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Wednesday, 28 August 2019

From Coverage to Learning: Making the Shift in Indian Schools

“But if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” – George Orwell

I walk into a Standard 9 classroom. It’s a Physics Class on “Force and the Laws of Motion.” Dressed in a bright blue sari, the teacher stands at the front of the room and patiently explains Newton’s first law of motion. Then she asks a question based on it. A few diligent children in the front two rows seem to be taking down notes. Two very bright boys call out answers in response to the teacher’s question. In the back of the class, however, one boy stares vacantly out the window, gazing at the tree in the distance. Another girl is busy drawing an elaborate design on a piece of scrap paper at the back of her notebook. While the hot midday sun streams in through the window, a number of students fidget in their seats, looking confused and lost.

The teacher smiles wearily at the class, and then bravely marches on to introduce the next law and ask the next question.

When I chatted with the teacher after class, I asked her why she didn’t slow down to check for understanding and review concepts, when so many students seemed to be having difficulty following what she was teaching. “But I need to cover the portions,” she responded, “I don’t have time to stop.”

When I started visiting Indian schools as an education consultant, perhaps what struck me most forcefully was the tremendous emphasis on “coverage.” The phrase “cover the portions” is used so widely across our schools, and it has seeped so deeply into the psyche of our teachers, that it seems to dictate what happens in the classroom.

In schools across Tamil Nadu, teachers use a certain kind of language. They worry about “covering the portions,” and they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about “revisions, exams, and marks.” They also try to “get through the text book” and “ensure that students do the book back questions” (or in normal speak, the questions at the back of each chapter in the text book). They make sure that they “clarify doubts” by giving students the right answers.

While they use the verb “teaching” a lot, they rarely use the verb “learning.”

Rarely do I hear teachers use words such as “learning, thinking, imagining, wondering, analyzing, and creating.” I keep looking for these words in our conversations, but like beautiful flowers that bloom very rarely, they remain elusive.

Having taught for many years, I know from experience that just because I have taught something doesn’t mean that students have learned it. Teaching and learning are not synonyms, though ideally learning should be the outcome of good teaching.

Similarly, coverage and understanding are not synonyms either. A teacher can “cover” the portions, but that does not mean that students have understood anything.

Furthermore, in many schools across our country, the end goal of education seems to be “scoring on exams.” A “good school” is one with “good results.” But “high exam scores and good results” are not synonyms for “long term success and happiness.” (In fact, studies show that the correlation between a student’s exam scores in school and his or her long term professional and personal success and happiness is surprisingly weak.)

What I wonder, however, is how the language that we use shapes the way we think about education. If we changed our language, would we also change our thinking and behavior?

What would our education system be like if teachers felt less pressure to “cover portions” and more pressure to ensure that students are engaged and learning? What if we didn’t just “clarify doubts” but actually pushed our students to think more deeply and ask more questions? What if we worried less about preparing our students for exams and more about preparing our students for life? What if we shifted our language to regularly include words like learning, imagining, questioning, wondering, analyzing, inferring, creating, and thinking. What would our education system be like then?

Perhaps then, the teacher in that physics class on the laws of motion would be free to slow down and check for understanding. Perhaps she’d even have the time and motivation to come up with imaginative ways to teach each concept so that every child could access it. And the outcome of the class would not be mere “coverage,” but would instead be “deeper engagement, thinking, and learning.”