Un-learningThey say the best way to learn a concept is by teaching it to someone else. Last summer, I had the privilege of giving English lessons to some young students—a prospect that tremendously excited me at first.
They say the best way to learn a concept is by teaching it to someone else. Last summer, I had the privilege of giving English lessons to some young students—a prospect that tremendously excited me at first. Since these were tuition classes, I had a lot of freedom with how I wanted to teach the subject. I went into it fully aware that tuition classes, particularly ones for languages, can be boring for students. So, I decided to employ a host of different methods to keep the lessons fun, engaging and interesting. This included making flashcards, watching English cartoons and Disney movies and playing word games, while giving them my own notes on grammar collected and honed over the decade of my own schooling.
But teaching young kids invariably has to have an end goal and for Nepal, that yardstick is the end-of-the-year exam. Sure, I felt my students were learning and having fun at the same time, but how would they stack up against questions drafted by the government? So, to make sure I was not missing out on anything, I also decided to teach them whatever was sanctioned by the ubiquitously available ‘Guide Books’—a parallel publishing industry in itself in Nepal. Or at least, I thought I would, until I flipped through the initial pages of the ‘guides.’ One of the very first pages contained a conversation between two characters, Ram and Hari (no surprise with the unimaginative names there). It went something like this:
Ram: Hello, Hari. How are you?
Hari: Hello, Ram. I am fine. Did you already had breakfast?
Ram: Yes, I just had. Did you had?
Hari: No. I’m going to have mine right now only. Do you go school on bus?
Ram: Yes, I go on bus. Mind you, I have cycle also.
Hari: Okay, let’s go.
Appalled, I flipped through the rest of the textbook. They had conversations like these on almost every page. Another example:
Sita: How are you?
Gita: I’m well. How are you, Sita?
Sita: I just go to market to buy lots of fruits and vegetables.
Gita: Oh, really? I like fruits and vegetables.
Sita: Which do you like?
Gita: I like apple, orange and radish.
Needless to say, I was taken aback. A lot of young students are actually reading these books not just a reference points, but as the word of law. How will they learn? By the time these young minds enter college, they will find it very difficult to ‘unlearn’ these ‘basics’. I remember when we were studying for our SLC, there were
two types of English. One was the SLC English and the other was real English. Even if the SLC English made no sense, we still had to mug up some of the sentence structures. There just was no getting around it.
English, of course, is just the glaring tip of a heaving iceberg. These lingual discrepancies exist in most text books taught in Nepal. But that too is just scratching the surface. Conceptual discrepancies are an entirely different matter perhaps best left for another day. Of course, there have been some considerable improvements in our education system. (The SLC has been done away with; we’ve adopted a different grading system, and so on.) However, have these changes fundamentally changed how we teach and how we learn?
After flipping through the “Guide Book” in frustration, I decided to ignore it altogether. Instead, I thought I’d just make my students write essays on the wildest and coolest things they could imagine. I set the timer on for ten minutes. Some of the kids were quick with their writing, while others chewed at their pens and stared blankly at the rusty ceiling fan.
Beep. The timer went off and I excitedly collected their papers. Aha! I thought. What I have in my hands are creative, original and funny stories, ones that will help my students express themselves in a language secondary to their own. I looked at the first paper. The student had written about the usual “the pen is mightier than the sword” argument. I scanned through the other papers. Almost all of them had chosen the same topic, without being prompted to do so.
Of course, it was not their fault. People write, say and do whatever they are taught. If an entire system is geared towards putting minds into a pre-defined box, the mind will stay in the box, even if it is granted the license to roam. Here in Nepal, it seems, everything has to follow a structure. Everything is 2+2=4, never 3+1=4.
Later that year, I took up keyboard classes in my neighbourhood. I’ve always wanted to learn an instrument and I’ve always thought the keyboard was cool and ‘sexy’. As a beginner starting out from the very scratch, there was a lot of theory to learn. So I hurriedly filled out my notation notebook. It went on like that for a week. I was happy to have learned so much in such little time. However, I had no idea I was supposed to memorise every chord by the end of the week. I mean, I needed to get a feel for the music first, right? I had to get used to the placement of my fingers on the keys. I had to get my posture right. I wanted to focus on the feeling because I thought that’s how most musicians learn. However, my teacher expected me to rattle off the names of the different chords along with the different notes that go with them by the end of the week. By the end of the week!
That is when I realised rote learning is something even I cannot escape, long after I’ve made it through the Iron Gate. This system of learning is not just limited to our schools but seeps through into everything that we do. It is what, I suspect, blunts our imagination. It is what keeps us filed in a line, taking what authority figures and “Guide Books” tell us as the word of law—never objecting, never questioning, forever absorbing whatever is hurled our way.
Because isn’t that what we are? A society full of musical theorists who know our chords by rote, but ones that never learned to put them together to create music that resonates with our soul.