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At The Crossroads

A teacher today stands at the crossroads of expectations from students, parents and society. She has to be helped to align these expectations towards the ultimate goal of student learning not just for the next annual exam but for the exam of life.
Just about everyone will agree that trees are made from sunlight, water, and soil the trees suck up from their roots. But the surprising truth is that trees are made from air! Trees are solar-powered machines that convert air into wood. Why is it that, despite the fact that photosynthesis is one of the most widely taught subjects in science, so few people really understand the central idea underlying this system? This question and a host of disturbing questions asked by researchers are clearly showing that children are not learning as well as "we" think they are. This article is an attempt to look at the domain of student learning and to put forth some of the ideas that have the power of positively impacting our learning spaces (read schools and homes).

The starting point for any change has to be the realisation that the current system needs change. Every parent who experiences the joy of parenthood wants to provide the best for their child – in terms of nutrition, entertainment and learning. As the child grows, the parent sees the child "graduate" from an active and inquisitive learner, to someone who at best, is now good only for cracking exams. In other words, the  ability to crack exams has been gained at the expense of losing the joy for learning. Today this is considered desirable because very few parents and teachers feel the need to offer opportunities to encourage strategies other than memorisation – like problem solving, analysis, listening, visual representation, estimation. (This sentence is not gelling with the previous points - are we saying that this is considered desirable because other skills are not considered important, or too much weightage is given to success in exams?)

But is it just a question of choosing one skill over another? Prof Govinda of NEIPA says that children in primary grades resort to memorisation as a "coping mechanism" over other strategies in response to the curriculum load and the examination system. Prof Fisher of Hawthorne University says that if one were to look at the number of concepts being covered in a single chapter of say Class 6 Science – it would take a year to do justice to each concept of that single chapter. Therefore the movement away from understanding has its roots in the "one mile wide – one inch deep" curriculum and its transaction in the classroom.

In the classroom teachers are usually asking questions based on "What"  - What is 35x4? Rather than why is 35x4=140 and not 1220? Instead of checking if the child has understood the basic idea of Place Value the algorithm (process) of reaching the correct answer of 140 is given credit. In other words, children live in an "answer-centred" world, where getting the answer right is important, and not the process involved in arriving at answers. The subtle message to the child is that he is deficient - he cannot trust his own thinking.

If teachers are expected to treat children as "empty vessels" that need to be filled up with knowledge then the current day classrooms are doing very well.  But if we for a moment stop and imagine that a child HAS ideas of say light and darkness "before" the teacher teaches the Chapter on Light – then it is important for the teacher to first understand – what is the child's understanding of this topic. This aspect (preconception) is being seen as one of the biggest hurdles to real learning because children do have minds of their own and they do not give up "their" ideas easily – sometimes holding on to them right through life.

So what can foster deeper understanding – is it more time (the most prized possession in a jam packed school calendar), is it lesser number of children per class (not applicable for most Indian schools) or is it better teachers (yes, but!!...)?

On an average most teachers in Indian schools do not get opportunities to reflect on their own growth – Very few teachers ask themselves questions such as – Am I doing better as a teacher this year as compared to the last one? Are there any objective metrics of my effectiveness? What are the things that are in my control that I can improve? Why did children understand this topic – what did I do differently that could have helped them? Each of these questions itself is the starting point for a teacher's journey towards self-improvement. Fora where teachers can ask these questions – to themselves and in small groups would help. Other suggestions include - Pausing after asking a question; spending time trying to understand how the child is thinking; and observing one's own colleagues.

A teacher today stands at the crossroads of expectations – expectations from students, parents, colleagues, management and society.  We all need to help her align these expectations towards the ultimate goal of student learning – not just for the next annual exam but for the exam of life.

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