Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Adventures of a Bystander by Peter F Drucker

Peter F Drucker (PFD) was a top dog in management and has written many books to his credit. Somehow, I chose to take a stab at his autobiography rather than any of his specific works and I was delighted by my choice.

During Drucker’ s life time, he seems to have interacted with eminent people like Sigmund Freud and Henry Luce and so on. For the commentary purposes, I would restrict myself to just one chapter. It is about his school teachers and it impressed me the most. I also liked his views on grandmother and Indian summer of innocence chapters very much. This work would not qualify for an autobiography in a strict sense since he talks about a handful of people, but the way he has mixed his observations and the environment details makes for a compelling read. If society is made of individuals and their stories, this work would constitute one good chapter.

In this chapter “Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy”, he talks about two teachers whom he adored without any reservations. In terms of handling students as well as personalities, they could not be more different – yet, very effective in their own way. As per Drucker, despite the fact they were first rate teachers, if not outstanding, they failed to impart what Drucker needed to learn – that is, writing legibly and learning a bit of craft skills.

PFD enjoys watching the teachers a lot. Let us see them through the eyes of Drucker.

Miss Elsa was the principal of the school. After three weeks, she asks Drucker about his strengths, weakness and his own rating on reading, comprehension, arithmetic and handwriting. I think it was a great approach at such an early stage of school. They agreed that he is very good in the first two and she left with minimum directions to consolidate on the two strengths. Then, as to arithmetic, he rated himself as “Poor”, but teacher remarked he is fine – except that he is very sloppy and specific techniques need to be taught to check the answers – he was making no more mistakes than many. I think such nuanced an observation comes only if you are a terrific teacher. As to handwriting she went beyond his assessment that he is “Poor” and called him a total disgrace for her class. She drew clear and detailed plans how to go about improving it.

Miss Sophy, arts teacher after observing him for a month or so asked Drucker, ”How about making a milking stool for your mother?”. Drucker responded “We don’t have any cows at home” for which she would respond that is about the only thing he could possibly make. Sadly, by the end of year the one he came up with was barely stable.

What I liked the most is, after making serious attempts to improve his handwriting and failing, Elsa called his parents to say he won’t improve in future either (she was correct) and hence recommended him for higher education school (it is called Gymnasium in Europe at that time) ahead by an year since his other skills were more than up to the mark.

Drucker in his other works insists that one can build performance based on strengths not on weakness and also that it takes lot more energy and effort to move from incompetence to mediocre than from mediocre to excellence. Now, at least we know the context.

Drucker strongly believes that students always recognize a good teacher. But, teacher is an elusive term. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal. Some are effective in large crowds, some in small groups, and some in one-on-ones only. What works for one rarely works for another first rate teacher he opines.

There are two breeds. (1) Teacher – who has a gift in his keeping. They are born. (2) Pedagogue – who programs the student for learning. It can be learnt by almost everyone. This is the most important detail I had learnt – wish I had this grasp when I was in school.

Miss Sophy had charisma, gave enlightenment, conveyed vision and was a teacher! Miss Elsa had method, gave skills, guided the learning and was a pedagogue. In either case, they are passionate and they held themselves accountable for the results. He concludes rather strongly that, “there are no poor or stupid or lazy students for a real teacher and pedagogue. There are only good teachers and poor teachers”.

Finally, my image of a teacher is one of apocryphal story – a teacher who has unerring instincts and unsurpassed effectiveness. Once there was a teacher, who was reputed to know answers to all questions. A student was determined to prove him wrong. He does a thorough job of understanding the teacher’s daily routine. He figures out that the teacher has the habit of coming out of home briefly after waking up for morning ablution. After meticulous planning, with some of his friends as witness, he waits near the teacher’s home one day very early in the morning when visibility is a bit dubious. He is holding a sober bird in a cage (basically it won’t make any noise). He also has a sharp instrument that is poisoned that would kill the bird almost instantly. His plan was near perfect and all he has to do is ask the teacher is the bird is dead or alive. If the teacher says it is alive, he can kill the bird in an instant and show him he is wrong. If he says it is dead, he would be wrong already.

Now he asks the teacher in a loud voice from a distance to ensure low visibility, “Teacher, tell me the bird in the cage is alive or dead?”

Teacher, with all his sagacity summoned responds, “My dear, the choice is yours!”

Thanks for reading this far.




Mukund Srinivasan said...

Madhu-san, another great commentary! Thanks for sharing!! Compared to other book reviews, I can say that this one is a bit different from a perspective of the author's opinions formulating the insights rather than the other way around. Hindsight is always the best "teacher" (pun intended), so in this sense, I would be curious if PFD formulated any of this hypothesis around his teachers while he was in school and he was validating those in his autobiography! That said, I did enjoy the funnier anecdotes like the "stable" around the purpose behind the project (a table), and the concluding story of "getting it right".
Thank you for creating a cogitating moment first thing in the morning!

Kiran said...

Fantastic one Madhu san.

பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...

Another good one to ponder, Madhu.! (The name PFD was introduced to me by my then mentor, "teacher" (!), Subroto Bagchi in 92/93) The insights of PFD about teachers is interesting. I will have to read this book during winter break. And your anecdotes make it more juicier to read. Thanks for sharing.!

Mohanakrishnan said...


Very interesting. I am specifically interested to know more about programming the students for learning. Is there more insight on that in the book? If so, I would definitely read the book.

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Short answer is "NO". He only distinguishes the two types.
If you interested in that track, I surmise (because I yet to read) you take up a book called "The Nurture Assumption".

Mohanakrishnan said...

Thanks Madhu, I will call you to get some more insights, then :-)

P.Varadarajan (Varad) said...

Coming from a family which had a hyperactive production line for teachers, as it were, I have seen teachers of all hues. My passage through school and college added many more personalities to that count. Actually, the family joke was that even those members of the family who were not teachers tended to teach (or more accurately, preach!).

Interestingly most of my own school teachers were students of my father, who was a teachers' teacher (professor in a Teachers' college). The analyses we had at home of appa's-students-turned-my-teachers were reminiscent of dissection of helpless frogs whose legs were stretched out and nailed to a block of wood!! Come to think of it, very few of us would have refrained from the pleasure of analysing our teachers at some point of time. So, PFD's recollections ring more than one bell, I am sure.

My honest opinion is there is no stereotype of a good teacher. I believe a good teacher is probably a mix of a teacher, a pedagogue, an approachable hero and a kindly uncle, mixed into a cocktail in undecipherable proportions. Being knowledgeable has not helped many a teacher to become a good one, just because the transfer of knowledge stutters; much is lost in translation due to defective communication. Also, the ability to transfer bookish knowledge does not automatically mean the transferor is a good teacher because much of that is not usable in the real world. Hence the need for a teacher to be a rainbow of various personalities, to come out successful. If we pause to think of some of our good teachers, we will figure this out ourselves.


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Many thanks for your comments.
I am sure it would be useful for the wider audience.

ESR said...

Drucker on Teachers is interesting. It is true that any almost one can become an effective Pedagogue. The tragedy about the Public Education System in India is that many do not even opt for this easier alternative. Maybe, Drucker needs to write a separate book on Management of Education:)

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Thanks for your comments.
Unfortunately,PFD is not around to write another book on the title you have mentioned.
That said, he did spend the evening of his life mostly on effective management of non-profit organizations (books, papers are there). He kept saying that,social innovations and management are more important than technical or business. The train would run well whether it is between Tokyo to Osaka or London to Paris, whereas social stuff has to be quintessentially local. We would have to think deep and come up with local variant on education - importing would not help.

Unknown said...

Wonderful article Madhu-san...thought provoking. When I took up teaching giving up my full-time career, I was trying my level best to be a "pedagogue" if not a "teacher". But then, this makes me rethink if I did the right thing at all. I thik I should look for some honest feedback from parents on me as a teacher to see where I stand...

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi Mr/Ms "Unknown":
Thanks for the comments.
Teaching at the end of the day is all about passion.
To become a first rate: one is required to do all the hard work and focus one can summon.So, don't get overwhelmed.
As to feedback, note that parents may not help you much. You would have to ask the students you teach - unless you are teaching your parents!
Good luck

Suresh S said...

Nice post. I can very well understand what he says regarding teacher being less / more effective in different settings.

For example, when you are a teaching a class of 100, the interaction that can happen is of a different kind. The need to keep everyone silent is a difficult task (Keeping everyone interested is just not possible.) You ensure enough people are interested so that others don't disturb them!!!

On the other hand when you are taking a class for 8 to 10 students, you obviously cannot adopt the same technique that you would in a class of 100. Added to it, given the experience levels of the class you need to know what examples to give, which jokes to crack and which not to!! Most importantly the teacher needs to get the 'pulse' of the students as soon as possible.

Sundar said...

Quick comment about the story at the end. I consider myself a bit naïve on this front. Whenever a question with possible binary answer is posed to me, I reflexively try to answer it with a 1 or a 0. There have been books written about how media coaches train US politicians not to answer questions directly that may land them in trouble later on. Though such practiced answers sound dodgy and dishonest to me, I can see the wisdom in sticking to that script and being quick on one’s feet to answer but not answer questions. :-)

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

As usual a very nice summary and it is interesting to see the parallel between what PFD was espousing and some of his teacher's views.
As Mr. Varad has outlined, I think it is quite difficult to really list out the characteristics of a good teacher. It is probably as difficult as figuring out what is the successful formula for a film to succeed. You can probably list a lot of factors that you find in good films, but what combination of them will guarantee a successful film has so far been beyond the reach of most directors. Probably it is easier to list what a good teacher should NOT DO and maybe that is what we can reinforce when we try developing teachers..
One attribute which will probably stand the test of time (and hopefully technology) is the good teacher's ability to really adapt to the student's learning style and also be able to guide the student in the right direction with right words of caution as well. The good teacher will be able to encourage as well as chide the student where required. They will be the first ones to spot when someone is slipping due to being over confident or other distractions. There are now companies trying to use Artificial Intelligence to try and see if they can really build an adaptive learning system. Probably they may be successful to a good degree on assessing the learning patterns and such, but probably it may be difficult to recreate the emotional response from a true human teacher, which comes from not just clinically evaluating the output of a student, but also other signals from the student which only a trained and receptive human mind can pick up (or so I think.. :))
Personally this post reminded me of all my good teachers who have guided me in my life so far and it is probably time to say a Big Thank You for all of them.
Best Regards,
N.R. Ramesh.