Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Finding ways to carefully untie the wisdom knot in teaching writing

Jim Schaefer

While I was doing some research on the University of Ghana, I discovered an old African proverb called the wisdom knot, or nyansapo, which goes like this: When a wise person ties a knot, it takes a very intelligent mind to untie it.

I read about this proverb in a book by Okrah (2003), who indicated that untying such a knot “takes a person with insight and profound intelligence to understand the true meanings of [his or her] actions" (p. 6). Okrah used the proverb to comment on how a foreigner observing the traditional Akan people (indigenous people in Ghana) would take everything at face value and not interpret what was happening. Okrah claimed that this was why "early foreigners" assumed that Africans did not have education because they (the foreigners) "arrogantly" believed that everyone should conform to their educational standards and values (pp. 6-7).

I have found it useful to keep this proverb in mind as I teach writing in my classroom with students of all ages and backgrounds. Instead of succumbing to the temptation to make assumptions and employ stereotypes, I have found a much more rewarding approach is to view a challenging student as a kind of wisdom knot. I ask myself, how can I better understand this student so that she or he can become enough empowered to express her or his feelings and thoughts in her or his authentic voice. The results are often deeply moving because the student was often yearning for that kind of empathetic response from me as teacher. Once I provided that by untying the knot of frustration, she or he bloomed both as a writer and as a person.

Okrah, A. (2003). Nyansapo (the wisdom knot): Toward an African philosophy of education. New York, NY: Routledge.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

What a great story and approach, Jim. Thanks.