Meeting humanitarian needs first is key to learning

By Ray Petersen — I was privileged this week at the University of Nizwa to attend, perhaps not a unique function, but certainly a very informative, stimulating and sometimes downright humorous, student on-campus event. It was called an ‘English Café’, and was the 2017 incarnation of an extra-curricular study group of students from colleges all across the university. Though supervised by long-serving UoN faculty member Mohammed al Sharawi, the students are encouraged to design and manage activities to stimulate enthusiasm for, and the practice of, the English language. They operate under the banner of ‘English Language and Translation Bridges’, as they seek opportunities for themselves, and others, to interact more effectively with English speakers.
The café setting offered coffee, a comfy seat, good company and a series of sketches which typified the student experiences in learning a second language. They focused on such issues as the very different cultural backgrounds of native and second language speakers and learners, and demonstrated significant awareness of the issues they and their fellow students face in becoming native-level English speakers.
Maybe not a lack of professionalism, but a greater level of informality than Omani students’ experience in general and secondary education were questioned, however, after discussion, in which the role-playing of Dr Elham Sharaki was an insightful, and hilarious, advocacy in support of the proposition. It was generally accepted that teaching, globally, continues to evolve to meet the needs of the students.
It did raise the question though as to the expectations of Omani, and maybe other students of their teachers and lecturers. I mean, there is no doubt as to the professionalism, moral and ethical standards that teachers must achieve and maintain, in order to remain a teacher, but maybe we should be doing more, as a professional sector group, to advise our students why we do things the way we do?
Probably only education students, and current educators will know of Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which is the very first credo that we, as educators must embrace. They are set out, in terms of a pyramid, to ensure that the most fundamental needs are those met first, and subsequent needs are advanced to provide a final environment, in which, to achieve a state where the “innate curiosity of the human mind prioritises effective learning”.
Maslow explained that students will feel anxiety and tension unless these fairly basic needs are met, with the first being those to sustain the physiological needs of the self. Air, water and food are the metabolic requirements for us all, while clothing and shelter are the elemental requirements at the base of this pyramid. The next level refers to safety, and refer to what we now call a ‘Health and Safety compliant’ environment, where the student feels safe personally, supported financially, healthy and in a safe environment. All of these are factors that we can all recognise and respond to.
Love and a sense of belonging form the next aspect of those needs, and here teachers must use their personality and passion to reassure students that they are valued in the classroom, rather than tolerated. The teacher has a duty too, to ensure that none are left to ‘fend for themselves’ academically, and that every student is supported equally. Loneliness, as I understand it, is a significant factor in social anxiety, which can in turn lead to a number of forms of clinical, if not evident depression.
The need for esteem is next, and students need to feel not only accepted, but to go a step further, they must feel valued. The teacher or lecturer should know who the student is, if not by name, by deed identification, so that student feels valued and respected. The worst thing I have ever heard a teacher say to a student was, “Are you in my class?” That was jaw-droppingly bad.
Then, with all of those layers, needs, or components in place, we come to what is called self-actualisation. “What someone can be, they must be,” is how this is identified. Here, a student should be capable of identifying their potential, and taking their own steps towards realising that level of potential.
Maslow actually was critical in his later years of his own self-actualisation ‘label’ as being too selfish, and offered self-transcendence as either a complimentary or higher need, saying that we derive the greatest satisfaction from helping others, rather than focusing on ourselves and that spirituality too has so much to offer our inner selves. The point I make is that Maslow’s is only the first of many obligations we educators have to our students, and these cannot be delivered in monotone, from a lectern, on a whiteboard, through a projector, computer, or smart-board.
This though, is where a teacher’s own driving forces and qualities of knowledge, character, personality, passion, engagement, support, innovation, encouragement, feedback, enthusiasm, reliability, clarity and purpose, all come into play. Maybe we just don’t advertise those qualities enough? Or maybe we are becoming very adept at delivering a seamless package of all of these qualities every day, in every way, to hundreds of students.