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Integrating to learn, learning to integrate

1 February 2018 No Comment

Ravindra P. N.

As the class begins, the teacher explains a chapter on ecology from a textbook, while the students hastily copy the teacher’s writing from the blackboard….

Soon, the bell rings for the next class. The lesson learnt, the students close their textbooks, and so too shut all their thoughts about the lesson. They prepare for the next class on geometry. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Often, this is what happens with many students in the class. Of course there are exceptions. This is not the fault of the students or the teachers. But why should classrooms/labs be the only places to learn? Why should reading be the only way to learn? Why should learning be confined to what is there in textbooks/lab manuals? We learn many concepts in school; why do we not learn to integrate them?

Apart from learning by reading from textbooks, there are many other general books that one can read. But not everyone has access to textbooks, not to mention general fiction/non-fiction books. One might argue that children learn to refine/consolidate the lessons learned at school or at home, through discussion or interaction with their parents/guardians, family and peers. But not all parents have the knowledge or educational background or the time to successfully undertake this task and adequately explain or teach them the concepts discussed at school. So it is assumed that the students learn it all only at school. Currently, many schools provide sufficient time for extra-curricular activities such as sports and cultural programmes for all-round development. While such activities contribute to the positive development of various motor skills, there is often little done to promote and improve a student’s abilities in thinking and self-learning. Is learning from textbooks sufficient to improve one’s thinking abilities?

Students never think about such questions. That is because schooling is equated to reading and passing exams, not to mention the meaningless comparison, by parents, of their child’s rank with other students’ ranks in the exams. Some students read because of the fear of failing in exams, or the fear of being treated lowly when they are compared with other students. But the fear of failure seems to be the predominant driving force in the exam-driven system; students work hard,and take extra tuitions to get the most marks. While a healthy competition to learn is appreciable, confining the learning to textbooks only can lead to uneven intellectual growth. By the time students realize about various ways of learning, they are no longer in school. Thus, there is a need to guide school students towards learning that is broader and less marks-oriented. That is perhaps too much to ask. But simple additions/changes to the usual pedagogical methods can be effective.

Even while teaching from textbooks, personal stories or tales of inventions and discoveries can motivate students to think. If everyone thinks the same way, there would be no new inventions. Similarly, if everyone is asked to learn only what is pre-decided, it cannot lead to novelty. But thinking differently can be hard; much like learning to swim or cycle, it takes practice. It takes a teacher to make them stay motivated to practice. But are students getting enough of such practice just by reading textbooks? They get sufficient knowledge from textbooks for sure. But is that holistic learning?

Since each student has different thresholds of learning and thinking, it is important to make them realize what they can do to hone a particular skill. There are various skills one needs to learn to improve learning. These include classifying, observing differences and similarities, recalling related or totally different concepts and comparing/integrating with new information they learn, etc. Can they consolidate all their knowledge about a thing/phenomenon and then question it?

Asking questions can be hard for students who have been trained only to answer in exams. One can play a game of questions to make students comfortable asking questions. You ask them one question and they ask you one in return. For example, after teaching a chapter about solutions and mixtures, one can ask them what it means to say something dissolves in a liquid. What happens to the solute when it is dissolved? Can any amount of solute be dissolved? Can you name any daily uses of solutions?

After teaching students about gravitational force, you can ask, if the earth is round, why do people in Australia not fall off? Do they feel more force than us? If I keep my eraser and chalk on the table what are the forces acting on the table? (This includes many fundamental forces, so this allows the students to integrate and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.) Why is the earth not square? Does the earth’s shape determine how much force it exerts?

The author is a PhD student at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is interested in biology, teaching, science communication and outreach. You can learn more about his work at http://rvndrpn.wix.com/ravindra. He can be reached at rvndrpn@gmail.com.

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