Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mentoring: Obi Wan has taught you well...

1. Readers who are unfamiliar with the Start Wars series, will please run a search on Google with the keywords ‘Jedi’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Padawan’ and ‘Darth Vader’, and keep the search page open while reading.
2. Non-Indian readers will please run a similar search with the keywords ‘Gurukul’, ‘Acharya’ and ‘gurudakshina’
3. Readers, who are both unfamiliar with Star Wars as well as of non-Indian origin, hope you folks have no trouble juggling three windows.
4. Feminists and politically correct readers will please assume ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she’ at the appropriate places
None of these instructions have to be adhered to. They’re just there to enrich your reading experience]

“Obi Wan has taught you well” Famous words from Lord Vader himself.
To all those who thought this was going to be about teaching: Allow me to explain.
I’ve been reading the Star Wars literature for three hours non stop, which, apart from reminding me of my total idleness, spawned a few thoughts. Yes, about teaching.

In our professional lives (and being a student is also a profession in this regard), how often does it happen, that when asked where we learnt a particular skill, we find ourselves responding, “Oh, its something I learnt at college…” or “Well, just picked it up on my own I guess…”
Why is it that we are never in a position to name the exact person we learnt it from?
A number of answers are possible to the above rhetorical question.

1. Well, teachers aren’t worth remembering
2. Teachers are bad people, who make you work
3. Teachers aren’t qualified to teach anymore.
4. Teachers? Who needs ’em anyway?”

Which brings us to Lord Vader. In the Star Wars series, the entire concept of mentoring and apprenticeship is one of the mainstays of the story. There is also a marked emphasis on complete education rather than specialized knowledge. Padawans at the Jedi Academy are taught to master their emotions, control their impulses, hone their moral and judgmental abilities, the fundamentals of etiquette, and once they have mastered these basics they are assigned to a Master, whose responsibility is to round out their education, and provide adequate experience of the real world, so that when the Padawan becomes a full Jedi, he has already trained himself to be what is expected of him.
Expanding the view a little, one would find that almost every efficient form of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next uses a similar Master-Apprentice system. Martial arts require you to train under a master, who will be the judge of your performance and progress, hacking, where you need to spend time learning from an accepted guru who may or may not be formally qualified or even family business, where it is common for sons of industrial families to apprentice under their older relatives before actually taking on responsibility. An interesting thing to note about business empires is that they are often limited to single families and passed generation to generation, without many or sometimes even any of the members taking any formal business training. These are the guys who hire the MBAs.
But despite this evidence which is open for everyone to see, every year we have thousands of students, the so called ‘seekers of knowledge’, flocking from one educational institution to the next, without any clue of why or what for, chanting “I must get a good school/college. I must I must.”
They neither know nor care who teaches at these colleges, nor are they concerned with what they wish to learn or whom they wish to learn it from. Institutions understand this, and accordingly charge ever abominable fees, merely for a name, a stamp, a tag.
How is it that very few if any institutions advertise their faculty by name? What is usually said is, ‘qualified and dedicated faculty’. Qualified to do what? Dedicated to what purpose?
Tests are held by institutions en masse, and admission is often based on ability to pay rather than ability to learn.
Personal interviews with teachers are non existent. Assembly line speed does not permit it.
In addition, teachers have little if any say in what kind of students they will teach. Every teacher has a personal style. Those that don’t are not teachers. How does subscribing to a generally agreed upon standard for students to be accepted allow a teacher any personal choice? In an environment where specialized skill must be imparted, the teacher’s style matters a great deal. If the teacher’s style of teaching does not match the pupil’s method of learning, how can any logical interaction take place? In technical terms how do you communicate despite a protocol mismatch?
Add to this the fact that teaching is the most poorly rewarded profession, at least for the majority, and you have Dante’s vision of Educational Hell!
Would it not be saner for a larger number of mentors to take on as many apprentices as they felt they themselves could efficiently teach, demand a return in whatever manner they saw fit, and guide in their own unique styles, those apprentices who came to them with knowledge of what they were getting, from whom, and on what terms?

What happens instead is that the institution as a whole becomes bigger than any of its teachers. The management, the infrastructure etc etc etc, all become part of the simple act of imparting a concept, which shouldn’t require much more than word of mouth.
We Indians are conditioned to the idea of classroom learning. From the vedic age it has been customary for seekers of knowledge to journey away from home to gather such knowledge.
Once arrived, they would then be segregated into groups. Each group would be taught by the master or Acharya separately. This is the portrait most educational institutions have of themselves, and it is also the perception most of us carry, if subconsciously.
However, the key factor that we all seem to miss is that all those seekers of knowledge had one thing in common, and it had nothing to do with an institution. They didn’t go to a commercial establishment and purchase a packet of the Powdered Wisdom For Dummies drug, dissolve it in their morning coffee and drink it up. They went in search of a mentor.
A mentor, unlike a teacher handling a classroom-full of children, is focused on a smaller set of pupils or apprentices. His goal is not to collect a paycheck but to earn whatever he values, from his students. The concept of gurudakshina has existed for centuries in India. But there is a difference between gurudakshina and fees. The gurudakshina is given at the end of the course, when the teacher and pupil are both satisfied that they have accomplished what they set out to do. It is asked for by the teacher at the time of the student’s departure from his care. It is asked for in proportion to the teacher’s evaluation of the knowledge he has imparted himself. And it is asked for when the understanding and personal relationship between the student and teacher has developed to the point where the teacher can ask for whatever he wants, with the knowledge that his student will have understood the value of what he has received, and will consequently not grudge giving that which his teacher asks for. Gurudakshinas have been known to be outrageous in nature, ranging from a thumb (Ekalavya) to defeat of an enemy in outright war (Arjun).
One could say that institutions provide structure to the concept of learning, but one must also keep in mind that education by its very nature must be free flowing with the direction being from master to student. Structure is always an advantage but too much structure kills innovation, spontaneity and enthusiasm.
The old arguments in favor of structured classroom learning are always along the following line:
“All jobs have a certain requirement. Structure allows employers to have standard to adhere to while hiring. A certain minimum is necessary”
Let’s follow this line.

Q. Why study in a classroom?
A. To obtain a formal qualification
Q. Which will enable you to…?
A. Get a job.
Q. Ah! A job! Where?
A. Any reputed company.
Q. And the people who initially founded this company…what were their formal qualifications?
A. Ummm! No clue.

That is where the buck stops. Most often formal qualifications are merely a guarantee that a bare minimum will always be there. And even that’s not always true.
A significant majority of the biggest corporations today have been started by and are run by people whose formal qualifications are much less than their employees.
If one was to analyze all the biggest players in the corporate world, one would probably find that they are either totally self made, or they have had a mentor at some point in their lives. In the former case they would probably be mentors themselves.

So why is the educational system so indifferent to an obvious fact?
In terms of rewards for both master and apprentice, the rewards of the mentoring system are obviously far larger. The only probable losers would be the managers of educational institutions, and I suspect they’d find another scam to run soon enough.

However, I seriously doubt the wisdom in suggesting that the entire educational system be changed. I’d probably be put in an asylum and that doesn’t seem like a fun place to be.
What I do suggest is the formation of informal associations, where the mentoring concept can be put into practice.
Such an association would have no prescribed syllabus, or defined fee structure. It would consist of a set of people, who would be at different levels of hierarchy, based on the analysis of their peers. Each member would be either a mentor, or an apprentice, or both.
At the outset, the initial group of mentors would each state, or in more lucid terms, advertise those skills which he has, and is in a position to impart. The apprentices would then apply to the master offering those skills which they wish to learn. The master would then take on from among the applicants those who he deemed worthy.
An individual association would then be formed among each master apprentice pair, and the master would impart skills/knowledge in the style that he saw fit. The apprentices would likewise apply only to those masters who they thought were worthy of teaching them, and whose style of teaching matched their own style of learning.
The acknowledgement of mutual worth would be the binding factor. The student would gain the satisfaction of knowing that what he was learning was coming from the experience and understanding of his mentor, and not stemming from the requirement of fulfilling a quota.
The master would learn to organize his thoughts, put forward his ideas effectively, and most importantly, the worth of his own knowledge.
The master would be in a position to demand a suitable reward at such time as he feels deserving. However, since the relationship with the apprentice would be on a personal level, he would be required to learn to keep his demands in proportion to what he has given.
If the mentor has not worked hard enough to earn the respect and regard of his apprentice, the apprentice would be free to reject the demand of his mentor. This would also require the mentor to learn by experience how to judge an apprentice before taking him on.
The methodology can be elaborated on for ever.
What must be considered is the feasibility of such an enterprise and the ability to find the bare minimum number of initial mentors.
This is where I leave the topic open to feedback.

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