Tuesday, 14 July 2009

People-watching

"The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good." Brian Tracy
Teaching is a strange occupation. A lot of it is time spent sitting waiting for the kids to do an activity or finish preparing for something. The actual role of the teacher has been hotly debated over the years. I tend to lean towards the 'facilitation' school of thought, that the teacher's role is simple to facilitate the learner's process of acquiring knowledge and skills through exposure to new ideas and practice. I'm a great fan of the experiential learning theories. This doesn't mean that I think all learning should be outdoors and done through action and activity. I think listening to someone reading a book or completing an indoor exercise can be just as useful an experience as building a raft to cross a river. In fact, the experience of ideas and information is probably more useful in some ways. But I think this approach to teaching and learning is more useful than the old-fashioned tabula rasa approach that suggests that the teacher is there to spoon-feed information to the learner, to fill an empty vessel, to write on a blank page. Everyone, from the young to the old, has experiences and knowledge onto which new knowledge and ideas need to be grafted, like a new branch onto an existing tree – at least by the time they come to education. Everyone has a framework of ideas into which new knowledge needs to be fitted. And part of the value of this approach is the recognition that the grafting on and fitting in of new information is sometimes difficult and requires time and patience and different kinds of exposure to the new.

There is also a particular aspect of teaching that I'd almost forgotten about until this week. I was reading a blog post this morning (Thanks, B) and it reminded me that a blog is really an ongoing, meandering conversation. Which, in turn, got me thinking about conversations and learning about people by the words they choose. I am fascinated by people. By the end of undergrad, I had finally reached the point where, when people asked me what I was interested in and what I was studying, I had no problem simply saying 'people'. My choice of majors – history and psychology – was all about learning about the fascinating things people think and do and are. Through their words and actions and ideas, people become clear. I'm currently teaching mostly speaking classes which means I give the kids topics and they have to talk about them, which is a great opportunity to hear what they think and get a sense of who they are.

And sometimes, just accidentally in between the more mundane moments, there is flash of incredible potential. Sometimes it will take you by surprise. In the midst of a rather ordinary discussion of movies, a child will talk about a movie that is out of the ordinary, that is harsh or intense, and make a comment that shows understanding far beyond his or her years. Sometimes it's more predictable, but still exciting – the child who, when asked to describe the city where he'd like to live in cites Pyongyang and talks with excitement the ideal of reunification, the one who picks Hitler when asked who he admires – and then, when the teacher doesn't just shut him down, actually comes up with an interesting justification (after getting over his surprise). Or the one, on an evening when no-one feels like working, who talks – in broken English and after getting you to teach him how to pronounce sovereignty – about how he shouldn't have to do this task because he has self-determination.

A few years ago, I would have felt that my mission, my role, was to 'save' those who showed flashes of inspiration. As if I could somehow be the person who made the difference in their lives. I no longer think that. Some of them may discover a place, a situation in the world where their potential will be nourished and they will open their petals like Bloemfontein roses on a perfect morning. But many of them will never really move outside of their assigned box and will turn into little grey men with suits and briefcases and mortgages. What I do will have little impact on that. I have become philosophical about it. I have learnt to cherish the role of observer, instead of intervenor. I won't shut down the ideas – particularly in a cultural situation where I have been warned that independent thought and creativity are not particularly valued – but that is where my role ends.

Instead, I am able to spend my time watching. Looking out for the flashes of inspiration and potential and meaning. And, more than anything else, learning from their words, from the way they interact with the world, how they think and who they are. To some extent, they represent for me the greatest gateway to starting to understand the Korean mindset and culture. But really they are just kids. Like kids anywhere. With the same fascination with pop stars and sports heroes and the limited knowledge of the world outside their bubble of home and school and after-school music and art and English lessons. At those precious moments, however, they are people; they are the representatives of humankind who have fascinated and engaged me and who keep me watching. They're the reason I want to write and the reason I like to observe. They're the people at the airports whose stories I accidentally overhear, the people in shopping centres who I see laughing with friends and imagine their tales, they're the debaters who I've seen produce brilliant arguments out of nowhere and explain Orientalism in 7 minutes, they're the people in positions of power and the people just behind them whose minds fascinate and excite me.

Knowledge and teaching are important but the real privilege is being able to watch people, hour on hour, every day and waiting all the time for that sudden flash, that sudden moment of wonder.

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