Sunday, February 26, 2017

Four truths about teaching and learning

‘Can you name four things the teaching profession has taught you?’ asked a young teacher in a freewheeling session I had with a small group of school teachers on an orientation programme last week. ‘Why only four?’ I asked perplexed. She flashed a coy grin in response. Just like that, it seemed to suggest; you could talk about two, three or even five. But I decided to stick to four, and spoke about four of the insights I had derived in my three-and-a-half decades of chalkface experience. Considering the lightness of mood, however, I wanted to speak half in earnest half in jest. As it turned out, the earnestness far outweighed the jest.

Teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning
The first insight is: Teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. What I mean is that what our students learn during our classroom teaching is not in proportion to what we teach. In other words, intake, as they say, is not equivalent to input. Teachers are often quick to protest that they are not to blame; a host of factors, they point out, are conspiring against learning. Yes – and no! There are, of course, constraints in any environment, but apportioning the blame is not going to help. Instead, we, teachers, must look for ways of maximizing the intake, which in turn will lead to the maximization of learning.

How can we maximize the intake? Perhaps by increasing the attention span of the learner. This we can achieve by motivating the learner to listen, by making our classroom communication appealing, by introducing variety in the learning experiences we offer, by introducing interactions of different kinds (e.g. learner-text interaction, teacher-learner interaction, learner-learner interaction), and by providing for experiential learning – by relating textbook knowledge to real-life experience. If we can attempt to go further and inspire the learner to go beyond the scope of the lesson, the intake may even exceed the input.

Telling is not teaching
The second insight is: Telling is not teaching. (I have borrowed this catchphrase from Bright and McGregor whose 1970 book, Teaching English as a Second Language, which I read in 1982, begins with this statement.) In other words, teaching doesn’t mean merely providing information or, worse still, explicating the textbook. It calls for methods and techniques. But if the teacher merely – mechanically – adopts expert-developed methods and techniques, they are not likely to work. This may even lead to the teacher complaining that the methods and techniques have failed in his classroom – I have heard this complaint often enough on teacher education programmes. The problem is that most teachers merely adopt expert-developed methods and techniques and find them failing at the chalkface. If, instead, the teacher adapts them, according to his sense of plausibility – according to his perception or judgement of what can work with his learners and what cannot – he will find the methods and techniques working effectively. (“Teachers’ sense of plausibility” is a beautiful idea the well-known ELT scholar, Dr N S Prabhu, whom I regard as a guru, discusses in an insightful article, ‘There Is No Best Method – Why?,’ in TESOL Quarterely, Vol. 24, Number 2, Summer 1990)

To exercise one’s sense of plausibility, one should be capable of some reflection. It may be relevant to briefly mention here what Donald Schon, a philosopher in the American Deweyian pragmatist tradition, has said about reflection in professional practice. In his book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, he talks about two kinds of reflection: reflection in action and reflection on action. Reflection in action refers to the reflection the teacher makes during the course of his teaching, while reflection on action is post-teaching reflection. Teachers do practise the former, which Schon describes as “knowing-in-action.” But they need to go beyond it and reflect on it in order to derive experiential knowledge from the process. More on this subject in a different post.

Teaching has little value for learning unless it provides for learner self-investment
The third insight is: Teaching has little value for learning unless it provides for learner self-investment. When we teach, we normally do so at the level of our learners. And when we test them, we do so at their levels. Do you know what happens as a result? There is no pressure on the learners to rise above their levels. If, on the other hand, the learning experiences we offer in the classroom are neither at the level of the learners, nor far beyond their level (which might frustrate them), but a little above their level, and the teaching challenges and motivates them to bridge this gap, the learners will struggle to bridge the gap. The learning that takes place as a result of this struggle is real learning. And if the struggle calls for the learner making investments of different kinds – intellectual, emotional and ethical – the learning will be even more valuable.

Teaching is performing, and the teacher is a performer
The fourth truth is: Teaching is performing, and the teacher is a performer. When someone gives a performance, what does she actually do? She makes the audience enjoy what she is presenting. In other words, she entertains the audience. The teacher is also an entertainer – both in the superficial sense of engaging his learners, and in a deeper sense. In a deeper sense, a gifted teacher is capable of three kinds of entertainment: he can entertain a new idea, he can entertain other people, and he can entertain himself.

Entertaining a new idea is not so easy; it is often as painful as delivering a baby. ‘The soft-minded man always fears change,’ said Martin Luther King Jr. ‘He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.’ Teachers, in particular, resent new ideas – I’ve noticed this often enough. That is one of the reasons why the education system remains so hopelessly conservative. Teachers by and large don’t look for new ideas, and even when a new idea is imposed from above, they routinize it in their resentment, with the result that the idea gets absorbed in the “tradition” – the name we often use to refer to our bad practices. What happens as a result? Nothing happens! The past continues. The world is changing rapidly and dynamically, but the education system is unable to keep pace with it: it clings to the past, shutting its eyes to the present. If a large number of teachers entertain new ideas and visions, if they are prepared to innovate and experiment in the light of those new ideas and visions, then the system will become dynamic: it will be ever-changing, ever-expanding and vibrant.

A teacher must also know how to entertain himself as a professional. This will help him enjoy the profession. For such a teacher, teaching itself is a chief source of entertainment – so much so that when he comes out of the classroom, he comes out not weary and tired but absolutely relaxed because teaching is a satisfying, refreshing and entertaining experience for him.

I concluded my answer with a catchphrase and stole a glance at the young woman. She was stifling yet another yawn.


  1. Replies
    1. Nailed the lie that we, teachers, cause learning? But, sometimes, we do, don't we?