Teachers:Sanjeev R.

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Reflection on “Nothing can be Taught”

by Sanjeev Ranganathan, 20 November 2015

I have chosen to reflect upon my interpretation, at different times as a teacher, of Sri Aurobindo’s statement that “The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught”[1].

When I started teaching I wanted to be a good teacher. I planned my classes, used many resources and Teaching Learning Material (TLM), had many classes with activities, attempted to open the minds of children, and took a lot of notes. A workshop called “Stewardship for New Emergence” helped me notice my growth as a teacher and capture the fleeting insights – it helped me be more patient and capable of listening to children. At this time, I interpreted the first principle of teaching as referring to the learning I was going through so as to become a better teacher and a better person through my experience. I took the principle to refer to spiritual experiences that are our own. For example, in a typical class I would teach different points of view, or look at something to support diversity or handle misconceptions, and the children would work with TLM and at times the computer.

As I continued working with children I noticed that my best classes were not the ones I prepared the most. Some classes had a flow and some, in spite of planning (and a few because of much planning) were hard. An almost identical incident or comment from children that derailed one class would have no impact in another. I noticed that this had less to do with the environment around me or what the children experienced at home and more to do with the environment I was carrying with me to the classroom, and who I was being while I was in the class. I also noticed children were learning more when I was instructing less. Practically, this led to my classes getting more activity-based, with much peer learning, and less lecturing. I often used computers with children, creating projects that help learn the material. I read up on constructivist theory and learned that each child (and adult) builds their own knowledge; I only needed to create an environment to let learning happen. I noticed that my 'I have a PhD and can show other ways of doing this' ego was coming in the way of learning. Then I was able to consciously make the choice to let go of 'teaching', and allow opportunities for learning flourish. My interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s first principle was then that it also applies to practical learning through a constructivist approach.

Some time has passed since then, and I no longer see spiritual growth and practical learning as two distinct applications of the first principle of true teaching. It appears that every true learning is with the engagement of our entire being, and is spiritual, and helps us follow our core. Now the environment I am working to create at STEM Land is one where sessions with children are about self-discovery. They are not about procedures or underlying concepts, but about the children's experience. The environment offers choice and looks to the children to take responsibility for their learning. I do instruct, and the children do work on projects, but this learning happens when the need comes up from the children.

During the course of his PhD in Electronics Sanjeev became exposed to many alternative educational schools in India. He continued interacting and supporting them for over a decade while he worked in US and India.

He moved to Auroville in June 2013 to work on educational initiatives. In 2014 there was a special focus on the use of technology to look at new ways of learning. In Jan 2015 he founded Aura Auro Design that helps electronics graduates become proficient engineers and also put aside 3 hrs a day to volunteer at schools looking at constructionist way of learning. Aura Auro Design runs STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Land at Udavi School to explore integrated learning of these interrelated streams.

Sanjeev can be reached at sanjeev.r (at) auroville.org.in.

  1. Early Cultural Writings, p.379, “A System of National Education: Some Preliminary Ideas”