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January 04, 2018 Thursday 01:20:34 PM IST

TO TEACH OR TO NOT TO TEACH

Cover Story

Experiential, student-centred learning experiences envisaged under modern collaborative learning strategies ensure more active engagement of the learner, more active utilisation of the learners’ thinking skills,” says Suresh Kumar, a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, who quit the civil services to found the Ananthamurthy Academy, the first of its kind in India that adopts contemporary Cooperative Learning Structures designed to foster academic excellence standards while nurturing character virtues, interpersonal skills, teamwork, and leadership capacities among children. The Academy draws its inspiration from the Late Dr. U.R.Ananthamurthy, Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith Award winner and former Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University. 

EXCERPTS:

There have been growing concerns world over about how and what we have been teaching. So we have the chalk and talk method — perhaps the most favoured among teachers. One can’t entirely abandon ‘chalk and talk’, yet how do we evaluate its efficacy in the times that we inhabit? 

The ’chalk and talk’ method evolved, some say more than 5000 years ago, out of the belief that children are ‘empty vessels’ and that knowledge can be transferred to, or poured into these empty vessels. Our current understanding about the human mind and about how learning actually takes place clearly shows that the ‘chalk and talk’ approach is outdated and unscientific and that it, at best, results only in incomplete learning. Despite this, teachers continue with ‘chalk and talk’ because it is the easiest way of teaching.


We now know that all human beings are born with certain innate thinking capabilities. These capabilities have been given to us to help us in our life-long effort to make sense of the world — to construct knowledge, to learn. The most important of these innate thinking skills include: (a) enquiry skills, such as skills for planning and researching, predicting and anticipating; posing and defining problems; asking relevant questions; testing conclusions and improving ideas; (b) information processing skills, such as skills for locating and collecting information, sorting information, classifying, comparing, contrasting, and sequencing; (c) reasoning skills, such as skills for inferring and deducting; skills for articulating reasons for opinions and actions; and skills for taking decisions based on reason and evidence; (d) evaluation skills, such as skills for developing criteria, evaluating information, judging values; and (e) creative skills, such as skills for looking for innovative outcomes, generating and extending ideas, suggesting hypothesis, and applying imagination.

These innate thinking capabilities, with which every human child is born, are continuously used, and practised, strengthened, and honed (up to and beyond ‘skill’ level) as the child goes through meaningful learning events. Since these ‘innate thinking skills’ are meant to be used for learning, any learning that is attempted without the use of these thinking skills would be unnatural and incomplete. In fact, the quality of a learning event is dependent on how far the learner is engaged in the learning process; in other words, on how many and how much of the learner’s thinking skills are involved in the learning experience.

How do you help develop these innate thinking capabilities

The typical lecture invariably forces the learner into the role of a passive recipient of ‘knowledge’, his thinking capabilities numbed, forcibly put on ‘hold’. But, of course, there are talented lecturers who can hold their audiences engaged for hours, skillfully accessing and engaging the listeners’ thinking skills. These are the master orators, the ones with the gift of the gab. There is certainly no harm in including a good lecture as one of the ingredients of a well thought-out lesson plan, provided, (a) the lecturer makes a conscious effort to engage children by carefully catering to their ‘thinking skills’, and (b) the lecture itself is followed up with other experiences — interactions, reflection, discussions, guided practice — where learners get opportunities for ‘processing’ the content of the lecture while applying their innate thinking skills.


Experiential, student-centred learning experiences envisaged under modern collaborative learning strategies ensure more active engagement of the learner, more active utilisation of the learners’ thinking skills. 

Which brings us back to that fundamental question of all: What is THE purpose of education and HOW is it best delivered? Do we do away with teaching

Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy, well-known writer, distinguished academician, and a former Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, used to constantly reiterate his agreement with John Dewey’s views on the purpose of education, particularly Dewey’s view that ‘…the development of social efficiency is one of the main aims of education and the school should direct, guide and control the inborn propensities of the child in socially desirable channels…’ Dewey emphasised that, ‘…education is not a preparation for life; it is life itself. The school should cultivate, within the child, the attitudes and dispositions which are necessary for a progressive life in society…’

The Late Dr. Ananthamurthy strongly believed that school children need to be encouraged to imbibe civic sense, social skills, cultural awareness, ecological sensitivity, and environmental consciousness even while they are meaningfully guided through academic milestones included in the curriculum. Thus, even when children go through preparations for the board examinations or entrance examinations they need to be simultaneously provided opportunities for imbibing the ‘attitudes and dispositions’ necessary for civilised living.


The National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF) — of which Dr. Ananthamurthy was one of the principal architects — clearly emphasises the need for adopting classroom strategies within the Social Constructivist theoretical framework. Instead of being passive recipients of ‘knowledge’ contained in textbooks and guidebooks, children are expected to actively construct knowledge in a collaborative environment. Rather than forcing children into passivity, they need to be provided plenty of opportunities for interacting among themselves, with elders, and with a variety of ‘texts’ as they go through the process of negotiating the academic milestones spelt out in the syllabus.

Children need to be provided opportunities for sharing thoughts, questions, ideas and solutions which will also naturally enhance their communication skills. Children need to be encouraged to work together, to collaborate with each other to reach goals — putting talent, expertise, and smartness to work. Children need to be appreciated for critical thinking: looking at problems in new ways, linking learning across subjects and disciplines. Children’s creativity needs to be actively encouraged: nurturing their attempts to try out new approaches to getting things done, in other words, motivating innovation.

Collaborative learning events, projects, and experiments ensure that children get to utilise their innate thinking skills, making learning meaningful. Cooperative, interdependent educational experiences also provide opportunities for utilising, developing, and honing up vital social skills. 

Enabling all the above is really what a teacher should be doing, assuming the role of a friend and facilitator of real learning. Therefore, we need to recast our understanding of what quality ‘teaching’ actually entails. We need to continuously encourage teachers to acquire the attitudes, understanding, and skills needed for this.


What is needed is not to do away with teaching but to ensure that the balance of power shifts to learning rather than teaching.

Is learning and teaching a function and consequence of curriculum design, examinations, and milestone management? What to your mind is, therefore, the ideal curriculum?  

The National Curriculum Framework 2005 drawn up by the NCERT includes the objectives and core contents of different subjects, as well as the principles of suggested pedagogy, pupil assessment, special-needs education, and pupil welfare. If the elements of the Indian NCF are closely examined it can be seen that they are comparable to the best in the world — on a par with the Finnish National Core Curriculum, for instance, drawn up by the Finnish National Agency for Education.  

The big difference between the Finnish and Indian Core curricula is the fact that the former is being implemented successfully, whereas its Indian counterpart, sadly, remains a piece of fiction. In Finland there is robust implementation, with checks, balances, and accountability that really work. In India nobody cares. For instance, I would say 99 percent of schools in India still use ‘chalk and talk’, despite specific provisions to the contrary in the NCF.


Our notions about examinations and ‘milestone management’ have contributed to the situation. Rather, the provisions in the NCF are being deliberately misinterpreted by teachers and educational functionaries, at every level, taking advantage of the absence of accountability. Our misplaced notions about examinations and milestone management (aka ‘covering the syllabus’) can be perceived in the following scenarios: teachers encouraging children to memorise from text books; providing ‘notes’ for rote-memorisation; suggesting ‘guide books’ to be memorised from; conducting test-papers and ‘unit-tests’ that check only what has been memorised by rote; suggesting ‘tuition homes’ and ‘entrance coaching centres’, where ‘techniques of rote memorisation’ are taught and practised.

We, at Ananthamurthy Academy, believe that meaningful learning can be facilitated by putting learners through genuinely student-centred learning experiences, deploying collaborative learning strategies that provide children the space to practise and hone skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity while covering/managing milestones spelt out in the curriculum. We believe that children can be equipped to confidently face board and entrance examinations without torturously forcing children to memorise from textbooks, note-books, or guidebooks.


1.      In fact, the quality of a learning event is dependent on how far the learner is engaged in the learning process; in other words, on how many and how much of the learner’s thinking skills are involved in the learning experience.


2.     Children need to be encouraged to work together, to collaborate with each other to reach goals — putting talent, expertise, and smartness to work. Children need to be appreciated for critical thinking: looking at problems in new ways, linking learning across subjects and disciplines.

3.     We need to recast our understanding of what quality ‘teaching’ actually entails. We need to continuously encourage teachers to acquire the attitudes, understanding, and skills needed for this.

 



K G Sreenivas

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Pallikkutam. He can be reached at editorinchief@rajagirimedia.com

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