154. Learning how to teach better – II

Learning how to teach better – II:
Igniting Curiosity in Learners

Igniting Curiosity

As I scrolled through my Facebook wall, a status posted by an MBA student caught my eyes. He wrote, “The main role of a teacher should be to ignite the curiosity. This will drive students to be in a receptive mode. The learning process becomes joyful and intense.”

Since I firmly believe that teachers and students both should feel equally accountable for learning, I replied to his status, “And, the main role of a student should be to come prepared with an open mind and ready to be ignited with curiosity. The teaching process becomes joyful and intense.”

Curious about how learning happens, we are forever tangled in a big puzzle: who should motivate whom. The teacher? Or, the student himself or herself? Or the parents? About this confusion, a colleague of mine usually quips, “I can’t be Tony Robbins. My job is to teach, not to motivate.”

“You cannot motivate other people,” writes Bob Pike, in his book Creative Training Techniques Handbook. Perplexing it may sound, upon reflection, the statement does make sense. We can’t wake up someone pretending to be sleeping. Similarly, we can’t motivate someone who doesn’t want to be. Pike also adds, “People do things for their own reasons, not yours.” Teachers may have reasons to teach, but learners may not have reasons to learn. Sounds rather depressing. But as teachers or trainers or mentors, we keep doing what we have chosen to do. We keep putting in our efforts. Hoping somehow we’ll be able to inspire the learners to be curious and motivated.

Can we untangle this puzzle? Let’s believe we can. But first, let me share you a bitter experience I had as a student.

I had always been a loudmouth back in my school days. And when I didn’t see the point of learning the geometric shapes, I had the nerve of asking my math teacher, “What’s the point of studying Geometry?” Back then, math teachers had a certain reputation. They were to be revered. And feared. Thus, as soon as I blurted out my question, I got a reply in the form of his murderous slap on my cheek. I didn’t dare ask anymore.

He could have said, “Geometry helps us understand the importance of balance.” He could have, he should have. But he didn’t. I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems because my teacher failed to paint the big picture for us. He never cared enough to stir our curiosity.

And that’s what we – a lot of teachers, even the ones with good intentions, do again and again. By focusing too much on the details, we unconsciously neglect the part where we should be enabling students to visualize a bigger picture and connect it to the reality.

“If teachers can make us feel like we are learning a fascinating topic that will have a direct impact on our thinking and/or on our lives,” another student posted a comment on my FB status, “We have the natural instinct to become curious about that topic.” And, that could be the missing piece of the puzzle: enabling learners to realize the significance of the topic and to help them make real life connection.

In his book ‘Brain Rules’, molecular biologist John Medina writes that human brain processes meaning before details; the gist before the core concept; the bigger picture before the components. To put this in a very Marketing language, to grab the consumer’s curiosity, sell the benefit before selling the features.

The insight is: Start with the bigger picture and then logically explain the details. Present a real world example, connect it to the concept, tie the loose ends with details, and finally help the learners imagine endless possibilities. Or, share stories, make a point, lead that into the theory, ask students to reflect, and then help them implement the learnings in real situations.

Let me wrap this up. You may be a teacher trying to inspire students. Or a mentor trying to help a young entrepreneur. A trainer trying to transform an organization. Take the inductive approach. If we want to ignite curiosity in learners, paint the bigger picture in their minds, and then explain the meaning of the concepts, instead of bulldozing them with seemingly disparate data, details, and definitions. When we help them internalize and personalize the purpose, then perhaps, just like the MBA student said, the learning process becomes joyful and intense.

(Also published on The Kathmandu Post, Escalate. May 1, 2017)


153. Learning how to teach better – Part I

Back in my school days, we had a classmate who would rather give up his life than share class-notes with us. He would act as if we were plotting to snatch his beloved “First Boy” title. Like the hideous Gollum of Lord of the Rings, he would fight hard to hide the notes – his precious – away from us and other students.

Years later, when I joined university, I was astonished to meet once again a few of such Gollums. Like my sneaky school friend, they would conceal their precious notebooks from us – their competitors.

But luckily, we had a friend who would, without any hesitation and suspicion, share everything he had: books, notes, research articles. And we would share ours too. He would also ask us to come over his house for group study sessions. I still remember those sessions where four or five of us would teach each other, question each other, and listen to different explanations.

For me, those sharing sessions resulted in deeper grip of the concepts that we were trying to master, and helped us become better thinkers, analyzers, and creators of our own interpretations. We would discuss, argue, and often indulge in intense verbal battle – and each time, we would develop newer perspective and better insights. Bottom line: we taught each other and made each other better.

And this brings to my first point. As Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed, learning happens best through social interaction. The more we share, the more we learn. Yes, we all learn in our own peculiar ways, but we learn best by interacting with each other in different social contexts.


Now, imagine your teacher was to teach the concept of research. One way is your teacher starts the class with the definition of research. Explains the concept part by part. Gives some examples. Ends the class by going over the process of conducting research. This is what usually happens.

Another way is your teacher tells the students to visit 10 different companies, find out the number of employees in each, find out the salary range for males and females, and prepare a report – all these without giving you specific instruction. Asks you to write a reflection on what you did, share your findings, and finally the teacher connects everything to the concept of conducting a research.

I bet the second way will be far more effective because as a student, you would be engaged in constructing knowledge with your own hands. You would certainly learn and remember better from the experience than from memorizing the definitions written by the teacher on the board.

And, that’s my second point: learning happens when we actively participate in the learning process, when we take part in co-creating the knowledge by diving into real (or realistic) situations.


Once I was invited for a guest-lecture session in a reputed business college in Kathmandu. When I arrived at the college’s reception, the lady behind the desk looked indifferent, then confused. She asked me ten different questions about me and what I was doing there. I tried to explain her: “Look miss, this person from your college had called me yesterday for the session. So here I am.”

She snapped, for some reason. “What is wrong with this coordinator?” She exhaled anger. I stepped back. Literally. In a millisecond, her face turned evil red, and eyes looked possessed. “This coordinator never informs me and he shouts at me for not doing work properly. I am so fed up working in this office.”

And, all that time, I was thinking, “Dear lady, I don’t need to hear these internal stuff. I am an outsider. You don’t have to vent out on me.”

I was expecting a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Instead, I witnessed a disgruntled employee losing her cool and risking the organization’s hard-earned goodwill.

Later when I thought about the incident, the theories of Organizational Behavior and Psychology started bouncing back in my head. I knew the theories, explanation, and examples from the books. But they made real sense only after I reflected on the incident unfolding in front of my eyes.

John Dewey, a pioneer in progressive education, had once said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And that’s my third point: learning happens when we experience an event and consciously think back to analyze and make a meaning out of it.


Connecting all three scenarios, let me tell you what I believe about teaching and learning, and what we, as teachers, can do make it better.

When we help students explore, find, and draw multiple perspectives through classroom discussions, activities, enquiry, they learn better. When we understand this concept, we can design learning situations that allow students to ‘learn by doing’ and we help them experience and reflect to construct new knowledge.

Let’s reflect. Are we simply teaching the content? Or are we creating helpful environment which allows students to interact? Are we merely giving them assignments? Or are we allowing them to work together, learn together? Are we constantly dumping knowledge on them? Or are we giving them opportunities to reflect on their learning?

Dear teachers, let’s reflect.


A slightly modified version of this article was published on national daily The Kathmandu Post on April 17, 2017.

Becoming better mentors