Friday, September 23, 2011

From good to great teaching in the New Academic Year


By Anis Haffar

Some years back, an international report about education in Africa decried the tendency for local educators to “infantilize” the youth.

In other words, many adults tend to believe that the younger ones are incapable and cannot be up to important tasks or ideas, and so the youth are consistently treated like small children. And true to the term, “Self-fulfilling prophesy”, the youth tend to think and behave like children into adulthood.

Many great educators recognized this harmful self-perpetuating cycle in their own localities too, and resolved to disabuse the minds of adults by understanding the ways through which children learn to think and do for themselves. One such educator was the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980). He is best known for using his own children to appreciate how the cognitive functions of perception, intelligence, and logic develop.

Piaget’s research resulted in three main books: “The Child’s Conception of the World” (1926), “The Origin of Intelligence in Children” (1936), and “The Early Growth of Logic in the Child” (1958).

Earlier, an Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) developed a system for the education of three to six year olds based, in part, on the “spontaneity of expression and freedom from restraint”. She opened the first Montessori school in Rome in 1907, and it became a model throughout the world.
In appraising children’s abilities in his book, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, Ken Robinson told the story of a little girl who habitually sat quietly in the back of her regular class. One day her teacher found her absorbed in the drawing room, and asked what she was drawing. Without looking up, she responded, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Surprised, the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” The girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

Robinson’s point was that children are inherently confident in their own imagination and abilities. It is only when they are “schooled” [and whipped, I may add] out of their wit, creativity, and confidence that they lose their natural God-given capacities.

An antidote to “Learned helplessness” is the concept and practice of education termed “Learner-centred” teaching. It prescribes a condition or rapport where both teachers and students learn from each other. It proposes a paradigm shift from the all knowing traditional teacher-types (glibly called “the sage on the stage” sporting a whip and a chalk, and stalking the class) to one where cognitive abilities are fostered and shared.

The concept is intended to uplift the status of the teacher; it grows, elevates and broadens class instructional activities to produce mutually beneficial outcomes. Led by confident teachers – from primary to university levels – each learner is considered a sovereign entity with a great gift, to be harnessed and used meaningfully. As time goes on, those gifts reveal themselves through the appropriate instruction.
In short, learner-centred teachers are expected to update themselves, lead the fold, and design experiential activities to advance their own growth, and provide opportunities for the youth to demonstrate their successes in achieving higher expectations.

The idea is to engage students in shared deliberations and to assure them that their roles are equally important in the teaching / learning process. Passive recipients of information, on the other hand, are subordinated in mind and spirit; and subordination creates lifelong dependency. The youth need to understand and articulate what is going on to avoid “growing” into functional illiterates.

Qualitative events do occur in classrooms and lecture halls; and they should be seen and appraised. Lead-questions help students to “see the bigger picture” of what participatory education is all about, and especially how people learn to learn. The following engaging prompts should be learning tasks in themselves:

• What did we do at the beginning of this session?
• What did we do at the end?
•How does the beginning tie in with the end?
• What happened in between?
• What does the class or group have to show for the time spent?
• If you were the examiner, what relevant questions would you pose at this point?
• What else can we do, later, to add to what we have done today?
• Are you prepared sufficiently to teach this lesson tomorrow to a mate who was absent today?

There’re benefits for using the “instructional processes” – the pedagogies, as they are called – as part of the learning objectives. It is essential, for example, that learners are able to articulate “How” things were done, and “How” those things can be done better, if possible. Such cognitive exercises help students to acquire the habits of mind for assuming the responsibility for improving their own learning. The focus shifts from what teachers traditionally want students to do, to what the students themselves need to think and do with or without teachers or parents present.

Teachers don’t only need physical types of help like passing out books, sweeping floors, and running errands, etc. They also need the cognitive types of help to make both teaching and learning much easier than we make them out to be. Life itself need not be unduly difficult. It takes commitment and practice to be the very best and at ease in any vocation.

Higher cognitive activities may start from the teachers’ prompts, but as time rolls on in the term, the learners themselves may use such experiences to evolve additional and fresher thoughts that otherwise lay dormant. The central idea is to bring as many divergent views and modes as possible into discussions and attitudes, especially into class activities.

Also, it is a good idea for teachers to encourage the youngsters to look out for, and bring into class, new and additional sources of information and materials related to the key elements in the subjects under consideration: for example topics relating to national development and social issues, science update, and international trends that have or may have bearings on the local situation presently or in the future.

There are useful extracts from some newspapers – not the daily insults of politics but relevant materials – that focus on the topics in the syllabus like cleanliness, health issues, e-wastes, environmental protection, eco-tourism, civic responsibilities, computer applications, etc. Many classrooms are short of materials due to the misplaced belief that only teachers know best what to bring into class.

Students should be made keen participants in the construction, evolution, and spread of useful knowledge. Hands-on experiences in the acquisition of knowledge help to develop neural associations that bond the brain’s many connections. For example: what we remember the most are not what we hear but what we do or practice ourselves? What we are told often goes in one ear, and pales out through the other.

Easy come, easy go; as they say. Learner participation helps in increasing long-lasting retention of knowledge.
Mere receivers hoard information in the short term memory, and lose them quickly. What we ourselves do, think, say, and experience directly are assimilated in our entire body chemistry. The mix of enthusiasm, performance and incremental successes results in neural associations with lasting positive effects. Conversely, fears, superstitious beliefs, insults, whippings and other forms of emotional and physical depressants scar the youth for years on end.
It is important for teachers, especially in “tradition-steeped” societies, to know that students ought to think about arguments, opinions, facts and options – in a non-hostile environment – in order to construct their own meaning, and make up their own minds.

Education is about the ever changing, fluid, volatile world; so learners need to have the dynamic experiences about it. It is not about merely repeating yesterday’s facts today and tomorrow. Learners think and do best when they see and participate in the learning process. The New Academic Year calls for a new beginning and a reflection of some of the best practices. The best practices transform the youth into productive, fulfilled adults.

[Anis Haffar is the founder of GATE Institute (for Gifted And Talented Education). He teaches seminars and workshops for schools – primary through tertiary – in “Methodologies for Learner Centred Teaching”, “Writing and Composition Skills”, “Literature in English”, and “Leadership”. His book “Leadership: Reflections on some movers, shakers and thinkers” is available in Ghana at Koala, Max Mart, Silverbird – Accra Mall, Kingdom and Legon Bookstores. (This article may not be reproduced without the author’s written permission.) Email: anishaffar@yahoo.com]

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