Published in Corporate Dossier (ET) on 11th October, 2013
One day, the student came to the teacher and said in a rather accusative tone, “You have taught me a lot of theory but nothing practical.” Calmly the teacher replied, “I taught you a lot of things. Your capacity and capability determine what is theoretical and what is practical. For the smart, all that is theoretical is also practical. For the not-so-smart, all that is practical is also theoretical.” Thus the burden of learning was shifted from the teacher to the student.
We often see education as a one-way street. The teacher trains, or the student learns. That is why what was once called the Training Department is now called the Learning Department. In the former, the onus rested on the trainer. In the latter, the onus rested with the participant, with the trainer now called facilitator. But learning is more complex than that. It is a two way street.
We can equate knowledge with food. The teacher can serve any kind of food. The quality of the food may be good or bad depending on the teacher’s ability. But what we eat depends on our taste. And what we finally imbibe depends on our digestive capacity. So what we learn is as much dependent on what the teacher serves and on ourselves.
To improve quality of presentations people are often told the following: Keep one message; use more images than words on slide; say what you want to say, say it and tell people what you have said. But this does not guarantee communication. This advice ignores one important lever of communication – the mood of the recipient. Is he interested in hearing? Is he hostile? Is he distracted? Must efforts be made to make him more attentive? Is that the onus of the speaker too?
The Upanishadic method of teaching was one to one. Upanishad means come sit by me. Here the teacher and the student sat and talked about ideas. The teacher calibrated his choice of words depending on the intellectual and emotional level of the student. The students grew by learning what the teacher was trying to communicate. The teacher grew up improving his ability to transfer information and knowledge. In this method, both grew.
This customization is adversely affected when another joins the conversation. As more and more people join the conversation, the level of conversation aims to satisfy the ‘lowest common denominator’. This happens in one to many conversations as in public speaking and town hall meetings. We cannot then present complex ideas. We can only communicate simple ideas in the most pedestrian of ways for the basic understanding of all.
That is why tales of knowledge transmission in ancient Indian stories always take the form of one to one, and rarely one to many. Ashtavakra explains what he has to say to Janaka alone and not to anyone else. Krishna sings the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna alone; he does not present his ideas to all five Pandavas. When Shiva is explaining the Tantras to Shakti, he demands complete isolation. The story goes that the bird or fish who overhears this conversation is admonished, not because they trespassed, but because they may not have the capacity/capability to understand what was said and so there was danger of faulty and distorted transmission.
This was one of the reasons why gurus insist on diksha or initiation; they would select students carefully and nurture them carefully to ensure good transmission of their thoughts. For a guru is not a shepherd leading sheep, he is a human who is trying to enable another human discover his potential. Likewise, a trainer or facilitator is not one who transmits knowledge or skills into an empty vessel, he is someone who enables the participant to digest and assimilate what the organization expects of him so that he can successfully keep up his end of his contract.