Day in and day out, teachers engage with children’s minds. Surely the topics of child development and cognitive psychology must excite the curiosity of any dedicated teacher. More than any other group of professionals, we need to know about how children’s minds develop and learn. And a teacher could benefit even more from a deeper understanding of the roles of emotion and motivation in learning.
Are there any ‘must-knows’?
This is an assumption, and it would be good to question it. After all, most of us know there are important dimensions to teaching that lie in the ‘present moment’, or in the learning space between student and teacher – empathy, affection and respect, sensitivity to the cues of understanding or boredom – all of which can make or break the teacher’s effectiveness. I do not think that knowledge of psychological theory can contribute much to this ability to be ‘present’ with the student, to create the learning space. One cannot acquire this sense simply through extensive reading or knowledge in any area.
If we’re agreed on that point, then, are there any ‘must knows’ for a teacher, apart, of course, from the content of her subject area? Does a teacher have to know anything about child development, child cognition, learning, the human brain and so on in order to be effective?
The answer is yes, in the following sense. A good teacher is imaginative, innovative, inspired (and therefore, effective). She is someone who can reflect on the act of teaching, and is interested in education as a discipline. For her, teaching is a vocation. She has an investigative, curiosity-driven approach to education. Many teachers I know frequently ask questions like – why do my students find this difficult? Why can’t they remember simple facts? Is there another way to approach this topic? Why is this student unable to perform to her potential? Why is that child so distracted? Should I wait or teach this now? They wonder about things like this and talk about them with other teachers outside the learning space – my fellow-teachers and I do this sort of thing all the time.
Our questions usually fall into the broad area of child and cognitive psychology. Now psychologists publish large quantities of research every month on these same topics. They are asking the same questions that teachers ask, but when they write up their results, their intended audience is other psychologists. However, their findings would be (more?!) fruitful if conveyed to teachers, who are the right people to evaluate their validity and usefulness.
As teachers, we are limited in what we can accomplish given the time we have with our students. We’ve all heard of ‘action research’, a term that stands for teachers conducting and publishing their own educational research in their own classrooms. Action research is extremely valuable, but especially difficult for the average teacher in the Indian context. It isn’t easy to be both the teacher and the investigator at the same time, and also to be unbiased in our observations. But we could read and absorb the work done by psychologists – not with a view to ‘applying’ it (that would be too simplistic) but simply to let it enrich our picture of childhood and learning. Who can deny that this can have an effect on our classrooms?
There is a wealth of research out there in hundreds of different areas of enquiry. To list a few examples – discovery learning, memory and forgetting, cooperative learning, adolescence and peer influences, moral reasoning and discipline, motivation, abstract reasoning development – the list goes on and on.
It is certainly worth our time as teachers to find out more about these topics. But I want to bring in a second benefit to learning more about psychology.
The value of tentativeness
Open-endedness is the essential nature of psychological research findings. They never really settle any question for good. Even though most people prefer certainty, laws that will hold, principles that can be applied for more or less guaranteed results, psychology, frustratingly, does not provide this. What it can give is a wonderfully multifaceted picture of a phenomenon, from which one can draw one’s own tentative conclusions.
Many teachers I have met (and I have had the good fortune to meet many thoughtful, intelligent ones) have their own psychological theories of education. Sometimes these theories closely follow the great names of Piaget, Montessori, Steiner and others, but more often they are developed following the teacher’s own ideas and experiences. Such theories have value in guiding a teacher’s behaviour – but when applied over time without continued reflection, can also be rigid and stifling. I believe it is a question of being wedded to positions versus realising that they are just positions, and that the truth of any theory, however marvellous, cannot be known with certainty. Since no theory is completely true, there will always be situations where it will not work. An awareness of other, perhaps opposite, positions can only benefit the teacher by making her more flexible and tentative in her approach.
This scientific, open minded attitude to theories about childhood and learning will surely reflect itself in our teaching practices.
What can psychology offer a teacher?
- Psychologists have made detailed observational studies over extended periods of time of many different sorts of teacher and student behaviour. These unbiased observations, when collated and summarised appropriately, can provide a wealth of insight and information.
- Psychological research can also give us a picture of comparisons across different classrooms, students and teachers. It takes the teacher out of her own limited sphere of experience, and gives her a broader view of childhood and learning.
- Experiments with an element of control are the only effective way to address questions of cause and effect. If you want to know which of the two methods works better, you need a comparison or control group. A great deal of psychology is based on experimental research.
What have you learned about child development and child psychology from your own experience and observations? What lessons have informed your teaching strategy over the years? Have you or your colleagues come up with solutions that have worked well for you? What are the questions that still worry you?
Kamala Mukunda works with Centre for Learning, Bangalore, and she can be reached at [email protected].
Educating a child
Educating a child is really tough. One first has to understand the child before training him and this, more often than not, proves to be a difficult task. As parents or teachers we always seem to be complaining that our children are not studying, they are always playing, not obeying, etc. If our children are not behaving, we are probably at fault. If they were the centre of our world at one time, today we do not have even a minute to spare for them. In such a world, children feel helpless and isolated. As parents we hear ourselves asking, ‘How do I give my child time from this busy schedule?’ As teachers we ask, ‘How do I keep the child interested and engaged long enough to understand what I am teaching?’ Here are some tips that you could follow.
Understanding the child
Understanding a child’s psychology is very important to know his/her personality. Every act of a child is creative and innovative. Why does a child break a toy? Why does he/she shout in a loud voice? Why does he/she draw on the wall? Just think. It is their creativity and innovation at work here. A child breaks a toy to hear the sound it makes when it breaks. He/she shouts to experiment with sounds. He/she draws on the walls to beautify the house like the colourful natural world.
The language of love touches and changes the heart of a child and is the best solution to most problems. Giving your child time and understanding his/her problems and talking to them instead of punishing them without understanding anything is always the better solution. Punishing a child just because he/she is not behaving the way you want him/her to be is only a means of torture and harassment. This will in no way help correct a child.
Recognising the child’s potential
Every child has immense potential within. Our job is to encourage that potential. But instead of recognising and encouraging the qualities within our child, we scold the child when he starts painting or dancing or drawing and ask him to study. These activities that a child indulges in should be given the right direction so that he/she can master that art.
Set an example
Be the best example that your child can learn from. You have no right to fault your child if you yourself are at fault. A child always tries to ape the qualities of his/her elders. Therefore, be careful while showing anger or frustration. Surely your child is subconsciously studying every act of yours. Set an example that you would want your child to follow.
Observing the child
Observe your child and point out errors wherever you think you need to. But remember not to overdo this. Telling a child what to do and how to do it all the time will not have much impact. Every child has his own way of doing things. Observe this and work within those limits.
Instead of always harping on the mistakes, encourage your child whenever you see him doing something good. Scolding will in no way help the emotional development of the child. Rather, mistakes must be treated as something to learn from.
Be a friend
Be a friend to the child. As a friend you can understand your child better. A child expresses his difficulties/problems only to his/her friend; he/she may be his/her mother, father or teacher. Once you take on the role of a taskmaster you spoil everything between you and your child. The child starts hating you and hiding everything from you. He develops a fear for you. Then you can’t blame the child if he doesn’t want to share his problems with you.
As parents and teachers it is extremely essential that we understand the psychology of our children if we are to be successful.
The author is a teacher in social science. He can be contacted at [email protected].