Teacher Talk
Monday, May 10, 2004
The Paradigm Shift in Education

Education continues to be the single largest factor that shapes the destiny of a nation. This therefore is India’s greatest challenge and opportunity. We have one of the world’s largest young populations. At the higher education level we are doing relatively well. We have one of the largest pools of technical talents in the world. People of Indian origin are doing extremely well all around the globe in various fields.
And yet at the primary and secondary level we are lagging sadly behind. There are some 50 million of our children out of school and many of those who do pass out have not learned anything, which they can really use. School for them has just been a chore, something that had to be done, because they weren’t given the choice.
Post Independence, the Indian Government was interested in raising the literacy level that stood at an abysmal 30%. The focus was on building schools and putting teachers into place, the assumption being that quality would automatically follow. However this did not happen and since then successive governments have been struggling with the indomitable task of trying to bring quality into our educational system. Today our drop out rate continues to soar despite all the incentives being provided… free noon meals, free education for girls, computer education etc. Why?
The reasons could be many. Firstly, how many of our children see education as a joyful experience. What is our customary modus operandi in schools? Students sitting quietly behind their desks, robotically doing work assigned by the teacher with no right to question or doubt. The Indian teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ belief is still very much prevalent in India, the outdated myth being actively promoted by the teacher herself. Children come to school to acquire knowledge and the teacher is the fountainhead of all wisdom. However that does not cut ice any more. It is imperative that the focus of education must shift to methods that involve inquiry, self-directed learning and inculcating a desire for knowledge in our youth.
Children need to learn by doing things themselves. They need to learn through interacting with each other so as to develop their communicative skills, their language, their social skills. They hone their interpersonal, intrapersonal skills in schools, which is what makes them more confident, responsible citizens and adults. The environment in which they learn plays a very important role. There has to be the right blend of interaction between the teacher and the learner. The teacher should be there as a facilitator and guide and not dominate the learning process. Her role would be to provide a diverse range of learning tasks and activities to stimulate and motivate the child into constructing his own knowledge.
Assessment too should be formative not summative. It should be continuous, so that the child can see where he is making mistakes and change accordingly rather than it being like a one-day match, with one exam deciding the students’ fate. Also how often do we question the relevancy of our educational system? Children should be able to see the value and power of the knowledge that they acquire. They should be able to realise that they can do things now, which they could not do before. Education therefore should not be some outdated database, which has outlived its usefulness but a living system, which is continuously updated proving its worth and continued existence. Learning must be integrated across various disciplines and not straitjacketed into ‘subjects’ that don’t have any connection. Children should be taught to be critical and creative thinkers. They must be aware of their multiple intelligences and that there are many ways in which one can excel. Teachers should be sentient of the latent talents of their wards before they make an attempt to hone their skills.

It is obvious that one of the most important lynch pins on whom this whole issue of education turns, is the teacher. If we want to improve the quality then we have to hire the best and pay accordingly. It doesn’t end there. Continuously motivating and instilling in our teachers a passion and dedication for excellence in education is vital. Every teacher is literally a brain surgeon. Every time she teaches, she is making those little dendrites sprout and connect up neurons. The person you are today and the way you respond to certain stimuli most probably was set into place by your long forgotten primary teacher. A teacher can never tell where her influence stops; it has endless echoes. A scary thought??
Well then, if our youth is our wealth and it is our teachers who shape their characters and lives, then shouldn’t we be hiring the best candidates in the field of education?

Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Love your brain; understand it, make it work for you.

Did you know that you have one hundred billion nerve cells in your brain, and every nerve cell has many connections to other nerve cells? In fact, your brain has more connections in it than there are insects on this earth! Now isn’t that something to ponder on? The brain is a supercomputer, despite its size. It is the command and control center running your life. It is involved in absolutely everything you do, unconsciously or consciously. Your brain determines how you think, how you feel, how you act, and how well you get along with other people. It even determines the kind of person you are, thoughtful, rude, polite or arrogant. It determines whether you are able to think on your feet, whether you are a success at work and how warm your family relationships are. Your brain also influences your emotional wellbeing and how well the opposite sex responds to you. Now I’ve got your attention.

So let us look at some ways in which we can look after this wonderful piece of design and optimize its functioning.

· The brain may seem to be well protected within the skull, but beware, that isn’t enough. Protect your brain from injury. Wear your seatbelt when you're in a car, and wear a helmet when you ride a bicycle or motorcycle, however much that may not seem cool to you.
· Current brain imaging research has shown that many chemicals are toxic to brain function. Alcohol, drugs of abuse, nicotine, much caffeine, and many medications actually decrease brain function. So think twice before you reach for that extra cup of coffee or cigarette.
· Stress. Another major enemy of optimal brain functioning. Brain cells can die with prolonged stress. Managing stress effectively is essential to good brain function. Stress decreases blood flow to the brain. When blood flow is decreased the brain cannot work efficiently. Remember the serenity prayer to help you cope-God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Avoid Toxic situations and Toxic people.
· In a similar way, sleep deprivation also decreases brain activity and limits access to learning, memory, and concentration. A recent brain imaging study showed that people who consistently slept less than 7 hours had overall less brain activity.
· Pamper your brain-The fuel you feed your brain has a profound effect on how it functions. Lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are essential to brain function. Unfortunately, the Indian diet is filled with fats and carbohydrates, causing many people to feel emotional, sluggish, spacey, and distracted. What did you have for breakfast? Do you even have breakfast? Start the day with a healthy breakfast that includes protein, such as eggs, lean meat, or dairy products.
Many people struggle with energy and mental clarity after lunch. Potatoes, rice, pasta, bread can all do this. Eliminate them and see the drastic difference in energy levels and the ability to focus in the afternoon.
· Think Positive thoughts. The thoughts that go through your mind, moment by moment, have a significant impact on how your brain works. Happy, hopeful thoughts have an overall calming effect on the brain, while negative thoughts inflame brain areas often involved with depression and anxiety. Spend time with people who know how to laugh and keep you laughing. Keep a Blessings Diary. Record all the things you are grateful for. It will help you in times when you are down.
· Exercise your brain. It is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more easily you can use it. Every time you learn something new your brain makes a new connection. Learning enhances blood flow and activity in the brain. If you go for long periods without learning something new you start to lose some of the connections in the brain and you begin to struggle more with memory and learning.
· Music hath the charm to soothe the savage beast. Use music to help develop concentration skills. Research showed that students who play a musical instrument scored higher on average on tests than children who did not play music. Music can either help or hurt concentration. In a recent study 12 teenagers played the game Memory while they listened to different types of music: rock, rap, classical, and no music. Rap was associated with the worst performance. The rock group also scored poorly. So choose well.

Friday, April 23, 2004
Minds are like parachutes; they function only when open.
Critical thinking is the art of taking charge of your own mind. Why is it so necessary for us to become critical thinkers? To bring self-direction and discipline into our lives. Are we even interested in how our minds work, how we can monitor, fine tune, and modify its operations for the better? Do we reflect upon and examine the way we usually react to things? Do we know how metacognition works or even what it is?
Everything that we do, we do on the basis of some motivations or reasons. Most of the time these motivations are subliminal and they become even more so since we rarely examine them or question them. How often do we scrutinize our reasons critically to see if they are rationally justified? How often do we buy things on impulse without determining whether we really need it or not or whether this would be the right time to buy it or is it good for our health??? Are you a parent? How often have you responded to your children impulsively, without stopping to determine whether your actions are consistent with how you want to act as parents or whether you are contributing to their self-esteem? Are we are discouraging them from thinking for themselves or from taking responsibility for their own behavior. We often think we know best, just because of our added years of experience.
With elections just around the corner do we vote impulsively and uncritically, without taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the relevant issues and positions, without thinking about the long-run implications of what is being proposed, without paying attention to how politicians manipulate us by flattery or vague and empty promises. Do we get carried away with all the hyperbole?
How often have we "got involved" with people who bring out the worst in us or who stimulate us to act in ways that we have been trying to change? As husbands or wives, too often we think only of our own desires and points of view, uncritically ignoring the needs and perspectives of our spouses, assuming in the heat of the moment that what we want and what we think is clearly right and that when they disagree with us they are being unreasonable and their actions unjustified.
As teachers, too often we allow ourselves to uncritically teach as we were taught;(what was good for us is good enough for them) giving assignments that student can mindlessly do, inadvertently discouraging student initiative and independence, missing opportunities to cultivate their self-discipline and self-responsibility. We tend to forget that there is a much more competitive and challenging world out there and we need to empower and arm our students with all the possible skills that there is in our Toolbox.
It is unfortunately quite "natural", to live an uncritical way of life, to live in a more or less automated, way. It is possible to live, without really taking charge of the persons we are becoming, without developing, or acting upon, the skills and insights we are capable of. However, if we allow ourselves to become unreflective persons, we are not only shortchanging ourselves but others. This is especially true of those in the teaching profession. We touch so many young impressionable lives and our influence has no boundaries, the echoes are timeless. We would therefore be missing out on the many opportunities that come our way to making our own lives, and the lives of others, fuller, happier, and more productive if we let life just pass us by.
Critical thinking therefore is a goal that has tremendous value. It is focused on an ancient Greek ideal of "living an examined life". It is based on the skills, the insights, and the values essential to that end. It is a way of going about living and learning that empowers us in practical ways. When taken seriously, it can transform every dimension of school life: how we formulate and implement rules, how we relate to our students, how we encourage them to relate to each other, how we cultivate their reading, writing, speaking, and listening, what we model for them in and outside the classroom, and how we do each of these things.
Of course, we are likely to make critical thinking a basic value in school only insofar as we make it a basic value in our lives. Therefore, to become adept at teaching so as to foster critical thinking, we must become committed to thinking critically and reflectively about our own lives and the lives of those around us. We must become active, daily, practitioners of critical thought. We must regularly model for our students what it is to reflectively examine, critically assess, and effectively improve the way we live.

Sunday, April 18, 2004
Tuitions are the bete noire of the Indian educational system. There have been many instances of the government trying to curb this evil. And yet, why does it thrive and grow stronger day by day? Well for one, most of our teachers are so poorly paid that they feel they have the right to supplement their income from somewhere else. Last year someone had written to in to a national newspaper to say that an end must be put to the exodus of Indian teachers to foreign shores. It seems with 40 million school going children, India cannot afford to lose its teachers ‘to the power of the pound'’. However, the same person did not seem to think that the best way to keep Indian teachers in India was by offering them a better deal out here. 2 weeks prior to that there was an article about some teachers in Orissa who attempted self-immolation to draw the state government's apathetic attention to their 'princely' salaries of Rs 200 a month. So we do have a genuine malady out here.
I wonder how many teachers actually want to spend their spare time tutoring, if they earned enough from their jobs.
Perhaps we need to take a closer look at whether our children really need private tutoring? Does private coaching survive because the school class strength is so huge and the syllabus too vast that the teacher has no time to teach any subject thoroughly? Perhaps. But I have seen too many intelligent students attending tuitions just because all their classmates are, and with the intrinsic fear of what ‘if I lose out in this rat race just because I decided to study on my own and trust in my own capabilities’.
I have found tuitions tend to encourage students to be complacent and lackadaisical in the classroom. They always have that tuition teacher to fall back on, so why expend energy in clarifying doubts or even listening in class. I used to have this child who had attended tuitions right from the 1st grade and he was performing very poorly when he reached the 5th grade. He would shout out all the answers to Math problems but had no clue how he had got them. This was thanks to his tuition teacher who used to work it out for him the previous day. I called in his parents and requested that they stop his tuitions for 6 months and see if it made difference. This child as a result was forced to pay attention in class and encouraged to come out with his problems and in 2 months his grades had improved by 20%. By the end of the year he had won the Best student of the year prize. His confidence in himself had grown by leaps and bounds.

And there you have the conundrum. Who is responsible for this, the student, the teacher, the educational system, the parents or a society gone crazy where getting into medical college or MBA means getting impossibly high grades. The concept of tuition comes from the Theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky). It states that whatever a child can do on his own, he can do that much better with scaffolding. Tuitions do have their own merit, however today the practice has gone totally berserk with tuition classes having as many students as a school classroom and with no personalized attention. It has also become a totally commercial enterprise, with too many self-centered teachers forcing their students to take up tuitions. Schools, which try to control this menace by restricting their teachers from taking tuitions for the children they teach cannot do anything about the sharing system teachers have created. You give me children from your school and I’ll give you children from mine.
So how can this practice be contained and channelised where it will do more good than harm, since I very much doubt that it can be totally done away with? The rot is deep within our education system and since our education system is just a part of our societal beliefs, perhaps that is what we need to overhaul first.
So perhaps when our child starts performing poorly, maybe what we might need to do is to get more involved in his studies and what is happening in his school life; help him build his confidence and celebrate small victories; tell him that putting in his best is what is more important and that the only person he needs to compete against is himself .Let us build character and individuals, not clones.
Friday, April 16, 2004
The editor of a popular newspaper today castigated teachers for their lack of ethics, devotion and a sense of responsibility and commitment. Behind all this ranting hyperbole lay the recent examination papers, which had a number of spelling errors in them. This editor isn’t the first one who I have read lambasting teachers for having no scruples or principles. In my ten years of teaching I have come across teachers of all kinds of attitudes and levels of learning. I wonder whether any one has the right to so easily tar the whole teaching community as tainted. There are just as many people in any other profession who have no ethics or values. Maybe society expects a hundred per cent of philanthropic spirit and dedication of certain professions like Medicine, Education and the Defence services and that is why people tend to go overboard when they hear about leaked papers or teachers beating students or as in this case some grammatical and spelling errors in the question paper.
I am not defending any teacher for her lapses in her chosen profession. However, I would still like to submit that teachers in India are the under dogs. They are quoted low salaries; they are expected to take on as many responsibilities as the school can think of heaping on them, they are told that they are the children of the Goddess of Learning, Saraswati and architects in shaping the future of the nation. Hah! Do they need any more guilt trips to be laid on them? If I could be given a buck for the number of times that I have heard this statement, ‘Don’t you want to do it for the cause of education, the money isn’t important’; I would be a rich woman today.
Why is it that the general perception is that since teachers get a lot of holidays and have a cushy job, they don’t really need to be paid well? If we are supposed to be nation builders and all that claptrap, then shouldn’t we be paid accordingly?
I love kids and I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I could have gone into other fields that offered more of the green lucre, but it is my love of the young mind and watching it grow under my tutelage that has kept me in this field for ten years. I am now into research of how to make classes more interactive and fun for the kids. I think when it comes down to the bottom line most of my fellow teachers want the best for their students. There are some bad eggs in the profession, like there are in all, but most of us who might have got into the profession because it suited some personal reasons at that point of time, stayed in it because we believed we were doing a good job and making a difference. So hey fellows give us a break and tell us we’re doing some things right. We don’t need to hear it only on Teacher’s Day.


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