Not, I assure you, clickbait.
This past weekend, I was lucky to attend an Unconference. An unconference, I learnt, is a conference with none of the rules of a conference. There are no panel discussions, there is no fixed agenda – in fact, the only rule is that there is no rule.
Attendees are asked to jot down their preferred topics for discussion on post-it notes, and put them up on a wall for for everyone to look at. These can be grouped together loosely, and folks who want to learn more through discussion and dialogue then assemble in an area to talk about these questions. You are free to leave at any point of time, no questions asked, and you are free to join any other session at any point of time, no questions asked.
Slight correction: there is a rule. At the end of the allotted time, you get up and move on. You always start on time, and you always end on time. But that apart, everything else is fair game.
If you think it all sounds a bit chaotic, you’d be right – it is. But then again, on the other hand, if you happen to think that conferences suffer from having too little chaos and therefore serendipity, you might want to try this format out. I assure you that it certainly worked for me.
Anyways, the point is that one of these little post-it notes, for one of these sessions, had this provocative question: “Are teachers evil?”. I hope to spend the rest of my life teaching people, beginning with economics, and as you might imagine, I made sure to attend this particular session.
The person who asked the question had school teachers in mind, but one of the joys of an unconference session is that participants are free to interpret the question however they like, and to take the discussion in any direction they like.
And I interpreted this question to mean any person anywhere who is teaching anybody, including themselves. This could be a parent teaching a child, this could be a teacher in a nursery school, or this could be a professor teaching Bayesian statistics class to PhD students. If you’re teaching, are you evil – this was my framing.
This blogpost isn’t about my reporting what went on in that one hour, fascinating though the discussion certainly was. This blogpost is about asking you to think about the question yourselves, and about my particular answer to this question.
First, take some time and ask yourself if the people who have taught you have been evil, and if you, in your role as a teacher, have been evil. Feel free to define for yourself what evil means in this context, and feel free to analyze for yourself the answer to this question.
Second, my answer, after a lot thinking about this question, is as follows.
Any teacher who kills curiosity about the subject being taught is evil.
If the teacher manages to kill curiosity altogether, the teacher is truly evil. On the flip side, if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the subject being taught, the teacher is good. And if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the world in general, the teacher is a legend.
But to me, teachers aren’t necessarily evil in and of themselves. As I see it, our job is to light the spark of curiosity, to kindle it, to feed it, and to nurture it. And to leave the student with an insatiable thirst to always want to learn more.
Failure to do this makes for a bad teacher, and the act of killing curiosity instead of nurturing it makes the teacher, yes, evil.
“Don’t kill curiosity” is a very low bar for those of us in the teaching fraternity. Making sure we never do so would be an excellent goal every single time we step into a classroom.
Help students learn better!