Thursday, August 11, 2005

My Journey....

I was born on the move, in a bullock cart on a hot May morning, while my mother was being taken to the local hospital in a remote village in North Tamil Nadu. My life, except for the period of schooling at Tambaram, Chennai, has been a story of busy travel to a wide variety of places in southern India and Andaman and Nicobars. Most of my travel has been on account of biodiversity-related research projects that I had participated in. Each day, each glance, each step, the fragrance of the forest, the people in the forest, the calls of the birds and animals, all of them had some thing to teach. My spritual life revolves around my interaction with nature and its elements. I draw a lot of energy and clarity in thought and deed from my observation of the birds, animals, and the vastness of the sky and the sea, the trees and in general the humanity. This love for the nature comes from the total transparency with which each entity relates to one another. My inspiration comes from the intricate inter-relatedness of various elements of nature and yet their ability to be autonomous. My lessons are learnt from the nature the way it is auto poetic, i.e. self-maintaining and self-repair mechanism that works tirelessly to sustain life within a larger organism called the Earth.

Yes, I did think that I learnt a lot during those 8 years more than any other time, till suddenly one day I found myself in front of a energetic group to whom I was supposed to teach. But teaching was not new for me (atleast that is what I thought). During my early days of research ( my M.Phil) I used to meet 14 post-grads twice a week and present lectures on Plant Physiology. Teaching in college was about lecturing based on well defined syllabus and content. Because I met them once or twice a week, there was not much of a chance for creative teaching. It was from my own standards very dry way of interacting with learners.

Again during my Ph.D research, I was involved in interacting with new Ph.D. entrants and facilitate understanding of issues in Wildlife Conservation, especially bird-plant interactions. Here it was slightly better, because I was talking from my own experiences and this group of learners were curious about many things happening in the forest. The learners were more in tune with the topic because, in a month or so, they would be on their own in some remote part of the forest trying to study some endangered species of birds or mammals. This was a better experience for me because, the learners were wanting to learn and were taking with them a certain knowledge that would at times even save their lives apart from the exciting research they would do. During this period we were also meeting young children (7-15 year olds), talking in a lighter manner about the kinds of research that was happening around the country in terms of wildlife conservation. It was this interaction, I think, that changed my life. For after every interaction with children, their enthusiasm, vigour, curiosity, wonder and many other such attributes that are typically true to young active minds, I would be left with a feeling that I should be living in their world. I found myself learning more through their world than any other way. Here the content was minimal/optimal and the emphasis was to facilitate maximum understanding.

So, I decided to take up the teaching/learning interface seriously and joined “The School – KFI”, a Krishnamurti (K) School at Chennai. Here, I was introduced to K’s readings, conversations and discussions. I began to see things with slightly different lenses (the K-lenses). I found myself more stronger than before. I also basically unlearnt many things that I had learnt over years. Here, the situational/contextual learning took deeper roots. But more important was ‘the world of acontextual learning’ that was least explored any where else that struck me most here. Acontextual according to my understanding is about any thing around us that can be the prop as well as life of our learning/teaching experience.
As I type this piece, I still find K-philosophy as a great strength to myself. But, here I am also looking at a balance between exam and activity based learning. I have just begun. I do know that it is not going to be a cakewalk. But I have never worried my self with getting the right answers and solutions. What I have tried always is to ask the right questions. So my journey goes on in the hope of asking the right questions…..

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Content or Context: The Eternal Confusion


Hi everybody,
Here we are again with our tiny confusions that shake us of our transient slumber back to a phase of transient, active and productive phase of thinking, articulation and discussion in the hope to wade our way in our journey of educating/learning. I have logged one of my experiences. Kindly read through patiently and log in your comments.

It was my second year of active interaction with young people. I was just getting initiated to the world of young learners. As somebody new to this whole sphere of educating young people, I had never burdened myself of “knowing everything” in my subject. As a result of this guiding bent of mind, I seemed to go along rather smoothly till one day I was suddenly hit by an experience.

I was facilitating the Biology Program for a group of very enthusiastic and vigorous bunch. It was the fag end of the academic year. One of those afternoons when everybody wants to just lay down on their bed, hear some soft music and just fade into the world of dreams. The topic for the discussion was “Multicellularity in Plants”. A topic that even the ones with flair for the subject find it difficult to focus. I had spent about an hour drawing different kinds of plant cells and tissues on the board. I had a visual-based PowerPoint presentation with some wonderful pictures of the variety of plant cells, tissues and their functions. I had convinced myself that the preparation was more than enough. While discussing about the epidermis (the outer most layer of cells in any plant and animal) in plants, I was trying to relate to the epithelial cells (analogous to epidermis in plants) in animals. One of my learners had a doubt about a type of epithelium. I was not very sure of the answer. I had a reference book with me. As I tried to refer to the pages with the content, the learner suddenly said, “Its O.K. Anna (elder brother) if you do not know”. This statement suddenly threw me out of my balance. At that moment, I did not exactly know what in that statement disturbed me. But, I was extremely angry and I could see and observe my anger. I immediately informed the student and the larger group about my feeling. I gave them a break for about five minutes and tried to reconvene the session. But still, I was unable to get back to the facilitating groove. So, I requested the learners to go to the library and do reference work on the topic. I just sat there and began to sequence the events that happened.

What was the problem here? What upset me so much that I was so disenabled so as to be unable to talk to a young group of people? I spent quite some time in reflection. Was the anger about not knowing a certain content of the subject (that a teacher is usually expected to know)? Was it the context, which vitiated my sense of well being? Was it the tone of the learner’s statement that put me off? Did I read too much into the learner’s feedback? Was I fair enough responding the way I did? What impact would my response have on my learners?

These were just some of the questions that were running in my mind. When I look back at that incident now, there is better clarity. Even now I am pretty clear with my philosophy of educating / learning. I still feel, as an educator, I do not have to burden myself of “knowing everything”. But this episode was a consequence of not being in complete touch with the content of a given topic. Familiarity in content does help the cause of communicating the concept better. At the same time I also feel that the learning community should also be responsible for the learning that is happening. Curiosity, enthusiasm and the energy to know and learn new subjects should also be matched with an appropriate tone, tenor and demeanour of communication. In the absence of appropriate communication skills, the opposite of learning happens. The incident that I went through was one of those kinds, where the learner actually did not mean to be sarcastic with her comments. This I learnt during a conversation that I had the next day. But the tone and timing of the comment had a negative effect on me. So this incident was about two things. On one hand not mastering my subject for the day was a significant cause, the context and the nature of comments did not help the situation any better. Another big learning to me was about ‘holding back my first response’. Probably, if I had just held back my first response, the situation would have been totally different. But again this is a speculation.