Monday, June 05, 2023 | Dhu al-Qaadah 15, 1444 H
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Back to school, with three wise men


As tens of thousands of pupils, students, and teachers returned to the classroom last week its surely the right time to reflect upon the wisdom of the statesman philosopher Socrates, who believed understanding the question was half the answer, while knowing the answer without understanding it, was meaningless.

Within that reflection, we can see the wisdom, not only of the inimitable Athenian of 2,600 years ago, but the humanitarian psychological observations of American Abraham Maslow during the twentieth century, and the tragedy of Belarusian Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, who died of tuberculosis before his astounding cognitive discoveries were truly accepted. So, let’s look at each of these three giants, and what they can teach teachers, learners, and parents, about being better at developing learners to become their best version of themselves.

Socrates was unique in that most of what he espoused was in the form of questions and answers, he would pose a question, and then through the process of ‘elenchus,’ virtuous discussions that informed wider, eventually greater understanding of the question, and the knowledge that to arrive at the answer, one must understand the journey towards the answer. In a manner of speaking, Socrates was affirming the ancient Chinese proverb that you “Give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish, and he will feed himself for a lifetime.” Uniquely for a scholar and philosopher, Socrates thought of himself as virtually ignorant, yet distinctly capable of discussion and interacting with others, regarding, respecting, and debating with them the how’s, why’s, where’s, and when’s, to arrive at a place where a process could be identified to arrive at an answer. Not the answer, but an answer, for as Xenophon, Plato, and Aristophanes among his contemporaries, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche later agreed, few questions have only one answer.

Maslow on the other hand, was very much your ‘new age’ psychologist, who sought an understanding of how we can reach the place of learning best, understanding best, and actualising all we are capable of, being all that we can be. His ‘Hierarchy of Needs,’ is seminal to teacher education, but also provides absolute clarity in society, community, and family, as its structure indicates that our first needs are physiological, basic, such as food and shelter, and our subsequent needs are identified progressively as being safe, knowing the love of others, having respect for ourselves and others, having the ability to think for oneself and with others, and to be curious, to appreciate the intimacy of beauty, then as he said, “To be what one can be, one must be,” and finally, again in his own words, to transcend "To the highest levels of consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends to oneself, to others, to other species, and to nature."

Vygotsky completes this masterful triumvirate, with the most resoundingly effective, in my opinion, educational wisdom, ever. His ‘zones of proximal development,’ characterise one's cognitive, or thinking ability, as their individual problem solving on one hand, and their vastly increased potential to do so much better while interacting with more capable peers. Basically, whatever one can achieve alone, pales into significance next to what you can achieve in sharing your knowledge! How often have you seen it? The “duh’ moment, when one person in a group says something, and you see another’s eyes open wide as something dawns on them. They smile, nearly laughing at themselves, bump their forehead with the heel of their hand, and utter something like... “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Now I know!” or just “Duh!” It can be life-changing, or the simple last piece of a theoretical jigsaw, the answer they were looking for, and total understanding. That was Vygotsky.

At the end of the day teachers and parents will neglect, at their peril, this wisdom that leads their children, their learners, towards knowledge, understanding, answers, and being the best version of themselves... and surely that is the end game of education... If not, what is?

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