Engaging students

December 08, 2019

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The writer is senior manager, professional development, at OUP Pakistan.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at OUP Pakistan.

IN a typical classroom at a well-known school, 10-year-olds blankly stare at a teacher who does most of the talking. Her narrative is interspersed with a few questions that the same two eager children answer; the rest stay disengaged. The class is well-controlled and to an outsider, it might appear as a ‘model’ setup — discipline coupled with strong academic content.

As students sit at age-old desks in theatre-style rows and focus attention on the teacher leading the class, the stakes are high. They will learn only what the traditional system is designed to teach. The physical nor the emotional space leaves much room for innovative thinking or effective teaching strategies. The value of learning rests with the few experienced teachers who can drill the pre-set curriculum in an environment that depends on tried and tested methods. Often, this results in a degree of frustration where the status quo is perceived as apathy by parents who demand much more value for the investment in their children’s future.

School leadership teams usually lament the loss of valuable teachers to high teacher turnover rates. Those that stay longer are not necessarily productive at evolving through new teaching strategies or student engagement techniques. The result is a narrative of an ongoing battle against high expectations versus low achievement and facing up to parents’ dissatisfaction with learning outcomes at schools.

Teachers have a moral responsibility to educate themselves.

Teacher competence is constantly questioned as we live in a society where traditionally teacher education has been largely ignored and those helping students through their academic journey may not be professionally equipped to do so. The more well-equipped schools conduct periodic in-house training through those that may have had some international exposure to teaching methods. By and large, mainstream schools rely on firefighting implementation strategies where they handle students’ learning difficulties through instinctive methods learnt through their own experiences.

The fact is that students have changed in various ways, particularly their needs and learning styles. Traditional methods fail our students in ways that leave a lasting impact. However, all is not lost if a well-intentioned teacher with a strong work ethic decides to delve into self-learning through various sources of knowledge now available. Research shows that one significant way in which adult learners differ from children is their transformative learning capabilities. They have the reflective ability to recognise their own shortfalls and develop a framework for teaching themselves what they don’t know with the aim of engaging and enabling their students to think critically.

The transformative learning framework was developed by Jack Mezirow in 2000, and has since gained momentum in adult learning. It implies that teachers, as adult learners, can challenge their own assumptions and beliefs to modify attitudes and behaviours for the benefit of their young students. The tenets of the transformative framework rest on encouraging, engaging and empowering students to grasp concepts in a way that will foster independent learning. While students often expect answers to questions they have, transformative learning helps teachers encourage their learners to frame questions rather than rely on answering pre-set ones.

An engaging activity would be to give a reading passage to students and ask them to set the questions to test comprehension. Difficult words in the passage can be decoded in context using prompts rather than providing students with word lists and their meanings. Application of ability and intelligence requires a deep connection with the text — an engagement that provides the young learner with the tools for discovery, inquiry and self-assessment. If our schools cannot engage learners at that level, they will most likely continue to produce students that are reliant on teachers as a storehouse of knowledge which, unfortunately, throws us back into the traditional ethos where learning is limited to what the teacher knows and can impart to students within the confines of the classroom.

For the most part, we continue to test memory and avoid experimentation, challenge and acquisition of new knowledge. Until our schools learn to innovate, we will fall back on recycled material which is limited in its scope, functioning mainly as a crutch to survive assessment and exams.

Teachers have a moral responsibility to educate themselves if there is any hope of producing thinkers, enablers and innovators in a society that needs a push towards enhancing ability and skills. As Marc Prensky stated, “Today’s students are no longer the people our education system was designed to teach”. The system might continue to fail those it was meant to serve, if we defy the possibilities of transformation through reflection and innovation.

The writer is senior manager, professional development, at OUP Pakistan.

neda.mulji@gmail.com

Twitter: @nedamulji

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2019