Rise of the thinking teacher

Pratiksha Chopra

Pratiksha-Chopra Defining a teacher isn’t straightforward. For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mingling of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. I will take it with a pinch of salt and contend that those tales are the consequence and not the process of being a teacher. One has to ring many bells in order to become a teacher. Looking at the roadmap, in and outside classrooms, the process of becoming a teacher is all about two rudimentary truths – how to help learners make sense of information (how to think) and how to communicate (language to think).

When I talk about making sense of information, I mean mobilizing information and analyzing ideas and facts. Where the latter is concerned, I would base my claim in conversations that teachers have or don’t have. Ten years of being a teacher and an additional three years of interacting with diverse teaching communities have made me a dyed in the wool pedagogue, who believes that ‘Students should be taught how to think, not what to think.’ and ‘Good conversations maketh good teachers’. No exceptions, no disclaimers, no doubts. So, allow me the freedom to converse now on this frequently trodden issue.

My tryst with ‘the teacher’ started with my political science teacher in 1998 who believed more in the philosophy of ‘being taught’ than ‘teach’. He was a meek-looking man with a thoughtful smile filtering through his beard, which held more meaning than what he ever wanted to actually convey. His classes began by drawing links with students and their styles of internalizing knowledge. While he facilitated, his mind was constantly fishing for evidence of comprehension in students. Can comprehension be visible in students (beside the eternal nodding)? He provided us text structures to concretize information, a more interesting frame for comparison and contrast, yet another one for ways the topic impacted our lives. He taught us to think in frames. His subject was the only one in my entire schooling that witnessed copious annotations in my books, contextualized doodles and a mysterious bent towards poetry.

Imagine a political science teacher infusing Kahlil Gibran with revolutionary theories! Topics like Marxism turned into a springboard for us to construct knowledge, connect immediate realities – written and actual, express understanding in a language that was functional, and build an outlook on an issue. In a way, he became an emissary of metacognition in a small town classroom a decade and a half ago, and I hold him completely accountable for sowing the seeds of a teacher in me. A teacher who would believe in the power of conversations – with texts, students, and non-verbal inclinations.

Strangely, I understood the impact of what he was trying to achieve the previous year, when I studied metacognition during my research at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. Metacognition not just piqued my curiosity, but posed a question to my own teaching/training practice. I came back and fervently put into gear the metacognitive strategies and routines suited for specific learning objectives and array of learning age groups. I also wanted to find out if the concept worked in under-resourced, language-deficit and three-tier city classrooms, where teachers were hardly exposed to any new ideas about teaching.

Pratiksha Chopra is a Fulbright scholar and trains teachers in effective instructional methods in classrooms. An English Language Specialist, her interests lie in metacognition, visual literacy, poetry as an agent of change and applied theatre in classrooms. She can be reached at pratikshachopra@gmai.com.

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