Are our students ready to learn on their own?

Vibha Singh

While the verdict is still out on the usefulness of online classes and their pros and cons, one thing that the last few months have made clear is that learning is now more than ever in the students’ control. Where once a student’s wandering mind was brought to attention by a stern look from the teacher, today it’s the student’s responsibility to stay attentive in class. Until a few months ago, students needed the teacher’s permission to leave the class, but today a student chooses when to switch off his/her screen, citing genuine and sometimes not so genuine reasons is up to him/her. While this is an interesting outcome and perhaps one that several noted educationists always intended education to lead to, are our students ready to take the responsibility of learning into their own hands? More importantly, how are teachers dealing with this shift in control?

Are you listening? Am I audible?
For many teachers, transitioning from offline to online was a challenge with no eye contact or access to direct visual feedback from the students. The teachers had little or no clue as to what the students were doing in their online classes or how much of the lesson they had understood. Most of them found that students were asking fewer questions online. At first, many teachers sought to replicate online what they normally did in a classroom. They soon discovered this was not a practical strategy. Making learning more engaging and interesting was perhaps the best way forward. As a result, teachers took a couple of weeks to figure out how to teach students to teach themselves. They spent time designing science experiments that students could do in their kitchens and lesson plans that taught language and grammar through stories. Some of them were inspired by meditation, yoga, creative arts and music classes they themselves attended via Zoom. Deepika Singh, biology teacher, Mother Divine Public School, Delhi says, “The greatest advantage of face-to-face teaching is eye contact. It is easy to gauge if students are following what I am saying. There is an excitement present in the real classroom which was missing in my online classes. Then I got the idea from the Brahamvidya class sessions I used to attend on Zoom even before the pandemic. The trainers used to keep us engaged with lectures and activity in the one-hour session. In my online classes I followed their teaching methodology by creating smaller modules with a practical activity at the end of the session. It is as simple as telling the students to research about a plant in their house. So half of them explained about the basil plant and its parts after researching about it on the Internet.”

Active involvement of students
Academic researchers have found that students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process, rather than when just passively listening to a lecture. Lekshmi Surjith, school principal and head mistress, Vidyadhiraja High School and Junior College, Mumbai, asked her teachers to first engage the students by sending information and animated stories related to their lessons to their parents’ WhatsApp followed by activities and classes for the students themselves.

Narrating her experience Surjith says, “Every Saturday teachers have a quick review of the weekly learning experience of the students. Most students do their homework on time and even share their learning with other students on WhatsApp groups and post their homework. Also some students keep the others on their toes by informing the teachers when students go offline during class.”

But sustenance of students’ engagement is completely dependent on their interest and involvement in the teaching-learning process. Open education resources, materials, labs, videos, simulations, games, are helping teachers find new ways of engaging their online learners. Vrushali Khadye, teacher in BMC’s Pachpaoli School, Powai, asked her students to make videos on the pandemic by obtaining information from authentic sources. The video made by her students was uploaded on YouTube and appreciated by many.

For primary classes, activities such as dictation of simple words during the lessons is helping the teachers as students repeat, read and write the words and are thus attentive. According to Parul Jain, primary teacher, Atomic Energy Central School, Mumbai, “Activities, developmental questions, short quizzes keep the students alert and involved. The concept of flipped learning, wherein recorded videos or other forms of e-content is provided to the students before the online class, keeps students busy and learning. Once the students read or view the e-content, it becomes easy for them to do an activity or assignment during the online session.” Such practices make the students aware of their responsibilities and help them stay focussed.

Nidhi Saxena, assistant teacher, English, Vivekanand High School, Mumbai adds, “Balancing the use of multimedia and open educational resources with teacher-delivered content is a successful strategy to keep the students involved. Another thing is to design a classroom-like environment for them to fit in and familiarize themselves with this new concept. We also need to talk to the students to take responsibility for their own learning and approach this as a skill to be taught and learned. My students, for instance, asked me for short, learning modules for grammar which they could use as reference when they are attempting questions from the textbook.”

Giving students ownership of their learning
Giving students options to choose what and how they should learn gives them the opportunity to feel and become responsible. Rashmi Singh, teacher, San Marino High School, California, says, “Give students a chance to talk, to construct their own knowledge, give input as to what and how they learn, and you’ll find that their engagement levels shoot way up. Give students an opportunity to make their voice heard by asking for feedback on the learning experience and content. Don’t wait till the end of the lesson to find out about adjustments you can make along the way. For example, you may think students will enjoy group projects, but find out they actually dread the idea.”

Now the students also access a variety of content, free of charge from multiple sources via the Internet. Anjali S Siddhu, assistant professor, Chemistry, Allen Swami Vivekanand Junior College of Science & Commerce, Mumbai says, “When your teaching-learning process includes ideas and examples from life, students really get involved in new things and most of them love the new ideas that I bring up in this process. I give them a visual explanation with respect to each and every aspect of these choices.”

A similar strategy is adopted by Jyaysi Kapadia, psychology teacher at D Y Patil International School, Mumbai, “At the end of the class, I encourage students to make a tiny note of what was done. This exercise makes them aware of their learning. Providing frameworks and not direct pathways to tasks at hand, also increases the ownership of learning.”

Making the right choice
One way to make students responsible and accountable is to support them with necessary resources. Mohammad Zeeshan, teacher in a Brihan Mumbai Corporation (BMC) run school, started a YouTube channel for his students and his blog, My Digital Classroom, features material like flashcards, posts on topics such as how to make PowerPoint presentations, obtaining medical cards, using Digilockers, among other things. “Kaun Banega Gyanpati” is a series of question papers that he has uploaded on his blog as well. Zeeshan says, “Everyday my students attempt the questions and message me on WhatsApp.”

Many of Zeeshan’s students who used to be quiet in the offline class, because of the anonymity factor are participating more in online class activities. Rushda Khan, Atomic Energy Central School, says, “I participate in all activities in the class now. As I used to be really shy asking questions in the class but now there is no need for me to face the whole class. I am learning new tools and apps so that I can showcase my projects and assignments with new innovations.”

Once the student becomes a part of shaping the learning process, he/she becomes aware of his/her needs and requirements. This helps him/her identify his/her interests and he/she feels free to pursue learning in a stress-free environment.

Mildred Lobo, principal (International board), Bunts Sangha’s SM Shetty International School and Junior College, Mumbai says, “Assignments are in the form of role plays, presentations, class discussions, experiments and more. Project based learning makes our classes come alive. Students are now creating quizzes for their classmates, preparing classroom newspapers and even making short movies. Our school magazine is in the form of a movie instead of a magazine and is completely a student led initiative. Giving students choices for showcasing their learning has made them feel more valued. This also helps them present in a manner most suited to their style of learning.”

When a student chooses a particular action or mission to be achieved, he is automatically drawn towards it, because it’s his liking and related to his interest. Insha Hamid, a class 11 student, says, “Giving students freedom in education is sort of like a ‘sink or swim’ situation, if it is done right and the necessary lessons are learned and ingrained in the minds of the students, there are colossal benefits they can reap.”

Now a few months into the online learning mode, many teachers are in favour of giving students choices at varying levels to decide a new topic before the current one ends or to decide the submission date or sometimes to choose their group members for group activities. Sheetal Ramkrishnani, French teacher, D Y Patil International School, Mumbai advises, “Yes, at many junctions, it’s imperative to know their view on choosing a teaching strategy coupled with options to teach that will lead to great learning. But, teachers should also know the pull and push concept and create situations that make it possible or easy for students to understand the subject and parallelly when to give the baton in their hands to make a choice.”

Scaffolding strategies
When the student is given the study material, he has the liberty to view and learn at a time of his choice. The student can not only decide the time but also the pace of learning. He can engage with the study material as many times as he wants to understand and consolidate the concepts. Pratik Thapa, English teacher, is of the view that, “When students are given choices they may be overwhelmed as they will need to have a tighter organization on their part. Self-management is something that can be worked on daily, and over time students will find it easier to make choices and prepare for online classes. Initial hand holding may still be required, for which every teacher must be prepared.” Explaining about the procedural scaffolding, which helps students use the tools available to them Avan Jesia, English teacher at D Y Patil International School, Worli is of the view that there are several ways; “For instance, inviting students to direct and enact a scene from a play through their individual directorial and creative lens; using breakout groups of 4-5 each, where every group tackles a task independently so that the class as a whole sees that there’s more than one way to approach a task. Students are also made aware of what a choice would potentially result in. Discussions regarding the options definitely helps but the ultimate authority to make the choice is with the student.”

Most teachers have realized now that cultivating an engaging online learning experience is hard. It takes time and patience. Teachers will need to spend less time designing the content of the subject and more time around the learning experience so that children can find and create their own meaning around that content. Also they will have to go beyond the curriculum or assessment that’s connected to the syllabus and recognize their goal and mission to expand every student’s potential.

The author is a feature writer and visiting faculty in the colleges of Mumbai University. She has contributed articles to publications like The Times of India, Free Press Journal, Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Housing.com on education, real estate, consumer, civic and infrastructure, policy and environment issues. She is the founder of the NGO, Women Against Cyber Abuse Foundation (WACA). She can be reached at [email protected].

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