Thursday, September 8, 2016

Reflections—on teaching, learning and more

Reflections—on teaching, learning and more

The following was an e-mail I had sent to colleagues at my school this summer.

I have removed last names to protect privacy.

I have also added quite a few things, increasing the length, but hopefully not the comprehensibility, of these reflections.

I have, however,  inserted headings, hoping to create a semblance of sectioning, so as to guide the reader through my meanders.  The headings are as follows:

A) My father's website and the last two books he authored

B) People at the school

C) The public schools, the transmission of cultureand cultural diversity

D) Informal learning, the acquisition of the first languageand the nature of learning 

E) Changes in learning ability with age, the need for formal learning—and more on the schools

F) Information and technology

G) The acquisition of ethicsand our socioeconomic malaise
H) Some final thoughts on hierarchical command structures such as those in our school systems


A) My father's website and the last two books he authored

My father's website is at .  Being a teacher, I conceived of it as an educational resource, of use not only to photographers, historians, anthropologists and others with specialized interests, but also to the public in general and to students in the schools and colleges.

That link came out garbled, for some reason, in the earlier sending.

I had worked on the website from 1998-2004, beginning with my father's exhibition in 1998 in New York City, curated by Ram Rahman, and finally also incorporating, after my sister Monua's passing in 2004,  my father's last exhibition while alive—in the year 2000, in San Francisco.  Monua had made that final exhibition possible and had aided her father with it, in every way.

I had also worked on the website, briefly, in the summer of 2012, to include my father's obituaries from the New York Times, etc.  Sadly, there were none for my mother, who had preceded him, by about a month, that same year.

My mother (born Sobha Dutt) had helped my father (Sunil Janah) in ways that are too many to recount here, not only in his physical survival, but also in his work.  His last two books, The Tribals of India and Photographing India (both published by Oxford University Press) would not have taken form, let alone seen publication, without her long and arduous involvement in them.  This was especially true for his final, sadly posthumous, epic work.

Members of my mother's extended family, my parents' longtime English friend, Dr. Brian Watson, my father's attendants and others were of great help to my parents, in many ways, in their final years in California.

Many more years of effort need to be put into the website and, more importantly, into my father's life's work.  This is needed, so that his documentation, carried out through decades of labor, is more widely available to current and future generations, especially in the subcontinent but also elsewhere.  Hopefully, they will be wiser from this and will also use it with wisdom and caring.

My mother had not wanted me to put large, good quality images on the website, so these are scarce (though present) there.

B) People at the school

How is Sandra doing?  Hopefully, Diane is fully recovered from her own ordeal.

I was most saddened to hear of Louie's passing. He always had time to be of assistance and to crack a joke.

If I had been my old self, after returning (in 2009) from many rather stressful years of leave, mostly in California, I would have sat in Louie's classes and learned the many wonderful things he taught, including hardware-related matters.

I remember attending, many years ago at another school, Ramin's skillfully woven after-school college-level C++ programming classes, taking notes, doing the assigned homework and taking exams along with the other students, many of whom were also my own students during the school-day.

C) The public schools, the transmission of cultureand cultural diversity

One does not perhaps realize this, but the public schools had, by default, become the depositories and transmitters of much of the cultural traditions, including the academic and vocational knowledge, that make us what we are.  This had occurred as our communities were being atomized.

Those cultural traditions are best passed on in an atmosphere that is not pressured, and where respect prevails between and among teachers, students and parents—as well as for the subjects being taught, some of which appear to be new but still have roots going back thousands of years.

If our species is at all special, it is largely because of these cultural continuities.  We do not face the world newly hatched and alone, but, hopefully, much more than most other species do, informed by the experience and thought of many generations that preceded us.

This was and still is true among tribal folk, whom we wrongly regard as "primitive".  We have much to learn from them. Sadly, our own smaller human cultures are vanishing at a rate almost matching the extinctions of the biological species.

We learn in ecology that biological diversity is essential for the survival of an ecosystem and so also for the biosphere. Information is transmitted both genetically and culturally—especially for birds and mammals, and even more so for primates, including humans. Should we let ourselves be complacent, then, about the loss of cultural diversity that is occurring all over the globe? When a language dies, it takes with it almost as much as when a species dies.
D) Informal learning, the acquisition of the first languageand the nature of learning
There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge, although in certain matters they do go hand in hand.

The basis of both is the informal learning that takes place within the family and, in earlier times, within the village or extended clan. The learning of the first language, always locally pitch-perfect, miraculously so, is the basis on which all later abstraction is built. It is perhaps the greatest intellectual accomplishment of our lifetimes, yet it is mostly completed within the first few years of our lives.

Parents and others do not have to get teaching certificates or degrees to teach this great body of abstraction, that has within it the seeds of all others. Teaching and learning are things that most mammals and birds do instinctively. Humans excel at this.

Of course, one cannot teach what one does not know, and one cannot teach if one does not have the desire to do this. Similarly, one cannot learn when one does not want to. One can be tricked or forced into doing some learning—but that won't get us far.

The mechanics of mind and brain are too complex, mysterious and fluid to admit of rigid prescriptions.  One cannot write on water. There is a flow that takes its time and does what needs to be done.  Conscious, subconscious and unconscious processes are involved. The desire and the will, along with the traditional virtues, are needed.

That central mystery needs to be respected.  Left alone, humans (and many other animals) will find  ways to teach and learn what they need to teach and learn. The process, like all human things, is a messy one—neither for show nor for rating.

Being able to walk, use our hands and fingers and do other physical things, including talk, hear, and truly see, are also wonders—miracles—that we share with many other species.

E) Changes in learning ability with age, the need for formal learning—and more on the schools

The learning of other languages and skills, later in life, often proceeds very differently.  As the ends of our long bones begin to set at puberty, so also do certain aspects of our mental structure. Malleability is sharply decreased.

I came to this country, 41 years ago, at age 23, but still speak (and think and act) much as I did when I got off the plane then.  My late sister came here a bit later, but at a younger age—18.  After a few years, she had little trace of accent left in her speech and was otherwise far more westernized in many things.

However, as certain faculties are lost or reduced, others arise and are developed which can take their place.  Experience, knowledge, the ability to deal with abstractions, the ability to focus deeply and maintain that focus for extended periods, and to persevere despite setbacks—all of these normally increased as a child matures, and this process could be extended into adulthood.

However, current trends seem to be working against this natural maturing process.  So we have not only children, but also adults, with severe attention-deficit syndromes.  This is, I believe, a sort of survival adaptation to the world we live in, and we are also purposely led towards this by socioeconomic pressures and manipulation through the media.

At the same time, the pressures and distractions of samskara—having to deal with survival and all the duties and worries that follow, come in the way of the kind of learning that came naturally to us as children—if we were lucky enough to have had a childhood not plagued with unbearable hardships and conflicts.  This was so, even for past generations.

Almost every culture developed subcultures of formal learning.  This was particularly evident in civilizations that preserved ancient languages for religious or other purposes.  These had also often developed formalized systems of scholarship, statecraft, priesthood and medicine. There were formal disciplines of music and dance and of spiritual, physical and martial training. Formal learning also had its place in apprenticeships in the specialized traditions of the other skilled crafts and arts.
All of these formalized systems drew from and supplemented the more informal folk traditions, which remained as the sources.  Formal and informal traditions interacted and evolved.

One might be tempted to think that formal education proceeded only under the tutelage and sponsorship of affluent individuals and of royal courts.  While it is true that teachers and students of the formalized disciplines often became dependent on such sponsors, the larger truth is that some in the ruling elites were either clever enough or enlightened enough, and had resources enough to provide such support, often for their own uses or ends.

The apparent divergence between classical and folk or popular traditions is a superficial one. The emergence of economic classes, often also associated with rule by a foreign or removed elite, was what led to the dichotomy between "high" and "low" cultures.  This was aggravated by urbanization and industrialization, which was accompanied by the destruction of rural communities and their folk traditions.

Schools for formal learning, with or without affluent private or state sponsors, have been around for a long time. The schools and universities of our time are extensions of these.

It is rather unfortunate, however, that the industrial factory model also came to be applied to formal education, especially in the schools. Despite all the touted reforms that have come and gone, often creating more confusion, disruption and havoc than anything else, this, along with the hierarchical organization of the schools, has not changed.

Formal education is a powerful thing.  But one should ask, for what end is this power being used?  And one should also ask why so much of that power is dissipated, even as the lives of teachers and students are consumed and wasted.
The many disciplines created by humans have been able to perpetuate themselves through specialized systems of formal learning, even as they have continually evolved.

It is difficult to make generalizations about such systems or give prescriptions for them. They have each developed, over time, through human experience, effort and ingenuity.  What might work for teaching and learning carpentry might not work for mathematics—and vice versa.  Also, what works for little children might not be suitable for teenagers, might be unbearable for older folk, and so on.

F) Information and technology

Methods of communication and storage of information have arisen and evolved and have assisted in learning and teaching—both informal and formal.

Just as in farming and industry, the rise of new technologies has impacted education.  This is nothing new.  But the rate of change that humans can deal with is now an issue worth considering.

Technologies take time to mature and be assimilated.  Technology should serve humans, rather than the other way around.  Technology can be used to liberate but also to enslave.  It is best if a technology is transparent, robust and locally reproducible.

These common-sense observations are just as valid in education as in other areas of human activity.

Vehicles may have their uses, but we should not forget that we have legs, that we need to use these organs, and that these should be used, rather than vehicles, whenever possible.

Black boxes that do magical things may have their place in our lives, but it should not be a central one.  We should not become dependent on them.
G) The acquisition of ethicsand our socioeconomic malaise
The acquisition of an ethical framework is, I believe, just as important as the acquisition of the first language. This too is usually acquired very early in life, again mostly through informal learning.  It is based on empathy, sharing, equity and the Golden Rule—things that some children come to early, others late or perhaps never.  Without this framework, humans would not have survived in the past. Yet, in the world we have created, full of transient interactions, it appears to be, too often, more of a handicap.

The ethical, reflective person is too often considered a fool and a nuisance.  Cosmetic or superficial considerations are given greater weight.  Personality trumps character.  Speed and efficiency (both desirable qualities) trump diligence and caring (even more desirable ones).  Impatience rules. Patience is devalued. The short term gets precedence over the long term. Self-interest triumphs over collective survival.

The basic trust and respect that is needed for peace within oneself, family, co-workers, friends, a community, a country or the world is lost and replaced by mistrust and hostility.
Workers, on whose labor  the wealth of the human world was built and continues to be built, are divided by ethnicity, gender, age, profession, economic stratum and region or nationality.  Adults are reduced to children, artisans to factory workers.

Seeing things in black and white, rather in all the shades of gray, is preferred. This makes life apparently simpler—but also more boorish. Black and white can also change places rapidly, as can love and hate, as we see around us too often, both in personal affairs and in public ones.

Modern, mechanized war, with all its horrors, is perhaps the worst manifestation of this.  Europe seemed to have learned its lesson, especially in its eastern half, after it inflicted on itself, in two world wars in the last century, what it had wrought on the rest of the world. That lesson appears to be wearing off, even there.

H) Some final thoughts on hierarchical command structures such as those in our school systems

Questioning, verification, examining what we are asked to do in the light of compassion, reason and experiencenone of these things are considered to be the right and duty of employees, including teachers in the schools.  There is often little or no provision for input from the public and from practitioners at the policy formulation stage, nor is there adequate provision for feedback and correction from these in the policy implementation stage.

The consequence of this, in wars, in corporate and government factories and offices, and in school systems,  is the compounding of errors, often fatal errors. These occur because the drivers are basically driving blind, and the systems are operating under a hierarchical command paradigm, reinforced by fear and subservience at every level.

The much-ballyhooed "data-driven" structures are also of little use in an atmosphere of fear, which leads to a focus on numerical data and even the manufacture of data so as to please superiors and avoid punishment.

Meanwhile, the nonsense that passes for pedagogy, with its constantly recycled and repackaged focus on "methods of teaching",  "facilitation", (so-called) "higher-order questioning and critical thinking", "application of technology" and much more, continues to muddy and confuse, even as basics, that clearly need attention before any of these things are addressed, continue to be grossly neglected.

Punitive elements in evaluation based on high-stakes testing of students and rigid, superficial and meddlesome forms of teacher observation are helping to make our schools even more hellish for both sincere teachers and sincere students, while the main causes (other than these two afflictions) for the problems that plague so many schools are still not addressed, let alone acknowledged.

I will not go into these causes here, as that would require another essay, based on my own experiences and observations in teaching (and learning) in the schools and universities over the past four decades.
Before I discuss the causes of the problems, I should also clarify what I mean by "the basics" in education. That also requires a separate, though related, discussion.