of each learner, and how to adapt her approach so that she can get each one of them to open up.

While most teachers have at least a few instructional techniques (or keys) that work with some students, they may struggle to unbolt the doors of others. In a sense, these children remain incarcerated, brimming with energy and capabilities, though unable to connect meaningfully with the curriculum. Unfortunately, teachers often abandon such learners, as they feel it requires too much time and effort to get through to them, and also because they believe their primary responsibility is to complete the syllabus. But more unfortunate than the ignored, are the ones who are forced to open up through excessive pressure, emotional abuse or physical punishment. Such methods may bring about short-term gains, but in the end, result in damaging students’ self-esteem and their love for learning. With locks broken, the doors eventually wind up getting shuttered.

So what does a teacher need to do to liberate learners of all types? She must first consider the critical elements that constitute a learner’s psychology, i.e., Multiple Intelligences and Multiple Natures, can be equated with the pins found in pin tumbler locks. Just as lock pins differ in length, a student’s MIs and MNs exist in differing degrees (e.g., some have strong Logical Intelligence or Adventurous Natures, while others are weak in those aspects). And in the same way that the ridges of the key align with the pins, the teacher must provide inputs and activities that match each learner’s MIs and MNs.

For instance, rather than deliver chalk-and-talk lectures, teachers can involve their students in cooperative learning activities that engage Interpersonal Intelligence; they can use mindmaps and graphic organizers to stimulate learners’ Visual Intelligence and Creative Natures; they can provide options for homework and projects that let students represent their understanding of a topic through creating their own songs (Linguistic and Musical Intelligence) or designing flowcharts (Logical Intelligence). They can even activate interest by delegating responsibilities that match students’ innate tendencies. For example, they can assign monitoring roles to those strong in Administrative Nature, create a hospitality team for those who possess a prodigious Providing Nature or even encourage those with strong Educative Natures to serve as in-class tutors.

It takes years of experience to develop the versatility required to tackle a wide range of students by using such methodologies. But when a teacher does so, it is as if she has forged herself a master key – the kind you find in hotels that can open hundreds of doors.

Still, there will always be those exceptionally difficult students who refuse to open up no matter what you do. Whether you use kindness, anger, jokes, sarcasm, or even call their parents, nothing seems to stimulate or engage them. In such cases, locksmiths have only one choice – to pick the lock. They must find a wire or hairpin, and through one jugaad or another, jiggle it around until it gets the pins to move and the plug to turn.

When I think of the ‘impenetrable ones’, I am reminded of a teenage girl I once taught in Japan who came to my English class every day and just sat in the back chewing gum with her mouth open. She was one of those tough types with numerous body piercings, tattoos, leather and chain outfits, and so on. Every attempt I made to get her interested in the subject ended in failure and my deep frustration. Finally, one day, I handed her a stack of blank pages on her desk and said, “I don’t care what you write on them, but you have to fill them up – and it has to be in English”.

A few days went by, and when she entered the class, she dropped the stack of papers on my desk and silently went to her seat and began chewing gum. I looked down, and to my surprise, found every page in the stack filled with colourful drawings, elaborate descriptions, and an array of photos cut and pasted from magazines. “I like tattoos,” began one page, which was passionately filled with examples of body art. Next was an exposition on motorcycles, followed by a tribute to her favourite brand of cigarettes, complete with an empty packet affixed to the sheet. Twenty pages, each bursting with vitality, scored the symphony of her life, revealed the kaleidoscope of her soul. My Lord. Click!

Since that day, I have looked at my students differently – perhaps the way locksmiths view each lock – as a unique puzzle to be solved. And I have come to understand that the main challenge of teaching does not lie in covering the syllabus (though that will always be a part of it), but more, in figuring out how to jimmy each student’s distinct internal mechanisms so every one of them gets turned on to learning.

But while it is meritorious for a teacher to acquire the skills to extricate multitudes of students, she performs a disservice if she sees students merely as “locks to be opened”. No doubt she has the duty of deciphering each student’s unique combinations and helping engage them in curricular content, however, she has the greater responsibility of getting learners to recognize their individual characteristics so they can control their own locks. In fact, I believe that is the ultimate goal of education. For once learners know how to do so, the keys to release their potential rest in their hands.

The author is an American educator, TV personality, public speaker and bestselling author based in India. He can be reached at steve@jiva.com.

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