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This year we’re interviewing 10 of our teachers from around the world to celebrate 10 years of Pamoja! Meet Mathematics HL teacher, Arno Dirks, and find out why he became a teacher and what he thinks about the nature of learning.

Please tell us about yourself

My name is Arno and while I carry a Dutch passport, I have lived on six continents and worked on two thirds of these. With an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma and after a year following a misguided folly, I studied theoretical physics at Imperial College in England with a year at Erlangen University in Germany working on a particle physics experiment conducted at CERN. Even though particle physics was an exciting field, it also struck me as a very mature one. So in 1997, at the onset of the so-called era of “precision cosmology”, following the famed COBE satellite, which led to the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, I opted to pursue research for several years at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto in Canada.

I slowly migrated to teaching and in 2003 I started my journey as a teacher in earnest at a school in the Indian countryside. Since then I have taught all level of Mathematics, Physics and Theory of Knowledge in the IB, and have been a Diploma Programme Coordinator in established as well as starting schools. To lead workshops for other teachers in my subjects has been an enriching experience, as has been the involvement with the development of the new Physics course with its first examinations in 2023.

At the Asia Pacific Annual Regional Conference in 2011 in Melbourne, I first learned about Pamoja and was immediately drawn to its mission of bringing high-quality education to students whose needs would not otherwise be met. In 2012 I joined Pamoja as a teacher of Mathematics HL. I am currently teaching my fourth group of students. As part of the growth of products that Pamoja offers IB World Schools, I also support the School Taught science courses (Physics, Chemistry and Biology).

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Playing a role in shaping the future is fundamental to what it means to be human. How does one decide on one’s role? In my case, my role revealed itself circuitously – I joke with my students that I became a teacher by accident. When my son was born, it seemed like a good opportunity to reconsider my commitment to research in astrophysics. A fortuitous encounter led to the boarding of a plane with thirteen pieces of luggage and two cats, heading for India. There, one morning I found myself in a classroom with a group of students who turned me into a teacher.

There is an immense joy of being witness to the process of personal growth. To a teacher, that growth is primarily one of understanding – that sparkle in the eye as a concept is grasped. Facilitating this learning allows me to find ways to inspire and practice care; these are fundamental in involving adolescents in the act of learning. Particularly at the upper level of secondary school, learning requires students to confront new information with prior knowledge and to incorporate the two into a unified framework. To the learner, this is a momentous task. A task that requires me, as the teacher, to support that process and to continually develop through my own learning of how to become more effective.

Showing my own background, I often think of my classroom as a laboratory, but I have had colleagues who use words like narrative, painting, and even revolution. Although these are different metaphors, they all have in common the idea that education is about fostering citizens who will do things anew, rather than simply repeat what past generations have done. This makes teaching a complex endeavor and a deeply personal activity; it is to estimate what each of my students need on their journey and coordinate learning to happen for all individuals in the class. As such, I do not consider my role as a “sage on the stage” nor a “guide on the side”, but rather as a meddler in the middle of my students who honour me by giving me the key to their classroom.

What’s your viewpoint on the nature of learning?

Above I mentioned how learning is a momentous task and how I try to support students in that challenge through inspiration and care. Success inspires. Successful learning takes on many guises, but above all my goal in teaching is comprehension and the development of transferable skills. Learning without comprehension is merely habit, rote, and only transferable skills will support life-long learning. In this regard, teaching is about creating contextualized lessons in which knowledge can be absorbed and consolidated by the student. Hence, I cast my net wide – history, popular culture, local as well as global issues – when I put new information into meaningful forms so that students can critically integrate conceptual structures into their existing knowledge framework. Each new node in this growing network of knowledge is a measure of success and with context, it is more likely to inspire and lead to a thirst for more.

Inspirational teachers are teachers who care. To arrive at an enhanced understanding usually involves taking risk and a dose of perspiration by the student. Compassion and positive feedback enhance the willingness of students to engage in learning. However, care for our students extends beyond the teacher-student dynamic. It also encompasses a broader educational experience that shows care. To bring it back to Pamoja, meeting students’ needs will also pull students into the process of learning. By offering access to a wide selection of courses utilizing an alternative medium to a classical classroom, students will both be able to specialize and experiment with a typical 21st Century mode of knowledge and skill acquisition. At Pamoja this is achieved through carefully curated learning experiences in a supportive environment appropriate for students at this stage of their educational journey. The digital environment makes it easier to iterate the material to a higher quality and the delivery to greater effectiveness because, as we noted above, given the complexity of teaching, it is never perfect.

 

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