Embracing constructivism

Satyawati Rawool

I decided to teach in school because I believed that I could work with children without much trouble. While I could handle children, I wasn’t confident of teaching them any subject. As an untrained teacher, I was teaching mathematics and science to higher classes but my teaching methodology was restricted to repeating information in the textbook. The only way I assessed my teaching skills was to ask my students the question, “Did you understand?” If a student said that he/she did not understand what was taught I requested him/her to be in school before the morning assembly and then read that text again for him/her.

I then did a course in education in 1976. Two experiences during this course changed my views about teaching and learning. Supervised library reading was a compulsory activity that we as students had to comply with. With a very helpful librarian these reading hours came to be quite enlightening. The librarian allowed us to browse books from any cupboard on request. Old and new magazines and journals were stacked in open bookshelves for easy accessibility. Once, a picture in a magazine caught my attention – a drawing of Piaget and a snake on a tree biting an apple. I tried to make meaning of the picture but could not, so I turned the pages of the magazine and there was a cartoon showing a teacher near a blackboard with the figures of a triangle on it. A child was next to the teacher imagining an airplane and a flying bird. This picture helped me realize that there were other learners like me. When my teacher talked about something, it often reminded me about the many things and experiences that were directly or indirectly related to the topic of discussion.

I read the article on Piaget and it talked about the different stages of development. I went on to read more on Piaget and his work. From this experience I realized asking students whether or not they understood the topic taught was not the right way to assess their comprehension. Instead I should assist learners to talk freely about their ideas on the topic taught. In some cases I asked the learners to search for or create concrete representations, or bring in daily life situations in understanding an abstract concept. I therefore got learners to construct their own meanings of a concept. To illustrate my point, in a math session with class 5 students I worked with bangles. I brought bangles to class to give them the idea of a circle. Then the students and I started creating information about this circle. I did not bother them with the definition of a circle. We drew circles in the notebook and transparent paper and experimented with it for creating information about it. My method teacher appreciated these lessons.

blocks College made it compulsory for mathematics student teachers to complete a course in new mathematics. Classes were conducted on Saturdays and Sundays. I skipped the Sunday classes due to personal and financial problems. I learnt the Sunday lessons from my fellow students the following week. One day I was told that I would miss a really important lesson if I did not attend the Sunday class. I decided to attend one session. That session was conducted by Prof. M.G. Vaidya and my understanding of “mathematics teaching” changed completely. I don’t remember what he taught during the session but l learned that mathematics is not found in the textbook alone and that it can be experienced in every walk of life. The teacher’s job is to help learners discover mathematics for themselves. Today people talk about this way of learning, but in 1976-77 although people talked about learner-centered teaching, teaching practice was more important than learning practice.

When I joined a teacher education college as a lecturer, I was not comfortable with activities like microteaching, lesson planning, theory teaching, as they emphasized only the “teaching” actions and did not bother about the learning of the teacher or learner. I wanted to help student teachers to apply the psychology of learning while designing learning activities. I started modelling lessons on various school topics for student teachers. I allowed student teachers to comment on my teaching moves, how they evolve, learning moves, how learners participate in the learning process, etc., without any apprehension. This helped every one of us (teacher educator and student teachers) to construct an understanding of the teaching-learning principles from a psychological point of view.

I was not yet familiar with the various stages of reflective thinking but I was familiar with teaching models. I started using these models for teaching topics in psychology. Similarly, reflective thinking was part of our micro teaching, lesson planning, and lesson practicing processes. After the introduction of the national education policy 1984, I started assisting student teachers to develop their own criteria for evaluating lesson objectives, lesson preparation notes, lesson reflection notes and lesson execution vignettes right from microteaching practice. Marks of the school practice lessons were finalized during the post lesson sessions in which all observers participated along with the student teacher. These helped create a community of learners who did not work only for marks but strived to construct a constructivist learning environment as per the context and constraints.

These were informal workshop type sessions that were conducted by using two or three periods together, sometimes whole day sessions. This timetable arrangement helped give the relaxed environment required to conduct small group sessions, presenting group work, commenting about modelling sessions, suggesting improvements, articulating understanding of subject knowledge, inviting learners to share their experiences related to subject point, classroom management, working for sustaining motivation of learners, developing a rapport with learners, etc.

I changed the system of evaluating student teachers’ understanding of psychology principles. I conducted open book examinations, examined their performance while they participated in the processes, their ability to articulate their understanding, etc. Marks were given by conducting group discussions. This helped many student teachers give and accept comments with reason and evidence. I could do this as some of my colleagues appreciated lessons conducted by these student teachers.

The author is a retired teacher educator who is interested in learning about learning. She can be reached at rsatya.rawool@gmail.com.

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