Helping Struggling Students

struggling students

Every classroom has some students who are struggling with academics. What can we do for such students? (I wrote this for my team of teachers through my weekly mail, Kindle Sparks.) 

  1. Identify the students who are struggling in the Grade and Section you teach. How will you identify them? The obvious method is to zero in on those who are failing in the subject. Do each one of you have to take care of every such student? Not really. If the class teacher and the subject teachers have an understanding, we can beautifully share the responsibility of such students – with the result that each teacher needs to mentor may be 4-5 students or even less.
  2. If CAT4 scores are readily available, it is a great help. The Cognitive Abilities Test, also known as CAT4, is used to identify both a student’s academic potential and challenges. CAT4 is divided into four batteries – verbal, non-verbal, quantitative, and spatial ability. Look at their stanine scores. Anything below 5 is a matter of concern – the student could have one or more learning disabilities.  A Standard Age Score (SAS) of anything below 100 too merits closer attention. If the scores – Stanine and SAS – are above the 5 and 100 respectively, but still the student is failing, there is every chance that the student has not been motivated to learn. It is up to us as teachers to identify these patterns that emerge and alert us via CAT4. If the Grade has not done CAT4 this year, no issues. Get the concerned student’s CAT4 results of the previous year as they are valid for 2 years.
  3. Give individual attention to such students. They will really thank you for that. Talk to them and understand what their difficulties are. In many cases you will find remarkable improvement, the moment you start paying attention to them. They will know their teacher cares for them and would go to any length to please you.
  4. Garner parental support. It would be a great idea to speak to the parents of such students to understand their home environment, study habits and the like. In many case when students gain the trust of their teacher, they will blurt out many home truths. Be a patient listener and never make assumptions or judgements.
  5. What we say in the classroom has a great impact on young minds. Encourage them and they will rise to your expectation. If not, they will not only hate you but also develop a hatred towards your subject. No student deserves to go through this. So use words with care. Make your students love you and a love for your subject and the irresistible desire to make you happy follows. That is the power a teacher wields. 
  6. Never show your likes and dislikes in the classroom. One constant refrain that we hear when we speak to students is that there is “partiality”. Once that word goes amongst the student community teachers will have to really struggle to change that opinion. It’s only human that smart students will be favourites of teachers – but it is wise and sensible not to display it. Apply the same yardstick to all.
  7. Poor attitudes also lead to poor academic performance. Lack of motivation is seen in many students. If you are a class teacher, you can really make a difference. Subject teachers too can make the difference – but a class teacher gets some time with her students on most days. So her impact can be more than that of subject teacher. Besides as teachers we need to walk our talk. We must be motivated and full of vigour and enthusiasm. Our students will simply imitate us.
  8. Poor habits also result in poor learning. One key issue bogging many young students in today’s connected world is social media. WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat and Netflix rule their lives and they get addicted to FOMO – “Fear Of Missing Out”. Posting indecent pictures, befriending strangers and becoming victims to cyber bullying and online predators follow. As adults and teachers we have to be alert to this. Dipping grades can be a surest sign of this and similar distractions. Also note that such students live in a world far away from reality. Do note if a student is looking sleepy in class – it could be on account of spending time on social media without sleeping. Another barometer is their perceived self-esteem and self-confidence. Young girls, especially teens tend to compare themselves with others, feel low and depressed because they are not as tall, fair, beautiful or smart as someone else. Many a time, they don’t even know that the pictures of their idols or models are digitally enhanced to make them look tall, fair, beautiful and smart. No love for oneself and the resultant lack of self-esteem can lead to chronic depression, self-harm, and even suicide. We need to educate our girls to start loving themselves, as they are. Well, there’s a movement out there called F.L.Y. – First Love Yourself – for, if you can’t love yourself, how can you expect others to love you? Another important habit worth cultivating is impressing on students to get 7-8 hours of sleep. Research has shown that it is during sleep that our learning gets stacked in the brain for retrieval.  
  9. Some students are simply anxious about tests. They will answer in class and will seem actively engaged but you may find nothing in the answer paper. Educate such students to understand the concept and study. Memorizing results in short term memory, whereas understanding and learning will contribute to long term memory and retrieval.
  10. Many students have no clue how to study. Talk to them about a specific place at home to study. Never study sitting in the bed. Underlining while studying is a classic sign of you trying to fool your brain by pretending to be engaged in study. Better is to make points, cover it with a sheet and then try to retrieve answers from understanding. Help them make a study plan. Tell them it is always better to study in small, manageable chunks. When a student finishes one chunk, there is a sense of achievement. That will egg them on to do some more.

The bottom line is if we as teachers care about the relational aspect of teaching, we can establish a trusting and caring connection with our students. Then they will become more receptive to what’s being taught. When we get to know our students’ likes, dislikes, interests, talents, needs and home environs it helps us prepare differentiated lessons and helps students feel the partnership of the learning experience. Cheers!!

Unconditional Positive Regard

Twitter is a great tool to get oneself not only informed but updated. Yesterday I came across this tweet and went on a trail of discovery.

According to the link, Unconditional Positive Response or UPR, is a great tool to prevent persistent negative reinforcement (which is sure to happen when we use “shh!” or “shush” to control behaviour in the classroom). Interesting. The article had also provided an outline of what UPR was. This is what prompted me to look for UPR.

Carl R Rogers, the American humanist psychologist is the propounder of UPR and this is central to his theories. He provides insight into what he meant by UPR:
Unconditional refers to holding ‘no conditions of acceptance…. it is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluative attitude.’ (p. 225*)
Positive offers ‘warm acceptance…’ (p. 225*)
Regard means ‘a caring’, here the care the therapist shows for the client – without being possessive or without expecting any fulfilment of personal agenda. (p. 225*)
In a nutshell it just means to accept a person and give support irrespective of what he/she says/does. Acceptance of a person just as he or she is. I think this concept has a wonderful bearing in the field of education.

How can we use UPR in the classroom? Speak firmly but with warmth. Threats, warnings, one upmanship and through that creating power struggles within classrooms are a big no no. After all we adults must show our mettle with our equals – fellow adults. Not with our students. Accept our pupils. Recognize each one of them as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. No comparison of one with the other. No insults and humiliations. Provide a very supportive climate that will tell them that we care. Genuinely care. This will create engagement. Accountability for learning. A caring bond with a student will convey that you believe and have faith in him/her.

I think UPR is absolutely essential in today’s world. It is a parenting necessity. A must have for the classroom teacher. When the home and school fronts work in tandem, we can create a new breed of young people – those who have empathy, compassion and of course unconditional positive regard! And that should augur a peaceful, gentle world!!

Let’s strive for this…

The-ultimate-lesson-all

Resources:
*Rogers, C.R. (1959), A Theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centred framework, by C R Rogers

The Sky is the Limit

Learning has undergone a sea change in the last decade or two. From the clutches of the expectedly all-knowing fountainhead of wisdom, the Teacher in the classroom, it has been liberated! Two decades ago when I needed to gather information about Hiroshima or the Sinking of the Titanic to equip myself to handle the Class XII lessons in English of the same names, I relied heavily on encyclopaedias and reference books which were aplenty in the school library. For English comprehension passages, I took refuge in magazines Down to Earth, Readers Digest, National Geographic and the ever reliable Hindu newspaper. With the advent of the information age came Google. Everything is now available at the click of a mouse. Ouch, the mouse seems antique now with touch screens and styluses available in smartphones, tablets and net books. According to Richard Alleyne, “Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.”

Learning

In the current scenario the Teacher is now meant to be just a learning facilitator, a guide, a resource provider, a curriculum and instruction specialist, a mentor, and a classroom supporter as well as manager. Everything else, but the store house of knowledge. Rightfully so. Today’s students are digital natives and even have much more knowledge than the teacher in an area of his/her interest. It is best that our young students are never underestimated. Even though I have hardly taught in the digital era (I moved up to be an administrator), and taught only in traditional classrooms, I have been enriched by the perspectives offered by my young adolescent students. They have indeed enriched me with wonderful insights into the dynamics inside and outside of the classroom.  So, it goes without saying, the teacher needs to be a life long learner. Move from a digital refugee to a digital immigrant and then transit into being a digital native. It is possible with some perseverance.

So how does one be a lifelong learner?

  1. Nurture a good element of curiosity. It is this CQ – Curiosity Quotient – that enables one’s quest for continuous learning.
  2. Be passionate about teaching (read: about what you do). Well, Thomas L Freidman in his paean to globalization, The World is Flat, calls this PQ – Passion Quotient – and even argues that it is more important than IQ.
  3. Explore. The World Wide Web is full of opportunities to learn and hone our skills and practices. At the same time be perceptive about what is authentic and what is not.
  4. Enrol. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs and enrich your awareness about anything that interests you from History of Rock music to Volcanic eruptions. Many of these courses are offered by universities like Stanford and MIT and are mostly free of cost. You can look for courses in www.coursera.org and www.udacity.com. Edmodo also features interesting courses for professional development.
  5. Find time. Time is always at a premium. You must find time for your up skilling – you owe this to yourself as a professional.
  6. Persevere. Don’t give up. It might be challenging at times. It is these challenges that make or break people.

I did some courses online. I will share my experiences of them in my next post.

What & Where is the Disconnect?

The word education originated in the mid-15 century from the word educate which means “bring up (children), train,” from Latin ‘educatus’.  Educare meant “bring up, rear, educate,” which is related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (see duke (n.)). Education, thus got the meaning “provide schooling” in the 1580s. In today’s parlance this means that we provide a conducive atmosphere for learning, thinking, problem solving, collaborating, creating and thereby nurturing in our students the vitally essential skills to become successful 21st Century learners are to be provided in our schools. But do we, in real speak?

What is the status of education in India now? My week end was spent in reading all these reports; and I must add that each one was so depressing. For, if reports are an indication, there is something seriously wrong with our system. On 15th January 2012, the global rankings of the 73 countries that participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted Programme for International Assessment (PISA) was released. PISA is annual exam administered to 15-year olds to evaluate educational systems worldwide in Reading, Math and Science. The penultimate position, i.e. 72nd was that of India only overcoming Kyrgyzstan! Second from last!!!

The findings of yet another study done in urban schools by Education Initiatives and Wipro called the Quality Education Study (QES), it covered over 23000 students, 790 teachers, 54 Principals and 83 ‘top’ schools across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai were part of this survey. This one too, which was released late in 2011, revealed disconcerting facts. All these children came from educated and affluent families, and the schools they went to had all facilities and were technologically savvy. Yet these children showed signs of rote learning. They lacked critical thinking skills, higher order thinking skills, creativity and hardly responded about current social, cultural, civic and ecological issues. So things are not fine at the urban level too.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)** has released its report for 2012 on January 16, 2013 and the bad news continues. Literacy and Numeracy skills amongst 6-14 year olds have drastically waned. Academic levels have declined. Enrolment in schools has increased but attendance is deficient. The exodus to private schools continues despite the very many benefits like the mid day meal scheme and monetary aid provided in government schools. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the number of Class 5 students who can do two-digit subtraction problems have declined from 58.8% to 49.1% in just 2011-12.  More than half of all children in class 5 are at least three grade levels behind where they should be in terms of learning levels, says the report. And the blame could partly be attributed to the government’s much-touted Right to Education Act (RTE), ASER 2012 results seems to suggest. While enrolment has increased in private schools, there is great deal of dependence on private tuitions. Considering that 70% of India’s population lives in its rural regions the report needs to be closely looked into to stem the rot.

If all these are not pointers enough, each time CBSE conducted the CTET (Common Teacher Eligibility Test) or states conducted theirs (Tamil Nadu, for example) very few teachers clear the test. In 2011 when the test was conducted by CBSE, the pass percentage was 9%; in 2012 it dropped to 7% and now in the latest test results in 2013, it is seen that only an alarmingly abysmal 1% got through.

So keeping these cavernous slides in perspective, is there some kind of proportion at work? Is it that we churn out pathetic teachers and they in turn are responsible for the grossly substandard results from pupils? Where is the disconnect? What is the disconnect? Whatever be the case, we need to seriously introspect, examine, debate and come out with effective strategies that will bring our education arena from the mire that it is in. There is no point in generating plans. What we need is action. Precise. Specific. Laden with accountability. We owe this to our children, who will be future citizens taking our country into the 21st century.

Have you ever read The Parrot’s Training (read it here: http://bit.ly/13UnaZJ ) an amazingly must-read and true-even-today short story written by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore? Tagore lampooned the educational system that focussed only on mugging and rote learning prevalent in his times through this brilliant and incisive tale of a parrot’s training. Seemingly generations of young minds have undergone the same drudgery of mundane, insipid text books, uninterested and even boring teachers, rote learning, tests and examinations that focus on reproduction than understanding or application, and mindless discipline that Tagore saw in the classrooms of his times. It was this despicable kind of learning that prompted Tagore to conceive of establishing the Santinikethan, the Srinikethan and the Visvabharati.

The disconnect still exists not withstanding the fact that today’s children require a multi sensory engaging experience in the classroom. So, have we ever progressed from the 1860s? Mind you, Tagore lived from 1861 – 1942. To me the wheel of education has just stood still for centuries!!! Crying face Crying face Crying face   There may be changes outwardly but the core of the classroom is just the same. We just do today to our pupils what the pundits did to the poor caged bird a century ago…

Sources:

The Power a Teacher Wields

“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some who didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor or lawyer or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.”
~~~ Donald D. Quinn ~~~

Teachers are the change agents of the future. They train young minds and lay foundation for the future. It is a challenging task with diverse kinds of learners with even more diverse backgrounds and cultures in the melting pot of a classroom. Yet, the power of a classroom teacher is enormous. This is why Henry Brooks Adams said that the teacher affects eternity; he can never tell, where his influence stops.

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who also happens to be the mother of a teenager. After discussions about all and sundry, the conversation veered to school, learning and of course teaching. She shared some insights into the nature of teachers at large in a classroom. And that brought me to write this post on teachers’ conduct inside classrooms.

Imagine these scenes.
Location – many Indian Schools especially board exam classes.
Time: January & February as many Boards have final exams in March / April. (This can happen in any class at any time, but when the fear of exams looms large, it impacts young minds more.)

Case 1: Teacher walks into a classroom. A revision lesson is in progress. The teacher has set a target for revision and starts the QA session. Children answer questions. Then a Q is asked to one student who has not been doing well academically. The child is not able to answer. The teacher launches a tirade. She starts from how hard parents work and struggle to send the child to school and ends with accusing the child of not being responsible enough.

Case 2: Teacher walks in and asks questions. This time the first student to whom the question is asked is unable to answer it. The result – the teacher literally flies off the handle and screams at students. She says she is already stressed out and swears that she does not need more. (A smarty mumbles in an undertone – “is your board exam writing child also giving you trouble like us???”)

Case 3: This teacher is also revising lessons. Whenever students don’t answer questions she goes into hype about how well her own children did when it came to studies. They never gave her trouble like these students. Why can’t you be like that? She rants.

Mind you these are no hyperboles. Let’s accept that these do happen in Indian schools and classrooms. Now look at the effect these responses / reactions make in children.

Case 1: The entire class empathizes with their peer and shuts out the tirade. They switch off. The class gives the teacher a blank ‘there-she-starts-again’ look. The teacher has lost and antagonized the whole class. It takes real effort now to get the transaction back to “I-am-ok and you-are-ok” again.

Case 2: The teacher conveys her own stress levels and reveals the picture of a totally not-in-control kind of person. Instead of having her students look at her in respect and with dignity, her body language conveys the message that when one is angry one raves and rants and that it is okay. Children covertly and overtly make fun of her.

Case 3: The teacher here demonstrates a grave mistake that many including parents make – that of comparing children. When even siblings show enormous differences betwixt each other, the teacher expects her diverse class to be like her child!

It goes without saying that these are totally negative strategies for the classroom. Raving and ranting in the classroom has never ever succeeded in its mission – be it making students learn or behave better. The earlier we stop this the better for us. Or else just like how corporal punishment is a crime now, teachers will soon be made accountable for mental harassment in classrooms.

As a teacher I always believed that we need to leave our baggage outside the classroom – be it mental or emotional. Approach the class without preconditions and judgements. Each class is a clean slate. And when we leave the classroom, erase everything from the slate. Don’t carry it to the staff room and make a mockery of children. More than anything else, it shows us in poor light and in poor taste, as undignified human beings. Let us not be the kind wherein we have to say, “I taught them, but they did not learn!”

Research* proves that effective teachers have high energy and the ability to help all students learn—the low achievers, the average achievers, and the high achievers. So let us demonstrate this in our classrooms. The teacher has to be a fine human being in the classroom. Understanding, care and concern and empathy along with firmness of purpose are hallmarks of a fine teacher. Our small actions can have lasting impacts. Get our students to love us first. Then the love for the teacher will translate into the love for the subject. Without much effort, we can get our students to pay attention, listen, work hard and do well.

Exam times are times when students are highly stressed. Many parents convey their worries and stresses consciously or unconsciously to their children. Many a times they have over expectations about their own children. Poor children reel and double under this burden. And if at this time the teacher also unleashes verbal whiplashes, it is grave injustice to children. We teach them violence in one form or the other through these seemingly simple actions.

Each child is an uncut diamond. Let us love them, understand them, care for them, empathize with them and through these polish the rough edges in them. Then they will shine, love us, love our subjects and bring for them, their parents, us and our schools glory. Such children will make a great society and a fine nation. Isn’t this then the aim of education?

Sources:

*Wright, Horn, & Sanders, ’97 in “Teacher and Classroom Context Effects on Student Achievement: Implications for Teacher Evaluation” in the Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education

Active Learning: Part 2

According to Wendy Pillars, who calls herself an armchair neuro-scientist, it is time that we, teachers, realized that we are the only professionals whose job it is to physically alter a child’s brain daily. Judy Willis, accomplished neuroscientist-turned-teacher, refers to a teacher’s work as a form of “bloodless brain surgery.” Here’s how it happens at a basic level according to her:

“If a child takes in information through her sensory pathways and her brain makes the decision to keep that knowledge, the integrative process takes over and makes sense out of that learning as she sleeps.

This consolidation occurs when neurons transmit messages to one another. The messages must cross microscopic chasms between the neurons—laboriously at first, and then more quickly with each subsequent moment of access.

Eventually the learning is connected to several points within a denser and denser web of neurons, easing the information retrieval process for the conscious learner.”

As teachers, we must understand that a neural pathway is like a new path in the woods. The more frequently that a neural pathway is travelled, the fewer the obstacles, the greater its capacity, and the smoother and faster it becomes.

This means that we must help our students make connections to prior experiences, knowledge, and learning—and connections to other curricular areas. The more connections we make in class, the more we are physically altering our students’ brains by creating and strengthening neural pathways.

Knowing this, it becomes all the more crucial to maximize learning opportunities during the 1,050 hours our students are with us during the school year. So the first way to engage students in active learning is through interactive teaching.

What is Interactive Teaching? Do we do these in our classes?
In the course of explanation, do we ask students questions & encourage answers from them?
Do we ask them to work on a problem to gain clarity on the concept?
Do we pose a question and elicit a series or responses / engage pupils in a discussion?
Do we initiate pair work / group work / whole class work?
Do we assign class work and walk through looking & giving feedback to pupils?

If we have answered with “yes” to all these questions, we are already indulging in Interactive Teaching.

Students learn well what they construct for themselves. We as teachers can only show them the way. They have to take in information, make connections, interpret and make sense of their learning. Therefore interactive teaching help teachers to understand what students have in them as prior knowledge as well as how much of what we have shared they have taken in. Besides learning and making connections is hard and complex work that can only be accomplished by students if they have motivation through a lively and thought provoking task. This sparks the brain into action and serves as a tool that helps make connections. Thus when teachers ask students to work together in small groups to solve a problem, the discussion that ensues not only serves in itself to build more robust knowledge structures, but also helps to motivate. The anticipation of immediate feedback in the form of reaction from their peers, or from the teacher is a very strong motivator. Moreover, when the classroom is not embarrassing or threatening, students are eager to know whether their understanding is concretizing or just drifting aimlessly in mid air. The teacher’s challenge of not allowing them to drift too far off track provides tremendous energy to continue.

Let us therefore do some thinking in this direction and engage our students interactively in order to spur active learning.

Active Learning – Part I

Recently I read about an interesting campaign. STOP MUGGING, START LEARNING CAMPAIGN! It is a movement aimed at creating an education system that promotes learning and not mugging. To surge ahead in time in this new world of possibilities, we need better minds. We need to change the way we think and help pupils under our care realize that that they need to really learn. Students must learn for learning’s sake and not just to pass an examination or earn a grade. Unless we start in our classrooms this change will be a dream.

To have effective teaching and learning in our classrooms, we must engage our students actively. When we are progressing with our lesson, are our students actively engaged or passively listening? Do we find students sitting with blank expressions on their faces? Do we find students engaged in other activities? Passing notes & chits? Giggles and wriggles?? If yes, it’s time to pause. Reflect. Relook at the classroom strategies we use. Introspect on the tasks / strategies we use. Jot them down in a sheet of paper / journal.

Unless students take ownership of their learning, they cannot assimilate what they have learnt. They must be attentive and respond to suitably phrased questions that you ask. Ever wondered how to create this kind of a classroom where students actively learn and engage with their learning?

To enhance classroom teaching and learning we have to step outside our comfort zone. We must undertake new strategies that help us to sample different approaches and thereby cater to varied needs. It keeps our teaching fresh, savoury and our students and we continue to learn.

As teachers we are expected to teach. Does this just mean taking centre-stage as the know-all and rattle off at our pace? What then is our role as teachers? Times have changed so much that our students are techno savvy and many a time we depend on them for this. A teacher’s role has undergone a sea change. In the 21st century classroom the teacher dons many hats – that of a facilitator, a guide, a moderator, a classroom manager and an overseer.

Students need to be involved in their work, whether that means a lab experiment or a role play or a seminar or an essay assignment. Teacher-facilitated and student-centered activities bring energy to the classroom. In the eyes of our students, we are showing them the benefits of the lesson in a more concrete way by using active learning strategies.

Thanks to television and commercials, we are all trained for frequent breaks – in fact research says that today’s child expects one every eight minutes. This is why it is essential to have at least two activities lined up for a 40 minute class. A lecture for more than 15 minutes without an activity brings about deadpan expression in them. It is worth remembering that the average attention span of our students is the average age of the class. Teachers in younger classes must therefore use active learning strategies naturally as they are a necessity for their own survival in the classroom. If we divide our lessons into smaller intervals mixing some teacher-centered ideas with student-centered activities, students engage well in learning the material and active learning happens. Teacher-centered learning strategies however also do have a bearing on a daily basis in the classroom.

When we add activities to enhance learning we add perceptible value to our own teaching and the learning of students. This then sparks energy and enthusiasm in the class. Ask them questions frequently. This will again keep them engaged in the learning. By being in touch with our learners’ perspectives we can make any subject come alive to them. Achieving objectives then becomes a student goal, rather than a teacher goal. Pupils then take onus for their learning. Life skills are developed and expanded and communication skills are emphasized.

As educators, when we thus become more alert and responsive to the needs of our students, our subject comes alive to each and every learner. Simply put, the students enjoy it! And with that learning simply becomes active and with ownership!!

Shall we make a beginning ??? STOP MUGGING & START LEARNING!

(The next post will deal with some strategies to make learning active.)