Thursday, September 24, 2009

Learning Theories before the 20th Century: Theory of Mental Discipline



     In my opinion, the need to learn is a basic human need that can stand alongside the need for food, water, clothing, shelter and sex. Learning is essential because it is a process that can ensure one's survival. Without the ability to learn, one will be deprived of the opportunity to master the most important skills that one may need in order to cope with the demands of life, no matter what condition (or what era) one is living in.
     The learning process for any human being begins as early as birth. How the process takes place may vary from one human being to another. Perhaps the need to study these processes are motivated by the need to educate, whether oneself or others.
    In-depth studies on the processes of learning had been recorded since the ancient of times. Approximately two thousand years ago, Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had come up with what we know as the Theory of Mental Discipline. According to Plato (427-347 BC), to initiate learning in a person, the 'mental nerves' must undergo a training associated with what is going to be learned. According to Plato, an effective training would ensure a perfect learning. In short, the Theory of Mental Discipline emphasizes on learning activities that need the mind of the learners to be disciplined and trained effectively. According to researches on Plato's theory, the following three philosophies may wrap up the whole ideas that underlie the Theory of Mental Discipline:

  1. Learning would not occur by itself; it has to be forced.
  2. To ensure learning occurs effectively, strict control must be enforced upon the learner.
  3. The perfect learning outcome may only be achieved through mental discipline by rigid training and practices.
     In a funny way, Plato's theory reminds me of Mr Chan, my English teacher back when I was still in secondary school. Mr Chan was a teacher who would ensure that learning is forced upon everyone of his students. Strict control was enforced from the way you dress right down to the way you draw the lines in your exercise books. Every student must have what he called a 'rough book', an exercise book specifically for rough works. Everyone must submit his/her drafts in the rough book for approval, before being allowed to transfer the final work neatly in the 'real' exercise book. He was a really strict teacher. Well, 'strict' would be an understatement. Needless to say, Mr Chan was the kind of teacher who had a lot of 'nicknames' given by the students, if you know what I mean. Any day with an English period was a day of terror. Any day with a double English period was hell on earth itself! :-)
     It brings me to imagine Plato sitting on the stairs of the ancient Roman city hall, forcing and enforcing his strict, rigid mental discipline upon his students who so devotedly surrounded him in their quest for knowledge. If the students were anything like my former class, I doubt that Plato was ever voted as the 'Favourite Teacher of the Year'. However, I am in no way implying that Plato is a terrible teacher. The products of his pedagogy skills undoubtedly spoke louder than the words of his learning theory. Having Socrates (469-399 BC) as one of the graduates from his class, whether you like it or not, is more than enough to convince us that there might be something in this Theory of Mental Discipline after all.
     Though I may associate the Theory of Mental Discipline to the most feared teacher in my former secondary school, I am not of the opinion that this theory is no good. To be fair, I would not be who I am today if Mr Chan did not play the part he was supposed to play in my life during my secondary school years. Whatever English skills that I have today was largely contributed by Mr Chan's strict and rigid mental trainings that I so dreaded in the past. Honestly speaking, as a teacher myself, I find myself actually applying the Theory of Mental Discipline on my students from time to time, both consciously and unconsciously.
     To some extent, I do believe that learning must be forced, especially when it comes to myself. Throughout the course of my life, I need to always upgrade certain skills and knowledge and though many of the things that I need to learn are my life's passions, I find myself delaying the learning process due to a lot of reasons, laziness and lack of time among others. Even if I manage to muster enough willpower and time to learn the things that I need to learn, I find myself doing it leisurely without any intensity that I tend to beat around the bush and achieving nothing. I read somewhere in a health magazine that any physical exercise done with the purpose of losing weight, no matter how long or how regular, but if without any intensity, would result in nothing. Working out at the gym, power walking or 2 hours of tennis every day carried out at a leisurely pace would never help you shed the extra pound off your body. Simply put, to see any result, some amount of sweat (and tears if you will) is essential. For me, if it is true for the physical, it must also be true for the mental. Learning without any intensity is not learning. Intensity, or strict and rigid mental trainings are the key to fruitful learning.
     Hence, it is up to the educators and learners themselves to adopt and adapt the Plato theory for the maximum benefit of their learnings, or teachings, for that matter.

1 comment:

  1. Plato was a student of Socrates, not the other way round.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates

    Plato wrote about Socrates and that is where we get much of our knowledge about him.

    ReplyDelete

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