Sunday, August 6, 2017

Being Teachable: The Key to Successful Growth

14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Mark 8:14-21

Being teachable is a natural trait, but unfortunately it diminishes with age.  A child is way more teachable than adult.  The older we are the less we are teachable.  Developmentally the explanation is quite simple.  As a child we do not yet have much knowledge, understanding, and experience.  And thus we are not as prideful.  Combine such state with the eagerness and curiosity about the world, a child is always hungry for knowledge and understanding.  This condition is what makes a child teachable or ready to be taught.  The negative side of this teachable estate that a child has in high dose is that it is also a vulnerable state.  By vulnerable state I mean here that the child is easy to be shaped by the teacher – whoever that is.  The vulnerability is primarily caused by whether the child is in the hands of a good or bad teacher.  The bad teacher causes the child to be bent to the wrong direction.

The passage above covers both the natural tendency of being teachable and the horror of having the wrong teacher.  Jesus warns His disciples about the teachings of Pharisee and Herod, who are the kind of teachers that lead toward destruction.  Being unteachable makes a person stuck.  Having the wrong teacher makes a person dangerous.  The sad thing is, in this broken world we are either unteachable or having the wrong teacher.  In the narrative we find that the disciples have the right teacher but at that moment they are unteachable.  And Jesus warns about the danger of being teachable but having the wrong teachers.  Either condition is no good.  Nothing is better than the other.  The only way to get better is to get out of those conditions and thus to find the right condition, which is being teachable under the right teacher.

The state of being unteachable is grim.  With more silver strands added to the head, a person becomes more resistant to being taught.  In the adult education discussion it is believed that in order to stimulate adult learning their experience must be incorporated into the education process.  This by no means is easy to do.  The lesson plan design must then be made in such a way that is quite flexible in order to allow for genuine and meaningful interaction that would lead to valuable teaching and learning process.  However, the problem is that most of the time the plan must be set aside, sometimes entirely, because the experience of the learners does not fit the plan.  The skeptical question then asks: “Why bother planning at all?”  This is the internal struggle of many adult education instructors.  With children the lesson planning is somewhat easier because the nature of children is very supportive.  Children tend to be more open toward being taught.  Their construct is remarkably disposed toward being teachable.  Adult is on the opposite end.  The accumulation of achievements and thus pride makes adult resistant to being taught.  When an adult finds that his/her experience or accumulated knowledge does not match the new knowledge, he/she tends to reject.  Automatically the new knowledge is seen as “threat” that threatens their establishment.

Normally our adult mind is very rigid and not as flexible as a child’s mind.  To change our adult mind is quite difficult because what usually makes sense might not make sense anymore once we change it.  When we can’t make sense what we usually think we understand, it is painful.  This painful condition is also known as cognitive dissonance.  Naturally we do not want pain.  With the imagination of the prospect of being entangled in pain, our mind reflex chooses to block the new knowledge.  This is the first kind of the manifestation of being unteachable.  The second kind is when our adult mind forces to interpret the new knowledge according to the mind’s framework.  And this is what happens with the disciples.  They can’t understand what Jesus is communicating to them.  Their mind is stuck at their old experience with the physical bread that they are unable to see beyond the bread that they eat in order to satisfy their stomach.  Their mind can’t imagine anything else.  Thus they are being unteachable.  For instead of accepting the Lord’s interpretation, they make up their own interpretation.  These two forms of being unteachable prove difficult to set aside.  It is like the default form of every adult.

Now, imagine, when we are still children and being disposed to teachable-ness, our teachers are the wrong kind of teachers.  What will happen when we are adult?  What will happen when we are entering the state of being difficult to teach?  How much more when we have gradually become unteachable?  Jesus’ work with His disciples is difficult, because He has to break into their barrier.  Jesus has to reorganize the disciples’ framework and categories of meaning in order for them to truly understand the truth.  Most importantly, Jesus has to make them teachable again.  An impossible task by human standard.  Jesus said:

15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  Mark 10:15

To the adult mind, the kingdom of God is the kingdom that is won by sword.  And it is extremely difficult to get them to understand that the kingdom of God is won by the sacrifice of the Son of God.  Children, surprisingly, accept Jesus’ message so readily.  The adults reject.  This, undoubtedly, has something to do with whether someone is teachable or not.  Children are so teachable that it is not difficult for Jesus to teach them about the kingdom of God.  Adults are so unteachable that it is extremely difficult for Jesus to teach them about the kingdom of God.  Given this fact, no wonder Jesus warns His disciples of the leaven of the Pharisee and Herod.  Because once their leaven spreads throughout the whole bread, the bread literally can’t be “unleavened.”  In the education discussion we would talk about the process of unlearning when it comes to this.  I have treated the discussion on unlearning in a different chapter: “Learning by Elimination.”  The contamination of the wrong teachers’ leaven can seriously damage one’s faith and worldview.  What is more is that it can also heighten the unteachable-ness of the person.

            When a person is being unteachable, he/she can’t grow his/her knowledge, skill, understanding, and so on.  When a community is being unteachable, it is a disaster.  In the 15th century, China shut her door from the world.  There are many perspectives on why China did what she did at that time.  But the consequence of shutting herself out from the world resulted in China being left behind.  When she opened her door in the 19th century, China was shocked at how backward her civilization was compared to other countries.  The entire country suffered because of the decision to stop the continuous teaching and learning process as a country.  For four centuries China gradually experienced setback in their culture, knowledge, technology, trades, and so on, while the world expanded very rapidly.  China became the giant primitive community in the 19th century. It took China a long time to catch up.  When China shut her door, she declared that she did not need the teaching from the world anymore.  That’s the beginning of their gradual decline because she was unteachable.  Fortunately she opened her door, which signaled her teachable-ness again.

            Clinging to the old paradigm at the expense of development is a grave mistake.  But do not mistake this with staying faithful to the eternal truth as revealed by God.  Things that are absolute ought not to be corrected with the new perspective.  For example, God has clearly revealed that He created the entire universe with His words.  This is the truth.  When a new philosophy of the origin of the universe is developed that spells that the universe is not created by God but came out by itself through random chance, then we should not replace God’s eternal truth with the newly invented philosophy, even though the new perspective is newer in terms of its development.  Clinging to the old paradigm at the expense of development is when one refuses to utilize printing technology and insists on writing by hand in order to copy a sacred writing.  Such insistence on the old technology would cause the person to be left behind big time.  Another example is when one refuses to use a car and clings to walking as the sole method of transportation.  Or when one refuses to keep the environment clean from garbage and insists on throwing garbage into the river believing that water will take care of any garbage.  Or when one refuses to obey the traffic law and insists on breaking the law believing that he can outmaneuver any other vehicles without any accidents.

            The challenge here is to differentiate between the absolutes and the relatives.  This is a classic challenge.  Ever since Adam and Eve broke the command of God, all humanity has been struggling to figure out the difference between what is absolute and what is relative.  The greatest challenge is on interpretation.  The way we assign meaning into anything is continually challenged in every generation.  Even the meaning of God is constantly challenged.  In this modern era, one of the greatest challenges of the meaning of God comes from the Freudian psychoanalysis with his Oedipus Complex scheme.  The understanding that God is an absolute being is shaken by Freud.  For Freud God is a projection of a father image in our mind.  This makes God relative.  This is just an example of the continuous tension in the absolute-relative battle of meaning.  In this postmodern era, postmodernists often argue that everything is relative.  One day I met a guy that fervently believed that everything was relative.  He was so sure of it until I asked him a question: “Are you absolutely sure that everything is relative?”  Then suddenly he became utterly confused.  On the other hand, not everything is absolute either.  Some are relative.  For example, one may say that the best way to cook egg is to make it omelette, but others might disagree and say that sunny side up is the best, still others would prefer their egg scrambled.  Nothing is set in stone in terms of what the best egg dish is.  Here in this case we must not make a certain egg dish as the absolute best way to cook egg.

            To battle the natural course of gradually slipping into unteachable-ness, something must be done when the person is still teachable.  As an educator, one of my greatest concerns is to figure out what teaching & learning ingredient a person’s educational process needs in order to prevent him/her from crystalizing the tendency to become unteachable.  Now, any living organism in this world has some kind of built-in mechanism that allows the organism to survive.  This built-in mechanism is what we know as adaptation.  In Jean Piaget’s understanding of adaptation, he differentiated between accommodation and assimilation.  The condition of being unteachable is when one is fixated only on the assimilation way of doing adaptation, in which the environment must be adjusted to the self.  In assimilation, either the self does not wish to change or the self’s natural construct does not permit the change.  In order to survive in this world, one can’t be fixated on only one way of adaptation.  The balance between the two ways must be achieved.  Accommodation way of adaptation is needed as long as the organism’s natural construct permits the change.  Within the capability to change one needs to always keep him/herself be teachable.

            One’s limit and potential must be understood in order to effectively allow the self to be teachable.  Therefore the study of human being in general is important.  The next study that is no less important is the study of one’s self in all its uniqueness and limitations.  In short, the boundary of proper humanity must be established in order to carefully tread on the process of mastering the accommodation way of adaptation on the self and thus be teachable.  However, one won’t bother to change oneself without a meaningful purpose.  Purpose, therefore, is necessary to stimulate the desire of the self to change.  In the same way, purpose is necessary to stimulate one’s willingness to be teachable.

            One day, as Patrick walked to school, he was attracted to the sound of music that came out from one little music shop at the corner.  But he did not have time to stop and listen to the music in its entirety.  The next day he went through the same route and he heard the same music being played again.  It was so beautiful.  His soul was mesmerized but its beauty and a great desire was composed in his heart to listen more to the music.  So he stopped his walk toward school and started to walk toward the little music shop at the corner.  He peeked inside and he saw a woman playing a string instrument.  From that instrument came out the beautiful music that had captivated his heart.  This time he listened to the music until it was finished.  He felt elated.  His heart was full of joy.  The joy that he could not describe.  He then quickly realized that he had to run to school if he did not wish to be late.  He ran so fast that he managed to arrive in school just in time before the gate was shut.  For the entire day Patrick’s mind was on that music.  His heart was so stimulated that he desired to keep the music with him the whole time.  So on the way home he stopped by the shop and tried to find the lady who played the instrument in the morning.  And he found her.  So Patrick asked her how he could keep listening to the music he heard in the morning.  The lady saw Patrick’s attraction to music like flower starting to blossom in the spring.  So the lady asked Patrick: “Would you like to learn to play the music so you can always keep it with you?”  Patrick was so happy with her question and so he nodded enthusiastically.  From that day on, the lady taught Patrick how to play music in the violin.  Patrick became a changed boy, from knowing nothing about playing music, to becoming a wonderful violin player.  Every day he produced beautiful music through his violin.  Patrick never forgot his first music that caught his attention, it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

            As the story of Patrick has illustrated for us, the meaningful purpose Patrick had in his heart drove him to allow himself to be teachable.  A proper educational process must always give meaningful purpose to the learners in order to incite their deepest desire to reach the goal.  This desire is what opens the door for allowing the self to be taught – thus being teachable.  Many of these meaningful purposes are to be shared to the learners in order to stimulate their desires and motivations.  The joy of achieving the meaningful purpose will become fuel to the eagerness to learn.  The imagination of the sweetness of achievement will endorse the self to stay teachable.  This is the key ingredient that should not be left out in any educational process.  The joy of teaching and learning gives life to our tendency to be teachable.  If education process becomes a boring and burdensome work full of coercion, then the self gradually shuts itself and thus becoming unteachable.  One can’t labor on learning without meaningful purpose or sense of joy in achieving something.

            In the animal kingdom, we find accommodation stops only at the level of survival.  But in humanity, accommodation is aimed at the improvement of the quality of life, not just at the physical level but also at the moral and spiritual level.  For the sake of a greater good one may reasonably be willing to labor to change the self into a better self.  The dream to improve our life is limitless.  And thus being teachable for humans should actually be never ending.  There are many instances a skilful teacher may use in order to facilitate the students to acquire the tendency to being teachable.  At every opportunity similar to what Patrick experienced with music, a skilful teacher may insert the valuable lesson of keeping one’s mind and heart open to new teaching and learning.  Thus to achieve the disposition of the teachable self, the education process must aim at the establishment of the tendency to keep the mind and heart open to new teaching and learning.  This disposition can be seen as attitude as well as life skill.

            This disposition is quite difficult to cultivate at the communal level.  As an organization or even as a people, cultivating the tendency to be teachable is one heavy duty labor.  It requires a coordinated effort and careful planning as well as disciplined execution of the education process.  Not only the natural gradual decline of each individual as well as group teachable-ness that must be deconstructed, but also keeping the balance of the absolute vs. relative, prove to be extremely complex.  There was a period of time when America as a people found it difficult to accept the fact that racial discrimination was morally wrong.  At that time America as a people was being unteachable.  The manifestation of the unteachable-ness on the theme of racial equality caused suffering and insurmountable pain on those being discriminated.  As a nation, America failed to be teachable, and thus could not progress accordingly.  The story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson in the 1960s America’s racial segregation era was the catalyst for America’s realization that staying unteachable on racial equality had kept them from winning the space race with the Soviet.  At the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was educating America with his non-violent march and demonstration concerning racial equality and justice.  The unteachable-ness of America on the theme of racial equality had caused millions of African Americans to suffer for a long period of time.  Gradually America allowed herself to be teachable on this matter.  It took America a long time in the communal education process before they finally abolished racial segregation and rendered racial discrimination a crime against humanity.

            Having eyes but cannot see, having ears but cannot hear, are the condition of unteachable-ness.  It is a sad condition.  This figure of speech expresses a tragedy.  When a baby is born blind, the parents are naturally grieving.  Parents normally won’t be able to have peace when their child is born blind.  What Jesus is saying here is not the physical function of eyes or ears, but the spiritual one.  The disciples fail to understand the meaning of “leaven” in Jesus’ teaching.  This is due to their eyes being fixated on the physical things.  If we read the passage carefully, we too would be surprised at how dull the disciples are.  Nowhere Jesus is talking about bread.  But yet the disciples interpret Jesus’ teaching in connection with the leaven of bread.  And thus they conclude that Jesus is talking about bread because they do not have any bread.  I myself can’t fathom how creative the mind of the disciples in connecting the meaning of “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” with them not bringing any bread.  Their preconceived idea hamper them from absorbing Jesus’ teaching accordingly.  They do not bother to confirm with Jesus what He actually means.  It should be expected for them to ask Jesus what He actually means with leaven of Pharisees and Herod.  Yet they do not ask.

            The gap in their mind begs to be filled as they are unable to make sense of the meaning of the leaven of Pharisees and Herod.  So they resort to the only thing that makes sense for them, the leaven of bread.  Thence their imagination flows unstoppable to reach the conclusion that Jesus concerns about bread.  This is the weakness of adults’ mind, which is always drawing from the pool of resources in their categories that they have stamped with “makes sense” label.  Consequently, things that do not fit their “makes sense” categories would be either set aside or deconstructed to fit their compartment.  The result is predictable, as in the case of Jesus’ disciples the teaching of Jesus does not get into their mind.  Their gate of mind is shut tight, not allowing any new thing to come in, including new and trusted teaching from a trustworthy teacher.  This condition is causing their growth to stall.  If left unattended the growth might regress.  When the regress reaches its peak, the condition of the person is what the Bible calls as “hardened heart.”  When we talk about heart being hardened, we remember what fate befell Pharaoh in the time of Moses.

            Pharaoh’s heart was so hard that he was purely unteachable.  In today’s language we call it “stubborn.”  Even with 10 plagues torturing Egypt, Pharaoh did not humble himself.  Pharaoh refused to accept the truth, even when the truth was obvious.  Normally, the older the person the more stubborn he/she becomes.  The more powerful and famous the person the more stubborn he/she becomes.  The only antidote for this condition is humility.  But easier said than done, because humility is the exact opposite of pride, in which pride is the nucleus of stubbornness.  This brings us to the important key ingredient every person desiring to be teachable should have, humility.  Humility is the rarest ingredient once a person leaves childhood.  Humility is also the rarest ingredient once a person obtains power and fame.  Moses was said to be the most humble person in the whole earth.  Numbers 12:3 testifies about it:

3Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.

This truth is stunning because at that point, Moses was the greatest leader in the world.  He led Israel out of Egypt without any casualties on the Israelite’s side whatsoever, while Egypt suffered tremendously, destroyed, humiliated, and plundered.  People of the world knew Moses overnight.  People in Canaan were in panic when they heard that Moses was leading Israel into their territory.  Despite all his achievements, great fame, and power, Moses remained humble.  Now, Moses was truly rare.  Keeping humility intact when being the most powerful person on earth is almost impossible in this fallen world.  However, the story of Moses here is provided as a model for all of us to learn from.  An old man with so much power can maintain humility, this truly is amazing.

            So Jesus has to intervene His disciples’ misinterpretation.  In the Mark’s version the passage is not concluded with the disciples finally understanding what Jesus means.  But in the Matthew’s version, the disciples are said to finally understand.  Let me quote Matthew 16:5-12 here:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

If Jesus does not intervene, the disciples would have stayed blind and deaf.  This makes the existence of the right teacher necessary.  Jesus’ correction points to the right direction.  It is good that the disciples are not as stubborn as Pharaoh.  And so with one correction Jesus is able to get the disciples back on track.  The right teacher and the teachable hearts of the students make a good combination.

            In fact that combination is the only combination that ensures growth.  The case of Pharaoh is the combination when the right teacher is present but the student is unteachable.  Ten corrections were all ignored, and thus the student did not learn a thing.  The result was a disaster; Pharaoh and his entire fleet were wiped out at the Red Sea.  Another case for this combination is when Jesus teaches the Jews.  The unteachable Jews vow to eliminate the right Teacher.  Jesus does not fight back, even though He can.  And so the result is crucifixion of the Teacher.  The case of the Pharisees and Scribes is the combination when the student is teachable but the wrong teacher is guiding the student.  Matthew 23:15 tells of this combination vividly:

15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

There is one last combination, which is when the wrong teacher meets the unteachable student.  This combination might just result in the rejection of the teaching of the teacher or might result in the destruction of either the teacher or the student depending who holds more power; similar to the combination of the right teacher meeting an unteachable student.  If the wrong teacher is more powerful, then the student will suffer.  If the student is more powerful, then the teacher will be the one suffering.

            The cultivation of the tendency to be teachable is an important education process that must be seriously included in every form of education.  The most important thing to understand here is that including the tendency to be teachable in the curriculum must be intentional.  In a formal education sector for example, it would be extremely helpful when the entire organization’s culture is that of being teachable.  If all the teachers, staff, and school leaders are modeling the tendency to be teachable, it is more likely for the students to pick it up and cultivate it.  It would be much better if the strategy is to keep and maintain what is already in existence.  We have known that children have this natural tendency to be teachable.  What educators must do is to keep teachable-ness alive in every person.  Or in other words, prevent it from dying.

            Frankly, if we reflect on the fact that God is omniscience and that we are not, we should have been kept humble.  With that particular ingredient we can proceed to maintain our teachable-ness.  As we grow from childhood to adulthood, we progressively learn about our strengths and weaknesses, and also our limits and potentials.  With the right teacher pointing to the right direction, we may stay humble.  How much more, Jesus Himself is our Teacher, who is also our God and Lord.  We can’t ask for a better teacher than Jesus, can we?  With everything necessary in place, we then can grow accordingly.  Even as adult we are still growing.  Perhaps more on the spiritual and intellectual and psychological and mental parts rather than the physical.  Paul says it well:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  2 Corinthians 4:16

This understanding is important so we do not stunt our own growth as adult.  Therefore, adults have no excuse not to grow.  Moses grew.  Abraham did too.  And so all the people who have faith in God.  They maintained their humility, and so they continued to be teachable.

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