You would not believe how well behaved the children are. When I walk into the room they all stand to greet me and wait for me to ask them to sit, upon which they thank me in chorus. We then stand in silence for a minute of mindfulness before beginning. If I ask them to read a passage from the book, the room fills with whispers of them all reading out loud. If I wanted them to, they would copy out the entire textbook for me, in silence, neatly and with care. Their notes are outstanding. Their books immaculate. When I set some work, every single head goes down, every pen scribbles and the only audible noise in the room is the pitter-patter of industry. Sometimes, if they haven’t understood the instruction, they just keep reading…. once again, they’d read the whole textbook if I asked them to!
Academically the Year 11 students are generally bright. They can rearrange equations, derive units, deploy exponentials and recall laws. But I find it very difficult to get students to think independently, especially in Year 10. They want to copy out from the text book. They want me to dictate to them. They want me to write on the board for them, and they will copy everything I put there unless I stop them. When I enter the classroom they all open their textbooks. If I ask them a question, they scan the text for the answer. Or, remarkably, they give me a textbook definition from the previous year, stored perfectly for recall. And if I try to check for understanding, they have uncanny skills of reassurance. I've been fooled on several occasions into thinking they've grasped something when they clearly haven't. Now I am more insistent, and they are less shy about admitting if there's a problem. I've learnt not to trust a chorus of 'Yes Sir!'.
Education is about fertilising the mind and drawing out talent, exploring potential, investigating the vast accumulation of knowledge, culture and concepts that have been amassed by us since we first developed our minds beyond the rudimentary ability to grunt. It’s about developing the faculties of critical thinking and independence of thought so values have integrity instead of being dictated by popular majority, television, governments or corporations. It’s not about regurgitating letters from a page. And yet it is. Only a conceited and irresponsible teacher would strive for such idealistic notions to the detriment of their student’s results and the opportunities that derive from good performance.
Much to their amusement, I told one class that they were all little baby birds, and I was like a mother bird who flies back to the classroom and regurgitates physics into their waiting mouths. They laughed – they do get it, but they are habituated to a different way of learning. I’m taking baby-steps to change this. Slowly and carefully, because, yes, they still have exams to sit and the Year 11 students have clearly learnt a great deal from the methods they are accustomed to, both skills-wise and factually. I don’t intend to rock the boat too hard. I ask them to set each other questions for homework – make up a situation, give just enough information to solve the problem and get a friend to solve it and I model the question types in class beforehand. It’s a small step, but it’s a start. And I make sure all textbooks are closed unless I need them open.
In a TED Lecture, Benjamin Zander talked about judging the success of his work (and life) on the basis of shining-eyes. The more eyes you see shining around you, the more successful you are. Inspiration gets eyes shining, but the light is temporary. Inspiration of enthusiasm is more sustainable, and this is what a teacher strives for. How many eyes are shining when students are copying off the board? None. So I won’t jeopardise any grades, but I will do my best on to get the eyes shining.
A final word about the children. They really are quite amazing. Their behaviour reflects the characteristics that the Bhutanese as a nation are proud of; humility, compassion, tolerance, respect, and … you guessed it… happiness. Their respectful behaviour is genuine. They step out of the way when I walk through a corridor and stand still until I pass. They all say 'Good afternoon' with a slight bow. They care for each other. They are teenagers, silly and a bit bonkers as all teenagers are, irritatingly immature sometimes, but they have a serious quality when it comes to learning that is more commonplace than rare. This may derive from their backgrounds.
Nearly all of them come from materially poor families. They have all worked hard, most of them in subsistence farming. They share the respect for their country and its leaders that is ubiquitous among the people. They value education and this leads to gratitude. Gratitude inevitably leads to humility, which naturally blossoms into the virtues of tolerance, compassion and understanding. If everybody could cultivate some genuine gratitude in themselves, I’m sure the world would be a better place.