Reimagining teaching


G Balasubramaniam
Editor-in-Chief, The Progressive School, New Delhi

For decades, we had been practicing certain classical approaches to teaching with a belief that all we teach is learnt. Currently, nothing can be more foolish than this belief. Researches in cognitive sciences have clearly established the gap between teaching and learning. It is in this context, we need to reimagine teaching that could facilitate and scaffold learning.

When Shyam and his three friends walked into my house, I was extremely delighted. “What a pleasure to see you, Sir,” they greeted in a chorus.

“It is indeed thirty years since we met.“

They were my students in the school where I was a Principal in early eighties. They came to invite me to an Alumni meet in the school. “Hey, you guys have gone bald and grey. I seem to be still younger than you.” They all laughed.

“She is my wife Smitha and my son Shubham.” Rakesh introduced his family who were coming behind.

“Time flies,” I observed.

Meeting your students after thirty years and more is indeed a pleasure…Vice President of an MNC, Chartered Accountant, Business man and a HR Manager.

Chatting over a cup of coffee, Rakesh told his wife, “Sir was a great Chemistry Teacher.”

I felt elated and wanted to pat my back but recalled it when Sushil made the observation, “But you know, he taught us everything except Chemistry.” As Smitha raised her eyebrows, everyone laughed.

“Yes,” Sushil continued, “You know, he will walk into the class and our books will be ready on the table. He will say close your books. We will have quiz now. You must see the level of happiness in all our faces. For the next few minutes, he will shoot questions.”

Rakesh continued, “He will start with a question — Who wrote Gitanjali? We will wonder what that has to do with Chemistry. By the time, next question — In what language was this book written? When was it awarded the Noble Prize?”

And then Sushil continued, “Why was Nobel prize instituted? What was the substance that brought huge wealth to Alfred Nobel?” And then he moves to tell us about the dynamite and why it is an explosive.”

Srinath continued, “The whole class used to be vibrant and then suddenly he would say that is enough and now it is time to move to study the structure of Methane. It has tetrahedral structure. He would take someone by surprise and ask, “Tell me why it is called Tetrahedral.” If the guy gives the correct answer, he would ask “If that has four faces, tell me what octahedron is.”And thus, it moves on.”

Towards the end of the class he would say, “Guys. I want you to find the meaning of the word “Will-o-the wisp.” You know Shakespeare used it. And find it out what it has to do with Methane…”

“Sir, honestly speaking, none of us pursued Chemistry. But the opportunities you gave for comprehensive and extended learning, beyond your subject, that is what made all of us what we are, today.”

I sat down silently enjoying the conversation going down the memory lane every minute. Back by thirty years….

Smitha intervened and asked, “Sir. Did you ever reimagine about teaching?”

It was indeed a penetrating question. “Reimagining Teaching?”

I replied, “NO. My singular aim when I entered the class was How to keep the students happy?How do I keep them engaged and interactive? How do I ensure strong positive relationship with them? …I thought my job was to create certain amount of curiosity in them for self- learning.”

These discussions apart, I would like to hang on to that wonderful question relating to “Reimagining Learning.”

For decades, we had been practicing certain classical approaches to teaching with a belief that all we teach is learnt. Currently, nothing can be more foolish than this belief. Researches in cognitive sciences have clearly established the gap between teaching and learning. It is in this context, we need to reimagine teaching that could facilitate and scaffold learning.

Here are a few random thoughts:

1 A happy environment is essential for effective learning

Learning doesn’t happen in a stressful environment. If a few facts or concepts are thrust in a stressful environment, they become highly volatile and its retention is limited to a short period. They project largely an apparent learning than real learning. However, a little of positive stress that challenges the brain and in turn brings about a sense of fulfilment on achievement of the desired goal may help the learner. Teachers could think of strategies that promotes humour, freedom and equity of opportunities which make learners happy. Ensuring happiness in classroom need not be interpreted as disorganized behaviour. Intellectual discourses that absorb the attention of the learners relieves them of the boredom and a meaningful engagement that promotes their personal happiness.

2 Engagement is essential for purposeful learning

Engagement in a classroom could be at a personal level or as a group. Engagement is not unidirectional. Engagement doesn’t really mean a focused cognitive experience. It is a delightful participatory process of the teacher and the learner to a dialogue, to a conversation, to a debate, to an introspection, to a discovery or to a research on unexplored vistas of knowledge. Engagements could be intellectual, multi-sensory, playful or even sportive. This furthers the mutual trust and demolishes the iron curtains that bring about suspicion, doubt or fear of authority. Engagements between a few in the classroom could also spread the aroma of joyful learning.

3 Emotionally competent stimuli empowers learning

Brain sciences urge the importance of emotionally competent stimuli in a classroom which have the strength of impacting the learners’ emotions. Such stimuli facilitate the power of learning and trigger curiosity for further learning. They have the power of consolidating the stimuli-response bonds. Effective classrooms provide the experience of a theatre. Introduction of learning experiences through role play, skits, story-telling, music and dance promote holistic and fruitful learning. Teachers and schools should not be averse to such interventions in a classroom thinking that such interventions could promote disorder, noise or may challenge the authority of the teacher. Classrooms offer immense opportunities for providing emotionally competent stimuli in almost all subjects whether they have a larger impact on the right brain or left brain. These experiences also meet the inherent needs of the differentiated leaners in a classroom. They facilitate immersive experiences.

4 Positive communication scaffolds the learning culture

The communication of the teacher with the learners has to be positive, encouraging and empowering. This helps in building the confidence profile of the learners in their personal self. Further, this heals the wounds caused by past repressions and helps them to project themselves as confident individuals committed to a cause. Reactionary trends have to be handled without contempt, rejection or isolation. Teachers need to acknowledge the personal identity of the learners in each classroom and accept them as they are without any pre-conceived notions or judgment. Researches do indicate that dominance of amygdaline reactions in the growing children at their developmental stage and hence absence of effective thought and emotional controls. Positive communication helps in moderating the issues arising out of low self-esteem, identity crisis, introvert and extrovert behaviour and in reassuring them of their worth. This indeed helps in consolidating the learning curve.

5 Aligning the informal learning with formal learning

Researches indicate that a large part of learning is informal and through a variety of inputs which are not experienced in a classroom. Teachers need to provide a link between formal and informal learning through referral and integrated experiential opportunities so that learning becomes impactful. With extensive treasure of informal inputs to curricular concepts, the opportunities for leveraging such knowledge, skill and experiential inputs to classroom experiences is becoming increasingly vital. Further, with education being preparation for life, relevant, positive and conscious interventions that would promote socializing and enhance social consciousness of the learners have to be structured into individual and group learning opportunities and resulting experiences. Concepts of Blended Learning might help in achieving some of these goals.

6 Non-judgmental classrooms

Assessments, evaluations and examinations have largely been interpreted with a negative connotation. They are often times used to differentiate, single out and condemn the learning profiles. Comments resulting from these assessments have often done extensive damage to the morale of even competent learners thereby promoting an attitude of self-defeat, self-contempt, self-pity. Such learners turn out to be a greater burden to the society. Mostly such things happen at formative years due to absence of understanding the potential of the learners in their specific growth pattern. Teachers need to be totally non-judgmental in classrooms and even if they have to be suggestive for modification of behaviour, they need to be handled at the personal level and as a meaningful counseling and mentoring exercise.

Reimagining classrooms is a wonderful exercise and with basic understanding of the above, teachers can design their own strategies.

G.Balasubramanian, Editor-in-chief of The Progressive School Magazine is a leading educator in the field of school education, curriculum designer, author, HR trainer and educational administrator. Widely traveled, he has authored several books for schools, educational administrators and is a premier teacher-trainer both across the country and abroad. He has authored – Mindscaping Education, Case Studies in Classrooms, Quality Spectrum – A school’s bandwidth and Safety in Schools – Issues & concerns.