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December 21, 2015

A Reflection on “Nothing can be Taught”

I reflected upon my interpretation at different times as a teacher.
of Sri Aurobindo’s: 'The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught.'1

When I started teaching I wanted to be a good teacher. I planned my classes, used many resources and TLM (Teaching Learning Material), had many classes with activities, attempted to open the minds of children, and took a lot of notes. A workshop called the 'Stewardship for a New Emergence' helped me notice my growth as a teacher and capture the fleeting insights - it helped me be more patient and capable of listening to children. At this time, I interpreted the first principle of teaching as the learning I was going through to be a better teacher and a better person through my experience. I took the principle to refer to spiritual experiences that are our own. For example, in a typical classroom I would teach different points of view, or of looking at something to support diversity or handle misconceptions and children would work with TLM and at times the computer2.

As I continued working with children I noticed that my best classes were not the ones I prepared the most. Some classes had a flow and some, in spite of planning (and a few because of much planning) were hard. An almost identical incident or comment from children that derailed one class would have no impact in another. I noticed that this had less to do with the environment around me or what children experienced at home and more to do with the environment I was carrying with me to the classrooms and who I was being while I was in the class. I also noticed children were learning more when I was instructing less. Practically, my classes were getting more activity based with much peer learning and less lecturing. I often used computers with children creating projects to learn the material. I read up on constructivist theory and learned that each child (and adult) builds their own knowledge and I only needed to create an environment to let learning happen. I noticed that it was my 'I have a PhD and can show other ways of doing this' ego that was coming in the way of learning and was able to consciously make a choice to let opportunities to teach go, and let opportunities for learning flourish. My interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s first principle at that time was that this also applies to practical learning through a constructivist approach3.

Some time has passed since then and I no longer see spiritual growth and practical learning as two distinct applications of the first principle of true teaching. It appears that every true learning is with the engagement of our entire being and is spiritual and helps us follow our core. Practically, now the environment I am working to create at STEM Land is such that a session with children is about self-discovery. It’s not about a procedure or the underlying concept, but about their experience. The environment offers choice and looks to the children to take responsibility for their learning. I do instruct, children do projects, but it happens when the need comes up from the children4.


1. Sri. Aurobindo, (1910) The Human Mind, Karmayogin.
2.  Ranganathan, S. (2014) Program to encourage critical thinking in children – 2013-2014. Grant report by Udavi School to SAIIER.
3.  Ranganathan S., Anand B., Kothandaraman S. and Gunasekar V. (Dec 2015) Using programming with rural children For Learning to think mathematically, epiSTEM 6 HBCSE, IITB.
4.  Ranganathan S., STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Land and Resource Center (2015) Grant proposal to SAIIER.