Learning to Know

25 Jul

“I don’t know my sign”

A little girl standing in a queue said that. All of us were waiting there, long forms in hand, waiting for our turn with officialdom. At the bottom of each form was a space for a signature. Children of course were not expected to sign their own forms, but the little one obviously felt left out.. and chimed in with that statement.

That hurt. It rankled. And I had to wonder why it bothered me so much.

It was a statement that I had heard many times before, and each time the bad grammar had bothered me, true. I am not a pedant, and you will find a fair share of errors in this piece too. It did trouble me that the word sign was used instead of signature. Both mean different things, and abbreviations do not always work in speech.. here I was left wondering.. did she mean astrological sign? Or something else?

Grammar does matter as does precision in language. For one simple reason – to be understood. Bad grammar can, at the least cause confusion and delays and at the worst cause life threatening accidents. Ask anyone who runs an air control tower to direct aeroplanes. Or anyone who has negotiated people out of danger. Language matters.

And then there was the content.

To know one’s signature is a work of a lifetime, as the child will discover. She will grow up with one that she may learn to love or hate.. and then, in a traditional society, she will be asked to change hers. Her signature will become her identity and her security. This is something she must discover for herself, must create and then must allow it to evolve.

Something in her tone bothered me.. the certainty. As if her ‘sign’ was something that she would receive, and then learn to perfection. Thus know.

Like a lesson at school. Or a gift on a birthday.

One doesn’t you know. One is not entitled to knowledge that we just have to adopt, memorise and reproduce. Not for one’s signature, and certainly not for learning one’s ‘syllabus’. She, the little girl, spoke before she had started her journey because she did not know that there is a delightful, tedious, tiresome, exhilarating journey towards discovery. Your signature, or your answers will not (always) be given to you. They will be yours when you discover them.

It is entirely possible that the process of arriving at a signature has clues to the learning process that we bypass when we are fed predigested bites to replicate on call. Her school (presumably a good one) may follow a learning process that looks like this:

Teacher reads. Teacher explains. Questions set. Answers written on board to copy, or dictated in class or marked in textbooks. Classwork written questions and answers. Homework question and answers. Tests. Revision notebook. Exams.

If the signature were to be arrived at this way, then there would be a textbook that would assist a signature tutor, who in turn would write it on the board and she would copy and memorise it. For use, for ever.

But often, the journey to a signature is like this:

Look around at the various signatures. Gather samples. Seek inspiration.

Experiment. Try different styles. Be unhappy with some. Be frustrated. Experience failure via dissatisfaction. Try some more. Discuss with friends (or siblings). Be laughed at. Look at peer group signatures. Maybe try to blend in, maybe try to be different (=have criteria for success). Experiment some more. Adapt and blend. Arrive a satisfactory signature. Be unsure or sure of it, but declare it yours. Practice it again and again. Gain mastery. Arrive at comfort. Identify with it. Make it yours.

Is this how we learn things? Can we learn things this way?

Imagine learning about the comparative strength of materials in this way -with research and experimentation. Or learning basic statistics – gathering data and experimenting with it..comparing and sharing with peers and seeing what insights the data can provide..the names – average, range, frequency – all of that can come later, once the journey of discovery has been traversed.

It takes time, planning and excellent classroom organizational skills. But, what every teacher knows is this: If learnt this way, the journey would have made the content belong to each child, never to be forgotten. Every child in the room would have learnt, every child would have learnt how to learn.

And the little girl? I hope she finds her way to the perfect signature before she gets to know it.


Meeta Sengupta

25 June 2013, 09:59 PM IST




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