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Category Archives: University Teaching

When we make them learn helplessness

In a school, after a long conversation where I mainly asked questions, the teachers finally asked me something.

“Madam, can I also ask something?” said Lakshmi a teacher in a private school.

“Yes please do so…we are talking ….” I said to encourage her to talk.

“There are some children about whom I am never sure how to deal even though I have been working as a teacher for more than 8 years.”

“Hmmm….hmmmm…”

“There is this one girl and one boy in my class who never speak, even when I talk to them specifically taking their name. They just lower their head never make eye contact. They are both unable to write or read anything. I just feel so frustrated and sad that I don’t know how to help them.”

This reminded me about Khushi in my class who was also very much like this. She always sits on the first bench, yet it took me two-three days to notice her. She is so silent that she sometimes becomes invisible in the class. She also takes many leaves. She mostly sits with her head down not talking with anybody. To keep herself engaged she often tries to complete her notebook work. In my class I like to give each child chance so I often go from child to child and ask everybody to add something to the topic being discussed, whenever we reach Khushi the discussion comes to a stand still. Other children start getting irritated and start telling, “Mam, she wouldn’t speak, she never speaks, she doesn’t know anything.” It is a difficult time for a teacher, you want to give this child time to speak, but too much time may mean torture for her and boredom for others. You want to stop all the other children from saying these hurtful things yet not make this child too dependent on yourself.

With Lakshmi madam, I discussed a little bit about these two children’s home background and kept comparing notes about Khushi and I came to the conclusion that all these three children seem to be victims of learned helplessness.

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a state of mind where the individual starts feeling that nothing that she will do will have an impact on the negative situation that she is in. This happens after a long time spent in a situation where the individual is placed in negative situations…..and efforts made by her seem to be futile.

Lets take an example of a woman in an abusive marriage, in the beginning every time she experiences domestic violence she talks to her family members but all she gets from them is a baseless assurance of how things will improve gradually and how as a woman she should adjust with the situation that she is in. She then tries to revert to the strategy of fighting back, which leads to even more thrashing. She then has a baby and starts feeling that she is tied to this setting and cannot go anywhere….that’s when it is possible that she may stop retaliating totally and may bear everything silently.

Another example of learned helplessness which leads to child abuse is when the parents learn that nothing they do will make the child stop crying and they just let the child be.

In school setting we often see those children who fall in a complex situation of constant negative feedback from teachers and parents go into a learned identity of being helpless in changing their situation. Often siblings imitate what the parents say and do and peers imitate what the teachers say and do thus completing the circle of negative feedback for the child. Such children gradually stop making an effort to learn. They may not always the silent ones but may also be the extremely boisterous never listening type as in both situations they are not ready to engage with you or make an effort to learn as they have learned that this will not lead to anything.

In the next post we will discuss what can be some of the intervention strategies in such cases. If you know of a similar situation do share with us.

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Technology in Classroom

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Today, learning has become techno-centric. Everything is available on the internet. It is hard to think of a word or a topic that cannot be googled to generate a long list of responses moving from most relevant to irrelevant. Google also calculates and share the time (in seconds) it used to generate such a long list of responses. Children get assignments from school in which they google information, note it down and share it in school. Children often get a lot of time in school to search for information on the internet. Surfing for information, which was limited to computer room now enters the classroom with ‘smart board’. So now teacher can use information from the internet arrange it in the form of a power point presentation and give a lecture to students. It is more appealing because of the visuals and speed. Exploring literature, discussing and questioning texts, writing, experiencing and thinking seems to be the elements of the bygone era.

So learning gets reduced to three things- information; rote-memory and speed. The faster and more accurate information you can find and the way present is what matters most. In a country like India, this has widened the gap between privileged and under-priveldged sections of the society. As the better technologically equipped you are the better you score, leading to better opportunities.

There are some positive effects of using technology too, such as sharing of information is easier. However, it is important to take a minute to think about what kind of information can be educative. In this post, I have only mentioned adverse effects of technology in educational setting because we have been advocating the importance of technology without giving it much thought. A ‘smart’ classroom is certainly good for corporate businesses but is it really good for our children? In what ways? And how can we judiciously use it in our classroom? These are some of the questions we may want to spend a minute or two at least.

The following link is a recently published editorial in The Hindu newspaper on this issue. It is written by Prof. Krishna Kumar, who teaches in C.I.E, DU. It is the only editorial published in India that I have come across that discusses the role of technology in classroom in the context of OECD report. Please see and do share your comments with us.

Favour: A Malignant Tumour

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‘Favour’ seems to be a very innocent and positive term. But in practice it is a malignant tumour, which is hard to diagnose and when discovered it is too late for treatment. It multiplies uncontrollably. It dominates other cells by suffocating them and then it kills them or converts them. Gradually, it kills the patient.
Let me deconstruct this term for you. Dictionary meaning of the term ‘favour’ is ‘an act of kindness beyond what is due or usual’. By asking for favour a person becomes vulnerable in front of the person giving favour. She is then obligated to return the favour. One must note that in the definition itself, favour is described as an act of kindness that is beyond what is due or usual. Why would anybody help you beyond what you deserve? But before answering that question, let us just take a moment to think that if this person who is asking for favour does not deserve it then, is he taking something away from a person who deserves it? What becomes of the person who deserves it but does not get it because somebody else received it as a favour?
I have grown up hearing ‘there is no such thing as free lunch’. So, obviously now this person who has been favoured will have to return the favour. In the doing so, another person who deserves something will be deprived to accommodate this person. This goes on and on. If an institution has one such person who has this habit, he or she will bring another and attract a few others. The circle becomes bigger and bigger with each favour. Soon the institution has a number of people who have been favoured, in other words, who do not deserve this place but by an act of kindness were accommodated snatching it away from someone who deserved it.Can an institution survive with so many ‘favoured’ people?
Now what happens to the people who do not agree with this policy of giving and receiving favours? They are sidelined and are often part of the collateral damage. They are suffocated till the time they die or are converted. Converts, we all know, are never really included in the group. So what happens to the institution?

Book Club Launch- Pustak Vimarsh

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Finally after overcoming so many hurdles and delays, I managed to launch a book club in my department.This club is inspired from Virginia Woolf’s description of a reader. She stresses on the independence a reader needs in order to enjoy the text. She describes a reader as someone who reads to converse with the writer through her creation. A reader learns to appreciate the text. But in order to enjoy this freedom and appreciate the text she also emphasises upon training the mind. Book Club called Pustak Vimarsh is a platform where we all could discuss and share our reading of the text with each other.
We began with the reading of first five chapters of Mahatma Gandhi’s text Hind Swaraj, which is also considered a modern political treatise.
Inaugural session went very well apart from a few hurdles, it was enriching for all of us. We had invited an expert to speak on the specified section of the text and he not only presented his views but also answered a lot of questions that my students asked. Everybody participated and it was good to see students asking questions.
In my next post, I will share my write up on this section of Hind Swaraj.

Imposing Furniture and Pedagogy

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Our classroom seating arrangement influences pedagogic interaction. We have known this for a while, but sometimes the rigid educational structure does not allow us to make changes so specific to our classroom.

Every time I enter my classroom (I teach post graduate students), I cannot help but remember John Dewey’s statement about furniture that is made for passive recipients. Furniture that is heavy and imposing, where students try to fit their bodies in. Furniture that is pointed towards the blackboard, thus fixing the seat of the teacher as well. In such a classroom, it is difficult to talk about constructivism and active participation. No wonder my students still have not develop ownership in their learning because they stare at me with blank faces expecting me to fill them with knowledge, something that they so unquestioningly believe that I possess.

Today, I have decided to change this seating arrangement for my class at least. These imposing desks which force me to teach instead of facilitate discussions will have to be arranged in a better way.

New Semester, New Course

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With new year began second semester of the post-graduate course on education in my university. I was asked to teach ‘Educational Administration and Management’ in this semester. I do not have a particular liking for this course and I had explored fewer literature in this area in the past. So, some days before new year I began desperately looking for material to use in my class. I did find some readings but they are all in English and medium of instruction in this course is Hindi. I am still looking for relevant literature in Hindi, in case anyone is aware of any good translations done in this field, then do let me know.
However, while preparing myself for classes, I realised how interesting this course is. I have devised an interesting strategy to deal with the dearth of reading material. This strategy is of creating our own materials in the class. The course deals with the existing educational administration in India, so I have begun with asking them to collect information on various organisations and structures used to develop policies and implement them at different levels in education. Together we share this information, discuss it, question and analyse it. The information is generally collected from websites of these organisations and other relevant government documents. Initially, I thought students may not like gathering information. However, I was surprised to see their enthusiasm. They are all ready with their specified topics and enthusiastically present in class, which is then discussed. After discussion, students are given twenty minutes time to write their views; questions and learnings. The presenter also distributes the material she collated in the process. In this manner we are trying to develop our own materials.
However, we also read texts in class even if they are in English.
So, far this seems to be working for us. If you have better ideas, then please let me know.

Reading in a Sociology Class

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When I began teaching Sociology of Education, there were certain skills that I was assuming my students would have acquired by now. These were basic skills of reading. But after my second class, I realized that my students are not used to reading in fact they have been spoon fed till now and are used to rote-memorization of guide books. A huge challenge was facing me as my students were finding reading classics a difficult task. I assured them that I will spend enough time on each original text but I will not dictate notes. Now I had to think about strategies to build their reading skills. Till now I had assumed everybody devises his or her own ways of reading. Imposing one way of reading takes away the independence of a reader, which is against constructivist approach to reading.

By reading I mean, an active engagement with the text. A reader attempts to establish a dialogue with the writer through the text and construct meaning from it. Once the meaning is constructed, the reader then, reflects on the text. This is the process of reading for me. This process requires certain skills such as awareness, curiosity, questioning and reflective thinking. Now I had the task of initiating the process of reading in my class.

I began with thinking about how I read and what steps do I follow while reading? I realized that I read a text minimum of three times before going to my class. Following is the description of these three readings that I often do:

First Reading: I read the back page of the book first. Then I read the text in its entirety in one go. I try to focus on the introduction and conclusion in this reading.

Second Reading: Before reading the text second time, I read up on the author, her area of specialization, her other publications and her biographical sketch. Then I read slowly for the second time trying to understand how the author has constructed her argument. What are her philosophical leanings?

Third Reading: I read for the third time only to take notes.
Following the third reading, I summarize the text.

This requires time, therefore, I began my preparation for a class at least three days before it is scheduled.

My students gave me an opportunity to think about reading as a process. I had always taken this skill for granted. I explained my process of reading and asked them to see it just as a suggestion. They should try out different strategies of reading to develop their own most helpful reading strategy.

This class certainly helped as students begin to engage with the text and not leave it after one reading. But I understand that reading is a long and continuing process.