From teaching to enabling assimilation

What should be our techniques of education so that we don’t just transfer knowledge but help people transform?

I

The ideal of education that dominates schooling is “transmission of knowledge” from teacher to student.

A teacher who lives by this ideal will measure his or her own success through parameters such as

  1. acquisition of relevant information by student
  2. comprehension of concepts and ideas
  3. application of concepts to various real-life situations

In contrast, a teacher who seeks to live by the human development ideal would use a completely different set of parameters. These parameters would include

  1. development of self esteem in the student
  2. creation of character, intellectual and physical capacities in the student
  3. awakening of the infinite potential inherent in the student.

II

In this context, let us now examine the challenge we seek to address:

How to achieve the goals of the human development ideal within the context of an existing schooling system that is clearly built on the “transmission of knowledge” ideal?

How to, in effect, accomplish the dual goal of developing dynamic human capacities needed for developing human personality while mastering the “knowledge-domain capacities” required by the educational and commercial systems? 

III

 This paper proposes that teachers who seek to integrate the human development ideal into the contemporary educational system could potentially accomplish their objectives if students were able to assimilate knowledge.

Assimilation of knowledge means not just comprehension of ideas but the translation of ideas into a transformed human being. Put differently, “assimilation of knowledge results in developing the student’s capacity to transform – himself, the situation in which he finds himself, and the possibilities open to him – by effectively leveraging the ideas and knowledge available to him.

However, a school or educational institution that seeks to promote such an assimilation of ideas by its students will need to bring about basic shifts in thinking at all levels of educational design.

These shifts are explored below


Shift 1: Role of the teacher

From “teacher as provider” to “teacher as enabler”

Assimilation means that the responsibility for self-transformation is awakened in the student. This responsibility is invoked when the teacher subtly modifies his/ her role in the classroom from “provider of knowledge” to “enabler of learning”.

Shift 2: Classroom Context

From “providing information” to “supporting growth”

What is communicated by the teacher in class? In the current educational model, teachers elaborate upon what is already available in the text books or provide alternate sources of information that may be more relevant/ comprehensible. In the assimilation model, the teacher provides “triggers for learning” such that the students’ capacity to engage with the subject matter is improved. Such an approach amplifies the teacher’s contribution to the educational process and the students love for, and involvement with, knowledge and self-development.

Shift 3: Instructional Approach

From “mechanistic input” approach to “conditions for growth” approach

In the mechanistic input model, information is an asset that is “poured into” the students mind, much as fuel is filled in a motor vehicle.

In the conditions for growth model, knowledge is viewed as a nutrient or catalyst that can invoke, speed up, and ease the students’ struggles with knowledge and capacity development.

Shift 4: Educational Experience

From “see, hear, and react to stimuli” to “engage with challenges”

Knowledge is born in a space beyond the senses. It is born within the human being, deeper, beyond the senses.

The trans-sensory nature of knowledge means that we go beyond the current obsessions with multi-media and multi-sensory education experiences to creating challenges that invoke inner excitement that comes from meeting challenges head-on.

The outcome, as in the case of the other shifts, is deeper ownership of knowledge, greater assimilation of ideas, and awakening of the evolutionary potential in the heart of every student.

  IV

We now translate these principle-level shifts into a practical model for classroom education. At the heart of this new model for classroom education is the recognition that the relationship between teacher and student is not a “push” relationship (teacher giving knowledge to the student), nor a “pull” relationship (student’s self effort and practice being the main cause of growth), but a “sense-respond” relationship (teacher enabling assimilation by the student)

In the assimilation model, both teacher and student are seen as “co-creators” of the learning experience.

“Co-creating” involves a journey of the teacher and student coming together; who, at the beginning of the process, are ‘far-off’ from each other – not in physical or emotional terms, but in terms of knowledge. Through this process, they come together; until finally, the teacher and student become ‘one’.

In this endstate, there is a ‘conscious’ practice that the student does, which the teacher continuously enables; until they become one single entity learning together.

This is a vision of education that reflects an ancient Indian tradition – the idea of ‘teacher-student’ as one single whole; with the teacher enabling the student’s growth, and the student growing in the environment provided by the teacher.

 V

Here is a model which translates this vision of assimilation into a simple 4-step architected journey which the teacher/ educational leader can use to achieve predictable and replicable assimilation outcomes.

This model, easily adoptable by any school or educational institution that seeks improved quality of education, is described below

The Illumine Assimilation Model says that the teacher in any classroom needs to address four key dimensions of the assimilation challenge.

The dimensions are:

  1. Provide mental access to the subject matter (knowledge transmission goal)
  2. Invoke aspiration in the student (human capacity goal)
  3. Create insight into the subject (knowledge transmission goal)
  4. Support response-capability in the student (human capacity goal)

Each of these dimensions is explained in the subsequent sections.

VI

Assimilation Dimension 1: Mental Access to the subject

Firstly, it is important to recognize that ‘mental access’ is different from ‘physical access’. A glaring example of having only physical access to knowledge, is when a student repeats something verbatim from memory but is unable to explain that subject in his/her own words.

Mental Access means providing a means for the student to “make sense” of the subject matter – in the context of his/ her own knowledge and experience.

One method of creating mental access is by providing a newcomer with a map. A well known example is the map of the London Underground railway. Visitors to London make sense of London by using this map, instead of using a geographical map.

Here are some examples of how a teacher can create mental access to a subject

VII

Assimilation Dimension 2: Invoking Aspirations

Mental access is not enough, because the student has to aspire to learn. If a student doesn’t seek to learn, there is nothing a teacher can do. So, the next step of the journey is that the student’s aspiration must get awakened.

This requires a shift from ‘ambition’ to ‘aspiration’. The surest signal of ambition is the urge to acquire things. If a student wants to merely acquire knowledge then he/she will never feel like learning, and will instead find faster, shorter ways of getting quick results.

How is aspiration invoked? A student, in order to aspire for more understanding, more capacity, more assimilation of knowledge, must see the value and purpose of knowledge in the context of his/ her deeper identities.

Students have different identities with respect to knowledge.

  • A student with a functional identity says “I am performing the role of a student. My function is to pass an exam, so let me learn what is relevant for the exam.”
  • A student with an experiential identity says “I am a traveler. I want to experience knowledge. Therefore I shall read widely and learn from a wide range of sources and subjects.”
  • A student with a solutional identity says “I have this problem, how do I solve it? Let me search and learn whatever is necessary to be able to design a solution.”
  • A student with a seeker identity says “I seek because I find that knowledge is inherently or intrinsically beautiful. I feel transformed by it.”
  • If the student somehow acquires a “victim identity”, he says “I am a victim to the system, a victim of my teachers, and my parents’ requirements.” For such a student, engaging creatively and freely with knowledge becomes very difficult.

In the light of the above, an effective teacher enables students to identify and adopt appropriate identities that encourage assimilation of knowledge.

VIII

Assimilation Dimension 3: Enabling Insight

The third step in the Assimilation Model is enabling insight.

Insight takes place when the student develops an “inner recognition” of the ideas being presented by the teacher.

This “inner recognition” is an act of discovery by the student.

The role of the teacher at this stage (after providing mental access, and invoking the aspiration of the student) is to provide triggers for this act of discovery.

Students achieve this inner recognition through a variety of mental capacities.

They include reasoning (the use of data), perception (the use of “frames of references”), narratives (the use of stories), and principles (the use of scenarios).

The teacher encourages the development and utilization of these mental capacities in the student, thereby enabling discovery and recognition of inner knowledge / insight in a more predictable and systematic manner.

IX

Assimilation Dimension 4: Creating response capability

The fourth step in the Assimilation Model “creating response capability”.

Once “inner knowing” is created within the student, the teacher now awakens this knowledge so that it manifests as dynamic human capacity.

This manifestation of dynamic human capacity takes place when the student faces appropriate (not too hard, not too trivial) challenges – both within the knowledge domain and the real-world domain.

How is a challenge different from problems set in every examination? The difference lies in the outcomes we seek.

A teacher who sets “problems” wants “answers” or “set solutions” to the problem.

A teacher who provides “challenges” seeks that the student “responds creatively” – without the necessity of being right or wrong.

This creative response comes only when the student goes beyond the boundaries of memory (reaction) and enters the realm of possibilities and potentialities.

At this stage, the “knowledge” is being assimilated into transformed human potential.

X

The final stage: Conscious Practice

By this stage, the teacher has steadily enabled the student in the journey of assimilation.

  • First, the student gained mental access and thereby made the subject “mentally proximate”.
  • Second, the student’s aspiration was invoked as a consequence of alignment between the subject-matter and his/ her own self-esteem.
  • Third, the student was enabled to discover insights and thereby develop “inner knowing”.
  • Fourth, the student was encouraged to leap beyond memory and previous knowledge and enter the space of “evolution in and through knowledge”.

Now, the teacher and the student are together, in cognitive terms.

The goal of both the teacher and the student is now to continue to grow and evolve in all aspects of knowledge related to the subject at hand.

This continued assimilation and consequent evolution will take place when both teacher and student undertake “conscious practice” of the subject – practice which is combined with awareness of potential improvement and growth.

This last stage is usually the realm of truly committed teachers and truly committed students.

For the rest, even one or more of the steps in the assimilation journey means a great advancement over the current reality, which we seek to progress beyond.

 

(Paper originally published in the September 2010 issue of Prabuddha Bharata (or Awakened India), the official journal of the Ramakrishna Order)

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