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The Prophet ﷺ as a Teacher – Part 3

The Prophet ﷺ as a Teacher – Part 3
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We can’t all be shining examples but we can, at least, twinkle a little.

This is the third of a series of blog posts exploring the teaching methodologies of Rasul Allah (ﷺ) in the Lessons from Sunnah series. This blog covers the third teaching method. The series will continue in subsequent blogs.

There is a light and strength within each of us. Nothing has been created or brought into this world without a purpose. From the smallest speck of dust or insect to the most superior creation, man, all have a design and purpose to contribute to this world. At the same time, a lot depends on the nurturing and care that is given which enhances or diminishes this inherent quality.

Among the many who nurture, the highest role is that of the teacher; whether as parents who bring forth the child and, generally, nurture physically and emotionally or the mentor who cultivates and develops the qualities within. Just like a random seed thrown into the ground shoots forth into a tiny plant but then needs the gardener to tend and prune so it grows into a sturdy tree, so do the young need care to grow into effective members of society.

As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. (Proverb)

Teachers should realize the levels of the pupils and offer to them according to their understandings. They should suggest/hint to the smart, clarify for others, and repeat for the unintelligent.

Shaqiq al-Belkhi asked his student, Hatem al-Asem about what he had learned while in his tutelage.

“How long have you been with me?” asked the teacher.

“Thirty three years,” answered the student.
“What have you learned all these years?” asked the teacher.
“I have learnt eight things,” replied the student.
The teacher expressed his sorrow and said, “I have finished my years with you, but you have learnt eight things only!”
“That is it,” expressed the student, “I do not want to lie.”
“Well,” said the teacher, “Let me hear.”
“They are fondness of good deeds, shoving caprices away, decency and God-fearing, befriending the right, antagonizing the devil, adhering to obedience, leaving the humiliation of seeking from people, and depending on God,” counted the student.

The teacher expressed his great admiration and esteem and said, “O Hatem! May Allah bless you. As I looked in the Torah, the Bible, the Psalms, and the Quran, I found these eight questions to be the pivot of these Books.”

As we continue to explore the teaching methods of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, one of his ways was that he always spoke according to the intellectual level of the listener.

“Make things easier, do not make things more difficult, spread glad tidings not hate.” (Bukhari, Book of Knowledge)

In Bukhari (most authentic book of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) we find a chapter titled, Teaching Knowledge to Some and Not to Others for Fear of Them Misunderstanding. There is a hadith regarding this that Prophet ﷺ told Muadh (a favoured companion), “Whoever testifies sincerely from his heart that there is no diety worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is His messenger will enter paradise.”

The companion said to Prophet ﷺ, “Shouldn’t I tell everyone?”
The Prophet ﷺ said, “No, because they will begin to lean and will become lazy in their religion after that.”

So what was the problem in telling everyone? Simply, that people would accept that at face value and think that by testifying and their words only they would enter Jannah, no matter what their actions were, even to the extent of them going against the teachings of Islam. A simple layperson will not understand that it is the sincerity and complete submission to the attestation that makes a best Muslim.

Ibn Abbas, notable companion of Prophet ﷺ, said, “Narrate to people only what they can understand.

Abu Hisham said, “I never narrated anything people did not understand except that it was misguidance for them.”

Jāmi’ Book of Knowledge 615 (only relevant portion quoted)

This narration shows that if teachings are beyond the intellectual level of the listener they only result in confusion and misunderstanding leading to error and deception.

Here, allow me to share my own experience that reinforced this profound wisdom.

Lessons in Math

Low attainment in Math by students who were otherwise bright and intelligent always bothered me. When I began teaching and since I have always taught Junior School where the Class Teacher deals with a variety of subjects like Math, History, Geography, Language, Literature and Science, this particular problem always caught my attention. There were always a handful of students in a class with absolutely clear thinking who displayed diligence and interest in school work but come the Math period and I would have lost them even before the lesson began.

At the primary level, more than anywhere else, good mathematical thinking is indispensable. Look at some topics in Math – direction, classifying, listing, grouping, money, graphs, patterns, etc. Each topic can easily branch into wider subject areas – direction links to Geography, classifying links to Science and Language, etc.

There was a Math situation in my class, which due to my shortsightedness led to a complete mental block on the part of most of my students. They had to solve a Math problem: Can a mother, father and two children go to the cinema with $15.00 and all have something to eat as well?

One group of students had, after finding out the cost of the tickets, checked out the price list of different food items and made some possible combinations of eatables the family could have with the left over money. There was a lot of animated conversation, giggles and arguments in that corner. When I saw what they were doing, I told them to focus on the question and asked why they needed to make a list of eatables, as long as there was a sufficient amount left over. Nobody said anything and the group which had been working on the combinations, in their anxiety, started rubbing off their lists. I told them to let it be and we moved on to the next lesson. But the class was simply confused and lacked motivation. I was really perplexed but I didn’t connect the previous situation to this loss of interest. It was only after I had discussed the issue with another senior colleague later did it occur to me what I had done in my rigidity. I also comprehended more fully what I had read from Richard Skemp’s book: A bad teacher can reduce an averagely intelligent pupil to tongue-tied incompetence.

Anyway, I went back to the class and apologized to the students who had been working on the extension activity. I told them I had discussed the problem with another teacher and we agreed it was an excellent way of extending a problem-solving situation. It gave me some measure of relief to see the smiles of pride on their faces.

Another interesting episode during one of my Math classes was the strange similarity between the cases of Nabil and Ava, who both incidentally got confused and tensed when they had to work individually in Math. They both told me in separate conferences, they had an elder sister who was very clever. Nabil said that his sister Areej was very intelligent and knew everything. I asked him what Areej said about him and he said she also tells him he’s very clever but he thinks she just says it to make him happy.

Ava’s elder sister Arosh called her stupid and whenever she needed help with homework, said it was impossible to teach Ava anything. I assured her that she was very bright too and only needed to feel more confident about herself.

Both lacked confidence and problem –solving skills. They were hesitant, reluctant to take initiative and displayed noticeable stress during Mental Math or oral discussion during Math period. As I gave them the confidence to share their thoughts with me and their peers by talking through the problems, allowing them to make mistakes and look at them as learning opportunities, they improved tremendously. As dialogue and peer interaction increased, their teacher dependency became minimal; they worked with interest and participated fully in Math activities. They seemed to now enjoy Math and displayed greater confidence in group activities. They were prepared to take risks and displayed a healthy attitude towards mistakes in computation.

Another aspect of empowerment came out in the classroom. For some months, I had been giving more control to the students in the class by giving them a Math Menu for each topic and a certain time limit to complete all the exercises. They could choose how to go about it and what to do as long as it was completed on time and presented neatly and sensibly. I asked students how they felt about being empowered in this way – the whole class said they liked it. These are some of their responses:

Miss, I can think about different activities and plan them.

When I am absent I don’t worry about what might be happening in class, because I have the menu and I can do it in my own time.

I can discuss the different exercises with my father who is very good at Math.

I know about all the things that need to be done and feel more confident.

I don’t have to wait when I have finished. I can simply go on to the next assignment.

I enjoy doing Math this way.

My students taught me the importance of dialogue, collegiality, compromise, effective communication, appropriate relationships and efficient management in enhancing understanding.

This relates to an important concept in pedagogy termed “scaffolding”, inspired by Lev Vygotsky and means that over the course of a teaching session, one can adjust the amount of guidance to fit the child’s potential level of performance. More support is offered when a child is having difficulty with a particular task and, over time, less support is provided as the child makes gains on the task. Ideally, scaffolding works to maintain the child’s potential level of development in the “zone of proximal development” which is the gap between a learner’s actual level of development and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development).

There are three essential features of scaffolding that facilitate learning. The first feature has to do with the interaction between the learner and the expert. This interaction should be collaborative for it to be effective. The second, learning should take place in the learner’s zone of proximal development. To do that the expert needs to be aware of the learner’s current level of knowledge and then work to a certain extent beyond that level. The third feature of scaffolding is that the scaffold, the support and guidance provided by the expert, is gradually removed as the learner becomes more proficient. The support and guidance provided to the learner is compared to the scaffolds in building construction where the scaffolds provide both “adjustable and temporary” support to the building under construction. The support and guidance provided to learners facilitate internalization of the knowledge needed to complete the task. This support is weaned gradually until the learner is independent. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instructional_scaffolding)

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would not only speak according to the intellectual level of a person, but also respond to people according to their unique situations.

Abdullah ibn Amr (a revered companion) reported: A man came to the Prophet, ﷺ, asking permission to strive for the cause of Islam. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Are your parents alive?” He said yes. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Then strive in their service.”

In another narration, the Prophet ﷺ said, “Then return to your parents and treat them with good company.” Sahih Bukhari 2842, Sahih Muslim 2549

The Prophet ﷺ looked at the situation of the person who was asking and saw that he might not be the best candidate to strive in the way of Islam. In his case, there was another effort, something more preferable in his specific case that would be better rewarded by Allah.

May we develop insight and foresight in our interaction, such that we bring out the best in people and our children. Ameen.

Previous Posts in this series:

Part 2:http://alaaizah.org/blog/sunnah-series-p2/

Part 1:http://alaaizah.org/blog/sunnah-series-p1/

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