Teaching like a farmer in Yemen [Archives:2006/1006/Education]

December 11 2006

Dr. Manmath Kundu
Associate Professor,
Department of English
Faculty of Education
Hudeidah University

I hail from a farmer family. My father was a farmer. To my good or bad luck I became a teacher. But I have problems of giving up my farmer mindset while teaching and I consider my teaching as an extension of farming. When rainy season comes I feel the itching to plough and sow seeds, take care of tender plants and see that these tender plants grow healthy and bear fruits. So also as a teacher when the academic year starts I experience the itching for teaching, get tempted to sow the seeds of learning and feel happy to see my student-plants grow healthy and bear fruits.

Farming and Teaching: The Contrast

As farmers we spend more time and energy in cleaning and levelling the ground, sowing seeds and taking care of the plants. And finally we reap and harvest. If the harvest is good, we are happy. If not, we are unhappy. We feel a great sense of loss. But in teaching, unlike in farming, we are less interested in cleaning the ground, ploughing the land in sowing the seed and helping the tender plant grow. Instead we are more interested in reaping and harvesting (examination/testing) than in sowing and taking care of the plants. If the harvest is good I am not happy. If the harvest is bad, I am not unhappy. We experience a kind of dull, dry stoic indifference. We feel as if we work as hired laborer in someone's field. My wages are my primary concern.

Teaching like farming in Yemen

When I came to teach English in Yemen, my farmer mindset also came with me. First I examined the land. Next I observed my other brother-farmers farming. I saw them sowing wrong seeds in wrong soil. Although the land is good for only maize, they are planting coconut. And I found, to my dismay, the land full of weeds. I saw my brother-farmers (having long experience in farming in Yemen) sowing, often wrong seeds, without cleaning the grounds of weeds. I saw, therefore, plants and weeds growing side by side. I found, to my surprise, some of my experienced brother-farmers failing even to distinguish between weeds and plants. As a farmer I have some knowledge about the weeds. Weeds can survive in most inhospitable circumstances. They take a lion's share of the fertilizer given to the plants. I too have some knowledge of the causes of the growth of the weeds. They are primarily due to bad cultivation. The land is not properly tilled, levelled and sunned and weeds are not removed when very young.

Some educational weeds in Yemen: Their causes and cure

I came across a variety of educational weeds in Yemen. They exist in great number throttling the plants. Let me describe, in some detail, some of these weeds, their causes and cure.

Weed 1: Extensive use of pencil, rubber and white eraser

Pencil and rubber are good for beginners. Adults should use them only occasionally. But in Yemen even the adult learners in colleges are found to use them like beginners. They write, then rub and write. Rub-write-rub-write the process goes on. I came across some students writing in examination in pencil first. Then write over them in ink, and finally rub off the pencil marks. What a waste of time and energy!

What is wrong with this kind of weed in education?

The advantages of writing in pencil is that we can erase it with ease. If we all the time use pencil and eraser, this becomes a disadvantage, even a disease. It will give us the feeling that this is not the final writing. “I will go wrong and I will correct the errors”. This kind of feeling will never help you to think “I'm writing my final draft and I will not go wrong” or ” I can write all correct and there will be no need to erase.”

With great difficulty I made my students give up the habit. I had to ban the use of pencil, rubber, white eraser in my class. But old habits die hard. Old weeds stick to the ground like leeches. There are still some students who use them. This is because teachers in other classes allow them to use them.

Weed 2: Overuse of bilingual / electronic dictionary

Almost all of our students are found to carry with them small, bilingual pocket dictionaries, the rich ones the electronic dictionaries. Dictionaries are good for learning language. But instant or overuse of them will kill in us the capacity to give the meaning of a new word from the context. All good readers have this skill. But overuse or frequent use of dictionary will not help us develop this very useful skill of reading-guessing the meaning of a new word from the context. Thus this is a weed in the guise of a plant. Many farmer-teachers fail to recognize this weed. So I had to convince my students the harmful effect of the overuse of dictionary. The weed was so rampant that I had to ban the use of dictionary in my class. I told my students to consult them at home later.

Why this weed? We the farmers are the cause of the weed. This weed is created by teachers who use difficult texts in which every alternative word is a difficult word for the students. Thereby, they are forced to consult the dictionary all the time.

Weed 3: Bypassing the mind

Our mind or the brain is the sine qua non or the basic root of all learning. But unfortunately by the way we teach, test and the materials we provide to our students, the mind is bypassed. Without applying their minds our students somehow get through and pass the exam by mugging up without understanding and by reproducing the mugged up answers in the exam. We also help them get through by our very liberal, often half-hearted, ritual-like tests and mode of evaluation.

This is the mother weed and generates other weeds like weed 1 and 2. And weed 1 and 2, in turn, help their mother. We teachers are the main cause of this weed. The way we teach (always explaining and lecturing) does not provide the learners a scope to think. The materials we provide are too difficult for them. As a result, they never ever try to understand them – they only mug up the materials and reproduce them in the exam. Our tests also help proliferate this weed. The students need not apply their minds to answer the questions. And we pass them (almost all) very generously.

This weed is very rampant and is solely responsible for the poor state of education in this country. Since my coming here a year ago, a major part of my energy has been devoted to rooting out this weed. When a writing task is given to my students, they start writing immediately without thinking. They commit errors while writing. Then they spend a lot of time in erasing their errors- repair and do patch work. Similarly, they hand over the script, often without revising. All of us can correct about 40% of our own errors ourselves provided we try sincerely to think, reflect and revise. But hardly ever any Yemeni learner does this. They have the tendency to solely depend on the teacher correction and never on self correction. The same basic errors, therefore, recur all the time in their scripts. This weed is everywhere in Yemen, even in case of the students doing research. Most of the M. Ed students have the tendency to browse the internet first for their research before spending time to think even over their research topics, for example. In order to root out this mother weed in Yemen I have made it mandatory in my class to spend some time, before my students write their task and after they write sometimes, for revision. I have been moderately successful so far and wish that my teacher friends worked hard so that we could together root out this mother weed since almost all of the common errors and wrong strategies of the Yemeni learners can be traced back to this mother weed: bypassing or non-use of mind.

Weed 4: Wide prevalence of parasite gangs

Weed or no weed, a very few plants manage to grow against all odds. Some, though very few students (about 5%), manage to learn in spite of bad teaching. In every field (class) there are some such learners. They grow on their own but we teacher-farmer take the credit. In Yemen weak learners tend to flock round such good learners and, by doing so for long, they have formed some parasite gangs with their respective Queen Bees – the good learners. If a home task is given, the Queen Bees do the task and the parasite learners copy from them mindlessly. In the classes these parasite learners manage to sit near their Queen Bees, even in exams, if the seats are not previously marked. The parasite learners are, thus, totally dependent on the Queen Bees. They have stopped thinking and applying their minds to learning. Wide prevalence of these gangs in Yemen makes learning almost non-functional.

Only recently I discovered these gangs in my classes and took up immediate steps. I disbanded these groups by making them change their seats, building up their already ruined self-confidence through simple learning tasks and by converting all my home tasks to class tasks. But, ironically, many of my colleagues (Why many? Almost all!) have not been able to realize the existence of these parasite gangs in their classes although they have been teaching here for more than ten years.

Weed 5: Too much of negative focus on exam

Exam is like a Frankenstein. It has the innate tendency to swallow up its creator if not kept within control. The system of education creates exam. But exam swallows up the system. In Yemen it seems to have totally swallowed up the system of education. If you, in a Yemeni classroom digress a little to tell a story or an anecdote, the students ask “Doctor, will this come in the exam?” If you cut a joke, the same inquiry follows. They are bent on not learning something that is not related to their exam. Exam has become synonymous with education in Yemen, not allowing real learning to take place. Through devising new types of tests which do not depend on mugging up and memory but on thinking and application, I am trying to root out this weed and have been, to some extent, successful. But there is a need to do so in an institutional, or even national basis.


All the weeds narrated above are not special to Yemen. They exist all over the third world. But in Yemen they are too many and too resistant. And to make the matter worse, many of the farmer-teachers fail to identify these weeds. Some even confuse them with plants they grow. I got frustrated during the early days of farming-teaching in removing these weeds so much so that I sent my resignation letter to my land lord (Rector). He called for me and asked the reason. I said (read with out the analogy); “Your land is full of weeds. I cannot cultivate.” He then asked me to describe some of the weeds. When I narrated some in some detail, he said “None of my farmers have told me about the weeds before. You also tell about this to me now for the first time. By telling and then resigning, you are not helping. Stay another year; I will help you root out some of them.” My land lord was a clever land lord. I succumbed to his will and stayed another year, fraught with the weed and have been successful in rooting out about 80% of these weeds in my plot (class). My plants now are growing thick and fast and I am expecting this year a bumper crop much more than I could farm in India.