Pondicherry: How should a society prepare its teachers? We often hear about the sad state of teacher education in India. In answer to the criticism, a teacher eligibility test (TET) was introduced some years ago; the cure, I believe, is worse than the disease. TET as a measure of teacher preparation is based on an extremely narrow and “industrial” view of what education really is and what teachers should do in the classroom.

On 15 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked Sri Aurobindo in his address to the nation whose birthday coincides with India’s Independence Day. Sri Aurobindo said that the first principle of true teaching is that “nothing can be taught”. If nothing can be taught, what is the raison d’etre for the education system? What is being proposed is perfectly sensible. Teachers are meant to be helpers and guides (some have used the term ‘guide on the side’ instead of ‘sage on the stage’) and not instructors or task-masters. Teachers ought to suggest, not impose; guide the learner to acquire knowledge for themselves than to impart it. This principle could be applied at all levels and ages.

Educators and curriculum-designers must dig deep into the value of this principle before getting concerned about its classroom application; reflection on this principle yields humility. When I look back on my many years as a higher educator, I see intellectual arrogance as a distinct characteristic of a majority of academics. “Experts”: that’s what professors like to call themselves. Experts in what? At the study and learning of outer aspects of things. What about expertise in internalizing ideas to become better beings? Experts on peace may not live peaceably; experts on conflict resolution conceivably are at the root of major conflicts in the workplace; educational experts may be teaching in uncreative ways; experts in organizational development may be causing problems for the organization because of their ideologies. What can these experts teach students?

When teachers become mentors and guides, they transform to humble co-travellers on their students’ learning journeys. Experts speak from a position of authority; mentors offer suggestions for students to explore and come to their own conclusions. Experts claim to know the right formula; mentors admit that they don’t have all the answers and are amenable to searching with students. If nothing can be taught, it means all can be learned; teachers and students learn together as they work together; they may have different roles but are equally seekers in their own unique ways. Teachers must remember that they stop progressing as teachers the day they stop growing as learners.

Perhaps it is time that teachers unlearn their present understanding of a teacher’s role; the central role of a teacher cannot be exaggerated should our education system embrace the Indian spirit. A teacher who is a seeker, life-long learner and an aspirant on the path of inner growth and self-discovery becomes a role model for students. Curriculum, course texts, learning materials, assignments, etc, are important but nothing equals a teacher’s inner progress and faith in the learner’s inner teacher to guide his becoming. A teacher must work constantly to unfold a learner’s inner teacher which in turn depends on how far unfolded he is.

Postscript: Some of the thoughts and ideas presented in this series are removed from the reality of classrooms and schools; this is the very reason and the principal motive to disseminate them. Without alternatives, progress is impossible. Change can happen precipitately or in baby steps; some of it is already occurring overcoming the roadblocks of the mind.

Concluded.

Also read The art of questioning -1, The art of questioning-2, The art of questioning-3, and The art of questioning-4.

Beloo Mehra has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She taught at Antioch University Midwest, Ohio, and is on the faculty of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research at Pondicherry.