Learning to adapt

Jeny Rapheal

During the monsoon last year, there was a mandatory in-service course for school teachers in Kerala. It was meant for updating our skills in applying technology inside the classroom. From our locality, there were four math teachers, all in their mid-forties. We had to master a new software called Geogebra in order to introduce various concepts in mathematics and demonstrate the nuances of problem-solving using the computer. Software management was easy. The difficulty lay in becoming students once again. In order to acquire fluency in the software commands, we had to invest effort and time on a daily basis.

“Be smart to handle smart classes,” our tutor had said. This means that we must be willing to accommodate one more thing between us and the students – the computer. We are not new to the computer and its not-so-soft world of software. We have seen it, touched it, and used it often with much difficulty. It is easy to browse the Internet, but to type a document of even 50 words we need a 100 minutes as more command keys have to be dealt with. We are not computer illiterates, but in handling technological devices, we are inferior to our students. Technology had not reached the frontiers of mathematics whether in learning or in teaching when we were doing our bachelor’s or master’s in 1990-2000. (See: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/in-other-news/170817/kerala-teachers-limping-from-reality-to-possibility.html)

Change is difficult
Change is the law of life. Still, the human mind is averse to change especially when change necessitates a deliberate concerted effort. Continuity is the default mode of the human mind. Departure from the familiar mode of acting and thinking threatens our comfort zone. Sometimes change necessitates un-learning, relearning or interpreting already learned things from a new perspective. All this demands cognitive energy. But human beings are born cognitive misers. Their basic tendency is to conserve cognitive energy1.

What about unwanted changes? These will definitely be stressful. A change becomes unwanted when the individual is not “ready” for it. The lack of readiness maybe due to perceived inadequacy or inherent threat or loss. Unwanted changes, if they are inevitable, hurl the individual into repeated bouts of distress. Sudden unexpected life incidents like the death of near and dear ones, loss of job, failure in business, etc., call for major fundamental changes in the life of individuals.

“Learning” and “change” are synonymous
Speaking from the stance of studentship, “change” is a special slow process. “Change” is integral to all the best definitions of learning. Susan Ambrose and colleagues define learning as a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning. According to Richard E Mayer2, learning is the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behaviour due to experience.

For the actualization of the change that learning is purported to make, readiness or receptivity of the learner is the essential factor. Here is a typical case of an average student in 10th standard named Raju. This year he is appearing for the board exam. In the board exams, one is supposed to perform to the fullest of one’s potential. So this year his mother seized his mobile phone and restricted access to social networks. Raju lost interest in studies. He used to spend at least half an hour on his social network on a daily basis. As it came to an abrupt end without a convincing explanation, he reacted. His indifference to studies worried his parents. During counselling, Raju revealed his grudge against his mother and her over-anxiety regarding his studies. After reconciliation through several counselling sessions, Raju regained his lost momentum and his interest in studies. His parents agreed to allow Raju to use the social media and the Internet for 30 minutes a day and some more on holidays, provided he kept a journal recording his daily Internet use and his learning experiences at home (in terms of time spent, subjects studied, etc.), and submitted it to the class teacher after each weekend.

When learning becomes unwanted
For a student who is not interested in learning, the change process involved represents an unwanted change. On the contrary, for a well-motivated group the change that accrues from the learning process is spontaneous and even a cause for joy. This is one of the basic principles behind any kind of effective learning whether it is taking place inside the classroom or outside. Intrinsically motivated students persevere despite the hardships and challenges involved in learning. Perseverance, without which the learning of many important skills is impossible, is a source of pain for those students who are not interested in the step by step changes brought out by the stages involved in the process of acquisition of skills.

Yet, some students are oblivious or unaware of the kind of changes that should occur in their thinking, behaviour or entire personality by pursuing a particular stream of learning. In other words, they have no clarity about the outcome or objective of learning. They learn just for the sake of learning. Learning without a goal or right understanding of the nature of change that should be developed will itself pose as unwanted learning. Readiness to learn is the missing link here.

Most children who drop out do so because they fail to find a purpose in being in schools. According to a recent report in The Times of India, 85,000 students from municipal and government institutions in Delhi dropped out of school in 2016-173. The survey reports that more than 50 per cent parents of corporate and government schools were not satisfied with the quality of education. Anjan Ghosh, the senior vice president of Hansa Research (a global market research agency conducting market research in 77 countries) notes that an “alarmingly high percentage” of students (85 per cent) take private tuitions, and correlates this with the percentage of parents (29 per cent) “not being happy with their children’s school as the primary factor.”

These students would not have abandoned school if they or their caretakers had felt “the expected change” accruing from classroom learning. Any teaching is effective only when it is capable of making a “movement” in the student along intellectual/social/emotional dimensions. Otherwise, it is dead and ineffective.

Education and change
The system of education shares a symbiotic relationship with society. Waves of change enter the portals of educational institutions in the form of new demands. Demands, as invisible self-regulated forces, will overhaul the system today or tomorrow however rigid it may be. Hence as a system, in education, there is no question of unwanted changes. All changes are to be treated as wanted – or legitimate. The role of education is to propagate healthy ways of dealing with the change and educating young minds to do this in best possible ways.

For an educator, professional momentum is about keeping pace with change. Fundamentally a profession, unlike a job, is flexible and dynamic and teaching professionals are supposed to be seekers of excellence rather than mere settled job holders. Changes in education whatever they may be, whatever their origin can be experimented with as well as implemented only through teaching professionals. Hence, it is on the collective as well as the individual mindset of teaching professionals that the future of education rests. According to NCTE (National Council for Teacher Education) chairman, A S Mathew, educational reforms start with teacher reforms. He says that as per the national assessment survey of NCERT, the teaching and learning situation is not improving4. Similarly, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2017) based on a survey conducted across 24 states of rural India revealed that one-fourth of the students in the 14-18 years age group are unable to read their own language fluently and 57 per cent struggled to execute basic math operations.

In a conceptual analysis done with 31 research studies about teaching and 41 studies dealing with the psychological construct “personal growth initiative”, I found that “teacher-effectiveness” and “growth mindset” are closely related. If the collective intelligence of an organization is devoid of “growth mindset”, it forgets to change and lags behind many reforms. Teachers lacking “growth mindset” are highly likely to view educational reforms and initiatives for the same as unwanted. They don’t perceive the thrust of the change pervading the society. The hazards of interpreting the campaigns for changes/reforms as “unwanted” by such teaching personnel are drastic.

When do changes become unwanted?
How do educational institutions approach the prospect of change? Do they have timely information about the possibilities of changes for betterment? Are there any peculiar factor/factors that predispose the individuals of the institution to consider a change as unnecessary or unwanted?

  • Lack of knowledge about the nature of change – its whys, hows and ultimate effects eliminate even the possibility of the change. Very often, even the knowledge about the possibilities for change does not reach the school personnel. For example, most Indian teachers have not heard about the principles of learning and teaching recently published by a host of scientists comprising educationists and psychologists under APA (American Psychological Association). Their findings promise a revolutionary change in classroom teachings if tried and tested5. Similarly, many educational institutions in India are yet to draw on the full potential of parental educational involvement. Some schools think too much involvement from parents will affect the autonomy of school functioning. But scientific research keeps reiterating that optimal educational involvement from parents is indispensable for the academic, social and emotional success of students6. Schools in India are yet to make out what is optimal for them as far as parent educational involvement is concerned. We don’t have a parental involvement policy.
  • Even after having clarity about the nature and purpose of the change if the leader of the institution fails to orchestrate a proper action plan and steer the course of the change in a desirable direction, the prospect for the change will pose itself as “unwanted” in an automatic fashion because lack of energy to move ahead and meet the objective of the change slows down the momentum. Ultimately, the change process withers into silence.
  • A group of individuals deprived of a “growth mindset” can beat any well-intented action plan for change. Hence in such a group, creating a “readiness” for the change must precede the planning for change. A growth mindset is the main ingredient of perseverance and persistence upon which all change process meets its objective. For example, educational research heralds the need for setting broader aims for student success, i.e., it must not focus only on grades or scores that students gather in public exams. But the proliferation of educational institutions, and age-old norm of assessing their functioning exclusively in terms of pass percentage, is creating an insurmountable barrier. As a consequence teachers too rely on examination oriented teaching at the cost of tending to other social, emotional, creative needs of the students. A successful massive shift in the mindset of the teaching world depends on the potential of the growth mindset of individual teachers.
  • Conflicts have the power to render the prospect for a change into “unwanted” change. Generating a shared vision about change reduces conflict about the intention of the change. A distributed leadership, in which all stakeholders (parents, teachers, society, students) have enough space to learn about the necessary elements of the change must be ensured by the persons at the helm. In other words, change must not be a top-down mandatory process.
  • Lack of necessary infrastructure often stands in the way of change. A change becomes unwanted when stakeholders lack the essential infrastructure to implement the change. In due course, the need for change itself is forgotten. Lack of classrooms and adequate teaching staff prevent many schools from blossoming. And they stagnate. Any change is an unwanted change for them.

Equipping students to deal with unwanted changes
At the individual level, an unwanted change is something that is unpleasant, threatening or unexpected. Natural calamities, loss of dear and near ones, the divorce of parents, failure in exams, etc., can drag students into the travails of unwanted but unavoidable changes. Not all navigate these change processes in the same manner. Education as a holistic process aimed at the all-round development of students is supposed to equip students to deal with such changes in a healthy manner. For this, teaching must go beyond the mandatory rigid frames to take care of students’ social-emotional learning (SEL).

SEL, in addition to incorporating into classroom teaching, is delivered as a separate exposure in many educational institutions in the western countries. It seems those educational institutions are convinced of the importance of SEL in student success. For example, Berkeley public school in California justifies the reason for accommodating SEL into their curriculum as “Years of research in the field of childhood resiliency and social-emotional learning have taught us that emotional and behavioral regulation skills can be explicitly taught in schools and that the benefits are huge. Significant data from 213 studies indicate that SEL programs are associated with positive results.”

Social-emotional learning programmes prevailing in the scenario of education worldwide target five areas7

  1. Self-awareness: this includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
  2. Self-management: this includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  3. Social awareness: the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behaviour, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and support.
  4. Relationship skills: this includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  5. Responsible decision-making: the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behaviour and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

SEL is not a single program or teaching method. It involves coordinated strategies across classrooms, schools, homes, communities and districts. Indian schools are yet to embrace this possibility.

Final word
In this era of knowledge explosion, a modern teacher’s aim is not to deliver knowledge/information. Teachers are supposed to equip their students with that skill of “learning how to learn”. There isn’t any dearth of information/knowledge. But there is an ever-mounting deficiency of inspired seekers of knowledge and skill. A teacher is supposed to create the right kind of knowledge seekers. Priming the brains for seeking the right kind of knowledge is the new objective of teaching.

The cultural impact due to globalization, technological revolution and consequent societal changes are constantly reorienting the priorities of student life. The impact of social media, nuclear family influence and increased need for student autonomy has made a drastic impact on the quality of the student groups entering the classroom year after year. Teachers who have not prepared themselves to anticipate changes in students’ attitude will be at loss. A teacher’s intuitive traditional wisdom regarding student behaviour and the right kind of student attitude is slowly losing its sheen. To address the swiftly changing world (of students) along socio-economic-cultural dimensions a teacher has to renew herself on a daily basis. Teachers are supposed to keep pace with even the subtle contemporary changes taking place in the world of education and society as well in order not to be labelled as “outdated”.

1. Stanovich, Keith E. (2011). “The cognitive miser and focal bias”. Rationality and the reflective mind. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 65–71. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195341140.003.0004. ISBN 9780195341140. OCLC 648932780
2. Richard E Mayer. http://theelearningcoach.com/learning/10-definitions-learning/
3. 85,000 students in Delhi schools dropped out last year, The Times of India, December 15, 2017. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/85000-students-dropped-out-last-year/articleshow/62075449.cms
4. Education reforms start with teacher reforms: NCTE chairman, The Times of India, July 20, 2017. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/education-reforms-start-with-teacher-reforms-ncte-chairman/articleshow/59674524.cms
5. Top 20 principles from psychology for pre-k-12 teaching and learning: Coalition for psychology in school and education. http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/teaching-learning/top-twenty-principles.pdf
6. Hill, N.E., & Tyson, D.F. (2009). Parental Involvement in Middle School: A Meta- Analytic Assessment of the Strategies that Promote Achievement. Developmental Psychology, 45, 740-763
7. https://www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2013-case-guide.pdf

The author is a higher secondary school teacher working in Kerala with 17 years of experience in teaching. She has published 20 research papers in various national and international journals. At present she is doing research in adolescent psychology in Bharathiar University, Coimbatore. She can be reached at jenyrapheal@gmail.com.

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