Thursday, April 18, 2013

The beginnings of Learning - The aftermath of a rigorous formal education

The beginnings of Learning - The aftermath of a rigorous formal education
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a bunch of fresh and young graduates from a very reputed college in India. These boys and girls were the crème-le –crème of the education system. Having worked and slogged their way for the last fifteen to eighteen years: beating competition at school, meeting parental expectations, becoming the envy and pride of their family – they had finally stepped out of their educational incubation with an fruity offer letter in their hands, and with the firm satisfaction tinged with a liberal dose of arrogance, that they finally made it to the “real” world.

The company that had hired these kids was in its own right a maverick organization, and they were very clear in their minds about the kind of talent they wished to recruit. I had meticulously prepared a fourteen day agenda based on the requirements and was scheduled to meet with the director to finalize the contents and fine tune it, if need be. The meeting turned out to be a very momentous one.

Anand (name changed)the director , a young man about thirty five years age , looking every bit a computer geek, greeted me cordially and ushered me into his spacious and elegantly decorated office. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, I got down to business and showed him the schedule I had in mind for these young recruits. He took the reams of paper from me and read the contents rather deeply for about five minutes and then dropped them on his table, rather disinterestedly. He looked at me and spoke for about fifteen minutes. What he told me then has since remained an integral part of my approach to teaching. At this distance, I don’t recollect the exact words, but the intent and meaning of what he said is paraphrased below:

“Bala, the course agenda looks good. You have made an effort to cover all aspects of technology that we currently need in this organization. I couldn’t’ have hoped for anything better. But let me tell you, you will fail in this endeavor. No, do not look at me like that; I didn’t mean to offend your capabilities. All that I am saying is that these fourteen days of training is not going to give me the kind of people I am looking for. You will feed them all these various tips and tricks of development, and I am sure that they will excel at it. These kids love these mental challenges and they pride themselves on their unique ability to solve these kinds of mental problems. They come from top notch colleges and they feel that they have achieved whatever they need to achieve, by way of education. They firmly believe that their period of study and learning is over, and now with a plum job in hand, it is time to reap the rewards of their years of hard earned labor, and get as far away as possible from the begrudging generosity of their parents and well-wishers. In others words, they have shut the doors of learning, as soon as they accepted this job offer. They believe that this job is the beginning of a never ending honeymoon for them.

So Bala, The entire purpose of this training program is to break this illusion. I really don’t care whether you teach them software or not; that is secondary to me. What is important is to drag them down from the intellectual pedestals that they have occupied and make them smell the earth. Get them to crawl on all their fours, all over again. They must understand that what they have done so far in their lives is just a preamble, a preface to a bulky book. They should be psychologically supple, pliable and malleable when they enter the portals of this organization, willing to learn afresh every hour, every day. They must realize that their entire education has been merely heating the intellectual metal and now it is ready to be molded in the maker’s hands. Believe me; you will face a lot of resistance in class. They would ask you about your background, education, college and other stuff, not because they are really interested in knowing you, but merely to make up their minds as to whether they should be listening to you or not. It is this attitude that I wish to eradicate. They should understand the value of listening without prejudices and opinions to everyone one around them.

Please understand that the entire exercise is not to discourage them or make them feel dirty – NO. The idea is to get their creative and intellectual juices flowing again. The formal rigorous education system has been a heavy burden on them and now they want to throw away the yoke. It is the job of this training to get them to learn again, in the pure sense of that word. You would find participants from all branches of knowledge: Chemical, computer science, mathematics and several others. All of them would share two common traits: Supremely intelligent and a bloated ego. I want them to retain the first and dissolve the second. Push them to their intellectual limits. Give them problems that are way beyond their scope and insinuate them by stating that these are rudimentary, beginner level questions that anyone can solve. That way, they will begin to see their sense of inadequacy for this industry and the type of work that we do, and start learning again with a new mind and a fresh attitude.

At the end of fourteen days I want see humility on their faces.

So Bala, do you think we can achieve this transformation?……..”

Well, the answer to the question that Anand asked me has been amply validated in my teaching career. Teaching is not about merely imparting knowledge. It has a more overarching goal - The unleashing of the true potential in an individual. Unless the teacher is passionate about such a change, the osmosis will not happen. This conversation with Anand has been the cornerstone of my work. Years later, many of the participants from the batch are still in touch with me and recount with great emotion how transformative those fourteen days have been in their lives. All of us share an association that go beyond the teacher-student relationship. Even though many of them occupy good positions in diverse fields of activity, they don’t rest on their laurels anymore. And this is true of most other classes that I have taught over the years.

The origin of this post can be traced to a mail I received from a participant in my class a couple of days ago. The mail read thus “This was a very informative course. Your instruction helped me metabolize the information more easily. You are a master teacher. Thank you!”. Yes, that is the objective and purpose of teaching – to help metabolize the input and energize the learning process………

Thanks Anand……………………….

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