Learning by Imitation

By Didi Ananda Devapriya

In Neohumanist Education, we all know that children learn best by imitating the example of the teacher. However, it is not only small children who learn well by imitation and example; it is one of the most effective ways adults learn as well. Have you ever experienced the difference between just hearing or reading about how to do something and then actually seeing it done? For example, there was a particularly difficult yoga posture called peacock that I had read had many benefits for overcoming fear, anger, and improving digestion, cravings and some other benefits and I really wanted to try it, but from the picture and the book, it looked simply impossible; it is a difficult balancing posture where all of the weight is supported by the elbows on the navel area. I tried a few times, but was immediately discouraged. Then a friend of mine showed me how she had learned, breaking it down into a few simpler stages. Within a month of practice, I amazed myself that I actually had learned how to do it.Also, many times I have also had the experience of having my perception of a boring task transformed by seeing somebody do the same thing with delight. Once I was working in a café, and in the evening it was time to do the mopping; a task I didn’t particularly enjoy. However, my co-worker offered to do it, saying “I just love mopping. For me a mop is like a big paintbrush and it is like painting in reverse, rather than putting on paint, you are taking off the dirt.” I am a painter myself, and that forever changed my attitude towards mopping as drudgery.When I first came to the school in Verona, I didn’t have any background or experience working with such small babies. In fact, my first impression was that working with such small children would be little more than babysitting. But as I began to observe Tiziana, a teacher who had been working in the school for 15 years, I saw mastery at work. Her enthusiasm and delight in the children was obvious and infectious. She took such joy in participating in every aspect of their development and understood the world from their point of view. From cradling them safely in her arms and softly singing kiirtan so that they could trust and relax enough to take their first nap, to talking joyfully and without any sign of disgust about what a big kaka they had made while changing their diapers, to setting up games to challenge a lazy baby to crawl towards a toy and dipping their feet in paint and having them make their first steps across a piece of paper to record it for the parents, she was constantly engaged in their world. The children absolutely adored her. There was elegance in the way she would resolve tearful situations, babies in crisis over their first separation from their mother, and reassure mothers that were anxious and guilty about leaving their babies alone.As I watched her I found that I unconsciously began to mimic her tone of voice, her way of resolving conflicts and as I found they worked, I began to ask her questions about why she did things and about how to solve certain problems. I always found a wise and intuitive answer that was grounded in her own experience. I learned far more from her than I ever could have just by studying books, and still whenever I see good teaching at work, I love to watch and learn new things. Now in my new assignment in Bucharest, I am fascinated by how Sumati with her very orderly ways inspires a similar love of order in the children, and how they absolutely love to sit at the tables and carefully practice making dots and lines in very neat and precise rows. There is satisfaction in their work, and they are absorbed and concentrated in the task, taking delight in filling the page and staying until they finish before going to free play. They are impatient to do writing practice, and sad if it gets cancelled. Devakii, on the other hand, has a completely different but equally effective style. I love watching her tell stories with the children. She invents props out of whatever is conveniently nearby – a houseplant to represent a forest, a small candle to be a light in the darkness. When she works with the children, she enters completely into their world, they are co-explorers on an adventure together, and they just love it.

It is not only from senior teachers that it is possible to learn, though. I have also seen newer teachers that are finding joy in their teaching and shining with brilliance. In Verona, there were two teachers, Milena and Valentina that loved to work together as a team, and together they would create a magical and creative world. They were always experimenting with new things. They had a puppet that they would use to introduce new things, Petronio, and then he introduced eventually a friend Merlino. One of the teachers took a trip to England, and told that Petronio had gone away to England. He sent postcards to the kids and Merlino would read them to the children and when Petronio came back, he brought small models of a double decker bus, telephone booth, London bridge, Big Ben and told all about his adventures in

England. Every day after work, they would spend time together arranging the classrooms for the next day, often shifting around all of the furniture and creating new environments to explore. Once they found a gigantic cardboard box and they cut out windows and a door and spent an afternoon painting it to become a house. Games lasted for weeks with the new house. They also loved to take pictures of the children and each other, and their work was well documented for the parents to see.In adults, it is usually our intellectual ego, the feeling that we know or should already know something that gets in the way of our experimenting with imitation. Once there was a story about a university professor, who was very proud of his degree and knowledge, that went to visit a monk to see if he knew anything worth learning. The monk invited him for some tea, and began to pour tea into his cup, but much to the professor’s shock, he didn’t stop when the teacup was full and it began overflowing and spilling over everything. The professor jumped up in alarm, but the monk said; “Your mind is like this. It is already so full that nothing more can fit in.”In order to be able to experience learning from mentors, and from each other, we often have to empty our cups of everything we think we “know” so that we can find that open, childlike space where we are willing to experiment, try new things and learn.

Especially in teaching, where theory is far less valuable than knowing how to put it in practice effectively, one of the best ways to learn how to do that is by observing master teachers; teachers who have dedicated their lives to teaching and have a wealth of practical experience that comes from their dedication and love of the field. Not all senior teachers may be “master teachers” because, as in all professions, there may be those that just see it as a job.

There is a story about three bricklayers busy at work. Someone comes up and asks what are you doing? The first one says “Can’t wait until I finish this row so that I can go on my lunch break” the second “I am earning money for my family” and the last one motions at the whole structure and says with inspiration and pride, “I am building a cathedral!” The teachers that become “master teachers” are those that make the paradigm shift from seeing it as a job or a way to make money, and take joy and pride in helping to shape a “cathedral” which is the realization that by teaching children, one is shaping the future itself.

It is not hard to tell when someone has reached mastery of their teaching profession; there is an enthusiasm, a freshness and spontaneity in their work, even though they have been doing it for years. They find continual delight in children and their play. There is also elegance in how they resolve difficult situations of discipline, or chaos. They communicate serenity and self-confidence, and the children respond to it. Mostly you can tell by how children react that they are magnetized by their teacher and respond to her slightest suggestion. These teachers may see themselves as gardeners, nurturing seeds they plant in the children, or may see themselves as coaches, encouraging and supporting.

However, learning by imitation is not the same as comparing yourself and trying to becoming something you are not. There is a very fundamental difference. When we compare ourselves to others, it is done out of a subtle kind of self-hatred. We think that we are not good enough on some level, and when see someone else doing well, either jealousy or competitiveness comes up or self doubt and depression as we begin comparing to see if they are better than us, and feeling bad if they are. On the other hand, imitating a mentor comes from that open emptied cup of wanting to learn something new. The best teachers never feel that they are too good to improve or learn something new. They maintain that openness and are constantly learning and open to new ideas, and especially they are constantly learning from the children themselves, and their own direct experience of experimenting with what works and doesn’t work.

So to achieve mastery in your teaching, start by looking for examples of good teaching, and then experiment and play with imitating what you observe that works in others’ teaching. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t force it. But usually the things that are attractive to you in someone else’s teaching attract you because they resonate with your own understanding. So be patient, experimenting, observing more closely, experimenting again. Above all, learn to cultivate delight and joy in children. From that delight, empathy and intuitive understanding flows. Expertise will follow. It is natural to become good at what we love to do, because automatically we invest the time and energy, study, observation and experimentation needed to become experts.