Tell me, show me, show and tell me

Geetha Durairajan

A couple of weeks ago, a very good friend and colleague, Dr. Shruti Sircar was talking to me about her five-year old daughter and how she was teaching her and two of her friends the basics of drawing and painting. One Saturday morning she was teaching these kids to shade. She had drawn some flowers with petals and was teaching them how to do light and dark shading using crayons. She told the children that they must also make sure that they shade without going outside the line.

She began demonstrating what she meant when her daughter Mamon stopped her and said: “Just tell me, light or dark?” Shruti told her: “Do a mixture of both” and the little one got on with it. Obviously she knew how to do light and dark shading and therefore did not need to be reminded about not going outside the line. Mamon’s query was only to clarify, and Shruti responded suitably, taking her level of ability and skill in painting into account.

The second child attracted Shruti’s attention and said: “Aunty, show me what to do.” So Shruti took a crayon and actually shaded a little bit, doing a few light and dark strokes. At this point, this little one also began shading. It is possible that she did not know the terms ‘light’ and ‘dark’, but when she saw the two kinds of shading on paper, she understood. Here again, the request from the student was clear and Shruti taught the child what she needed.

But this story does not end here: while Shruti was showing her second student what to do, the third kid attracted her attention and made a very different request. “Auntie, show and tell me what to do.” So, Shruti again took a crayon and this time as she shaded, she also spoke: “See, your colouring must not go outside this line. If you want to get a light effect, you don’t press the crayon too much; to make it dark, you press a little harder like this.” With this ‘showing combined with telling’ the third child also began shading.

teach-observe-in-colour Shruti narrated this experience to explain to a doctoral student of mine that even children know what they want and can ask for it. She also wanted him to understand that when we teach, we instinctively and automatically modify what we say and do to suit the needs of the students. She concluded by telling my Ph D scholar: “Vikas, look at what these children asked: One child says ‘just tell me’, Another says: ‘show me’, and a third says: ‘show and tell me”. When I heard this narration, I thought to myself: here is an excellent example of learner-centered continuous evaluation, done only through observation.

Shruti did not conduct any test, nor did she assess her ‘students’ by giving them an assignment. Through pure observation she knew what each child was capable of and could modify her teaching or guidance accordingly. She had given them some work to do. When they began doing it, they had some questions and doubts. The questions asked/requests made by the three children showed her that they are at different levels of ability and that they needed different kinds of help. Shruti was able to reflect on the different ways in which she helped her ‘students’ and talk about it. Other teachers may not be able to talk about it, but all of us modify our teaching to suit our students’ needs. Such modification within the classroom, which is a part of ongoing teaching, can happen only through observation. Sometimes, as in this instance, students themselves may ask a doubt or question and that tells us what help they need. At other times we just watch them working and we deduce their capability and know how to help them. The only difference is that in this informal painting class, it was only three students. But each one needed a different kind of help. In a school classroom instead of three individuals, there will be many more children. But this does not mean that there will be 30 or 40 or 50 different kinds of help needed. At best there may be five or six different kinds of assistance and guidance that our students need. All of us as teachers are capable of doing what my very good friend was able to do, but we may have to think about it a little bit.

When we look at what Shruti did, and more importantly what she said, two important factors stand out. First, she had just made a mental note of what the children asked her and with that she was able to also remember their different levels. Second, she did not compare one child with the other. Her observation only helped her teach better; it was not a judgment. We do know that eventually the child who asked to be both shown and told must and will reach the level of knowing what light and dark shading is and how to do it. From that perspective, it is clear that there are three levels of painting skill exhibited in these three students. But this does not mean that Shruti saw one child as better than the other; she used her observation to guide her teaching. Such observation, that also feeds into teaching or helps us get a good sense of where our students are, is the essence of continuous evaluation (CCE).

As teachers in classrooms, all of us observe our students as we walk around class. We notice who needs help, who is busy writing and scratching, who is pressing the pencil so hard that the notebook tears, who is frowning or is distracted. We respond accordingly. Very often these observations stay inside our minds. CCE is only pushing us to keep a diary and write it all down. CCE is all about valuing what we as teachers do in our classrooms with our students.

CCE is not about conducting tests, or entering marks in a register. CCE these days is often reduced to two formatives and two summative assessments, with a few assignments and one project thrown in. If the school pushes for it, a few checklists are filled out.

For administrative reasons, the monthly tests and the quarterly and half yearly examinations have to be conducted but these can never become CCE. We need to remember that the last letter of CCE is not ‘A’, (for assessment) or ‘T’ (for testing) but ‘E’ for evaluation. This is an evaluation that only the teacher in the classroom can do. We know the help we provide our students. When the nature of that help changes we also know that they are learning and growing. Recording these small growths and these changes is what our continuous, ongoing, part of teaching-observed evaluation is all about.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at

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