By: Mirza Yawar Baig

Our present methods of teaching which are inflicted on by far the vast majority of children in the world are the single biggest cause for killing the imagination that every child is born with. The result is turning them into square blocks which fit our own frightened, constrained and slavish worldview. Those children who comply, we 'pass' and those who challenge it and refuse to succumb, we 'fail'. The occasional among those we 'fail', go on to great fortune. The vast majority disappears; never to be heard from again, destroyed by the education system they didn't deserve or ask for.

I recall the story of young Tommy; one of the stories that do the rounds on the Internet. It is said that Tommy's teacher asked the class to write an essay about their dream. The next day, all the children brought their essays to class. The teacher read them all. But when she came to Tommy's essay, she was astounded and even angry. She wrote a big 0 at the top of the essay and handed Tommy his book. Naturally, poor Tommy's face fell when he looked at the teacher's notation. He took back his book and silently walked back to his seat. The teacher saw the look on the little boy's face and took pity on him. She called him back and said, 'Tommy, your dream is ridiculous. It is fantasy. It is totally unrealistic. That is why I failed you in the test. However I will give you another chance. If you re-write this dream and bring it back tomorrow, I will give you some marks for a better grade.' Tommy listened in silence, nodded in agreement, and returned to his seat. The eyes and smirks of all those who had 'passed' were on his face. They were the ones with realistic dreams which the teacher liked.

The next day, Tommy handed in his essay to the teacher. The teacher scanned through it and was astonished to see that there was no change. She called Tommy to her desk in an injured tone and said, 'Tommy, didn't you understand what I told you? I said I would give you marks if you changed your dream. You have done nothing here! So I am sorry I can't give you any marks.'

Tommy looked at her and said, 'Teacher, I thought about what you said and decided that I will let you keep your marks and I will keep my dream.'

It seems strange to me that if I were asked to define the biggest challenge of the teacher, I would say, 'It is to teach children how to deal with a world that we know nothing about.' In such a world, imagination is the key resource that they will need. Without imagination, they would be floundering trying to find answers in history or 'facts' that they had been taught. But they would never find those answers because they simply aren't there. Yet the thing that most schools do with amazing efficiency is to kill the child's imagination as quickly as possible. And sadly they are very successful in doing so.

Take for example how Science is taught. It is taught in a way that is no different from History. It is taught as a 'fact' course. But Science is not all about fact, but about constant discovery. Science is about constantly discovering how little we know. Science is not about answers but about learning to ask the right questions, learning to analyze data with a willingness to be proved wrong, learning to design experiments to disprove our most dearly loved models, knowing that only if the experiment failed could we say that our model is actually correct. Not forever, but until we come to the next discovery.

Teaching is Not about Answering Questions

shutterstock_116901508Teaching is not about answering questions, but about raising questions – opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine. Teaching is about teaching them the tools which will enable them to pursue learning all their lives. To not answer questions is to end all discussion and results in just passing exams. That is the reason why the vast majority of children never open a science book once they finish with school. That is the reason why there is a serious global shortage of scientists. The whole approach to teaching must change – from teaching solutions and answers to teaching tools to pursue lifelong learning. Even when we teach what we know – the answers – we need to teach how we arrived at those answers and then ask them, 'If you faced this issue, what questions would you ask to find an answer?' We need to focus far more on derivation, problem solving methodology and analytical skills than on actually arriving at some formula or solution.

The same malaise plagues other subjects as well. In History, we concentrate on dates and places far more than on lessons learnt and ways of applying them to today's society. When was the last time you heard a history teacher ask questions like: 'What did we learn from the history of the Mughals, the reflection of which we can see in today's society? What can we learn from that period of Indian history which we can apply to our lives today? What can we learn from that period which will help us to find solutions to our problems today?' But instead, History exams will ask you for the date on which the first Battle of Panipath was fought; who was fighting whom; not why; not what did that indicate about that society and its implications on today's society. So children hate history. We don't relate what we teach to what is happening currently and how learning what happened then can help people in today's world.

Children hate Math and Algebra even more. But when did we ever hear of a teacher teaching math as a problem solving tool or algebra as a tool to plan a party? Math enhances one's ability in reasoning, intelligence, decision making and abstract analysis. But we only teach dry numbers.  Math enables budgeting, judging and assessment of business enterprises; it is the basis behind computer programming, music, art, graphic design, aeronautics – and a million other highly interesting things. But the way we teach Math – the majority of students hate it, they never use it to their advantage, and they trash 12 years of learning it as soon as they complete their final exam. So why should you study Math at all. See here the answers of some students to this same question that their professor asked them.

Another very interesting article which turned up on Google about Math.

Our education system stinks. It is designed to create mechanics – not learned people. So one can become an engineer without reading any book other than his course books and without any understanding of anything except the little machine he works on.  And he continues doing this as if the rest of the universe doesn't matter. All the treasures of human thought, ideas, discoveries, experiments, reflections and imagination are closed to him. He doesn't even know that they exist. He lives a life of stress, doing his best with his very limited understanding of life. He is trying to reinvent the wheel, to discover solutions which others far more gifted and learned have already discovered and written about. But then how would he know about them when he doesn't read?

That is why we have idiotic product design because the designer has no concept of relating his design to the actual user. He is thinking in terms of his narrow area of knowledge, not of the vast area of application. That is why Haleem makers in India use washing machines as kitchen mixers. It saves them a lot of labor stirring the pot when they can have the pot stir itself. Ask the washing machine designer what he was thinking of when he designed the machine except dirty clothes? But great opportunity does not lie in customer demand. It lies in areas that the customer didn't even know he needed. 

Stop Teaching, Start Learning

The biggest problem with teachers is that they teach. That is the root cause of all ignorance. So I titled this essay, O! Teacher, stop teaching. Start discovering, learning, enjoying. Start appreciating that the child is the best thing that happened to you and every single day try to become the best thing that happens to him or her. Teachers must never teach. They must be like ushers in a vast museum, walking quietly with their students tiptoeing behind them, opening one door after another – letting them take a peek – and then handing them the key to the door so that they can come back on their own and explore more. The teacher then takes them to another door for another peek and gives them another key. See?? Imagine how exciting that is for the child?  The teacher's job is to give them the keys.

Teaching is about asking questions and teaching them to ask questions. The teacher who gives answers has failed. So never do that. Teaching is about keeping the excitement of learning alive all the time. Teaching is about taking the hand of a four year old and leading the whole group to a tree. Then sit down under the tree and tell them, 'Let me see who can get me a perfect leaf of this tree.' Actually try this and see how fun it can be. When they all come back brimming with joy at their perfect finds, ask them if all the leaves are the same, even though they came from the same tree? Let them marvel at the fact that they are all leaves from the same tree but each is different. Ask them, 'Why do you think this happens? What is Allah saying to us?'

Then pull out a seed from that tree. Then show them the seed and let them all (every one of them) hold the seed in his hand and explore its texture, shape, color and so on. Give them crayons and paper and let them draw the seed. Give them a few more so that everyone has his own seed. When they have drawn the seed, tell them, 'Now look at this tree. Do you realize that this tree was inside this seed? Can you draw the tree inside your seed?' Let them do that. Every drawing must be applauded and draw breaths of amazement from you – and indeed, if you have ever taught in this way, you will realise that being amazed is the default setting. It is only when we kill the imagination of children that they become lacking.

Then tell them about Genetics – yes to four year olds – and explain how the tree was inside the seed until Allah ordered it to come out. Explain the whole process of germination and growth. Draw lessons from each step and show them the Greatness of Allah.  Of course that will make your own role as a teacher much harder but also much more fun. To be on top of the game you have to read and prepare 1:4 – one hour of teaching to four hours of preparation. The kids will come back with answers to the questions you planted in their minds. You will need patience, tact, and wisdom to deal with some of them. But you will experience the joy of learning, of having doors opened for you where you didn't know there were doors. Teaching is about learning.

I learned some of the best lessons in my life from someone who was knee high to a jack rabbit (as the Americans put it).

As a dear friend of mine, also a teacher, put it: What a teacher must inculcate is a sense of responsibility, self-discipline and a sense of the sacred. These are not easy to teach in a world that speaks/teaches rights at the cost of responsibility, obedience and self-indulgence instead of self-discipline and debunking/cynicism in place of respect for the sacred. These are values that were important, are important and will be important in any age.

Teaching is not a Job

Anyone who considers teaching a job must do one of two things: re-think their vocation or become a cigarette salesman. That is a job. Selling cigarettes to people to hasten their demise. Teaching must be a passion. A teacher is someone who simply can't imagine doing anything else. A teacher is someone who will teach not only for free but also if they had to pay for it. Only then can you light the lamp of learning in the hearts of others.

Teaching is to light the lamp of knowledge and dispel the darkness of ignorance. Do you, Mr. Teacher, consider what you are doing in these terms? I often ask people to think of a role model and then ask if who they chose is a parent or a teacher. I have never had more than 10% of the population, across nationalities, races and genders, raising their hands. That means that for 90 percent of people their role model is neither a parent nor a teacher. What a tragedy, seeing that these two roles have the maximum face time with children. Yet they seem to do their roles in such an uninspiring and dull way – if not in a positively harmful way – that most children are glad to be away from them as much as possible.

I ask teachers to consider this. Every morning a strange thing happens at the gate of your school. Parents come and hand over their most precious assets to you without asking for any guarantees. They ask for you to do as you please with them for the next six to eight hours. Are you conscious of this responsibility and do you plan for those six to eight hours to become the best hours of that child's day? What would you say if the teacher who you send your child to planned to make those hours the best hours of your child's life? Do you believe this is worth doing? If not, what are you doing here?

So when a child asks a question, 'Mr. Great Crocodile, what does this mean?' You say, 'You tell me.' And then let him go and search. Watch what he is doing. Give him a hint or two but never make it easy for him. If it looks like he is getting too close to an easy answer, bowl a googly. Ask a question which will lead him to dig deeper. Then when he comes to you with his answer, listen very carefully and be prepared to be astonished. Don't put any limits or boundaries on what he can or can't say, what he can or can't question. Then listen very carefully and take notes. That will do wonders for his confidence as well as for your own learning.

And another thing is to abolish exams. Or at least have only open book exams. Exams are the worst evil that ever happened to learning. They are the final nail in the coffin which ensures that the child hates learning forever.

May you be the one to illuminate the world by igniting minds – first of all your own.

14 Responses

  1. BlueOwl358

    Great Article!

    al-Hasan al-Basrî report that the Prophet – Allâh bless and greet him – said: “The purpose and energy of the Ulema is towards addressing needs while the purpose and energy of fools is to narrate” (himmat al-`ulamâ’ al-ri`âya wa himmat al-sufahâ’ al-riwâya).

    Imagine and Learn, not narrate and repeat for grades.

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      • blueowl358

        This is the reference: Narrated mursal from al-H.asan by Ibn `Asâkir in his Târîkh and al-Khatîb in al-Jâmi` li Akhlâq al-Râwî (1983 ed. 1:88 #27) cf. al-Jâmi` al-Saghîr (#9598) and Kanz (#29337)

        According to it, it’s a quote of Prophet Mohammad (saw).

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  2. iffat

    Ma’sha Allah!! People looking for more insight in these train of thought shouldread “ignited minds” by APJ Abdul Kalam(ex-president of India)!!

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  3. Hyde

    The modern education system is designed to program and stifle the mind especially the spiritual mind.

    I suggest listening to John Taylor Gatto on YouTube the lectures he did with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

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  4. M

    SubhanAllah what an amazingly motivating article! I would like to add some points.

    It’s not just the teacher, but sometimes the parents, that kill the imagination of the young mind.

    Moreover, most people take up the job of teaching because they desperately need to provide for their family and teaching is the only respectable profession they can think of (specially in case of women). They might have problems going on at home, and things going on in their lives. They may not be able to think as clearly as they would otherwise and unintentionally end up destroying something really precious.

    You have to be a really strong and extremely motivated person with a great amount of imaan in your heart to hold your life together while saving others. Unfortunately these people are very few, because most grown-ups have also lost their imagination at some point in their lives.

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  5. Maqbool

    The current education model is based on the 18th century model of cranking out factory workers. to kids, school is like prison. because they are told to sit in one place for hours on end and not speak until spoken to. A child has immense energy to run, play, discover and express itself.

    Parents have little say in how their kids are raised because either they don’t know any better, or are working so many hours that they have little time and energy to “teach” their kids.

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  6. Tabassum

    That is the case of our educational institutes who aim for our worldly growth , and what is the situation of our religious institutes who promise us success in both the worlds . To begin with is there an institute which teaches Islam without calling towards a Madhab , without polluting minds towards the opposing views. Students would be criticized and labeled even if they question certain beliefs , I think that’s why most prefer to remain dumb and silent and look for answers within a limited scope within fixed guidelines. Scholars should preach what best they know and not imprison their students in their beliefs.

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  7. umaneesa

    I wonder if the article above refers more to education in India or is it relevant to North American education as well?
    In North America, it’s often all about inquiry and curiosity, which is wonderful. Sadly it sometimes hits an extreme where fact recall is discouraged and basic facts of Math, Grammar, etc are not learned.
    On the other hand, there is also a case to be made for deferring Socratic questioning till around grade 4 (according to the Classical trivium method of education). Advocates would argue that prior to Grade 4, the child is ready for facts and memorization. This does not mean, all work and no play: songs, stories, games, Quran competitions, experiencing nature are all means to achieving the facts or ‘Grammar’ stage of education for 3-8 year olds.

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  8. Nus

    It`s the same case in North America, perhaps much worse in India (from personal exposure to the school systems in both areas). There are teachers out there who destroy children and those that immensely help children rise!

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  9. Maryam

    This article did not make any sense at all. Education for children in North America is all about imagination and curiosity… maybe even too much so. The example of the Tommy’s dream is something that would never happen in a school today. I’m a teacher. Reading this was depressing but not close at all to what really goes on in our schools. Perhaps the writer is far removed from the situation. Getting some context to this article would be helpful. What I mean is often people think that if they attend school in a certain country their own personal experience gives them all insight needed on the topic. I can’t count the number of people on my fingers, who they know the whole world of teaching and can tell me “everything.” The reality is that things have change A LOT in the last 10, 5, or even 3 years. One only has visit a parent-teacher night or read stories in your local paper to see how FUN and encouraging the school experience is for kids. Your experience is not the same experience of children today (in North America at least). Just wanted to clarify.

    It would be great to see an article about all the wonderful things that happen in schools today – maybe someone will write this and shed some light on this? I’d encourage anyone who has doubts to walk into an elementary school and ask for a tour, I can bet most of you would feel inspired by what you see. The school experience today is all about positivity, following ones dreams, going above and beyond expectations, inventions etc. it’s not at all boring (for students or teachers). The article was full of sweeping generalizations but not really relevant for a North American audience.

    I also encourage doubtful readers to form close relationships with your children’s teacher to see just how passionate they are – find out for yourself!

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    • M

      I understand why you disagree with the author. I think he is talking about the education system in South Asia and not of North America because the history examples that he gave are from that region. I know it’s not very clear in the article.

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