Notes from Ethiopia, Part 1

I’m spending this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, representing U.S. educators and sharing ideas about teaching and learning. 

Tonight, during a discussion with a local film club about the documentary American Teacher, a man raised his hand.

“What is the purpose of learning?” he asked me.

I’ve gotten pretty good at answering questions over the last few months, at speaking without a script or advance notice of what people might want to hear from me. But this question threw me. The purpose of learning? My mind went blank. I could not think of how to begin to articulate an answer.

One man jumped in to offer that “learning” is about “wisdom,” and “knowledge is not wisdom.”

It was getting deep, y’all.

I have a good meal and a few hours standing between me and that man’s question, but I still don’t know how I would answer it. What is the purpose of learning?

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Yesterday, I had the privilege of teaching a class to a group of about 30-40 teenagers at a local school. I built the class around techniques and activities that I’ve learned over the years from my co-teachers from the Huntington Theatre Company. The Huntington is one of my school’s oldest and most treasured partners. The work they do with our students–and with us–exemplifies the transformative power of education.

At this school, I wanted to showcase the ways that my co-teachers and I help students develop literacy skills through theater by having students do theater work focused on a poem by an Ethiopian author, Bewketu Seyoum. I was nervous, though, that my lesson would fall flat, because I had been told that Ethiopian education is very different from that in the U.S., that it is heavily reliant on memorization and rote call-and-response, that students might not even be used to speaking English. I was worried that I didn’t know enough about the culture here to build effective relationships with the students in such a short amount of time.

But the students I found in that cramped little room reminded me so much of my own students back in Boston. They were goofy and chatty and curious. They needed reminders to stop talking and to put their cell phones away. Most importantly, they had brilliant ideas. Their insights helped me better understand the poem we were analyzing.

I love the work I get to do as Teacher of the Year this year, but I miss my kids. Having the opportunity to teach for a couple of hours was a complete joy. At the end of our morning together, I was sweating and exhausted and electric.

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Education looks different depending on where we go. But learning looks remarkably similar.

Learning looks like joy. It looks like discovery. It looks like creativity and problem-solving. It looks like collaboration and failure and revision and reflection. Learning looks like magic.

So what is the purpose of learning? I think, maybe, if we had asked every person in the audience tonight for their answer, we may have had twenty different responses. The purpose of learning is, in some ways, deeply personal.

But what yesterday reminded me is that one purpose of learning is connection.

We learn so that we can connect with one another’s humanity and with one another’s ideas. We learn so that we can grow together. We learn so that we can become smarter as a collective.

On my way out of the building tonight after the event, another man wanted to talk to me about something I’d said about collaboration. “Here in Ethiopia,” he explained, “it is different. We do not do much group-work. Why do you think that it is important?”

I told him that, when I ask my students to work together on a problem, I tell them that they have to “share brains,” because two minds will be smarter than one. Working together will likely deepen their thinking, even if they don’t agree with one another.

I’m grateful to everyone here in Ethiopia who has been pushing me to “share brains” with them by asking me these thoughtful questions or telling me about their own experiences in education. I am developing connections with people in a country I never imagined I would have a chance to visit. Those connections are making me smarter and more empathetic. And I know, even though I won’t be able to prove it until next fall, that they’re making me a better teacher, too.