Adventures in Learning

Broken Records, New Records

First Published November 5, 2020
[Some of us might remember the good old vinyl records that occasionally got stuck in a groove. The music went round and round, repeating the same phrase over and over, till someone stepped over and lifted the stylus arm.  Hence, was born the phrase for anyone who keeps repeating the same things over, “like a broken record”.  Sorry to put you through this again, but I feel quite strongly on the subject of online teaching and learning.  The two terms are inseparable as I believe that the result of “I Teach” is that “You Learn” and not “I have taught”. Read, react, object, share, comment .. but give me some feedback, please.]

Over the past seven months I have been part of a teaching and learning community that has been challenged by the new normal – it’s been seven months, so we are dropping the quote marks around those words.  But we also need to learn from the experiments, successes and failures of others and to stop trying to force-fit the old normal into new strait jackets.  Learning has changed.  Teaching needs to follow suit as quickly as possible.

Copy and Paste
One of our first reactions to online teaching, was to replicate the teacher as closely as possible while dealing with the vagaries of online technophobia.  A sort of copy-paste of what teachers did before the pandemic.  The problem is that not everyone taught the same way and to expect that to happen just because we are online is, to me, a huge mistake, to be treated with a Ctrl-X rather than a Ctrl-Z.  For the technophobes, that’s DELETE instead of UNDO.

The ingrained belief that all learning happens only through the teacher is mistaken. Home made videos can be equally ineffective, especially if they show the teacher talking into a camera, or worse still, talking into a screen below the camera — we all need to learn to look directly into the camera during online classes.

Right Aligned
I contend that the teacher is always right, is wrong! There’s Google and Wikipedia too and we have put the power to search and counter check in the hands of our students.

The learner has the tools, the syllabus, the books, the access to other learners in the peer group, and access to teachers across the world.  YouTube, Udemy, Coursera and Khan Academy have made it possible, at the cheapest of rates, perhaps free.

So, teachers need to reinvent what we do in these online classrooms in order to stay relevant. Instead of “correcting” – if there’s one thing worse than online teaching, it’s online correction — perhaps we need to c
atch them doing something right for a change.

Spellcheck and Red Squiggles

In my work with teachers I faced a lot of queries involving the use of the red pen.  Teachers asked me if there was any way that they could underline, circle, mark crosses and write comments on the students’ work.  Old habits die hard.  There are definitely alternatives but most of them revolve around giving advice, comments on text, suggestions for highlighted portions of text.  There are tools that get close but are just not going to clone the teacher with an exercise book in front of her.  A re-look at assessment is the need of the hour.

Learning not Teaching
Schools have begun to rename their staff as “educators” rather than teachers, perhaps recognizing that there is more to educating than the traditional model of teaching.  Once the teachers focus on motivating students to learn on their own or through focused assistance, they will change the classroom transaction model.  Online systems tend to push us in the direction of learning independently as opposed to teaching by telling.  Here are some of my favourite ‘prescriptions’.  I am aware that many of these work best for middle school and high school, but I am sure there are models that work for Primary too.

Interaction.  The children are missing each other.  One teacher I talked to says that she starts every class with 10 minutes of pandemonium which has slowly evolved into social interaction.  That’s really what they come to school for, and what they are missing.  If you rearrange the letters CHEATING you get TEACHING.  And that’s the story of peer learning, it’s not cheating. Promote interactive work, allow collaboration, set up inter-team rivalry, create situations for cooperation and allow mistakes to happen.  The learning is likely to be lifelong.
Games. Any kind of games help learning. They motivate students. They create pleasant situations for promoting practice. Use online resources – there are plenty of games online, especially for younger children.  And most of them are free.

HOTS.  Replace a lot of rote learning with scenarios that require Higher Order Thinking Skills. Create assignments that require thorough familiarity with content. Ask questions that need research skills to locate answers.  Open book learning will prepare them for their future. 

Questioning Ask, don’t tell. Listening is not learning, speaking is. The more questions the teacher asks, the more interactive the classroom becomes.  Questions can be broadcast to the whole group, students can write down their own answers, post them in the chat, or raise a hand and answer on screen. There are several models that can be followed. Let’s do our homework.
Appreciate. We are not in the classroom where sarcasm and put-downs used to work.  Online we are being assessed as much as our students.  Imagine that there are no wrong answers, only opinions or perspectives.  Dignify student responses.  One of my favourite tools, when you get an unexpected answer to a question, is to get other learners to frame questions to match those answers. 

Templates for Trust
Finally we must address the elephant in the room — what about examinations?  This is one major obsession for schools.  Every school I have worked with has attempted to run the exams in the normal way, except that it is now remote.  Some schools have gone through elaborate arrangements to keep cameras on and proctor the exams;  some have invested in systems that “watch” the students.  We are so consumed with cheating.  I wonder about the signal we give students and parents — “we don’t trust you, you are a bunch of cheats who are going to use unfair means to pass exams!”

Other schools have messaged parents and students that they are going to have the opportunity to show that they can be trusted and can attempt examinations without invigilation. Some schools have told the students that they can refer to their texts, but the questions will require different skills and, of course, speed.

It’s my firm belief that the examination system as it exists will need to change.  Board exam requirements will have to undergo a transformation.  

We might need to consider the following viewpoints:

Everyone can learn at his or her own pace – the tortoise reached his destination, right? Online learning makes that immensely possible as school bells don’t ring to time.
Set benchmarks and targets rather than ranks and competition – online learning makes it possible to set personal targets and differentiate the teaching.
Focus on learning not on scores. Reward effort. Peer assessment can be very accurate, let students assess each other’s work.

Parents are the co-educators, share the learning plan with them, they want their kids to succeed.  Let them be the proctors if you must have exams — they will be tougher on their own kids, provided there is no competition they need to win.
Develop trust – it takes time but eventually ethics wins.

If we follow the advice of Kiran Pai, Director of Vidyashilp, Bangalore, we should prioritize relationship building over academics and academics over assessment.  Collaboration and cooperation over competition.  It’s a long hard climb away from where we are.  

Believe in the future.  Set new records as educators.