Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!
My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.
When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.
I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.
I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.
These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.
Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!
What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.
I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.
The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.
Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.
One one hand, many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.
On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.
I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.
For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.