A few weeks back, I discussed the need for a makeover in our education system. It would be baseless and a repetition of what most armchair educators do (impractical talking) if I do not support my statements with some realistic solutions. However, before we consider solutions to the existing problems, we need to look at what really are the various methods that teachers follow in order to make our students learn.

Here are some scenes from three different classrooms.

Example 1: The teacher wants students to learn some basics of shadows.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher walks in with the textbook and starts giving long explanations regarding shadows. There is no interaction with the students and no activity done by the students. She draws a few diagrams on the blackboard and gives further explanations. Students are not encouraged to ask questions and are only expected to listen carefully to whatever the teacher says. Later, questions at the back of the lesson are read out and answers given by the teacher on the blackboard. The students neatly copy down the answers and learn them word for word.

Scene 2: The modern school which believes in activity-based, learner-centered education: The teacher explains how shadows are formed, the meaning of the umbra and the penumbra, how the shadow becomes more and more indistinct as the object moves farther from the screen, how it becomes larger and smaller as we move the object, and so on. She has many teaching aids on her table, which she uses to demonstrate her points. Students try their hand at forming shadows and playing with the teaching aids. The class is lively and students look forward to the class. As soon as the teacher enters the classroom, the students look eagerly at what she is carrying.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher poses a series of problems for the students to solve. For example, she switches on the light and asks students to create monster shadows of their own. She hands over a common object (e.g., a pen) to the students and asks them to study the shadows formed by it. Students form small groups and solve the problems; at the end, they present their findings to the teacher, who writes the main findings on the board and summarizes them properly, using scientifically correct terms to describe what the students have discovered. The class is noisy, with students eager to tell the teacher what they have discovered, but the noise is due to exuberance, not due to mischievousness.

Example 2: The teacher wants students to learn the theorem that states, “The two sides of a triangle together measure more than the third side”.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher comes to the class, writes the statement of the theorem on the board and gives the proof of the theorem. Students learn the proof by rote and reproduce it when asked.

Scene 2: The modern school: The teacher states and proves the theorem. She then asks students to draw various triangles on paper and measure the lengths of the sides. Students verify that the theorem is valid. For the activity part, the teacher asks the students to cut a triangle out from the paper (each student makes a different triangle), measure its sides and verify the theorem.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher has a box of strips which can be joined together to form triangles. The strips are of different lengths. Each group of students is asked to pick out some strips and proceed to make triangles out of them. Soon, there is a cry from one group, “Ma’am, the triangle is not happening!” More students come to the same conclusion but others show that triangles can be formed in some cases. The teacher encourages them to see why this happens: sooner or later, the students respond that some strips are simply not long enough to make triangles. The teacher then restates their finding in mathematically precise language and proves the theorem.

Example 3: The teacher wants to teach children the rules for formation of plurals.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher tells the students the rules and asks them to learn them by rote.

Scene 2: The modern school: Essentially the same as above, but with more examples and an interesting quiz, done more leisurely and in such a way that the students enjoy the class.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher lists a number of words along with their plurals. Students look for patterns and realize that plurals add ‘s’ to the singular. The teacher then gives examples that are more complex: students come up with another rule: add ‘es’. Yet other examples are given and on each occasion, students come up with rules. The teacher lists the rules on the board; she then poses the next problem: how do we decide which rule to apply? Students come up with various rules, and finally arrive at a systematic procedure for forming plurals. If possible, they use Logo (a programming language for children) to write a procedure for forming plurals of words.

On a first reading, it would appear that Scene 2 and Scene 3 are not very different. In both cases, the students are active and enjoying the class. The difference is that in Scene 2, they are verifying what they have been taught, while in scene 3, they are discovering new facts, which are then summarized by the teacher. In one case, the teacher teaches and the students test; in the other, the students discover and the teacher summarizes. In the first case, we produce clerks who are capable of doing what we want them to; in the second, we produce innovators who will tell others what to do.

What type of citizens do we want for our country?

Sandhya Sitaram

25th Sept 09