Deepening conceptual understanding

Neeraja Raghavan

Before setting out to transact the day’s lesson, have you ever confronted your students’ prior ideas about the concepts that you are about to teach them? If you haven’t (indeed, even if you have!), here is a research paper that will be a sheer delight to read.

I am assuming that you have read the classic paper of the fourth grade teacher, Deb O’Brien – when she confronted her students’ prior ideas about heat and temperature.* For a long time, I had fallen back on that paper whenever I wanted teachers to see how to probe students’ prior ideas before launching into lesson transaction.

However, I recently read Esther Zirbel’s Teaching to promote deep understanding and instigate conceptual change and was simply bowled over. The author goes far beyond Deb O’Brien’s work – as she delineates an entire roadmap for the teacher to effect a change in the understanding of students. Most of us – as teachers – would acknowledge wanting precisely this: to put it as eloquently as Esther Zirbel: “The ultimate goal is to promote deep learning in the students’ own minds.” However, it is no secret that we are often so overwhelmed by the enormous volume of content, that we have little or no time to first delve into the prior (mis)conceptions of students. Our Boards and Examinations effectively rule out that possibility – or so we believe.

For a moment, I implore you to park that assumption. Just for a moment, please. [At least, until you are done reading this piece. You can freely revert to that belief right after you finish!]


Zirbel begins by defining what concepts are: mental representations, which in their simplest form, can be expressed by a single word, such as ‘plant’ or ‘animal’. What is meant by ‘deep understanding’, then? Zirbel declares that this is the manner in which concepts are represented in the student’s own mind, so as to form connections. These representations could take the form of images, words, smells or sounds – even models, in complex cases. Zirbel goes on to clarify that ‘deep understanding then means that the concepts are well represented and well connected.’ Deep thinking allows further connections to be made, by building upon what the student already knows. It now becomes obvious that unless basic concepts are deeply understood, further thinking will be based on shaky understanding and therefore unlikely to be more than superficial.

Given the limitations of the human brain, ‘chunking’ of information seems to allow the brain to remember far more concepts – than if they were stored individually. Chunking also allows inter-connections to be easily made between seemingly disparate chunks, thus allowing the mind a broad overview from a different vantage point. This sort of data-organization also lends itself well to meaningful associations, another tool for easy recall.

In Zirbel’s paper, I found the biological explanation of neural connections to be utterly fascinating. Right from birth, our brain cells have been storing information through our neural networks – and this process will continue until we die. Each time we pick up something new, the brain searches for existing circuitry that can accommodate this new piece of information. If such wiring already exists, ‘fitting in’ also occurs immediately. If it does not, then additional connections between neurons need to be made. Naturally, this demands time, effort and some experience.

It is thus biologically clear why we are prone to staying in set thinking patterns and instinctively resist changing them. As teachers, though, isn’t the latter precisely what we aim to do – especially if our students hold incorrect or inaccurate concepts that impede their meaningful engagement with the world?

Well, here lies the heart of this paper: challenging students’ existing ideas about the world. The process of confronting alternate concepts that the student holds is inevitably confusing: and no one likes to be confused. However, the author asserts that this is a necessary step in the unfoldment of deep understanding. I love the following sentences in this paper:
The problem is that as soon as students get told the “correct” answer, they like to accept and adopt it – in other words, as soon as the answer is articulated, in most cases, the process of thinking through a problem is stopped.

The author is Founder Director of Thinking Teacher (, an organization that networks with teachers across the country. Thinking Teacher aims to awaken and nurture the reflective practitioner within each teacher. By taking (action) research out of the classroom, Thinking Teacher develops the (action) researcher in the teacher. And then, by bringing research into the classroom – as in this series – Thinking Teacher’s goal is to help build deep inquiry and rich learning into the teaching process. The author can be reached at

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Discipline through punishment? Teachers in response…

Saroj Bhasin
Headmistress, Bal Bharati Public School, Brij Vihar

The title, Discipline through punishment?, reminds me of an incident that happened during my interview for the position of the Headmistress of a Montessori school. “How are you going to tackle truancy of your department?” This was a question posed to me by one of the panellists. “Sir I think children only understand the language of love and gentleness. That is going to be my first approach to tackle any kind of indiscipline.” My answer seemed to satisfy them. At that point though, I did not realize the severity of indiscipline/behaviour issues that I would have to deal with.

Students being young have little or no patience. They get excited quickly and have no patience. My initial approach has always been relationship-based which involves dialogue, reasoning and involving students in decision making…depending on the age of the child. I would always like to be gentle, interactive and understanding. Students respond to love and affection. Parents can be called if the problem is driven by situational factors. The course of action is discussed both with teachers and parents. Changes are recommended that have to be made at home and in school.

A child has to be handled with the knowledge that he is an adult of tomorrow. I personally believe that every teacher gets to the level of the understanding of a child and responds to his dilemmas. Don’t force instructions down the throat. Explain changes so that the child can understand the situation in a better way. It requires patience. Children learn when you are around them and infuse confidence. Build excitement for trying new concepts. They should understand the concept through observation. Give them the freedom to explore. If the child is not willing to learn `to write’ or ‘to read’ and he wants ‘to colour’, let him do it at that point of time. It is always advisable not to force them to learn a specific topic at the specific moment.

Effective learning is only possible in a well-disciplined environment. A teacher must come to class prepared with lessons for the day. She should make sure that she has all her materials and methods ready to go. This will help save time and maintain discipline in the classroom. Allow the students a few moments to talk to her or to each other before she starts her lesson. Begin each class period with a positive attitude.

The above belief and strategies have impacted my own effectiveness as a teacher/Headmistress. Adequate planning of lessons, effective classroom management and emphasis on moral values, directly or indirectly inculcated discipline among students and helped me be successful to a large extent. It was my personal belief that to gain respect I have to exactly do what I say and have my words congruent with my actions. If I require my students to keep their desks clean and neatly organized, I try to keep my own desk neatly organized.

As a student I found all my teachers highly effective since the focus always used to be based on inculcation of discipline through moral values. Our teachers believed in inductive methods of explanation, reinforcement and modelling. It was not that the children were never punished for bad behaviour but handling was different. Handling disrespectful students with calmness and dispassion decreased the likelihood of it happening again. A child is born neither bad nor good. Children have the possibility of becoming good or bad according to how they are treated, the kind of experience they have and their reaction to their environment.

As I go back about 12 years, I can recall a very important instance. As Headmistress of the school, while on my rounds in the school corridor I could see an awful fight going on between two boys. From a distance I could see one of the boys hitting the other, pressing his neck, not allowing him to breathe or call for help. Seeing this dangerous act I had to immediately rush to the spot. My immediate reaction was to yell at him and slap him so as to stop him from worsening the condition. My one minute delay could have been dreadful for the child being hit. Being the last period, the children dispersed for their homes. I planned to take up the issue next morning with the boy`s parents. To my dismay the next morning I was called to the Principal`s office, where I found a complaining mother asking for an explanation as to why I slapped her son the previous day. Without being hesitant and without scolding the child I requested the complaining mother to ask her son to narrate the previous day’s episode himself in front of the Principal. The Principal as well as the mother were shocked to hear the story. The boy broke down at once, tears ran down his cheeks as he apologized for what he had done. He realized his mistake and promised never to do it again. I hugged him. The mother was sorry too for coming to the Principal without finding out about the incident. The mother was a single parent and it became clear that the boy needed extra attention. From then on we engaged the boy in school activities. This motivated him to have good self-control and he soon turned out be one of the best students of his class. I was very happy about this great achievement. Other students and their parents got to know about this incident. They were also motivated to a large extent.

Swati Gautam
Teacher of Hindi, The Perpal Grove School, Sadum, AP

  1. Whenever I have faced an act of indiscipline in my class I have tried to identify the root cause of the problem. Instead of taking the whole class to task, I find out who is actually responsible. I talk to the different groups in class and understand the group dynamics. I then put the problem kids in different groups. I subtly tell the class that working together is not only fun but also a good way of achieving our goals. After this I often find that even the disinterested kids settle down and start working in a positive way. This strategy has worked for me in a more effective way than talking or admonishing.

    If a class is well-planned there won’t be any space for such incidences. However, in every class there will be a few students who cannot focus and sit in one place, they will keep testing our patience. I generally ask them politely to calm down and try to focus, take a walk and come back or send them to the library. Respecting children, being sensitive towards their behavioural pattern and working with them to build a healthy classroom atmosphere goes a long way. But if my strategies don’t work and I feel some children are not responding then I send them to the principal to ask for her help.

  2. My response to the above question tells me about my own growth as a teacher. Earlier I used to get upset with kids who wouldn’t listen in class or would not follow instructions, but as I grew as a teacher I realized I had to work on making classes more interesting to help kids learn. Despite our best efforts if a child is disruptive in class then we as teachers must not judge the child on the basis of his/her appearance, sometimes they pretend to be that which they are actually not. Teachers should work like doctors to find out the root problem and treat it in a sympathetic way and must not get easily frustrated or upset during the process.
  3. Yes, it does have a strong impact and I feel happy when I am not losing my patience and am dealing with kids in a more mature way.
  4. I remember those of my teachers who always dealt with more love and affection, gave me space in the class, never judged me for my limitations and came forward to help me in crisis. Highly ineffective teachers were those who never came in time, gave lots of work, never responded to help, or insulted students in front of everyone.
  5. In my school days we were more self-motivated and those who were not were sent out of the class. There was no space for dealing with a child and his/her problems. We were from middle class families and well aware of our parental expectations so our class was mostly disciplined. In my other school we were all high achievers, got admission through very difficult entrance exams and were more focused. I want to mention that I studied classes 5 to 12 in a girl’s only school.
  6. I remember many children who responded very well and did extremely well in the subject though learning Hindi was difficult for them. Making classes interesting gave them the chance to express themselves in the language and this helped them learn. I feel happy when my former students to this day acknowledge that they never imagined they would do so well in Hindi. My current batch of 10th though hasn’t responded well and I still find them difficult to manage. Most of them have behavioural or emotional issues. I have tried many ways and tools to improve their skills but only a few have responded.

    As a teacher my objective is to keep working with and helping students in the best possible way I cannot leave any negative impression on the child’s mind. Love and kindness should be the main tool because we are dealing with lives and should not give them any traumatic experience.

Sunita Gehani
Bal Bharati Public School, GRH Marg

  1. After deliberate thought, I came to realize that there is no single technique that I use the most but there is one technique that I use the least.

    According to the article, all of my frequently used techniques fall under the category of “relationship- based”, more specifically “involvement” and “recognition”. An example of this is – throughout the class, I often joke with my students, this I find results in sustaining their attention. I maintain a friendly relationship with all my students and talk to them in a respectful tone. I find that this makes them think twice before being disrespectful with me. They do not want to “upset” me because they do not want to hurt our positive relationship. When a student does misbehave, instead of raising my voice at them, I maintain a calm voice and/or use stern facial expressions. I find that using fewer, more effective words in a controlled voice is more effective than yelling at them. Thus, my least used strategy is “aggression”. Another technique that I rarely use is threatening them with suspension or taking them to the principal or VP. In my opinion, this is not effective because it makes the students believe that the teacher is weak and does not have any authority. It is important to make the students believe in the teacher’s capabilities.

  2. I strongly believe that discipline and effective learning can only happen when there is a two way relationship between the teacher and her students. My students enjoy my jovial interactive nature and by upsetting me they know they will miss out on my jokes. No one likes a boring class! I have always been a proponent of negative reinforcement rather than punishment.
  3. I find that using the above strategies and beliefs, I have learned to tackle the problem of indiscipline. This makes me more relaxed and confident as a teacher. Instead of focusing on managing indiscipline issues, I can now focus my time and energy on introducing newer more creative methods to make my teaching more effective.
  4. Reading this article made me realize that times have changed a lot! Back when I was a student, the strictest teacher was found to be the most effective one. This is because students were afraid of punishment, they were afraid of their parents being called to the school, they were afraid of embarrassment. Parents were always discouraging of their kids’ negative behaviour. The relationship between teachers and students was always formal. The most ineffective teacher on the other hand was the one that was the most lenient and relaxed. Now that times have changed, and parents are extremely protective of their children, we as teachers must adopt newer strategies to manage them.
  5. Back in the day, the techniques used by the most effective teachers were usually in terms of punishment – for example, slapping, ear pulling, beating, murga punishment, writing “I will not talk in class” a 100 times and so on. These are techniques that are no longer feasible/effective. As far as discipline is concerned, less effective teachers were rare back then! Most teachers I can think of were very capable of handling discipline issues.

    A handful of students in each class tend to occasionally take advantage of my jovial nature and try to disrupt the teaching. The way I handle this is by ignoring their behaviour at first. If that does not solve the issue, I direct a question at them related to the lesson and have them answer it. This brings their attention back.

Sonia Kalra
Bal Bharati Public Schools, Pitampura Branch

Quoting lines from the article that caught my attention “Teachers resort to adopting punitive techniques knowing fully well that these are inefficient strategies when they are frustrated or not supported by management”. Reading these lines it seems that the author had very aptly accepted the inability of the students to react to punitive measures as well as partially owning up that the teachers may themselves be helpless at times. Everyone acknowledges that teachers are aware of what works best for the students but as very rightly remarked sometimes they are bogged down by their own problems and trust me there are many. It is really surprising that everyone chooses to ignore this problem and focuses only on research for students. Human resources are the most valuable asset for a school and they generally are not given their due share. Teachers are exploited in the name of the humble profession. I think a teacher chooses to join the profession and is fully aware of her responsibilities but there is a need and lot of scope for improvement somewhere else…..

Give her due respect and empathize with her.