Things I am going to keep in mind as a future teacher

The practice of education has probably the biggest impact on our society, starting from the scale of an individual to shaping the future of life on earth. Before taking this course of contemporary pedagogy, my perception of education like many others was very much limited to the idea of exchange of knowledge between the educator and the student. My thoughts on being a good teacher would revolve around only how to become a more efficient facilitator of the technical knowledge. There are numerous other facets, like taking into consideration inclusion, diversity, ethical issues, the human factors that would extend a teacher-student relationship beyond the classroom, that makes the process of education complete.

Every year my PhD advisor creates an yearly family newsletter sharing the events of his family with all his students. I find this really sweet, it lets me know that my advisor is not just a great scientist, he is a great father and husband who loves to spend time with his family! And this knowledge affects the dynamics of my interaction with him, allowing it to be more informal and personal. For the class that I am a TA for, the professor asks the students to write something good or positive about their exam on the top of their test paper. Among the wide variety of things they write, one of the students addressed the professor as “the fantastical Mr. S”! This caught my attention and immediately made me happy and made the tedious task of grading much enjoyable. There are innumerable ways to connect to our students, and making such human connections goes a long way in making a classroom a better place not just for learning the subject, but to be a more respecting, thoughtful, appreciating and tolerant person.

Just like every research topic needs a good motivation, learning a subject becomes way more interesting once we know why we are learning it and how it affects the world we live in. It is imperative for students to be aware of the ethical issues, the environmental impacts, the interdisciplinary crossroads that surrounds a topic for them to have a complete expertise on the subject. My biggest takeaway from this course was that it forced me to think about teaching as a much more comprehensive practice of sharing not only knowledge, but also emotions.

Implicit Biasses and Inclusive Pedagogy

Until recently, most of my thoughts associated with teaching concerned “what” I am going to teach, I had never consciously thought about “whom” I am going to address. After reading this week’s literatures, I found this blind spot in myself. I had never before reflected upon this fact, that in a classroom, one addresses diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, races and religions; that, everyone may not have similar reaction to the teaching practices and discussions; and that just by being aware of this diversity, we can have more inclusive pedagogical practices.

I would like to mention a couple of instances from the scale-up introductory Physics class that I TA for, that made me consciously think about my own implicit biasses:

This is the discussion-based class where we have students sitting in groups in round tables. While grading the free-response questions for their first exam, we found that the group of international students in the class did not perform as good as the rest of the class, in fact their average score was significantly lower that the rest of the class. This reflected poorly on the instructors as well as the TA’s. So the first step for us was to identify the problem. We immediately inferred that language-barrier was one of the major issues that could have led to this disparity. The students chose their own sitting arrangement on the first couple of days of class. One of the corner tables is occupied by 90% international/ non-English speaking students. So, while in-class discussion goes on in each table, this corner table is one of the last that we cover and hence they always get a little less time to interact with us. Except for one or two who are confident English speakers, most of them barely ever participated in discussion. Since then, we have modified our approach to be more inclusive. Having recognized that these students need more attention, we spend more time on their table, we urge them to take part in the discussions. We specifically ask them to come to office hours and recitations where we can spend more time on them individually. The ones among them who are faster at understanding and more confident, we encourage them to help and explain to their friends in their own language.

Upon reflection, I also realized that I would unconsciously tend to interact more with those students who are already eager and enthusiastic to discuss their answer and thoughts. Similar bias creeps up when I grade their homework. I would tend to be more lenient or more carefully grade the students who are visibly putting an effort and are eager to perform better. However unintentional and natural this behavioral trend may be, I realized this doesn’t serve the goal of being an effective TA. I have since been making a conscious effort to work on these biasses. Now I make sure not to look the names of the students when I am grading. Also, in class I would go and talk the less interactive students sometimes forcing them out of their comfort zone. However, it is surprising to see how these little acts of encouragement have improved some of their performances!

Human brain is not perfect and I am sure there are many more such hidden unconscious biasses within us. For me, the most important assignment from this week’s GEDI prompt was to self-reflect and recognize some of these biases, their origin and how they are affecting the people around us.

A hard look at the history of education

While reading Langer’s article on mindful learning, I realized that the whole structure of schooling and education in the present sociocultural context might be a result of mindlessness.

The past causes the present and the present leads to future. Thus to understand the present structure of education, I believe it is imperative that we also analyze and spend some thoughts about the history of education. From the beginning of human history for ages and ages, children have been educating themselves through self-exploration. The only concrete and documented form of imparting knowledge from one generation to another was through the means of stories, fables and fairytales.

But as humankind began to develop and form civilizations, children were put to work as labors alongside adults, in agriculture and industry. They began to master the necessary skills of livelihood. And thus came about the definition of “good children”: the hardest workers, the most disciplined and dutiful ones, the ones that grew out of their curious and unruly childhood all too soon. And while the practice of schooling as a structure of education for children grew and spread all around the world, the societal norms of what was considered “good” were already deeply instilled by then. Schooling replaced labor jobs as “work” for children. There remained no scope for playful learning, no place for willfulness of children. Education became restricted to schools, delivered in form of lessons from teachers to students thus establishing the hierarchy of greater knowledge. Everything outside of school, even reading storybooks became “extracurricular”. The concept of school was designed in the minds of children as some morbid place that is not meant to be fun at all.

And this concept lives up to this day! We have all hated the strict boundaries and rules of school life at some point, we have all dreaded the exams and the penalties of getting low scores on a test. With the advancement in science and technology, and the standard of human lives, schools are predominantly focussed now on the colossal amounts of information they have to disperse to students. Stories, which were the most prevalent form of learning in the past, is not even recognized as an important tool for learning anymore.

While reading about the history of education in Wikipedia, I found the most profound statement: it talks about the Hindu scripture Upanishads dated back to 500 BC as “an exploratory learning process where teachers and students were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.” This states three very important pillars of what learning should be about and what the current culture of education have mindlessly ignored! Education should be curiosity-driven; there doesn’t always have to a binary right/wrong; peer-learning rather than mainstream teacher-student hierarchy.

Thus, I want to end the article on the note that instead of just brainstorming ideas of revolutionizing education to come up with “new and fun alternatives”, may be we take a look way back in the ancient human history to gain a better understanding of learning; may be we realize that learning is nothing but fun and play and stories and fables!

Initiation to networked learning

Education all over the world has a very similar uniform defining structure. Be it schools, colleges, or universities, you sit in a lecture hall, listen to someone talk about a subject hour long, complete assignments and sit through exams. Those final grades are all that matters, that decides your level of understanding and more importantly your level of competence. And this structure has defined the framework of learning as well. If you graduate top of the class, you must have learnt the most. The true sense of learning often gets lost in this rat-race. By the time a person becomes a successful banker, he hardly remembers 12th grade Physics and loses all the wonder and curiosity of the workings of universe.

As well as this might have worked in the past, I would like to believe “learning” should not be so stringent, so restricted. Debates and discussions always broadens one’s perspectives, it forces us to think more and to ask deeper questions. The current understanding of pedagogy around the globe is undergoing a transformation and hopefully for the better. Universities are replacing conventional lecture rooms with more informal, more interaction-oriented pathway classrooms. I have the rewarding opportunity to be a teaching assistant in such a class this semester. The set-up is more like a restaurant than a classroom. Round tables, lot of talking and the instructor and us TA’s going around making conversations, provoking healthy debates. Such an ambience in a classroom has lots of assets; the instructor can ensure to the best of his ability that the students are grasping the concepts, the students are able to feel more connected to the subject as well as to others in the class. Instead of the often-bitter sense of competition that we have grown up with our entire school and college life, this format of pedagogy cultivates a sense of educating oneself and other’s around without bias. Such a setup creates a beautiful dynamics of teaching and learning, learning while teaching, and often blends the student-teacher hierarchy.

Probably the most natural way to take this beyond classrooms and further into the circle of academia would be to utilize the vast space of world wide web. To share ideas and opinions in form of blogs and posts, to make resources more accessible. After-all, knowledge grows only when shared. But everything good also comes with a share of bad. I really think I need to be more informed about networked learning and the various aspects of what it entails, to have more educated opinions.

Please feel free to comment, share your ideas, ask questions, or share links that you have found useful. Here’s to my “initiation to networked learning” !!