Thursday, May 10, 2012

Who are ‘first-generation learners’? – Part 1

In all discussions about schooling, we use words like ‘knowledge’, ‘learning’, ‘teaching’, etc. so liberally. I'd like to share my understanding of these terms before moving on to other essays in the series. Once I have explained what these words mean to me, I will answer the question in the title.

1. Learning means ‘acquiring knowledge’.

Let us start by understanding how we learn / acquire knowledge using the example of growing paddy.

A few thousand years ago, our ancestors saw paddy growing in the wild and wanted to domesticate it in their settlements. They sowed paddy seeds and saw that paddy crop grew. They repeated the process and saw for themselves over a period of time what worked and what didn’t. (When something worked, it means that it gave either better quality or more quantity of paddy, while preserving nature.) In the process of growing paddy, they acquired knowledge about its cultivation, fertilization, protection, harvesting, processing, storage, usage, etc. 

2. Learning involves the whole being, and hence happens as we are doing.

Such a process of knowledge acquisition does not happen at the level of the mind alone. Knowledge is acquired when the whole being assimilates the lessons through experience. It involves the mind, the body and the spirit. It involves the five senses as we see the changing colours of the plant, smell the earth, taste the rice, touch the leaves, listen to the rustle of the paddy plants. The feeling of joy on seeing the seeds germinate and give out their first tender leaves is part of the knowledge. Intuitively knowing when the plant is unhealthy is also part of the knowledge. The sense of beauty in the sway of a fully grown paddy plant laden with grains is part of the learning too!

All of these come together to give the one who acquires knowledge a holistic experience that connects him to the source of life itself. It is full of many ‘aha!’ moments', what we call ‘insights’ into the life of a paddy plant, that come from his deep insides. This is the process that Swami Vivekananda beautifully explains. “Knowledge is inherent in man. No knowledge comes from outside; it is all inside. What we say a man “knows” should, in strict psychological language, be what he “discovers” or “unveils”. What a man “learns” is really what he “discovers” by taking the cover off his own soul, which is a mine of infinite knowledge.” 

To put it in another way, when the whole being is involved in the learning process, the learner disappears. A connection is born between the farmer and the paddy plant and its ecosystem. And that alone is.

3. Eternal knowledge and time-specific knowledge. Universal knowledge and local knowledge.

Knowledge about human love, hatred, compassion, anger, greed, fear (‘the philosophy of the mind’ or ‘self-knowledge’) is universal and eternal. That is why true spiritual masters and their messages have always been and will always be welcomed across the world. The knowledge of The Truth transcends time and space.  However, knowledge in the world of form (material things) is more time and place specific.

Would the knowledge that is needed and relevant for paddy farming in India be needed and relevant in America? The fundamentals might be. But with respect to details, the answer is ‘No’. Knowledge about the soil, plants, birds, animals, food, culture, health, climate, clothing, etc. is relevant and needed only locally. It makes sense for it to be generated, passed on and worked upon only at the local level. For instance, dryland farmers had developed drought-resistant paddy varieties and wetland farmers had developed flood-resistant varieties. It would be absurd for the dryland farmer to tell the wetland farmer what to sow, how to maintain the soil, etc. or vice versa. It would be even more absurd for an American to tell an Indian farmer which variety to sow, since paddy is not a local crop in America. (In the modern world, this absurdity is passed off as Science. But we’ll look into that later.) But exchange and sharing of local knowledge among communities is welcome, and may even be essential.

Knowledge may be personal either to an individual, a family, a community, a region or a species depending on what it is about. Knowledge about a specific skill in playing the guitar may belong to an individual. Knowledge about a specific style of weaving may belong to a family. Knowledge about a specific cuisine may belong to a community. Knowledge about a certain art form may belong to a region. Knowledge about birthing and tending to the newborn is common to the species.

Would all the knowledge that was needed and relevant for life in the 15th century India be needed and relevant for life in the 21st century India? It is ‘No’ again. Today, climate change has disturbed paddy growing seasons in unprecedented ways, requiring the farmer to be equipped with means to deal with the changing rain and wind patterns, for instance.

4. When an individual’s or a community’s knowledge is passed on to another individual or community, it gets reduced to ‘information’. This information needs to be brought alive again in the new context through lived experience to be transformed into new knowledge.

Before language was born, all knowledge must have been passed on by doing and showing, as with growing paddy. Children grew up helping their parents and extended families in paddy fields, and assimilated the knowledge of growing paddy quite naturally and effortlessly.

As language evolved, it began to be shared through speech and to be recorded as folk songs and proverbs. In India we still have a large population of illiterate farmers who have rich oral traditions that preserve knowledge about paddy-growing and other aspects of their lives. As writing evolved, the knowledge bearers put it all down on palm leaves and later, paper.

When knowledge is documented, whether in a folk song or written text, it gets reduced to 'information'. No language can entirely capture what one felt, saw, touched, smelled, heard, thought and observed. This information can, at best, be a pointer. It needs to be relived, verified in the new context and brought alive again in lived experience in order to be born as ‘new knowledge’.

We may call this process of renewal ‘Knowing’, since it involves the person experiencing it seeing / realizing, i.e. knowing for himself. In this process, some information may become irrelevant, and hence discarded. To this renewed body of living knowledge, more can be added and documented by the others / the next generation. Thus knowledge needs to be continuously put through this process of renewal for a healthy, evolving society.  

Knowledge ---(documentation) --- information --- (verification, reevaluation through direct experience) --- knowledge --- (documentation) --- information --- (verification, reevaluation through direct experience) --- knowledge --- and so on..

Here are two real life examples in paddy cultivation.

Any old paddy farmer in India would say that fields need to be flooded with water. About 30 years ago a French priest in Madagascar, while experimenting with paddy growing, showed that paddy is not an aquatic plant; it can merely tolerate water. His work gave rise to the 'Madagascar method' of growing paddy, which uses much less water and seed and increases yield manifold. This method has revolutionized paddy cultivation across the world. Users of this method are, in effect, discarding old knowledge (information) by lived experience.

A doctor and farmer in Tamil Nadu discovered the recipe of 'panchakavya' in an ancient Ayurvedic text about 20 years ago. This mixture of cow's urine, cow dung, milk, ghee and curd allowed to ferment in a certain way has revolutionized Indian agriculture over the past fifteen years. Building on this ancient recipe, now farmers are adding newer ingredients to this mixture and developing concoctions more potent than the panchakavya itself. In this case, these farmers are improving old knowledge by experimentation in living contexts of their own fields.      

5. Traditionally, the purity of knowledge was maintained by protecting it from human greed for money and power.

Pure knowledge is born out of wisdom. Wisdom points in the direction of peace and harmony with all of life. When knowledge is not rooted in wisdom but yields in to human temptation (greed for money and power), it gets corrupted and points in the direction of conflict and disharmony. For instance, the modern mind claimed to have come up with a solution to human poverty and hunger by introducing chemicals, which has evidently wrecked havoc to our health, society, ecology and economy. Based on my ten-year long research, it is very clear that the knowledge about using synthetic chemicals on the soil was born out of human greed for money and power, and was not guided by wisdom. This is what Einstein meant when he said ‘Science without religion is lame. Religion without Science is blind.’

So then, how was the purity of knowledge maintained in cultures which are known for their rich traditional knowledge systems that helped humans live in peace and harmony? Knowledge generation in these cultures was always carefully guarded from things that were sources of human temptation that might lead to its corruption. In traditional India, individuals and organizations responsible for improving and passing on knowledge, were required to not possess or pursue wealth generation. They were, instead, required to live off charity. This is how it ensured purity of knowledge.

6. A healthy learning environment enables a process of enquiry, which alone can generate living knowledge.

A good place to learn effectively is a place where the mind can be without fear of failure and judgment. I have already written an elaborate post listing the various needs of children in order to be able to learn effectively. A good environment to learn encourages children to verify (both intuitively and exploratorily) everything they see and hear.  
7. A good teacher collaborates with her students. She is open to and welcomes being challenged and taught, as much as she challenges and offers what she knows.

Adults usually have more information about things in general. Some of it may even be knowledge that is born out of experience and hence highly valuable. This is what we can offer our children, as and when they ask for it. Wisdom and essential life knowledge has been passed on generation after generation in this manner. Young children (who are free from fear) are really in touch with their inner voice, their bodies and are guided by them. They are capable of knowing many things without going through ‘classes’ or reading ‘books’. This is what they can offer us: the process of knowing from our insides. When children feel free to challenge us adults (emotionally as well as by offering us new perspectives) they become our teachers. Thus, healthy teaching becomes a collaborative process.

Good teachers are collaborators. They are capable of generating living knowledge through the process of collaboration. This applies to teaching even specific skills like playing the guitar. Adults can share knowledge that has been handed down over decades about how to hold the guitar, how to maintain it, how to use the fingers, etc. Somebody may come and offer a completely new idea about how to play it and improve upon it. See this video. This is generation of living knowledge. 

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