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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Need to develop Critical Thinking in our School Educational system

I often wonder...

Our system is so wonderful in producing the best of rank holders and learners until their secondary education. After that, what happens to the magic? Does the pixie dust of learning wear off? Where do our students fail when they go out on to the graduated wide big bad world of reality and employment? Why do they fail in GDs inspite of subject knowledge? Is there a gap in their subject knowledge constructs? This is when I stumbled upon two terms:
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Desirable Difficulties
Now what are these? They sound too complicated for an untrained mind or a simple passenger in the train of education - be it student, parent, teacher or just people!

Wikipedia describes Cognitive Psychology thus:

'Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as "attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity, and thinking." Much of the work derived from cognitive psychology has been integrated into various other modern disciplines of psychological study, including educational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology and economics.'

As for Desirable Difficulties, it is nothing actually new to our culture of education. We always had it. The pre-90s or pre-80s learners had a benchmark for the level of difficulty at which their learning took place. This challenged them, rather than forced them, to push their thresholds of learning. Even during the pre-dominantly State Board regulated curricula, without CCE etc, our boundaries and frontiers of learning were challenged and we strove, gamely. This toughened us. May be it was a swim, survive or sink situation. However, it toughened the guts in us. This has changed today. We are on a soft system that as one of the Neil Simon characters says in one of his plays, "Even baby powder hurts!"

May be the 90s and new millennium parents have complicated the lives of the 90s and new millennium learners by simplifying it in the name of reduction of workload, bagload, bookload etc. Basically, they have pampered their kids. So when the school or the teachers grumble in response to claims and accusations of corporal punishment by students or their parents even for the perceived casual contact of fingertips on a student, they usually claim: "Didn't we go through harsher predicament when we were in school? Our teachers beat us with scales, did we grumble to our parents? How many days have we been made to kneel in shorts or skirts, our knees in direct contact with the stone flooring in the hot sun out in the open? Have we ever complained to our parents, making them rush to school to meet the teachers? Have we not been pinched to bleeding for not submitting a homework or coming late to school or talking to our benchmates during a lecture or made to stand up on a bench or stand out of the class in the corridor? Did our parents ever know or even if they knew, had they ever taken cudgels at the PTA?"

Well, all these are fine and dandy. Parents say, "We went through all these or less... or perhaps more, yes! But does that mean our kids should go through these? It is perhaps precisely because we had gone through these horrible punishments, we must ensure a punishment-free, stress-free learning atmosphere for our children!" True, but at what cost? By making everything accessible on a platter, without having to tan their skin, we are only making their lives worse! Too much unnecessary emotional twang at the drop of a hat is shown by modern parents. That shows they are fragile and they are moulding their next gen fragile emotionally. This is where we go back to what the Cognitive Psychologists call as Desirable Difficulties. One area this is gaining tremendous application relevance is educational psychology.

What is Desirable Difficulty? A cognitive psychologist calls it as difficult conceptual learning for an easier long-term recall. What probably in a software engineer's parlance would be difficult encrypting for a better access of programming! Ok... simply put, you increase the level of difficulty during the initial learning process through challenging circumstance, albeit within the reach of the learner, so that the concept is well-entrenched in the mind of the learner; this in turn leads to better recall and better application. This means learning for life-time. 

What this does is to force the learner to think, query, question, interpret, infer, deduce conclusions of their own. This necessitates an active engagement in the teaching-learning process. Herein comes the problem. Are most of our teachers ready for this? In my limited experience of a decade-long association with the school educational system, the teaching community (well, the majority of them!) start with a lot of energy and infectious enthusiasm and ideals. Somewhere down the line they become indifferent. I am not going into a microscopic analysis of this issue. I am not even going into any sort of analysis, for that digresses us from the current issue! Instead, we need to look at what are its fall-outs.

The teacher becomes indifferent. Doesn't anymore prepare for classes. Takes the syllabus, the lessons and the process of teaching for granted. In the worst case, when a teacher who doesn't deserve to teach a higher class simply because they have not taught and haven't consciously prepared themselves for this eventuality (but nevertheless have always been dreaming of moving from intern to temp to PRT to TGT to PGT!) end up going into a higher class, they think it is humility to accept to the students "I do not know". Honesty and integrity is all fine; but it doesn't save anyone's backside or self-esteem in the eyes of the student community if they do not go back to their drawing table, learn what they humbly confessed as lack of knowledge and get back and show they are a teacher worth taking seriously. And so the penny drops. Many an indifferent teacher become mass murderers of students' impetus and excitement to learn. Thus bad teachers breed indifferent students breed cynical and stoical citizens of the morrow! The solution lies in the hands of the teacher. To actively pursue teaching in a challenging manner. If they do not want to, then they better quit the profession; because, you are killing the future of the nation and you do not care about it. This kind of teacher is worse than a genocidal maniac.

Having been introduced to Critical Thinking, I took to it like fish to water even though I do not know the first thing about swimming or have gills! It is purely my self-respect. I consider myself a vertebrate and am proud of it. It helps me to gauge my students, prepare to provoke them into thinking on their own, on the feet, in the class, even if the lesson is an old one I have been teaching for a decade thanks to no change of syllabus from the board. What I always think is this: the syllabus is the same, the lesson is the same, but the batch of student is not! This makes me seek that student who carries searching questions or doubts (however silly it may be to us!) in their eyes, encourage them to express it, so I learn something new.

While I try to educate them, I try to forge levels of difficulty in approaching the answers. Not impossible, but certainly requires effort from the student. In the process the student makes the problem and the learning their own! This is the secret behind Desirable Difficulty. It works. It is beautiful. If you are a teacher, you must try it. Good for you, good for student community, good for your ego, good to feel years later when they acknowledge you on social media as their TEACHER!

A very touching and relevant article on Teachers and their professional needs

The following is the opening few paras of the article found in the link below:

Vijaya teaches in a school that has one other teacher and 65 students. Every one of her days is a whirl. When you have so many children around, uncontrollable spirits take over. In the classroom and outside, you lurch from minor to major crisis and flow from small to big joys, while trying to keep it going. She loves all this, she loves her job. But she feels isolated.
The other teacher is cordial with her. While they run the school together well, they never really converse. In the school they have no time, every minute taken up by the demanding tempo. And with an hour’s commute back home, they are both in a hurry to leave as the school ends.
Her educational background is in the humanities. Even now, after 15 years of teaching, she struggles in teaching math, which she has to, in the primary classes. When she became a teacher as a 23-year-old, everything was a struggle. She remembers being intimidated. Her school’s head-teacher was an aloof man, the school had two other teachers. Each of them was caught in the whirl of the school. She knew she needed help from an experienced teacher, but there was no opportunity. The two other teachers would try, but it would all be in the passing. She survived by her tenacity, and learning on her own. Many others survive this phase by becoming indifferent forever...
To read further, log in here at Live Mint: Teaching in Isolation