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Learning Curves

Batool Haydar follows the highs and lows of learning within and without.

“When a sincere servant loves God, his only ambition is to attract the love of God to himself.” – Allameh Tabatabai.

So we have been experimenting with home schooling for the past few weeks. It’s been an educational experience, more for me than my daughter I think. She seems to absorb things ata rate that is uniquely hers.  I watchher and marvel at the miracle of growth and the human brain.

Being involved hands-on with teaching a child is both beautiful and frustrating.  I can spend hours thinking of activities that I feel will be interesting and help her focus and she will either outright reject them or finish them in mere seconds.  At other times, I can throw together a scribbled worksheet and she will concentrate and obsess over it until she finally ‘gets’ the concept. 

Sometimes we spend half an hour struggling to get one idea explained, other times she’ll come up to me randomly and present me with a complicated argument that could only be the result of days of thinking and contemplating.  The phrase ‘light-bulb moment’ has taken on new meaning for us.

Regardless of my fears of inadequacy as a teacher or the lack of a secular social environment for my daughter, she is actually surviving and dare I say, thriving pretty much like any other child would in generally healthy conditions.  She is learning what she’s supposed to and picking up extra bits of information from sources unknown to us (although it’s probably all the subconscious signals we give out!)

She is sometimes shy, sometimes bold; sometimes angelic, other times not.  I used to worry that she didn’t fit a ‘box’ of any sort and therefore I couldn’t analyse her progress. However, once I learnt to simply let her ‘be’, watching her explore the different facets of her own character became freeing.

When she made phonetic connections and read her first words, I was in awe.  I remember asking my husband, ‘How did she do that?’  How, indeed did any of us?  I can’t remember how I learnt to read or write or do simple mathematics.  I just remember being able to do all of them as naturally as I eat, sleep and hear things.

All of this has made me start to look inwards and think about my own study processes.  Learning is instinctive and I am beginning to wonder whether we restrict ourselves when we start formalising the structure of education and giving it boundaries.  Perhaps, the set timetable of a school with its start and end periods of teaching restrict us over the years into thinking that we can only learn in a formal environment. 

Just as we restrict play in children thinking it doesn’t teach them anything substantial, so when we grow older, we begin to think the same about life and living.  We repeat often that experience is the greatest teacher, but we still feel the need to preface it with a lengthy foundation of academic learning.

For example, I was given a lot of advice regarding what age to teach her to read, or explain certain concepts. In every instance, the ‘professional’advice was to delay it by a few months because she would feel frustrated if she was asked to do something beyond her ability. The biggest problem with this idea is that it only applies when you have a large number of children with different abilities who all have to conform to one set syllabus of content.

The advantage of having a one-on-one (or a very few) interaction and a flexible schedule is that if a child doesn’t want to learn something or finds it beyond their comprehension,they can simply walk away and come back another day (or week or month!)  On the other hand, presenting them with something beyond their ability can actually challenge them and spark an interest that leads to the focussed attention they require for learning.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of our lives that is affected by this structured mentality is our spiritual development.  The more I have considered how my daughter learns best and how much more beyond her expected ability she learns, the more I feel like I personally have spent decades restricting not just my mind, but also my soul. 

In this age of everything internet, we have access to a wealth of texts, lectures, webinars and courses on every aspect of religious information. The need to learn is all-consuming because we all want to be scholars in our right.  However, how many of us actually live as Muslims?  Do we implement all that we learn, allowing the information to transform into the sacred knowledge that God extols in the Holy Qur’an as a desirable quality for a believer?

A child with their innate wisdom follows a specific – if not necessarily ordered – route in learning: listen-> play, contemplate, experiment, absorb -> understand -> listen for something new.   The time taken to move from listening to understanding is, well, as long as it takes.  There is a constant effort to keep on playing with the new idea in different ways until comprehension sets in.  There is no ‘giving up’ when the process is self-led.

As adults, we don’t always remember to explore an idea or concept. We try something and wait for almost-instantaneous spiritual enlightenment or we just never give it a shot, underestimating our own ability for growth to higher levels of imaan (belief).  If learning about our simple material world takes us days and weeks, learning about the infinite spiritual realms is truly a journey of a lifetime.

Of the many lessons we can take from children, this is perhaps the most important: how to learn and apply that learning to growth.  God has already set the standard for us and it is perfection.  Achieving enlightenment is not only possible, it is natural.  What we need to cultivate is patience, resilience, determination and a pure, unadulterated desire to reach that next level of understanding.

The learning curve towards gaining ma’rifah (knowledge) of ourCreator cannot be plotted on one page or even one lifetime. Sometimes, it takes the effort of generations for one individual to achieve that status, but the experience of each person along that path enriches not only their lives and those of everyone touched by them. Perhaps this is one aspect of being a collective ummah (community)united in spirit.

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