Re-imagining the learning landscape

Shikha Takker and Ritesh Khunyakari

Radha has just joined as a primary teacher in a private school. As she enters class 5, she feels excited and nervous. She wants to listen to students, know more about them and work towards making mathematics accessible to all. The principal assures Radha that she will make a visit to her class. She is happy that the principal is interested in her teaching. The principal observes her class for a few minutes and leaves. After the class, Radha meets the principal and asks, “How was it?” The principal tells her that she needs to learn to have a disciplined class and have the last word on every problem. With freedom to children to make alternate suggestions and question, Radha’s class was just the opposite. With time, the principal and senior colleagues observe Radha’s classes and find them noisy and slow in terms of textbook exercises. Radha continues to receive similar feedback from other observers but she does not have anyone with whom she can discuss her struggles about teaching, the new curriculum, and student difficulties. The visits by seniors do not help her teaching but add to her troubles and the performance pressure leaves her disappointed!

The reality of Radha’s classroom is not very different from the classrooms of many teachers who begin teaching with enthusiasm, wanting to try different pedagogic ideas but eventually settle for the routine ways of teaching. Why does this happen? Do Radha and her seniors have a different understanding of what teaching entails?

Making sense of teaching
In the context of formal education, classrooms are spaces where teaching and learning takes place. It is a meeting ground for students with different abilities, aspirations, and backgrounds. The complexity and richness of a classroom comes from the interactions between the teacher, students, and the subject-matter at a socio-cognitive plane. In this space, the prime responsibility of making learning possible resides with the teacher. A teacher is expected to maximize student learning by planning the learning experiences and reciprocating appropriately to in-the-moment situations. However, after a few years, a teacher becomes routinized, with syllabus completion as the only goal.

ttta-1 A dominant culture of teaching affects the institutional work environment in hidden ways. This culture includes beliefs held by teachers and parents, such as children do not learn unless taught, mistakes should be corrected immediately, children should be kept away from conflicts, etc. Teachers, constantly immersed in a work culture that propagates and reinforces such beliefs, either accede to or passively imbibe such beliefs. Other stakeholders such as the principal, parents, curriculum designers, teacher educators, etc., also contribute by enforcing systems to ensure that the teaching happens in “prescribed” ways.

A well-demarcated system with clear division of roles operates in the structure of schooling: students learn, teachers make the learning possible and accessible to students, and teacher educators are experts who assess the performance of teachers. The success of this structural edifice marks at the same time, a failure in acknowledging the worth of classrooms as valuable resources for learning of teachers and teacher educators. The complexity of classroom experiences needs to be understood and utilized for situating learning of students, teachers, and teacher educators.

Why observe classrooms?
In our country, teacher preparation and evaluation involves classroom observations. Education officers, teacher educators, and principals, with a certain teaching experience and training, make visits to classrooms. For in-service teachers, this visit is once or twice a year and the teacher whose class will be observed is informed. Classroom observations can vary from taking a passing look at the class or notebook work to sitting in an ongoing class for a few minutes. The teacher educator ‘inspects’ a class and completes the proforma on the teacher’s performance. The judgment about teacher performance has implications on teacher identity and making administrative decisions.

Classroom observations are central to preparing teachers for their profession. In teacher education programmes, practical teaching exposure includes micro-teaching, practice teaching, etc. As teachers teach, mentors or teacher educators observe and comment on teaching. Teachers are expected to prepare special lessons for observation so that they can display not their routine but their best. The ‘best’ implies that teachers have all materials required for the activity, manage to keep the class disciplined, and achieve the objectives promised in the lesson plan. What is it that teacher educators observe and find valuable?

What gets elicited from a classroom observation?
Let us discuss the experience of a science teacher in a government school.

Tarique introduces the idea of biodegradation to the seventh graders by asking students to list things around them. Students mention wooden chair, clothes, bananas, potato chips, duster, chalk piece, plastic bottle, steel box, slippers, etc. After having about 20 different names on the board, Tarique asks, ‘what will happen to a plastic bottle after you throw it in a bin? Some children say it goes into a big dumping ground. A girl talks about seeing women separate the garbage. Tarique asks the reason for sorting garbage and its basis. Students discuss different criteria for classification like nature of material, breakability, edible, and non-edible.

Tarique then asks children to imagine, ‘what will happen to all the materials lying unused in a very old house?’ Students respond, ‘the colour may fade, things break, become soil, etc.’ How do we know which one will become soil and which will not?” Students were certain that glass and plastic bottle will not become soil while peels of fruits and vegetables, potato chips will turn into soil. They were not sure about clothes. Later, Tarique tells them that objects that completely mix with soil are called biodegradable materials and others non-biodegradable. Students decide to find old things around and note down how they looked. They also identify empty spaces in the classroom to keep some objects and observe them over time. The items they agreed upon were bananas, potato chips, cloth piece, iron key and chalk piece.

After observing the session, the teacher educator remarked that it was an activity-based classroom but the teacher did not use any teaching aids. Students were making noise and were asking unnecessary questions like, would a chappal be degradable or non-degradable, is their tiffin-box made of stainless steel, biodegradable? Tarique wanted to discuss a student’s experience of seeing an onion kept over several days in a plastic bag, develop black and green spots. Being unsure, Tarique asked this question to the teacher educator. He was advised not to waste time in discussing students’ experiences and use textbook examples. Further, he was asked to include structured written work, improve classroom management skills and follow the textbook closely. Notice the similarity in the feedback given to Radha and Tarique. So what are teacher educators’ expectations from teachers?

Intrigued by these thoughts, we asked teacher educators (DIET faculty, education officers, and school principals) in informal interviews and sessions in workshops to elaborate on the role they perceive for themselves and what they observe in classrooms. Their responses were:

  1. infrastructure: availability of blackboard and chalk, desks in order and facing the black board and teacher, sufficient light, air, etc.
  2. student behaviour: disciplined, giving answers to teacher’s questions, not talking to each other unless asked, maintain neatness in notebook work, taking turns (no mass answering), copying correctly from the board and in time, listening to the teacher carefully and following instructions, etc.
  3. teacher behaviour: asking questions from students, correcting students’ mistakes, using language (mostly English) clearly, taking care of bright children as well as slow learners, ability to draw the attention of students in proper ways, fulfilling the objective of the day’s lesson, classwork and homework, asking questions to individual students.
  4. others: proper activity along with lecture, considering the need for using lab (should be avoided mostly as it is chaotic), use of teaching aids, correction of notebooks, tracking students’ performance, completion of activity in time.

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The conversations suggest an emphasis on behavioural patterns and physical space limited to desks, light, and board in the classroom. An exceptional response came from a female teacher educator who checks the functionality of a ladies’ toilet in visiting schools. When we explicitly asked this question to other teacher educators, they said that this is not their concern. They are expected to focus on the classrooms, not elsewhere. On probing about the kind of oral and written feedback provided to teachers, it was noticed that teachers and teacher educators rarely engaged in discussions about teaching and learning. The feedback form was given to the in-charge of the school, occasionally a copy is given to the teacher. The comments by teacher educators signify ritual accomplishment with little relevance for enriching teaching.

Teacher educators often talked about the significance of time management and felt that teaching classification or multiplication with half should not take an entire 35-40 minutes period. There should at least be three or four different topics with some written work in every class. Also, the feedback for teachers does not include comments on the content of teaching. For them, the content to be taught is present in the textbook. There is a preference towards disciplined classrooms where children are sitting in order, take turns while talking, complete their class work quietly and follow the teacher’s instructions. Several teacher educators believe that if students respond to all the questions posed by the teacher, then they are not learning anything new.

Interestingly, several beliefs attributed to teachers (correction of mistakes, emphasis on (correct) answers, disciplined classroom, use of teaching aids, etc.) are consistent with the beliefs of teacher educators. The content (subject) matter, nature and form of student-teacher and student-student interactions, teacher’s thinking and decision-making in class, students’ questions, teaching difficulties, opportunities to learn from diverse opinions, etc., are missing from the teacher educators’ discourse. We need to ask why decisions central to teaching are missing from the teacher educators’ imagination?

Assessment of a teacher by teacher educator without any interaction presents a unilateral mode of feedback. The top-down approach of learning is evident as students learn from the teacher and teacher from the teacher educator. What about teachers and teacher educators’ learning from the experience of teaching? If we continue to adopt this top-down approach, we will create multiple levels of cadres for training. Can we think of communities of teachers and teacher educators talking about dilemmas or experiences of real classroom teaching?

Structured proformas for observations are inadequate in capturing the diverse contexts of classroom teaching. Teacher educators need to reflect on their own teaching experience, engage in meaningful discussions with teachers about their struggles, challenges and problems while teaching. They can together engage in the process of identifying connections in content, develop ways to support students’ learning by addressing difficulties in student learning, sharing strategies to teaching difficult concepts, appropriate sequencing, and inter-relations among concepts and domains. Exploring ways to support classroom teaching will in turn enrich the experience of the teacher educator visiting different kinds of classrooms.

The contemporary imagination envisages the classroom as an ‘object’ or ‘site’ where learning is monitored. Instead of tapping the value of classrooms for learning, we overemphasize the pedagogic transactions over content, deliverables or outputs over the process of learning, right answers over connections with learners’ knowledge, and judge students and teachers in an environment of learning more than their participation in a class discussion. Classrooms ought to be looked at as authentic resources for the learning of students, teachers, and teacher educators. Moving from ‘classroom as a site for practice’ to ‘classroom as a resource enabling learning’ reconfigures the essence of classroom spaces. The teacher’s experiences of dealing with classroom realities and the teacher educators’ experiences from diverse classrooms will widen the scope for nurturing learning from each other. Motivated by this idea, we are in a process of developing tasks to initiate the building of a community of practitioners. An atmosphere of mutual learning, trust, and empathy can connect Radha and Tarique with other teachers and teacher educators who share similar concerns and a sense of purpose.

Shikha Takker is pursuing her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai and is a visiting faculty at TISS Hyderabad. She can be reached at shikha4268@gmail.com.

Ritesh Khunyakari is a faculty at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad. He can be reached at riteshpk@gmail.com.