What are your beliefs as a teacher?

Neeraja Raghavan

In our last exchange, we examined the prior concepts and beliefs that children come with when we engage with them in our classrooms. So I thought an appropriate extension of that paper would be to read about the beliefs and values that we – teachers – come with when we enter our classrooms! Unlike our previous installments in this series, you will find in this one a set of very do-able exercises which are guaranteed to help you reflect on your teaching practice.

This time, I went through a chapter of a book and it made very interesting reading indeed. The author begins by posing a provocative question: by asking whether a teacher should randomly select her instructional strategy and mode of assessment, or if there should be some deliberate thought behind this choice. He then goes on to point out that there are certain underlying beliefs and values that determine even these so-called ‘random’ choices that teachers make, and leads the reader through a systematic route of examining (and enquiring into) these values and beliefs. He assures the reader that if an honest self assessment is conducted, as suggested, this will pave the way for the development of clear targeted objectives.

teachers Just for fun, I too, joined the exercise. I invite you to try it as I enjoyed it greatly.

To begin with, he jolts the reader’s attention by stating a vital research finding as below:
The greatest academic growth is not dependent upon students’ gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Rather, the teacher’s effectiveness is the single greatest determinant of student success (Darling-Hammond, 2000).

So if you ever had any doubts about the power that we wield as teachers, Darling-Hammond’s research study sets those doubts at rest!

The author then goes on to use a lovely analogy for describing perspectives: altitudes! Imagine yourself climbing a high mountain – the mountain of your perspectives! The more overarching the perspective, the higher will be your altitude. Thus, he places values at 30,000 feet above sea level, core ideas at 10,000 feet, with interactions, relationships and learning on ground, i.e., sea level.

Reproduced below is his table:
Perspectives That Inform Your Values and Practices (Ref. Chapter 1, Succeeding with Inquiry in Science and Math Classrooms by Jeff C. Marshall)

Perspective Core Values and Practices Question to Address
30,000′ Teaching philosophy What do you value?
10,000′ Core ideas What is truly important for students to know and be able to do?
1,000′ Success How do you know when students have been successful?
100′ Strategies How are students engaged in learning?
Ground level Interactions, relationships, and learning How can learning be maximized?

He then nudges the readers to take a moment to write out their own teaching philosophy in one or two sentences. I found this to be tough – but very fulfilling – to do. He points out that this should be a dynamic statement which will evolve as we do, as teachers.

Now, if you are bewildered and are looking for guidance as to how to go about this sort of articulation, he cleverly adds:
If you are like most readers, you might now begin to peek ahead to see what the “right” answer is. After all, our educational upbringing has taught us to look for the single right answer instead of seeking thoughtful, unique solutions.

I couldn’t help chuckling as I read this: for this rings so true especially in our Indian scenario, where most of us are so conditioned to look for the ‘right answer’!

He then takes us down to the next notch, and asks us to review what is truly important. By this, what he means is:
The 8 to 10 things that you want your students to know or be able to do by the end of the year.

Now I found this very difficult to put down. On the surface, it seems as if the prescribed syllabus will dictate this. However, teachers know only too well that present day syllabi are often too heavy (especially in the senior classes) and frequently necessitate focusing (by the teacher) on some portions of it over others.

What determines this selection? Is it the types of questions expected in the end-of-year examination? Or is it the inherent importance in the selected topics: for living everyday life?

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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Deepening conceptual understanding, teachers in response…

Whenever I have taught a lesson in the form of a story, I have found that if I relate it with real life or bring in examples from everyday life, it really helps students understand the concept. Let me narrate an experience. In one of my 10th grade classes, I started a chapter with a story about Kabir but without taking his name. I narrated all that he went through in life and how he must have felt living in a society divided on religion and which practiced discrimination. I asked them questions like, ‘what would you have done’ or ‘how would you have grown under such circumstances’. This is how we spent an entire class, just discussing Kabir without even taking his name. Kids talked about many stories and acts of kindness that they had seen or heard of. It was only at the end of that session that I revealed the name of the poet/saint we were discussing.

When I gave them a test related to the topic, I figured that they had written and understood more about Kabir’s personal life (as this part of the lesson was in the form of a story) than about his poetry.

While I was happy that learning had happened, my purpose was only half achieved as the students couldn’t answer questions about his poetry. The reasons I thought were –

  • The lesson had not been appropriately planned to cater to each child’s need.
  • I taught Kabir’s poetry like I would any other poetry, so the impact that the story of his life had did not spill over into the study of his writing work.
  • I should have planned from the children’s point of view and not as per my own interest.

With junior classes (3 to 5) I plan to have songs, funny poems, role play, flash cards and different activities to keep them involved. How one plans to ‘hook’ their students will depend on the topics to be taught. Most of the time, I employ conversations, question and answers, or I even enact in the class.

I feel it is very important to divide a chapter into chunks to balance the information, otherwise it becomes too much for the child. For juniors, I start grammar from gender(ling) and number (vachan) and bring them up to the tenses. I begin the tenses with the simple present and present continuous and only then move to the simple past and past continuous.

Giving information in the right dose helps each child digest and grasp well. Although at the end one has to be able to reconnect all the concepts so as to effect an overall understanding, otherwise, it will become a mess and they will forget everything. So the time frame is also important.

With seniors, I once taught them one huge chapter in three big chunks, because I felt that if I divide it further it will lose its essence. Each chunk was taught as a different unit, so the amount of energy and time that went into each chunk was more or less equal. All basic language teaching rules were followed: reading, clarifying difficult words, dictation, etc., with some chart work to support them with the last and the next chunk. Dividing a chapter does require a lot of hard work and preparation from the teacher. I found the question and answer and discussion methods to be very effective tools to connect all the loops.

Allowing their ideas
In a country like India, where several languages thrive, Hindi (my subject) may not often be language of expression, so I have to work hard to get my students to express themselves in a language that may be difficult for them. But I have also had students who have been up to the challenge. I have always tried to create an atmosphere where we are all learning better. A teacher is guiding and at the same time exploring her own knowledge. We should all facilitate the unfolding of new ideas without judging each other.

Helping them to see the current reality and beliefs they already have
I have come across children having ideas about gender, caste and religion. As a teacher, I never tried to address these issues directly. But I have tried (indirectly) teaching them, telling them stories or planning group activities to help them truly understand these ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t try to impose anything on their tender minds.

Can you provide your students with a new context or situation in which they can apply this learning so that they now have to think through the problem on their own?

According to me, the whole purpose of education is awareness. Making them aware about a place, people, surroundings and self inquiry is an important part of this whole learning exercise. Yes, definitely, it will help the child to understand on his/her own and understand more clearly. Every time I teach I always keep in mind what is necessary and what is to be left out. I try to bring in what worked and leave out what was not effective. I provide my students the space to come up with their own ideas and encourage self inquiry to get them to understand the concept so as to learn together more effectively.
Swathi Gautam
The Peepal Grove School, Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh

Before starting a new lesson I always discuss the topic with my students. These discussions are lively and act as a hook to the lesson they will next be learning.

By connecting the chapters in their textbooks to everyday life and learning I help my students form information chunks and find connections between them. This helps them remember their lessons.

I try and create a friendly atmosphere in class so that my students are not afraid to answer, discuss, and comment on the lesson being learnt.

Also in order to give my students new experiences and spaces to learn I not only am watching videos by physics experts but also a TV serial called Science of Stupid.
Kendriya Vidyalaya, Chandrapur

I learned this lesson over a period of time that learning is all about sharing with open heart and objectivity. It is about sitting together and creating an environment of listening and accepting others’ ideas. I teach chemistry and I know the power of effective questioning. To me the most important rule of teaching is knowing my students and leading them to the solution by letting them explore on their own without deviating from the goal. For this, the teacher must be well equipped with knowledge, understanding and application skills. The teacher should also know when she should hold her students’ hands and when she should let go. A teacher should never give up on her students. I try and understand each of my students’ strengths and weaknesses and thereby work out how to react to each of them. This is how I believe I have come to earn the love and respect of all my students.
Asia Khawar
Fauji Fertilizer company FFC Grammar School, Sindh, Pakistan

As a teacher there have been many instances where I have been really satisfied after teaching a concept but later found out that my students didn’t understand the lesson as well as I thought they did. I particularly recall an instance of having taught parts of the flower to class six students.

Before beginning the lesson when I asked the students what they knew about the parts of a flower, most said they had already learnt the topic and therefore did not pay as much attention during the lesson. (This I found out later when trying to understand what had gone wrong with the lesson plan.)

The scientific names of the parts of the flower were new and confusing to the children and they couldn’t relate a live flower with the diagram in their book.

I found out about these problems only after I gave them a worksheet to answer based on the lesson. So I went back to the drawing board and we did the entire lesson again. A real challenge for the students was relating a real 3d flower to the 2d image of the same in their textbooks. We recalled the the learnt concepts during informal situations in the playground or the dining hall. These chunks of information helped relate to the topic in the class.

The construction of working models helped the children clear the concepts.
Ratna Singamsetty
The Peepal Grove School, Andhra Pradesh