The story is told about a kind-hearted amateur who raised butterflies as a hobby. He was touched by the difficulties they had in emerging from the cocoon. He made a crack with his thumbnail so that the tiny inmate could escape without a struggle. The butterfly was never able to use its wings.

As teachers, it is easy to make the same mistake. This is especially true when one is new to the profession. Looking back, I see how susceptible I was to this. Looking around, I see the same thing happening to my colleagues. As new teachers we are so overwhelmed by our enthusiasm that we start giving out large helpings of what we have learnt to our students. We have done our spadework so thoroughly that we offer it all to our students—the bait and the fish.

‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life’ is easier said than done. When one is fired by enthusiasm it is so natural to hand over the ‘fish’ as well and most teachers do it unconsciously.

This brings to my mind an activity my colleague and I offered to some students of class 8. Our task was to prepare lesson plans in English and teach them to pupils in a rural school where the main medium of education is Telugu. It was a challenging task but we applied ourselves with a lot of eagerness. We prepared reasonably good lesson plans. We were able to strike an instant rapport with the rural children and our lessons were received well. In course of time however both of us were struck by a sudden realization. The ‘activity’ was meant for the students but we were the ones who ended up doing most of it—both in the planning and while engaging the class. The students seemed to take a back seat and watch the fun. Of course once we realized this, we consciously tried to involve the students themselves, but at the slightest hiccup we found ourselves rushing to their aid.

Examinations too are deterrents to the natural growth of minds. Even experienced teachers are vulnerable to the system. Both teachers and students carry in their minds the thought of examinations like ‘blinds’; at least in the senior classes where the public exam looms large as the destination. The subjects cannot be dealt with in depth for fear that the syllabus may not be completed! The whole quest for knowledge is relegated to the mere task of information gathering, storing, and reproducing; any extra information is considered irrelevant and beyond the scope of the examination.

All these are perhaps universal truths of our system of education but they were brought home to me recently in a rather painful manner. I have been associated with a particular batch of students for nearly four years. I teach them English. I can still remember the merry hours we have spent unraveling the mysteries of the language— savouring its many nuances. But now that they are on the threshold of an examination the whole complexion of their learning (and perhaps my teaching too) has changed. All that issues from me is neatly decoded into ‘information’. Sometimes the results are comic. Recently I was teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ to the class. There is a passage in the play that talks about ‘the excitement in courtship which diminishes in its intensity in marriage’. This is likened to the ‘thrill more in the chase than in the kill’. The students had neatly coded the lengthy explanation into two bits of relevant information—

‘Enthu in love No enthu in Marriage?

Despite their telegraphic decoding of Shakespeare’s classic, I’m sure they will all do well in their examinations. I would perhaps see to that. But sometimes I cannot help but wonder: Am I easing their temporary passage through exams but handicapping them in the long run? Will they end up like the amateur’s butterflies— without any wings?

There is yet another factor that influences teaching methods. The modern teaching scenario seems to involve a lot of techniques. Perhaps this has to do with ideas from the field of ‘management’ entering the modern lifestyle in a big way. There seems to be a technique for everything. The new fad not only offers solutions for every problem but also promises a high rate of efficiency, but when they are faced with a dearth of deeper tenets of knowledge they are ineffectual.

Let me cite an example, In the course of teaching, I found that my students were not very competent in their writing techniques and their skills needed to be honed. I developed teaching materials on the ‘Techniques of Writing’. The whole package looked very neat and elegant. But it did not produce the desired results. True, their work was now more organized—it was much easier to trace their line of thought in the labyrinth of their written work, but their compositions were nothing to write home about. It was then that the truth hit me—they were simply not able to make the necessary connections! The techniques that they had learnt were too neatly compartmentalized. Their written work was not wholly satisfactory because it lacked the quality of reflection and analysis. Sometimes I catch myself thinking—perhaps there is a technique for improving that too…. But I have learnt to apply brakes on that kind of misleading enthusiasm.

Having been in the field of education for many years I have learnt a few things. The one valuable lesson that I would like to share with others is this: Most teachers have certain expectations of their students. When these expectations are met both the teachers and the students are happy. But for an inner growth—for a butterfly to be allowed to use its wings—we need to move beyond this equation of giving and receiving. We (teachers and students) need to nurture each other, help each other to think for ourselves, not be content with received answers. Most students are just mirrors— they reflect what the teacher teaches. But a few students are windows—they bring light to the subject. The whole purpose of education is for both teachers and students to metamorphose into windows. This can happen only when both teachers and students are continually growing. In this regard what John Ciardi says in The Birth of Ideas is interesting. He says: “A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seeds towards the hope of greening the landscape of ideas.”

Should we not, therefore, strive for this greening of our mindscapes?

There is more pleasure in building castles in the air than on the ground.

[Edward Gibbon]