An education a day

I watched a video today. It was a young Indian instructing a roomful of young Indians. The session started with an overview of the hour to follow and then an introduction to the topic, which was fairly technical in nature. My understanding is that if you’re instructing a roomful of rookies on a subject of your expertise, it’s obvious their level of familiarity and questioning will be rudimentary in comparison. Nonetheless, the instructor assumed his “teaching position”, which was belly thrust out, hands on waist and a stance of challenge to the rest of the group.

“So, how many of you can tell me what <technical subject> means?”

A few answers filtered in.

He pounced on the first one and mockingly repeated it back.

I paused the video at that point to take a deep breath because I was really angry. In that one instant, six years of undergraduate and graduate education came flooding back (along with a few years of school to boot).

I was educated in India. I studied with smart people, I was instructed by smart people. Even during the first four years of my professional life which I spent in India, I was fortunate enough to work with really intelligent and competent people. And yet, I can safely say at least 80% of the folks who taught me (either as a vocation or as mentors on the job), did so as complete assholes.

That little trick of mockingly repeating an incorrect answer back? It’s also accompanied by a smile and one of those famous head-nods that drive foreigners crazy because of its bobble-head motion. As I worked my way through the rest of the video with gritted teeth, it was deja vu. The condescension, the contempt, the mockery. And all from a person who’s probably not more than four years out of graduate school himself. I’ve seen it happen in school, college, university and the workplace.  It’s my experience that in India, the right answer to a question is always an arm’s length away, but a person who can share it without sanctimony is rarely to be found even in a hundred mile radius.

I don’t know what it is particularly about teaching that Indians automatically convert it into a one-sided affair. It’s a regressive transaction where the more learned of the transactors automatically assumes a position of importance. A position that demands, not necessarily deserves, respect. It’s like that HMV logo with the dog dutifully listening to the drone of his master’s voice emanating from the gramophone.

I guess at its core is the assumption that knowledge in a transaction flows only one way – from the giver to the receiver. And by dint of that assumption, the power balance is so badly skewed that even the simple task of raising a counter-point has to be executed carefully and at the tactically appropriate moment. After all, one shouldn’t offend someone who’s taken so much of their valuable time to instruct the ignorant!

I distinctly remember being exactly such an entitled asshole on many occasions. Which is why, moving to and working in the US was a significant cultural shift for me. Americans operate with a few basic tenets of learning and instruction which I find fascinating

  • you don’t have to know everything
  • whatever you know, know it well enough to apply in real life
  • if you don’t know something, ask. No matter how stupid that question sounds to you (or others)
  • ergo, if you’re asked a question, no matter how stupid it sounds to you, answer. You’ll be saving time and possibly preventing rework, assumptions and disaster
  • most importantly, if you’re asked, and you don’t know, say you don’t know but will find out

Despite their famed love for individualism, Americans really know how to make teams work. The tenets I’ve outlined above are readily apparent at the workplace, and through personal experience with my friends and family, in education. These tenets are predicated around the assumption that an information transaction is a two-way street. Both sides always have something to learn.

Here’s how the video I described above would’ve played out in in the US.

“Today we’ll discuss X. So can you tell me what you know about X?”

<answer, very rudimentary, probably incorrect>

“Alright <writes on board>. Okay, a good start. Let’s note this down and revisit it a little later, shall we? Any other thoughts?”

That’s it. Now you have a roomful of people who are learning together. (This isn’t a hypothetical. It’s my first “workshop” after I moved to the US.)

Another place I’ve been fortunate enough to meet such individuals is on Twitter. I follow a bunch of amazing folks who, despite knowing much more than me, have never tried to shove an opinion or fact in my face. I’m astounded by the humility with which they share insights, draw me into discussions and are patient with my sometimes acerbic points of view. Every day I walk away with something new to store away in my head and apply in life.

I wish my experience of being educated in India had been like that. I reiterate – the experiences I’ve recounted above are purely personal and I sincerely hope it’s not that way today. I’d also love to hear about your experiences, especially if they’re different from mine.

It wasn’t all bad and there were exceptions, which I’ve written about before. But I especially want to share with you the story of a wonderful person called  Manju Pande. She was my English teacher from 7th-10th grade. Thanks to her instruction and her passion for the subject, I developed a real interest in learning English. Not through CBSE textbooks (which were really good, by the way) but through books and discussion. Library hour was a pleasure because Ms Pande would specially open up a box of Agatha Christies and old classics for me to choose from. And it wasn’t just for casual reading, she’d have discussions with me about the characters, what they meant, how I interpret the tumultuous events of their lives. She gave English a life of its own. And I wasn’t the only one who benefit from her knowledge, many others in my class did (although I was always her favorite). She managed this not just because she was competent, but because she treated us with respect. She treated us as humans with minds that were capable of dissent, counter-point, argument and analysis. She allowed herself to be a partner in transactions of information, not their custodian. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a handful of teachers like her in my life and I’ve held onto them. I recently befriended her on Facebook and used to chat with her regularly. She was always eager to know more about me, my family, what we were up to, what my son liked to read.

She passed away on April 12 and I allowed myself a few tears. But sorrow alone would’ve been a disservice to someone who embodied the spirit that teaching was really the act of constantly learning. So I picked up a book.

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