It has been a pleasure for me working with a number of schools in different parts of India, offering them whatever little I have learned over the years, and in turn, learning from them and drawing new insights into vital facets of school education.
I mainly focus on the following four areas in my work with schools as I am convinced these are the most important for the proper and all round educational training of children. The rationale of why I think schools should pay close attention to each of these four application areas, and thus of my own decision to focus on them is also indicated below.
Dealing with Runaway Competition in Schools
Action Area: Reducing the exposure of students to too much competition and increasing opportunities for cooperation among them in schools.
Rationale: A mindless overemphasis on competition has made our society fiercely competitive. Too much competition in schools shapes and influences the attitudes and values of children during their formative years in a manner that is contrary to our expectations of a united and harmonious society.
People in India generally assume enthusiastic support towards competition. According to them, the more children are exposed to competition and rivalry, the better. We live in a culture that values winning. The reason that most people favour competition is the claim that it builds character and produces excellence. Thus, competition permeates all areas of our lives in society.
Realisation is gradually beginning to dawn that our society has perhaps got too carried away with the notion of ‘winning’ all the time, and that we are pushing our children too hard to become winners. This realization has moved the government and its agencies to try and ease things up for students within the school environment.
Research from psychology, sociology, biology, education, and other fields clearly indicate that overemphasis on competition in education is grossly inappropriate. Competition usually revolves around power and control. Often the teacher is in control and supports a competitive environment in the classroom, acts as a judge and decides who is the best. The question is: does this approach really contribute to learning motivation?
The two most harmful consequences of mixing competition and education is that learning motivation gets externalized and students’ self-image gets distorted. Extrinsic motivation is obtained from external rewards–motivation comes from winning, not from the joy of participation. Learning motivation comes similarly from performing better than others and the resulting recognition. There is no intrinsic motivation where the joy of learning and discovering something new makes learning itself rewarding and fun. And as far as students’ self-image is concerned, educational psychology and research have demonstrated how a competitive environment is detrimental to the way children see themselves and each other.
Consider the goals that we hope our children will achieve in life. We want children to develop healthy self-esteem, to see and accept themselves and others as basically good; to become successful; to achieve excellence to the full measure of their potential; and, to have loving and supportive relationships. And of course, we want children to enjoy themselves as they pass through the different stages of their lives, free from stress and unpleasant experiences.
How does competition help achieve these goals? Competition not only does not help achieve them, it actually undermines them. Competition is inherently destructive because one person can succeed only if others fail. Most people, including children, lose in most competitive situations resulting in gradual onset of self-doubt. The assumption that winning builds character has been disproven by research; winning merely lets a child gloat temporarily.
In a competitive culture children are told that it is not enough to be good–they must also win over others. Success comes to be associated with winning, even though these are two very different things. Competition is responsible for creating a psychological vicious circle: the more children need to win to feel good about themselves the more they have to compete with others and win!
Children, no doubt, must be encouraged to succeed, but this should not be a question of winning or losing, or having to beat other children and worry about being beaten. That cooperation offers children and adults with better chances for success is an established fact. When classrooms and playgrounds are based on cooperation rather than competition, children feel better about themselves. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem does not depend on winning every time.
Children succeed in spite of competition, not because of it. Most people believe that they excel when in a race like situation–that without competition people would become lazy and mediocre. Unfortunately, this is an assumption that our society has accepted on faith. There is no evidence to support this belief.
Studies have found that children learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively. Something that comes out clearly in these studies is that the more complex the learning task, the worse children fared in a competitive environment.
Researchers have attributed three main reasons for children not learning well when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. First, competition often makes children anxious and that interferes with their concentration. Second, competition does not permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they do not try and learn from one another. Finally, trying to ‘win’ and be ‘number one’ distracts them from what they are supposed to be learning. It may seem strange, but when students concentrate on the reward (a high rank or mark, a gold star, or a trophy), they become less interested in what they are doing. The result: decline in performance!
As a nation and society, we can no longer afford to let competition exert its harmful influence on the minds of young children. Schools are yet to fully understand the consequence of allowing competition to play a dominating role in education. Instead of glorifying the few who do well through a competitive approach, the purpose of education should be to try and bring out the best in every child.
Every student has the right to learn and to be measured against her or his own potentiality, not that of someone else. Why should a child have to compete with someone else if we accept that all children are endowed with different talents, abilities and capacities? Focusing on and addressing these differences among children result in meaningful classroom teaching and learning instead of confronting children with a ‘one size fits all’ approach and ranking them uniformly using competitive assessments.
Classroom Management and Discipline
Action Area: Helping schools and teachers adopt proven approaches of classroom management and discipline that support meaningful and purposeful learning.
Rationale: Research indicates that teachers’ actions in the classroom have almost twice the impact on student achievement and learning compared to matters such as school policies, curriculum, assessment, etc. Consider the following:
- Research from Berliner and Brophy and Good shows that the time a teacher takes to correct misbehavior caused by poor classroom management skills results in a lower rate of academic engagement in the classroom.
- According to Moskowitz and Hayman once teachers lose control of their classrooms, it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to regain that control.
- Research indicates that a high incidence of discipline related problems within the classroom has a significant impact on thequality and effectiveness of teaching and learning. In this respect, it has been found that discipline related problems often result from failure on part of teachers to manage their classrooms well.
- In a recent meta-analysis of more than 100 studies (Marzano, 2003b), it was found that the quality of teacher-student relationships is the foundation for all other aspects of classroom management.
Good classroom management is intended to serve a twofold purpose:
- Create and maintain a positive and productive learning environment
- Support and foster a safe and harmonious classroom community
Teachers often have to deal with student misconduct, indiscipline and other problems after they have occurred, taking away valuable time and effort that should be devoted to teaching and learning. With appropriate classroom management strategies, tools, techniques and skills, teachers can prevent most problems from occurring, and deal with them in a humane and enriching manner as and when they occur.
Innovations in Pedagogy
Action Area: Helping teachers adopt exciting new methodologies based on constructivism and cooperative learning that help nurture student-centric learning in the classroom.
Rationale: Classroom sessions that are boring and not stimulating are known to result in loss of interest in the topic or in the subject altogether among students even as they can also result in disruptive behaviour. Students who are not motivated tend to get distracted and distract others, resulting in avoidable disruptions.
Why don’t some children like to go to school? Why do some students dislike studying? Why do some students like some subjects less thanothers? Teachers often have every indication that their students are not enjoying their learning but do very little to change that. Students merely ‘go through the grind’ and often limit themselves to merely following their teachers’ instructions.
Students enjoy the sessions of teachers who are able to bring their subjects to life. Enjoyable learning does not mean making teaching-learning frivolous. It merely means that classroom sessions become more meaningful, and therefore, more absorbing and engaging for the students. It does not help at all when children remain passive listeners in the classroom!
Maintaining an interesting, stimulating and a brisk pace for instruction and making smooth transitions between activities help prevent majority of classroom disruptions and capture the interest and attention of students.
There is another important point to also consider here. Contemporary teaching-learning in most Indian schools is based on ‘bookish learning’ that deals with dissemination and temporary retention of information primarily for passing tests and exams. This content-based approach to classroom teaching and learning stimulates the lowest possible thinking skill–remembering; this, at the expense of higher order and more important thinking skills such as understanding, applying, creating, evaluating, and analyzing. Clearly, spending time on a lesson and marking answers to the questions that follow from the lesson does not stimulate higher order thinking in students. The moot question is this: can we expect children to succeed in life without higher order thinking skills that are essential for problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, exploring relationships, and the like?
Clearly, there is an urgent need for pedagogical reform in Indian schools. Teachers need to do all they can to make teaching-learning more stimulating for students. Innovative approaches like cooperative and experiential learning, structured group work and activities are among the host of options that teachers have ensuring that the subject matter comes alive and helping improve understanding and comprehension, essential prerequisites for the joy of learning and motivation.
Teachers should aim to make their classroom sessions increasingly student-centered. This is an often misrepresented term and involves structuring classroom sessions from the students’ perspective and needs. Teachers often benefit from help to understand related concepts and develop necessary skills, and also from ongoing support and handholding before they can completely transform their classroom sessions in a manner that better captures the minds and hearts of their students.
Action Area: Structuring and implementing meaningful programmes of value education that positively and visibly impact students’ attitudes, conduct and behaviour.
Rationale: Indian society is beset with rapidly falling values–moral, familial, traditional, cultural, and others. Many theories abound on the reason for this, blaming everything from influence of western cultures to media exposure.
Clearly much needs to be done to stem and reverse the rot, a major responsibility for which lies with schools as centers of formal and structured learning. Unfortunately, most schools have adopted a content-based approach to value education as well! Children are expected to learn values by reading lessons from a ‘moral education’ book and sometimes even take related tests and examinations.
The manner in which children learn and imbibe values is very different and involves a combination of cognitive and affective stimuli. Children need to be made to think about values and the consequences of reflecting them or not in day to day situations that they can readily relate to. Children need to be confronted with moral dilemmas that will help them reflect more deeply about values and foster their internalization. The affective component of value education involves activities that touch their tender hearts, including learning about emotions.
Sadly, value education is not a priority with most schools and remains relegated in favour and pursuit of academic excellence. We can continue to ignore a meaningful and productive programme of value education in schools at our own peril. An urgent need to create awareness among schools towards this important area of work is clearly in evidence.
A feature of my work with schools is that it is ongoing. After the initial training and orientation, the school agrees on certain steps that it decides to initiate within the general purview of a particular action area. These are drawn into a simple plan of action which is then acted upon by the school for a 4-6 month period. Thereafter, we meet and review the results achieved, sharing and documenting the learning thus produced. Further action by the school is then decided with necessary modifications and the process is repeated. Schools are thus empowered to achieve incremental positive change through an ongoing process of Consultation (Planning)–Action (Implementation)–Reflection (Evaluation)–Documentation.
The task of bringing about change in schools is not easy at all. From my experience I have learned that most schools are not very open or receptive to change initially. But persistence and patience often gets rewarded! Once schools begin to see how small changes within the classroom and the entire school can have a big impact on students’ learning, development and conduct, they then enthusiastically come on board, and want more!
Schools’ should stop assessing their own effectiveness based on their students’ academic success alone. They must broaden their horizons and consider how effective they are in helping students develop capabilities that they require for their own success as well as for contributing to the progress and advancement of society.