Learning

Are we setting up students for failure?

The bell rings, the child stops writing the poem midway. Puts the English textbook inside. Takes the notebook for the next period...

Written by Maathangi Iyer · 15 min read >
Are We Setting Up Students For Failure

The bell rings, the child stops writing the poem midway. Puts the English textbook inside. Takes the notebook for the next period from his bag. Science teacher walks in and opens the class with a question. What is sine (pi/2)

Children reply in unison. The teacher moves on with what is next in the lesson. Children turn to the chapter which the teacher is referring to. Soon after, the bell rings again. 

Down the hallway,  in another class, the 3rd-grade children are given test papers where among other questions, they are asked, 8*7 =

This is how a typical day in a school looks like. Every interaction with the teacher is like a call and response game. A teacher asks a question and if children answer it correctly, the teacher moves on with his/her lesson plan.

Going back to the classroom scenario, If student is good at memorizing, he knows the answer for sine (pi/2) formula . Multiplication tables is something most of us can answer correct even if we are woken up in the middle of our sleep.

Now, Think about it from your child’s perspective. If a 10th grader is asked the “Sine” question, even if he says 1, which is the right answer, does he really know what sine actually means?

And If a 3rd grader knows her tables like the back of her hand, does it actually means she has a great number sense. 

Interestingly this question – what is 8 x 7 was asked to a British Politician on live TV. He answered it incorrectly triggering widespread ridicule. Along with severe criticism, there were talks about introducing “TimeTable Memorization” in schools. Now we ask you this? If a person has a clear understanding of the pattern that is established in an 8 table and has a natural intuition towards not giving away the wrong response, is rote learning really required?

The new techniques of learning to remember – Flash Cards, Repetitive worksheets or converting difficult concepts into songs, like this one on elements of the periodic table, 

is it the right approach to take? Are we providing them a natural environment to learn and to understand concepts?  Do children who out there who beautifully chime away Hydrogen, then helium, then lithium, Beryllium know why a periodic table exists and why is it used? 

We are training them to “answer correctly”.

Shouldn’t we be teaching them how to think rather than how to respond correctly and promptly with speed?  Between this answering correctly and answering promptly process, children are losing the wonderful chance to explore opportunities of looking at different answers, making mistakes, redoing it to arrive at the right answer, making some more mistakes, thus going through the entire journey of exploration, till finally, they discover the right way(s) to get to the solution. 

Sadly, those who answer the Sine question or the timetable question incorrectly, are labeled as bad students. They live in frustration because not understanding and not knowing the right answers gives a feeling of helplessness. And congratulations, unknowingly or knowingly schools and society have created a conducive atmosphere for stress and anxiety to thrive in.  

These are so-called bad students, may not actually be bad. They may be children who do not do well under an overly structured learning environment. It’s no wonder that children with ADHD or children who are dyslexic who was bracketed among the disabled category are gradually being looked as potentially gifted children.

Our thinking seems to have evolved over time, but that cannot be said about the Education system were memorization, rote learning, good grades, and student ranking – all of this overshadows the most important aspect- “Education” itself.  

Who takes responsibility for student failure?

There a few hard-hitting questions we need to ask ourselves.

Are our schools preparing our children for the needs of the future?

Is having good handwriting or mental calculation skills enough to land a child a job?

How is the mass learning approach in a school tailored to meet every student learning style and match every student’s rate of progress?

How are the students who are lagging behind being taken care of? Are there clear measures that help them improve?

How about the gifted ones? Are their skills correctly identified and honed or are they just drifting along with the rest? Come to think of it is there even a criterion to identify the gifted one? 

Who takes full responsibility if a child does not do well. The school only promises coverage, nor training nor excellence. After school classes offer shallow secondary exposure. In such a case who takes who’s the responsibility to guarantee that the child will have all the fundamental & core skills developed. 

Blind Competition: Parents are like guppies

Guppies or popularly known as rainbow fish have a tendency to chase each other. Humans have the same herd mentality. And that is especially the case of any competitive exams, case in point – the Olympiads. In fact, the craze for Olympiads has blinded us towards the fact that these exams are actually supposed to be conducted by a body that is recognized by UNESCO. But most of the schools that conduct Olympiads are by private organizations. In a true sense, Olympiads are very prestigious because students from around the world gather to compete with each other. But this gets lost somewhere when exams lose the true meaning of why it is held in the first place. 

Lagging in Sports, way behind in technology

Ironically, India which is considered to be a lagging nation in sports has more specialized world-class sports academies than a world-class pre-graduation media lab or tech academy. FC Barcelona has established training schools in India. But MIT Style of teaching has not reached India. This is probably the reason why we have more engineers in the country than any other country and jut 2 Nobel laureates.

Where exactly is our education system going wrong? 

Schools provide an ecosystem where children gather a lot of skills, ranging from social skills, leadership skills, to learning to be independent and pretty much by themselves. 

But there are certain aspects, sadly which modern-day schools fail to teach our kids. And that can be changed if there is a change in pedagogical approach. There must be a solution to this problem in hand. Luckily, we have the answer. 

Let us first compare and contrast 2 models of learning to get an understanding of which learning environment works best for students.

The traditional manner like in our schools where learning is dictated by a grade-wise curriculum Vis-a-vis process of learning which is natural. 

Learning which is governed by a structure and limited to a textbook Vis-a-Vis learning where Student Autonomy is high and the learner has the flexibility to learn as per his interests and progress according to his pace. 

Student who solves a problem vs Student as a problem solver 

A question with a problem is stated in the textbook. The teacher explains what the question is. She may open the class for a discussion or she may not. She writes the correct answer on the board. The children copy it down. This is the typical approach to answer questions in a school. 

In an approach where let’s call it Learner Centric, we let the students decide on how to solve the problem. Here is how it’s done-

Let us say you want to introduce a new attraction to your school, Zipline!  As easy as it may look, there is a lot of science and math involved in constructing a zipline. If the children are asked to construct a “Safe” Zipline using a dummy they have to determine how much cable they need so that the dummy lands safely. They will need to record the measurement after each trial, calculate the average of each set of trial, the plot in a graph and analyze this data to make corrections. 

What are we doing? We are creating a scenario. The student decides what problems or challenges he sees. He may see multiple problems. S/He may see no problems at all. The point is that the problem is not written anywhere for students to just read and solve mechanically. 

She understands the magnitude of the problem. Because he has a good understanding of the problem, he is in a good position to define the scope, arrive at the possibilities of solving it and choosing the best way to solve it. By the end of the activity, he may have created a perfect zipline or he may have not, but the student has definitely learned and put to use a lot of concepts. 

Solving a problem in a premeditated manner in a textbook does not make a student a good problem solver. Rather it is a self-directed problem-solving method combined with a natural guidance process (where brainstorming and problem-solving happens hand in hand) that really works towards building the most important skills – problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. 

Instruction Vs Facilitation

A child is trying to walk. The parent holds his hands, encourages him to take a step. The child falls down, the parent Claps. The parent applauds even if the child fell down without taking a single step. The child learns to walk eventually.

What you just witnessed is the role of the parent as a Facilitator. 

Imagine if the parent tells the child to keep the right leg first and swing the left arm, then left leg and right arm. Will it help the child walk faster? 

What is the role of the teacher? Let us look at the formal job description. 

Government of NCT has published this job description of a teacher on their website.

The Class teacher must… appoint monitors for  different duties mark the attendance of the students in the class register with the help of the class monitor creates a learning environment for the students by decorating the board with noble work of great personalities to inspire the students to display clearly the time table of the class maintain the Teacher’s Diary regularly with the lesson plan reach the class on time for teaching. The teacher must evaluate the students from time to time

Here is what a teacher is supposed to be doing in a school somewhere in the UK

* Meeting with pupils’ parents to discuss their academic progress at parents’ evening* Planning lessons across KS1 and KS2* Marking children’s work* Holding Assemblies when necessary* Adhering to the schools policies and procedures* Providing pupils with necessary feedback, encouragement, and support* Setting the right example at all times* Occasionally, you may supervise pupils during events and projects outside of the classroom such as cultural outings, field trips, and excursions

Typical duties of a teacher in the USA 

Manage classrooms and implement school procedures; work with school leaders and administrators to initiate policies. Plan lessons and assign homework; grade students’ work and evaluate their ability to communicate with others and work in groups. Administer and grade tests while staying current with state and local standards for subjects from first to fifth, and sometimes sixth, grades. Select reading, writing, math, and other curriculum-development materials, including textbooks, in accordance with local and state guidelines. Prepare students for standardized tests, working within the parameters of state and local requirements, and provide diagnostic feedback.

What strikingly comes through in all of this description of teacher duties. Teacher has to ensure class management? Teacher has to grade the students? Teacher has to implement school procedures? 

We are looking for terms like- Knowledge builder, collaborator, Mediator. All of that is missing from the JD. 

An ideal classroom is not where a teacher is talking and children are taking notes. A student raises her hand to ask a thought-provoking question, but the teacher has to move ahead because there is only 10 min for a class to end and she has to finish the chapter. 

During the Social Science period teacher discusses the subject of Poverty to a group of students in an international school. These are the objectives of the session.

“Understand poverty as a challenge.  Identify vulnerable group and interstate disparities  Appreciate the initiatives of the government to alleviate poverty”

Instruction based teaching would mean going by text in the books, going through detailed explanations around % of below poverty line, etc. The projects that are given as a part of the chapter will be again defined by the curriculum and the teacher. How effective is this going to be?

Dr. Stephen Baldridge a professor from Texas had an interesting anecdote from his classroom. He was to talk to the students about Social Injustice, Racism, Inequality. There he stood. A white American who is by far the most privileged race having to address a class which was predominantly women and most of afro American race. And he thought, they know 10X more than me about injustice. So he told them this. He told his students that you know more than me about this issue. So they were to talk to friends, talk to people in different communities about how things they feel are unjust and then he said, the resources, data, and information that students gathered were the notes that the class and the teacher referred to for the next discussion on the topic.  The teacher here took the role of a facilitator. There was something magical that happened in the class. 

1st: the students took an interest in what they were doing because they were truly invested in the entire process of researching through discovery. That is when true learning happens.

2nd: students learned from each other. 

3rd The teacher learnt something new. He learnt that there are not enough wheelchair accessible areas around the neighborhood. He learnt something that is not mentioned in the curriculum. This came from a student who was wheelchair-bound. 

What do you think the rest of the class learned. Empathy? Something which is a core part of the curriculum, but that can never be really taught in any other way other than the first-hand experience. 

That is the role of a facilitator – where everyone including the teacher has an eye-opening experience and learn something new each time. If this technique of teacher being a facilitator during the class on poverty is adopted, you can imagine how effective and enjoyable the whole experience would have. 

Lecture vs research-based reading

When it does happen i.e when the teacher takes the role of a facilitator and lets go off the chalk and board or the “smart board” and the marker, the onus is on the students to learn and know more. Have you heard a teacher say I do not know about this subject? Why don’t you research and let me know? That is what Dr. Stephen did and it yielded powerful positive results.  

Dr. Sugata Mitra with the Hole In The Wall Education Project introduced the concept of Minimally Invasive Education. Hole in the wall project literally meant making a hole in the wall. The how was to hold a computer. This computer was placed in an underprivileged area in Delhi. The children there had never seen a computer. Brace yourself because what the research unfolded will send chills down your spine. These children not only learned how to open google and browse, but also within the 2 days of dabbling with the computer, downloaded games and were competing against each other. This experiment just reinforces the fact that a teacher in the role of a facilitator – adopting a natural process of guiding kids is more effective than a teacher who is giving a lecture and telling kids what to do. 

Children have the capability to self organize and take responsibility for their own learning at their own pace. It is not the children or their abilities that come in the way of learning.  The classroom lectures from the teachers derail the speed and the pace. We need to believe that the classrooms are made up of Smart Kids and not just a Smartboard. 

Lesson vs logical deduction

My 3-year-old son was acting up. He suddenly glanced at the community security guard walking past, stopped crying, hugged me tight and whispered to me “ The cops will catch me”. The situation seemed to be under control so I took advantage of his innocent beliefs and carried on with the evening..

A few days later, he sees another Security guard walking around the complex and tells me “ Mom, he is a security guard. He is not a cop. He will not catch me”.

No one ever told him the difference between a security guard and a cop. Yet, somehow he managed to differentiate between them and their job profiles. He could only do that because has an inbuilt ability to logically arrive at conclusions. 

Is our way of teaching curbing this very instinct??  

Children are taught lesson after lesson, chapter after chapter. They are tested on whether they know what they know based on what they learn from these chapters. If this is not brainwashing them, then what is?

A child reads somewhere than the tiny aquatic being – plankton just like the plants give out oxygen. During the class lecture, the teacher says that Oceans cover almost 71% of the Earth. There is a sudden thought that occurs to him. He connects what he read to what the teacher is telling. He raises his hands and says “ Ma’am if Oceans cover 71% of earth then don’t you think that the ocean gives more oxygen to us that the trees do”

In a typical class, the teacher will correct this information with facts about how trees give out O2 and move on. And the child is left unanswered. If dwelled on and researched more, This question that the child has asked can result in so many more discoveries, many more questions, and more revelations. Unless the child goes through these cycles of researching and discovering, he is not learning the natural way, the only way he is supposed to.

Subject vs multidisciplinary

When the children learned the process involved in making a safe Zipline, they were exploring concepts from Physics & Math.

The children from the Hole in the wall project started familiarizing with the computer by playing games first. In 2 mths they were quoting from a children’s science magazine. 

They are just not learning one subject at a time. Now think about your time at work. If you are a programmer, it is unlikely that coding is all you do all day.  You may be involved in project planning and budgeting. You are doing different tasks at different times, but all of this is linked to the bigger picture, the project! 

Similarly, math-chemistry-physics cannot be taken in silos because they are interdependent with each other. And that is probably the reason why those who are bad at Math are not great with science either. The connect is lost! 

National academy of Press in its  paper about developing “Integrated STEM Programs states this 

“The standards call for the engagement of students in authentic tasks that require integration across the STEM disciplines and support for the development and application of conceptual knowledge and reasoning.

Science came to be known as STEM in our Curriculums a few years back. Now they are talking about Including Art and transition to “STEAM”.

But the question remains about what constitutes STEM education and what it means in terms of course curriculum and student outcomes. 

Assignment vs Open-ended project

When it was decided that a children’s park had to undergo changes, the principal decided to involve the students from all the grades through the entire process of envisioning, planning and implementing the whole project. Students decided overall theme and goal of the play space project, studied playground preferences, took a survey of favorite equipment, determined the most popular color, worked out ways on how science can help them build better play equipment. They even considered making it an Inclusive Playspace where visually blind kids and wheelchair-bound kids can have an equal amount of fun. They took on themselves to turn their playground vision into a reality, they envisioned transforming the entire playground not just for kids but to create a community gathering space where everyone can enjoy themselves.

The children were not given an assignment that they would be graded on. The children were given an opportunity to do something incredible. There were given a chance to learn while they were having fun, although for them it was in the reverse order. 

The results of this project was not an A or 85% written on the report card. The results were out there for the community and the neighborhood. They were working on a project they care about. They know that the changes that they incorporate now will benefit everyone around them in tangible ways.

Simple to complex vs Ambiguous to defined 

When students of Hale Elementary School were given the task of redesigning the park, they did not know how and where to begin. All they knew was that they had a big task ahead of them. A task which grown-ups would do. It calls for experts such as city designers and civil engineers to finish this project. Doesn’t it! But that is the beauty of it. The machinations of this ambiguity are the very root of Project-Based Learning.

When students are given vague information, they think of ways to get more information. They find missing information and when that stops them from moving further, they need to do more research, finds ways of filling the gap. This method requires them to be actively engaged in the learning process by way of coming with a relevant question, arriving at possible answers, structuring information, applying the new-found knowledge.. !! What are they doing? They stretching their brain to apply synergistic thinking skills, they’re putting their reasoning abilities to the task, they are finding ways to make themselves comfortable with things they do not know, in an ill structure, ambiguous setup. And that is huge! They are getting out of their comfort zones 

Compare this with Learning a concept and applying it. Which is what most schools do. Go from simple complex to complex ones. And then teach them how to apply it by way of asking questions which has a hidden meaning or which indirectly arrives at the answer. 

With the Q & A approach to instruction are we bridging the gap between theory and practice? We are not being a Heretic and opposing everything about concept based methodology of teaching.  The concept-based curriculum is a tried and tested method. The challenge is not with the method. It ‘s with the approach. Concepts are not something that can be talked and learned about within the 4 walls of a classroom or by way of an occasional field trip. Concepts are supposed to come alive in a practical environment, in real-life scenarios. Concept and experiential learning have to work hand in hand and have to be closely integrated. The students should be empowered to go beyond the curriculum, for that matter even challenge the concept that they are being taught. And that can only happen when students are asked a problem to solve and not by giving the solution and working out ways to arrive at it. 

Memory & recall  vs failing & improvisation 

A skill that is used abundantly during regular school exams is the power to recall, to regurgitate information that was taught in the textbooks. Memorization is not bad at all. There are certain professions like medical or law that demands it. Meaningful memorization is what is essential. The reason a student blanks out during the examination is not that he has low memorization skills. It is because his understanding was not clear. This understanding stems from the fact that he had to learn information that was provided to him in the form of a textbook or through lectures without really having a clear context or understanding of it. 

Here is an excerpt from “How Children Fail” by John Bolt

“They fail because they are afraid, bored, and confused. They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud… 

They are confused because most of the torrent of words that pours over them in school makes little or no sense. It often flatly contradicts other things they have been told, and hardly ever has any relation to what they really know— to the rough model of reality that they carry around in their minds. “

Allow them to learn, given them opportunities to scaffold their thinking, let them make mistakes, give them time to learn from mistakes.  They will learn to own up to their mistakes, they will learn to take accountability, they will learn to rectify their mistakes. These are things that we expect adults to do. But given a chance and they will display these attributes. There is no way that learning will not happen with this approach. More importantly, they will bring their hearts and their minds into everything they do. Because they are invested in it -a 100%

In an approach which is learner-centric, where we adopt the problem-based learning approach, we empower the student to take charge of their learning. Fitbit is a popular device. Here is our theory of why it works. The device empowers the consumer with information, thereby motivating them to work on their fitness goals. In the current context, Fitbit is the facilitator and the consumer is the student. 

So the next time we feel our child is not paying attention while completing his homework or the student is not getting good grades. 

Stop and think! Is the student the real issue we have to tackle?

Written by Maathangi Iyer
Classrooms are getting transformed, teachers are being empowered. Maathangi wants to be a part of this transformational Journey. Passionate about education and Loves writing. Profile

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