Letting children think things through for themselves

Neeraja Raghavan

This month, I would like to bring to you a research paper that emerged from my own classroom experience.

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to Rajghat Besant School (KFI), Varanasi, to spend a couple of weeks working with teachers and students. This paper describes a set of two double-period Science classes that I took for Class VI.

I was invited to teach the Archimedes Principle. When I asked the science teacher if the children had been introduced to terms like density, mass and volume, she replied in the negative. So I had to think of a way of using the four periods at my disposal to bring the children to some understanding of why things float or sink, without getting them entangled in the definitions of these terms.

It was my very first time to teach this topic in this way, and I had a great experience.

Since I would like you to read the paper for yourself, (it is freely downloadable from https://thinkingteacher.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/TS-63-3-article-Teaching-Archimedes-principle2.pdf, I am not going to describe the pedagogy in detail. (For readers who prefer watching films to reading, a YouTube link to a short film that captures the gist of this paper is https://youtu.be/ceibN7vvkuk. In essence, what I did was this:

  • I had the children first think about why some fruits and vegetables float/sink, by writing down their predictions and their reasons for these predictions.
  • After they did the above, I had them go out in pairs/small groups and try the actual experiments with fruits and vegetables, so as to verify whether or not their predictions were correct.
  • Thereafter, I invited them to discuss their findings in the large group, so as to arrive at a consistent rule for why things float or sink.
  • When we found that this was not happening (you will find details of this discussion in the paper), I began to tell them the story of Archimedes and the puzzle that King Hiero had put before him: that of finding out if the gold crown was made of pure gold or not, without damaging it in any way.

Now this is normally the point where, as a teacher, I would have told the students the definition of density and explained how the real mass and apparent mass differ, so as to get them to see what determines whether an object floats or sinks.

Instead, I did something that I have never done so far: and I must confess, it was just an act of impulse.

I stopped the story at the point where Archimedes noticed some water being pushed out of the tub as he sank into it. I said that he jumped up with a discovery, shouting “Eureka!”

The author is Founder Director of Thinking Teacher (www.thinkingteacher.in), 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 neeraja@thinkingteacher.in.

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Reading the book of memories: teacher narratives: Teachers’responses

Respected Kumar Sir,

This is Reshma Kiran, a student of your 2009 batch. I hope you are doing well. I am now working as a chemistry teacher in a residential school. You are the person who inspired me to take up a career in teaching. During my B Sc chemistry, your motivation and tips to learn the subject spurred me to choose this stream in my Master’s as well. While teaching certain topics, I still recall vividly the ways that you adopted —teaching us using jokes, but at the same time, not sacrificing depth of coverage. Wherever you must now be teaching, I am sure that you must be enriching all the batches in the same way!
I will remain in touch with you.
Thank you for everything!
Yours respectfully,
Reshma Kiran.

2 and 4) As I was writing the letter to my teacher and remembering the old days, I felt pleasure. I was happy about the passion my teacher had for the subject and also was proud of myself as even after all these many years, I am still in touch with my teacher.
5) I realized that the power of a teacher will stay with us throughout our lives. I realized this as soon as I entered this profession.
6) Teaching organic chemistry, while explaining reactions I enjoy myself most of the time – just like my teacher used to visibly show his enjoyment, while explaining.
7) I didn’t expect to get this kind of feeling while writing a letter to my teacher. It was a nice experience for me.

Reshma Kiran
The Peepal Grove School
Sadum, Andhra Pradesh

Dear Maths Teacher,
I am a student who was suppressed by your hard, harsh and meaningless words, which you thoughtlessly spoke without being aware of what happened that day.

I was sitting quietly and listening to your lecture. Suddenly, my friend (who was sitting behind me) asked me to move a little to the left, as he was not able to see what you had written on the board. So I turned to him, to tell him that I could not move, as then, I would not be able to see what you were teaching.
This was what happened that day.

While this exchange was going on, you started screaming: “What, girl! Why are you talking so much? I hate people who talk in classrooms! This is not a park to sit and chat! Mind you, this is a classroom! Just go out and talk how much ever you want! I don’t want all these things to happen in my class!” Without further ado, you turned me out of the class.

Even though I repeatedly requested you to hear me out and cried, I was not able to convince you that I had not done anything wrong. You were in no mood to listen to me. You didn’t even bother to ask the boy sitting behind me as to what was happening. I cried for nearly two hours because of the way you treated me and sent me out of the class – for no fault of mine! You hurt me a lot, madam, without stopping to think about what this would do to a young girl.

Dear Teacher, I know that you will certainly not remember me as you have meted out the same kind of humiliation and pain to many students for ‘mistakes’ that they never committed. I was not the only one hurt by your abuses and disrespectful words.
Do you know the impact your words had on me and my life? I used to be a very active student, interested in learning maths and in fact, it was one of my favourite subjects from the primary classes. But after this incident, I was not at all inclined to show the tiniest interest towards learning maths.

I really don’t know whether it’s the teacher or the subject that influences a student’s learning – but I do know that for me, the teacher played a key role. Somehow, with 30 marks I passed my 2nd P U exams – I, who was very good at maths and accustomed to scoring above 85 all the time.

This incident also made me shift my career towards a direction that I had least expected: I am now a teacher trainer, who guides and trains teachers with a knowledge of science pedagogy and content for their professional development. I had thought of continuing my career with maths teaching but finally shifted to science teaching due to the impact of this incident. It left an unforgettable memory and deep pain. I recall the day that you humiliated me in front of all my friends with acute disgust.
On that day itself, I decided that I should never be a teacher who punishes and humiliates her students – rather, I should try to understand what’s really going on and try to solve the problem by putting myself in the shoes of that student.
And madam, I now very proudly tell you that I have become a sensitive teacher, who is a very good friend of her students. My students often come to me to share their joys and sorrows, wherever I am, without any fear. In fact, we sometimes even discuss such issues of humiliation inside classrooms. I have never made anyone shut her mouth in my classes, instead, I ask my students to speak, so that I can get to know them better. Because I believe that, “If a student is asked to shut his /her mouth in the classroom, he/she would certainly shut his/her mouth all through his/her life – where, in fact, they have to open up to succeed.”
I really don’t know where and how you are right now. But, if you are continuing to teach even now, I request you to please stop humiliating and punishing your students. And do not ask any student to shut their mouth as there may be wonderful thoughts/ideas coming out of those young champs.

As I was writing this letter to you, I was reliving the incident, remembering the humiliation and the verbal abuses that you threw at me. My eyes are getting wet and I am experiencing the pain of the unforgettable dishonour that still lies deep inside me. I wonder why I started crying and went out without arguing emphatically that I will definitely not go out as I had not done anything wrong. I am wondering why you couldn’t understand the pain I underwent that day, even after crying and begging you so much to allow me to sit inside the classroom.

At the very least, you could have forgiven me just once by telling me not to repeat this again, so that I could have retained my interest in mathematics and maybe, even blossomed into a math teacher. It may be normal for you to treat children in this way but it was completely abnormal for me to be humiliated by a teacher of my (until then) favourite subject.
After writing this letter I understand that teachers may/may not teach well, but they should never harm children’s desire to learn. This letter is an important document for me to look at (and reflect on) my own behaviour in my classroom. I will never be the kind of teacher you were. I will always remember never to humiliate and dishonour my students. And for that I thank you.
Thank you for your time and patience to go through this account of my thoughts and feelings.

Asha Y
Science Co-ordinator, RVEC, Bengaluru

Dear Babu Sir,
I fondly remember you, as that one teacher who has had a lasting impression on my life and career. Today, following your footsteps, I even teach geography to ICSE students.

We were scared of your classes because we knew we had to have revised properly or else we could be pulled up anytime! You never carried a textbook or notes for support. Although I never appreciated it enough then, I do now – especially now that I teach myself. Concepts were made clear so easily, with the help of simple diagrams. You were an expert!

Unlike students nowadays, I feel not having a textbook really helped in many ways. For one, it made us expert listeners and note takers. Our notes were our only source for exam preparation. To this day, these skills often come handy. It simply shows what an amazing teacher you were! This is a skill that I expect from my students, too.

As a class teacher, too, you were strict, yet friendly. You keenly observed each one of us and helped us quietly to improve where required. I have never seen you mollycoddle anyone nor ever behave irresponsibly or irrationally. Of course, you would lose your temper sometimes and that definitely kept us on our toes.

I have everything to thank you for bringing this love for geography into my life and for having provided so many joyful memories of my school years. Some of my very best memories always have you in them. Thank you very, very much for everything.

I have wanted to contact you for the longest time but never got down to doing it.

This is Vrinda here wishing you, your family and the entire Udyogamandal School Community, A Very Happy New Year!!

Hope to meet you sometime in this New Year.

With lots of Respect, love and regards

Yours Sincerely,
Vrinda

Write a letter to the teacher who influenced you the most. – Done as above and emailed to him. I was very happy to receive a reply too.

Notice how your body and mind react while you are doing this exercise. What sort of feelings rush through you as you write this letter? – I was happy that I was finally doing something that I have been postponing for a very long time. I could see myself stopping to reminisce those days in school.

Share that letter with your colleague/friend – Shared it.

4. Share also the feelings and bodily sensations that coursed through you as you wrote out that letter – I was very happy, and I also observed that I did not have to strain to bring back any of the memories. It was as fresh as if it had happened just yesterday. I sensed that I had a very happy childhood and a very fulfilling school life. I also realized how fortunate I was to have a stable schooling having studied all 12 years in the same school. So, had most of my classmates. We were fortunate to have grown up in a community of teachers and students who evolved together over the years, almost like life in a residential school.

5. What does this tell you about the power of that teacher over you? Is this something that you knew all along?
I think I knew this once I was reflecting on life that went by, once I was out of school. His personality was spotless, with no favourites. He stood for what was right, no matter what.

6. Examine if and how some of your teaching practices draw from that influential teacher in your life. I think I expect my students to take running notes in class, which was a takeaway majorly from his classes.

7. Having done this exercise, what is your takeaway? I think reflection is an important tool that one must use from time to time in life. It helps us understand the finer points of life. Yet at times we do this only when forced to, for example, this exercise. I would never have written to my teacher from school, had I not taken this opportunity, even though communicating with him has always been on my mind.

Vrinda Naidoo
The Peepal Grove School
Sadum, Andhra Pradesh