Mon, 22 Mar 1999

Teaching kids a mind's gifts

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): Our traditional education system gives these labels to our children: genius, intelligent, average, slow, dyslexic, stupid or unteachable.

Early in life we were made aware of our limitations. We were told that we had to study hard and get good grades in school if we wanted to be successful in life.

We were ranked with a system of grades so everyone knew who was the brightest and who was among the dumbest. Our teachers would either give a monologue in front of the class or write on the black board while we wrote down what was said or written.

If a student still had difficulty understanding something after two or three explanations, a child with a "learning problem" was in the making. It never occurred to us, or our teachers, that it was probably them who had a teaching problem.

That people have different methods of learning was not taken into account by our educators.

That Albert Einstein failed mathematics and Thomas Edison was deemed rather a slow student was not widely known or understood by us.

If you are like a lot of people, your grades were probably average. In university, the normal distribution system assured that only a few people were given good grades, and only a few really bad grades. Most people were average.

We learned our limits early. At an age when everything was learned at amazing speed and strong impressions were being imprinted on our receptive but nondiscriminating brains, impressions that lay dormant, and later shape our lives, after the brain matures and starts to function on a more intellectual level.

This can be likened to circus elephants. A thin rope ties the elephant's leg to a small stake tapped into the ground. How can an animal capable of uprooting a tree be controlled by a rope tied to a little stake?

The answer is training. When the elephant was very small, the trainer used a big chain attached securely to a big post hammered deep into the ground to limit the elephant's movement. The elephant could only go so far, and it was not big enough or strong enough to break the chain or pull the stake. The elephant quickly learned its limits: It could only go to the end of the chain that was locked to its leg.

Our intellect tells us that a fully grown elephant could easily break the rope or uproot the stake that holds it, but since no one has communicated this to the elephant, it remains obediently within its learned limits.

The power of belief works both ways. You believe you are great or poor, you are right on both accounts. One of the most influential educators the world has ever known is Marva Collins. She has appeared on the 60 Minutes program and a movie was made about her.

Thirty-eight years ago, Marva decided to dedicate her life to making a real difference in the lives of children, most of whom were poor and abandoned with behavioral or learning problems and broken families.

She faced her first challenge when she was given her first teaching job in what many considered to be a ghetto in Chicago. Her second grade students had already decided that they didn't want to learn anything.

Yet her mission was not merely to teach children how to read, write and count, but also to touch their lives. Faced with children labeled as dyslexic, retarded and learning impaired and displaying a variety of behavioral disorders, she took a very brave, and unprecedented, approach to the challenge by deciding that the problem was not the children, but the way they were taught.

No one was challenging and inspiring them enough. As a result, these kids had no belief in themselves. They had never experienced being pushed to attain the kind of breakthroughs required to find out who they really were or what they were capable of. Like the elephant, they were tethered by limiting beliefs that stifled any form of progress.

So she threw out all the inane children's books and instead taught the works of Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Tolstoy. She set her expectations of these children high, wisely aware that people give results according to expectations.

No other teachers believed that she would succeed in her efforts, on the contrary, many of them criticized her harshly, saying that she would only destroy these children's lives.

What happened was her students not only understood the material, they thrived on it. Why? Because she believed so fervently in the uniqueness of each child's spirit, and his or her ability to learn anything that was presented to them.

She didn't set limits for these kids and she liberated them from their previous limiting beliefs, lifted their self-esteem and taught them to believe that there was no reason they had to languish at the level of society that others believed they belonged to. In the "innocent" words of four-year-old Talmadge E. Griffin, one of her students Tony Robbins interviewed and wrote about in his book Awaken The Giant Within, "The most important thing Mrs. Collins has taught me is that society may predict, but only I will determine my destiny."

The rest was history. Now all her critics marvel at the extraordinary results she has consistently produced for decades.

We owe a great debt to Collins for revealing the inspiring truth that human intelligence is infinite. Over 90 percent of our brain capacity is unconscious, thus untapped. Each one of us was born with a built-in supercomputer that outperforms even the greatest modern computer technology. It is capable of processing up to 30 billion bits of information per second and it boasts the equivalent of 6,000 miles of wiring and cabling.

The human nervous system contains about 28 billion neurons (nerve cells designed to conduct impulses), each of which is a tiny, self-contained computer capable of processing about one million bits of information. The neurons act independently, but they also communicate with other neurons through an amazing network of 100,000 miles of nerve fibers.

The power of our brain to process information is staggering, especially when we consider that a computer -- even the fastest one -- can make connections only one at a time. By contrast, a reaction in one neuron can spread to hundreds of thousands of others in a span of less than 20 milliseconds.

Hence, one can only imagine what most of us could do if only a quarter of that untapped potential were brought to life. Many great achievers, scientists like Einstein and writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, relied on -- and never for one minute doubted -- the unlimited power of their subconscious.

Many new technologies have been invented to reprogram the mind to create lasting change and boost performance, from Neuro Linguistic Programming to Psychorientology with the famous Silva Method that emphasizes the activation of the right side of the brain.

If only our educational system could accommodate these new findings in the field of human excellence, we could improve our under-developed human resources so that they survive the competitive struggle in the increasingly borderless world. Nothing can be more true in our case, that the greatest gift is the gift of learning, and that gift is not complete until it is passed on.

The writer is a human resources and personal development consultant based in Jakarta.