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January 04, 2018 Thursday 01:24:33 PM IST

RECLAIMING SOUL

Cover Story

In an interview with Pallikkutam, Usha Pandit, an education consultant, teacher, and ‘gifted education’ expert, reflects on the essence of education, the importance of newer pedagogical directions, and how the learning and teaching process needs to be increasingly participative and collaborative.


So, we chalk and talk. A philosopher, who lectures at Cambridge, says she swears by the ‘walk, chalk, and talk approach’ and how it has unfailingly stood her in good stead for over a quarter century. As with most things in life, there are exceptions and, equally, there can’t be either-or binaries, and so it is with ‘chalk and talk’. If you were to evaluate ‘chalk and talk’ against any of the most fundamental functions of education, shall we, for example, say creative thinking, what would be your assessment?

I don’t know how you walk, chalk, and talk. I’d imagine it should be chalk, talk, and then ‘walk the talk’ at the very least. The traditional method of teaching need not be jettisoned completely as it has its place in new systems as well. It adds a dimension that is valuable. As you rightly say binaries are not desirable for healthy systems, especially complex ones. What are the fundamentals of education? They are essentially character building, enquiry and critical thinking, skills development leading to autonomous learning, social responsibility, and forays into innovation for betterment.


A quarter of a century back we lived in a very different world, and what stood us in good stead then will not continue to do so unconditionally. Chalk and talk, in exclusivity, is teacher-centred and requires high attention spans, voluntary or forced student discipline, and is typically used when resources are few that make one dependent on an individual teacher’s expertise and guidance. The universal recommendation of this method assumes that all the teacher experts are equally competent. As these conditions are no longer always true this method needs to be used judiciously along with newer pedagogical thrusts. Unless the ‘talk’ involves discussions, debates, perspectives, problem solving and democratic hearing of multiple solutions, the student will be short changed. Thus this method requires modification to be used effectively and in a digital world it cannot be employed exclusively. Also where production, storage, and retrieval of information are readily and cheaply available the chalk and talk becomes largely redundant.

Experientially, it is more or less, if not entirely, a linear back and forth in the traditional classroom, with the teacher wielding considerable power, often encouraging little participative or collaborative learning. Do we need to break the chalk?

 

The chalk is useful for creating mind maps, graphic representations, making visual demonstrations of processes, and summarising points. It’s the human touch that has a warmth and imperfection that machines do not offer. In the hands of an able and talented teacher the chalk and talk can move students to more enquiry and thoughts that again may not be possible with non-human, pre-programmed guides. The question, therefore, is who wields the chalk? Exceptions often prove rules and generalisations. Participative and collaborative work can do with directions, pointers, a greater umbrella view that an expert can bring to the table as mentor facilitator. The two methods need not be mutually exclusive. The chalk needs to acknowledge the speed, efficiency and recall advantages of the digital tools, and must collaborate to enhance student enrichment and wisdom.


Does it necessarily entail a radical curriculum redesign and delivery? Alternatively, has chalk and talk been a function and consequence of curriculum design?

I don’t think chalk and talk has been a consequence of curriculum design. It has merely been a convenient tool in creating visual focus in large learning groups when education went universal and public. Education and its ways have been largely adult centred. This situation has evolved and changed over the years to suggest child-centredness through a scrutiny of the system through psychology, pedagogy, and validity and application of the learning in the workplace. Hence, we need to redesign pedagogy so that the shift and change in the locus from the teacher to the child happens seamlessly, and is respected. Radical change is a loaded word and will destabilise, if forced. We do need a paradigm shift but all of us first need to acknowledge the child and the need for change in our focus. It will then follow that our practices will change accordingly. It is a matter of debate, however, whether action should follow new ideology, or whether new ideology will follow successful action.

Recently, you wrote in a note: “How do they free children to think and talk and dream and argue and engage? This part of pedagogy is the flesh and blood of excellent education. It can be done under a tree…” How do we bring the tree into the classroom?

The tree is symbolic of anytime- anywhere-education that sees the mind as the main instrument in education. There is a seduction of infrastructure that often makes us forget the thinking mind of a learner is central to learning. A school, therefore, in its essence is the learner and his environment that need not be the walls of a school.


We may not always be able to bring the tree into the classroom if we live in crowded cities but we can bring its freshness and freedom into eager minds if we don’t bind them by physical walls of time and space. This means schools need to find the souls of children. The thinking, imagination, creative ideas, animated discussions, laughter, and curiosity are unstoppable aspects of our natural psyche. If we do not put artificial constructs on them like time tables and tests, they can bloom anywhere at their pace. We do not need to look for perfect spots. Like the common flower of happiness it blooms in all street corners and crannies. Freedom and mutual respect as co-learners is what is required of teachers and students. All the world is a book and everywhere learning exists for those who are in their element of curiosity and reflection. When this is not acknowledged we become entangled with the logistics and finances of physical infrastructures and administrative systems and lose the essence. We measure education in quantitative cups of standardised achievements and degrees. We lose the child.

How do we, therefore, ‘unteach’ to help foster a more creative, a more visceral, and learner-engaged, problem-solving, life-linked environment in the classroom?

We do this by respecting discovery and enquiry, by teaching the use of tools of thinking, by providing resources and key questions of thought, by linking all learning to personal experience, social and political realities and life systems, by asking what-if questions, by checking how these ideas impact, peace, empathy, and resilience. This means the teacher needs to jettison the older pedagogy of being the giver of fixed prescribed content, of explaining from textbooks, directing or indoctrinating from one source, and start accepting areas of gray as possibilities in an unknown future. It means enabling the child to become an autonomous and life-long learner by providing him with the tools of thought, research, collaboration, and impact. It means that a social conscience and problem solving becomes the goals of education —a breakaway from the self-absorbed, materialistic, meal-ticket approach of the earlier century that quantified and restricted education to a chosen few.

We inhabit a digitally engrossed age. It’s the age of shorter attention spans, of instant gratification, of fragmentation, and of disturbingly deepening dissociation. There couldn’t have been a period of greater relevance of a ‘preceptor’ as teacher. Who should/could be that teacher and how shall s/he not teach?


For the very reasons that machines take over learning and social experiences, dehumanise, fragment, or marginalise our life content into byte-sized parcels of discontent, we need the human touch more than ever. We do not need the teacher to compete over content, scope, volumes of knowledge, or even delivery of processes with a machine. We need the human for all the human parts we are made of that need help desperately. We need the human to turn knowledge into wisdom. We need the human to remind us that imperfections make us magical, warm, and beautiful creatures. Ethics, empathy, enthusiasm, ecstasy need humans and their eccentricities. Teachers need to recognise this shift in their craft which is a wonderful gift from the machine that has enabled us to be free from the dross transmission of knowledge to engage in the living being and his real personal, social, and emotional needs for fulfilment and self-actualisation. To hang on to the knowledge-giver role is to be blind to this amazing collective freedom to be!

You further write and I quote: “We need to change the way we are doing academic work and infuse in the cognitive learning, an affective warm heart and a pair of psychomotor willing hands…” Where and how do we initiate what could perhaps be the kindest, not the unkindest, cut of all — that break from the way we teach and are taught?

Education is arid at the cognitive level unless it immediately deconstructs into feelings and actions. We have lost this fundamental truth. As digitalisation grows the dangers of cutting off from other humans is a scary reality that stares us in the face. This embracing of isolation and disconnection can make us cognitive consumers without any social engagement. A change in the teachers’ role where these parts are healed needs to first be articulated before new constructs are created in how to make this happen. To move away from teaching as we know it does not mean we are redundant and superfluous. On the contrary, it is a blessing. It means our changed roles are even more pertinent to saving humanity from fragmenting, to have time and leisure to take care of each other, to appreciate and enjoy our plural worlds, to heal our planet. There is a greater need for the human touch, in perspectives, history, evolution, examples of nobility and probity than ever before. That must become the new definition of education. The goals of the system, as we know it, need a sea change.

You have worked in a variety of multicultural environments, taught different curricula, negotiated a host of cultural complexities, listened in to a variety of cultural nuances and so on. How did you run your classrooms?


Children across the world share the same characteristics of curiosity, activity, playfulness, imagination, need for love and compassion, need for understanding boundaries and feeling safe, need for a friend and mentor, need to know someone cares. If we go with this universal nature all we have is just a child. If we teach with these guiding principles we go with the tide not against it. Teaching becomes fun and easy.

Across my journey of three decades in teaching one thing that all my students across cultures are sure of is that I will always be there to listen no matter how old they are! That is the only trust we can leave with our students. Be that one outside adult who cares! Compassion is a teacher’s highest trait.

A teacher must also be generous till it hurts. It is not about being kind, sweet or popular. You can be a strict, no-nonsense person but if you are a giver, they know instinctively. You will not short change, or ditch, or abandon. You will leave no stone unturned. They matter. Teachers are human, make mistakes, but if they care, their students forgive mountains of imperfection. A teacher must experiment with new ideas, methods, practices, take risks, and ask for criticism. 

A teacher should be an eternal learner. Learn from complexities, differences, nuances, think deeply, observe keenly, listen patiently, reflect humbly, accept smarter kids as smarter, be willing to improve, seek help, apologise and be human, praise, and be on the side of the weakest child. Think of every child as your very own and you will automatically champion them. It’s actually a win-win.



1.      Schools need to find the souls of children. The thinking, imagination, creative ideas, animated discussions, laughter, and curiosity are unstoppable aspects of our natural psyche. If we do not put artificial constructs on them like time tables and tests, they can bloom anywhere at their pace…

2.     How do we unteach? We do this by respecting discovery and enquiry, by teaching the use of tools of thinking, by providing resources and key questions of thought, by linking all learning to personal experience, social and political realities and life systems, by asking what-if questions, by checking how these ideas impact, peace, empathy, and resilience…

 


3.       There is a greater need for the human touch, in perspectives, history, evolution, examples of nobility and probity than ever before. That must become the new definition of education. The goals of the system, as we know it, need a sea change…

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