THE UN-MAKING OF A MIMIC

An interesting thought has emerged from a colleague’s comment on a post I had made earlier. She rather succinctly drew the gist of a rather long winded statement I was making about ways of teaching that truly encourage timeless ways of learning. She says, “I am tending to draw from what you say that making mimics is an act of ‘not listening’. However you stray on to another note. So maybe I will shift to that note and see if I can join the dots.” — and then she goes on to bring to my attention, how much of my writing is about either ‘listening’ or ‘not listening’.

I may have mentioned this before, I have several times thought about how much of ‘teaching’ is actually just ‘listening’. So when my colleague drew my attention to this yet again, it felt like an ear had just popped open, and I was suddenly, sharply aware of sounds that were earlier only a drab, flowing hum, turned down low in the background! Now this may seem a little askew. The traditional idea that one has of teachers is that they speak and we listen, the keener our listening is, the more we learn, or the better learners we are. As teachers, rarely do we listen to our students. They are rendered passive recipients of knowledge that we actively disseminate.

A quiet moment in my class.

In this model of teaching where knowledge is transmitted, learners have no autonomy, they are taught what is considered important to teach by others. The quantity of what learners have retained of this transmitted knowledge is assessed. It is only through assignments and the grades that the learners can express themselves or demonstrate learning. A total and classic case of NOT listening to the learner and thus encouraging only able mimics and copycats!

I have to mention again two of my professors from whom I have learnt an incredible lot… interestingly more as a colleague than as a student, but that could also be because the maturity to understand their method of teaching came later when I became a teacher myself. One of the professors who taught drawing, had a favorite phrase which was quite a joke around the student community… he would answer most questions with, “Go figure out,” or a rambling tale from his huge repertoire of folk tales. All this would be interspersed with guffaws. As a student we found this annoying at times, but it encouraged us to think without any instructions. We had to literally ‘figure things out’ by ourselves through either making/drawing and failing or through reading or conversations with our peers. He never answered a question directly… but his answers always held a clue, some clever connection… but we had to make sense of it ourselves.

Another professor always carried a little book that he would get custom made. This book was made entirely of tracing paper. He taught us typography and form studies. These courses are intense and involve a lot of drawing, refining of form, and building an acute way of seeing. Even a minute change in an angle, a line or a curve makes a huge difference to the form and this course trains students to be able to tell this difference, eventually just by sight. Our professor would never make a single correction or mark on our work, he would place his tracing paper on our work… trace out a corrected form, show us how much better something could be in 10 different ways; and then take his book away. He would show us one way of refining a form… and then that visual reference would be not available to us. What has been a timeless and invaluable learning for me, from his method, is that, we would remember how he did something, but not the what. So we could not imitate what he made, but we could try and emulate how he did it.

A sketch from my book of Professor Chhaya.

Professor Chhaya, while speaking of learning and timeless ways, spoke about that moment when learning truly takes place. He called it — a putting aside of all our shared history of knowing; to truly ‘see’.

Seeking stillness with lines and flowers.

Another paradigm of teaching and learning that a few institutions and schools are attempting is where knowledge is constructed. “This approach draws out knowledge and understanding. The learner is supported in actively constructing his or her store of knowledge through activities such as discovery learning and open-ended questioning. This type of learning is often based on everyday experiences and is a social experience using people around the learner to make connections and to gain new insights.” (“Enabling Learning.” National College For Teaching And Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.) Here the learner has some autonomy and importance is given to experiential and peer learning, so that the learners can begin to find their own patterns in the way they learn. Though this is far better than the former approach, it is still somewhat far from the kind of ‘shared learning’ that one is talking about where every stakeholder is listening and learning equally. This brings us to the third paradigm as the National College For Teaching And Leadership outlines, where knowledge is co-constructed. In this model learners and teachers learn together, collaboratively, through dialogue, reflection and feedback. Every stakeholder is equally invested in learning, the gaps between teacher and learner are blurry. It is this model, I believe that truly translates to timeless learning, because it requires ‘listening’.

But what is ‘listening’? What happens when a teacher truly listens? What happens when a learner truly listens? It allows for a clarity of thought to emerge that is un-parroted, original, unbiased, unaffected. It emerges from a shared place of understanding and quiet. A timeless place that is inhabited by learning.

It is important to know how to listen, not only to me particularly, but to anybody. It is important to know how to listen because if we know how to listen truly, something extraordinary happens to us, because then without any bias, without any prejudice, we can go to the root of the matter immediately. But if we throw up a lot of arguments, concoct devices or contradictions to see who is correct and who is not correct and carry on with our own particular idiosyncrasies and ideas, then we will not discover the truth of the matter at all. We shall only be concerned with our own particular conclusions, with our own point of view. So if I may suggest, it is important that we should listen truly because if we can know how to listen, the truth will reveal itself. We do not have to explore the problem, but if we know how to listen to the song of a bird, to the voice of another, if we can listen as to music without any interpretation or translation, it definitely clarifies the mind; so similarly, if it is possible, let us listen with that intention — not to confute or to conform, but to directly find out the truth for ourselves.” — Jiddu Krishnamurthy

It is this kind of listening that one must strive to. It is difficult. One will have to hold back so much of one’s own baggage, prejudices; and be mindful, aware and present to what a learner is saying. What does this mean as a teacher? One must not prescribe, must not instruct, one must trust a student… and one must let a student strive and battle their own confusions. The challenges to this model of learning, is the total inadequacy of time — learners cannot rush through nuggets of units with constant deliverables and assessments and be expected to imbibe, collaborate, listen, suspend judgement and personal biases to truly discover inner clarity!

Timeless learning and listening can only begin with some stillness, slowness and time for reflection. It is only when one listens deeply that one begins to recognise the humanness of another. It is only in the recognition of the humanness of another that a relationship of trust and hence autonomy begins. With trust and autonomy established, a learner can safely begin to think originally and not mimic another’s voice of authority or work within the boundaries laid down by another. When a learner is no longer a mimic, the entire world of creativity opens up to her, learning becomes limitless, timeless. This will in effect bring into the relationship between the teacher and the taught, the equality that one seeks! Both will learn from one another and only then will one begin to establish a relationship of mutual enquiry, study and sharing and communication as Krishnamurti describes it.