The last time I went to Pakistan I brought a special flask that could keep cold liquids cold and hot liquids hot for many hours. I thought this would be the perfect gift for our driver, Afzal, who would, at times, sit for several hours waiting for us to finish our work. Afzal accepted the gift with a great big smile and grateful bow – he couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Urdu, so this communication style worked for both of us. A couple of days after the gift was given to him, Afzal told Zorain, our translator, that the flask was empty. Zorain told him, “yes” that is right. “But why would someone want to give me something that is empty?” replied our driver. Zorain explained to him that it wasn’t what was in the flask that was the gift: it was the flask itself. This discussion ensued for a while, with Zorain trying to link the ideas and values of one group of people with another. This is an example of the extreme dichotomy of our world. What one person may believe is the right way to think, and therefore how to understand this world, is often dramatically different than another. The reality is that all of us grew up differently and therefore understand the world differently. To understand from another perspective is very complex and critically important.
The focus of our most recent conference for all those who work with Spirit of Math was “Reaching Out”, with special attention to how one understands people from different cultures. In Spirit of Math, our cultural diversity exists within employees and students. Understanding others, and learning to understand how those from very different worlds understand “how to understand this world”, is extremely important: not only to work well with one another, but also to teach others.
As a parent who is looking to ensure that their child is educated as well as possible for the future, I believe that learning how to work with others is one of the most important skills for a child to learn. For our children to be able to be excellent problem solvers of tomorrow, and our future leaders, they will have to understand this world in multiple ways. They will need to see this world from a variety of perspectives. Providing opportunities to learn in an environment that allows students to share their ideas, and to listen to the ideas of others, will teach them to think and reason from different viewpoints. Providing them with problems that require the input and discussion from many team members will help them understand the value of others, and the value of different perspectives regarding how to think of a problem – not just how to think through the problem. This is what we are doing in Spirit of Math with our cooperative group work, and this is why we don’t just do individualized tutoring.
Reaching out isn’t only a one-way transaction: it requires a multiplicity of understanding that can be profoundly different than the way we initially thought. Working with our students, to be open to a new understanding, is opening the world to new thinking, which will generate original solutions to the biggest problems of our world.