“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
how does your garden grow?”
– lines from a nursery rhyme
With the current emphasis on state-of-the-art technologies that can be used in the classroom, we are losing sight of a very basic and simple ‘teaching aid’ – attention. Luckily for teachers in the developing world, this is a universal and inexpensive resource.
I was reminded of the importance of ‘attention’ in an essay by Doris Lessing titled ‘Group Minds’*. Asks Lessing, “In which town is it said to teachers something like this, …that attention is one of your most powerful teaching aids. Attention – the word we give to a certain quality of respect, an alert and heedful interest in a person – is what will feed and nourish your pupils.”
Allied to this remark is the observation that children respond best to teachers who expect them to learn well. In the classroom as in the world outside, stereotypes and unconscious prejudices influence and distort the attention – and the expectations – which a teacher directs at a particular student or at a particular section.
While in general, boys may be given more attention in a classroom than girls, I recall a classroom situation which was a little different. On that day, a student had been asked to tackle a section of the lesson, and being a teenager, he tended to keep looking for approval in the direction of the girls. After a while, he moved towards the girls’ half of the class, continuing to address them rather pointedly. At which point, some of his friends from the neglected half of the class, who had been getting steadily more restive and frustrated, called out, “Bhool gaye kya? Hum bhi hain class mein, yaar, hum bhi hain! (Hey, have you forgotten us? We are also here in class!”)
Clearly, this suggests that attention deficit from the ‘real’ teacher must be keenly felt, and quite consciously as well. Conversely, positive attention can be flatteringly motivational. Teachers and parents too, are presumably aware of this truth, but it is amazing how partial and biased we can be in meting out our attention.
A psychological experiment conducted in the States in the 1960s has always remained in my memory as an example of how magical the effect of positive expectations can be. This experiment, popularly known as ‘Intellectual Blooming’ is formally titled ‘Teachers’ Expectancies: Determinants of Pupils’ IQ Gains’**. It was conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.
Eighteen classrooms were studied, and within each an average of 20 per cent of the students was reported to classroom teachers as showing unusual potential for intellectual gain. Eight months later, these unusual children showed significantly greater gains in IQ than did the remaining children in the control group.
This hints at the tremendous significance hidden in the power of simple attention over the average student, and underlines the unsuspected role of expectation in changing or subtly altering the way a teacher looks at or treats a student. It suggests that the power of attention is nothing short of magical. It is the key to transformation, which is what the dry-as-dust classroom, mundane as it may be, is designed to achieve.
The author is a former journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Group Minds, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside; Doris Lessing; Jonathan Cape, 1987. www.dorislessing.org/prisonswe.html.
**Teachers’ Expectancies: Determinants of Pupils’ IQ Gains, Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University and Lenore Jacobson of South San Francisco Unified School District, Psychological Reports, 1966, 19, 115 – 118.