Tag Archives: classroom

#16: A Few Scattered Drafts on Learning How to Learn

What should schools be good at? The quick answer: learning – and teaching students to learn. It is almost an educational truism that students in schools should “learn how to learn” and to sharpen the mindsets that would help them to do such. I’ve always assumed, pragmatically, that students just forget whatever they learn after they are tested for that knowledge, so unless they are particularly turned on with such information, then they should at least be able to graduate with something of value: ways to learn how to learn plus the mental acuity for such.

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In the Philippines, what is school’s function? There always goes the familiar chorus: “So that children will grow up and be able to get jobs.” That underscores most of serious schooling talk in the Philippines aside from grades, tests, and schedules. It’s a constant grind: parents remind children to study hard to get high scores in tests to get good grades, and there’s no letting down because the schedules are tight. At the base of all these is the hope that all graduates would somehow be able to get good jobs, mostly abroad, where plenty of money is to be earned. Diplomas, moreover, serve as social signals that someone is educated; just notice how they are conspicuously displayed at every home, along with some medals and certificates.

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I’m not saying that education should stray as far as it can from industrial demand. Of course, schools need to produce a mass of graduates able to take on high-level technical work. But we can’t just manufacture students who can “do” without building up their thinking. Many technical procedures today might become outdated later on, and many new ones will emerge. Graduates are in a better position to learn those new techniques if they know how to learn – thus saving themselves from becoming what Alvin Toffler called the “illiterates of the 21st century”. And, oh, many professionals today insist that most of the stuff they know came from the job itself.

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A strong proposal: Leave the expertise to the jobs; while at school, teach students to learn how to learn, with the subjects as vehicles to that end. Ideally, I want every last student in the Philippines to learn Math. It’s a highly rewarding discipline; it has the dual benefit of having lots of industry applications and its being hospitable to play. One can do Math with a definite purpose or without one. However, Math teachers know well that with a few exceptions, most of the Math (content) that students learn goes down the drain. So while teachers should still teach Math, they should do so in such a way that students will become curious with every discussion, not feel trapped with the knowledge they have (couldn’t it be possible that sometimes knowledge can be trap – we’d rather be inside it than confront the outside world where wolves sometimes thrive?)

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Curiosity is important in “learning how to learn”, and such a trait manifests in constant questioning. Schools should certainly encourage this attitude; when a teacher declares “Any questions?”, he or she better be sincere. Connected to this is the purpose of questioning; is its main (perhaps for some, only) purpose to assess what students already know? What if teachers began asking questions without needing students to answer, with just the remark that these questions are good questions but they need not be answered right away? After all, the best questions always stick in the minds of interested thinkers for hundreds or even thousands of years.

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Many of us still assume, naively, that doing is what happens when learning is finished. That is the notion behind the “study well so that you’ll get a good job”. Curiosity can eradicate that notion: when you do something, you learn from it; you constantly reflect; you find better ways to do it; you can find creative twists to it. Curiosity surely helps anyone explore all that is contained within an action, from participants to stakeholders to methods of improvement to “whether it deserves to be done at all”, and such exploration is learning, and it mostly involves asking the right questions and chasing down partial or total answers to them. With this, learning is already doing; the two are not any more distinct.

Do teachers think similarly? Is learning to them a part of doing, or something that should happen before doing? The teacher’s way of teaching will show her orientation toward both learning and doing, and students will absorb what they see.

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One of my friends just remarked that he wanted to be freed from the pressure of books and he doesn’t want to hold any more books forever. I wonder what has happened exactly to him, but it could be this: Books are not something to be read, but “pressed” upon him. Reading, for him, has become a passive activity in which he becomes a receiver, not an active one in which he is deliberate. Reading can’t always be “You have to” from without if it is to be sustainable; it has to be often an “I will” from within.

There could be a Pyrrhic victory behind his situation – he got what he wanted from his education, but I wish he didn’t get an aversion to further learning, especially from books which give not only information but also ways on mobilizing and organizing them with due thoughtfulness.

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#6: Paper Eaters in a Math Classroom (o Mga Kumakain ng Papel sa Klase ng Math)

If you once were in a classroom, can you give me the uses of paper? You can choose from any number of the following:

A. For writing notes and answers
B. For making paper airplanes.
C. For making paper balls to throw to other students.
D. For food.

If you answered A, B, or C, then you have answered just the conventional uses of paper in classrooms. With that said, here is a report that suggests that the answer can be D. Here it is, from the ABS-CBN website:

Teacher forces students to eat paper

ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA, Philippines – A high school teacher from Mandaue City is in hot water for allegedly forcing her students to eat paper as punishment for being noisy.

The female math teacher has filed her leave of absence while the Department of Education and the Commission on Human Rights are investigating the incident.

The case stemmed from the complaint of parents of 30 graduating students from the Paknaan National High School in Mandaue City who alleged that the teacher ordered their children to get a piece of paper and then eat it.

The incident happened last September 5, but the case only came to the attention of the school principal five days later when the parents complained.

The students said to have experienced diarrhea after the incident.

Meanwhile, the teacher allegedly wrote a statement admitting the case, and has apologized to the parents and students.

Here are some additional details from an article on the same event, from the Philstar site:

Gayon pa man isa sa mga estudyanteng babae na nakapanayam sa TV, sinabi nito na inutusan sila ng guro na lunukin ang papel sa loob ng 10 minuto subalit hindi niya sinunodkaya tinangka siyang batuhin ng mono-bloc chair.

Napag-alamang pinagawa ng seatwork ang mga estudyante subalit nang duma­ting ang kanilang guro mula sa kabilang silid-aralan ay nadatnang nagkukuwentuhan lamang kaya nagalit ang guro at pinakain sila ng papel.

(Trans. One of the women students whom we talked with on TV said that her teacher told the class to swallow the paper for 10 minutes but she didn’t follow so the teacher attempted to throw a mono-bloc chair towards her.

It was known that the students were made to do some seatwork, but when the teacher returned, they were seen to be just chatting with each other, so the teacher got mad and told them to eat paper.)


Checklist

The teacher had many alternatives. She could have discussed the situation with her students further. Why were they making noise? If the students were making noise senselessly, as is the case here, then a reprimand could have been enough. She could have probed, too, and then set some rules to be followed in the future. Well, my view is, and has always been, this: if students weren’t listening then they’re bored, that’s all, and the ball is back to the teacher to make the students interested in something more than the fleeting fancies they may be talking about at the meantime.

Did the students lack mastery of the topic, which caused them to forsake their work in exchange for something that they are experts at doing – noisemaking? Then the teacher could have taught the topic again if time permits, or if not, then she could have thought more deeply of the root of their knowledge shortage – perhaps a faulty basics foundation, or perhaps the topic’s inherent difficulty. Either way, she could be on her way to find out how to make her teaching better. Students will also commend her for persistence, which may pay off more than talent alone, and that also communicates a good message to the students in the process.

Why were the students copying each other’s answers? Perhaps they lack mastery of the topic, and solutions to that are discussed above. Or because it was customary for them to copy. Then the teacher could have asserted that she saw the students “cheating”, but then brought up a discussion that can make them think about their morals. “Is it of any use to me to cheat?” “What if I do small wicked things like this in the backs of the others – would I do big devilish things in the backs of others later on? If so, what things could that be?”

Such questions like these stimulate the mind, and although they may lead to the slight tweaking of a lesson plan, they are worth asking. Maybe they will be remembered more than most high school Math content will ever be. A Math teacher who has grounding not only in numerical values but also in moral values can lead students to find out the long-term consequences of their actions – quantitatively, if possible, as is done today in decision theory and game theory. She may transform the overall orientation of students toward work and life, and she will be remembered for it. Moreover, she can finally resolve one long-standing problem of Math teachers – how to make Math relevant in daily life.

It can also be that the exams are themselves senseless, more of busy work that ought to be shirked off rather than work that deserves closer attention and sustained thought. This is more difficult, because teachers can get so attached to what they do such that by doing it all the time, they think that what they do is inherently good. Everything a teacher does, however, should pass this test: are the students learning from it?

Even if the work done at that time is not busywork, the teacher can scathingly reflect on how she conducted her classes and exams. She should have explored her teaching methods, her testing methods, and her personality. She should begin asking feedback from the students on what they learn – or whether they really learn. (Ask them; don’t just rely on papers, which are always greased to look more impressive than what they really are, so that they look pleasing.) She should be prepared to get hurt by some of the comments, as Math is always a subject anathema to most Filipino youth, if the popular talk and press are to be believed. Criticisms always pave the way to better teaching, which is always an activity in which the one doing it is always a learner too.

Mathematics is a subject that inspires plenty of reflection, even in matters non-mathematical, and for a Math teacher, these reflections should have came easy. In a jiffy (split second), I would say, for anyone with enough practice.

Instead, she resorted to a short-sighted solution that cost her reputation and possibly her career. Article 8, Section 8 of the Code of Ethics for Professional Teachers states:

Section 8. A teacher shall not inflict corporal punishment on offending learners nor make deductions from their scholastic ratings as a punishment for acts which are clearly not manifestation of poor scholarship.

Teenage Obedience and Adult Authority

What is troubling is that most of the students chose to follow the ludicrous order. If Math is a subject that demands immaculate logic that stretches and strengthens the mental capacity of students, how come they succumbed to following something they know to be absurd at best and harmful at worst (or even fatal because of the possibility for choking)? How come most of them chose to be automatically obedient in the midst of a subject that requires them to think hard?

Stanley Milgram, an American social scientist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, set out to discover the forces underlying blind obedience. His purpose was to illuminate us on why, in the Nazi regime of Hitler, many supposedly normal people set out doing atrocities, such as herding Jews in concentration camps and gassing them. Here is the scenario for his experiment:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.

What are the findings? (They were further developed in his book Obedience to Authority.)

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Although the students did not hurt others by obeying the teacher’s command to eat paper, they knew very well that they would hurt themselves, and I assume that self-interest in this case can prevent them from hastily doing something they knew to be bad for their health. At least one student has protested against it. But why didn’t all of the students adamantly refuse – or throw the teacher out of the room for such a nonsensical order? They could have saved themselves from the ordeal of eating something unsavory.

Even educated people had their guards down in Milgram’s experiment. Even common people, who have no natural spite flowing in their blood against someone else, administered the electric shocks to the maximum voltage. What chance, then, could mere adolescents have against overbearing authority in the persona of a teacher? Some degree of obedience is necessary in the smooth functioning of a society or institution, but look at the effects when it is left unchecked:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

Some decades ago this process was the Holocaust. Today it perpetuates of a system that causes us to eschew critical thinking (thus leaving us with a shortage of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and thoughtful human beings) and to be blind to the repercussions of actions mandated from above. If we are too willing to follow an incorrect heat-of-the-moment order from someone regarded as trustworthy, what more when we begin facing the more turbulent whims of incompetent authority?

With the students acquiescing to an authority they knew to be wrong, only to regret it later with sick stomachs, what chance have they in preserving their own integrity when dealing with the outside world, geared mostly in Filipino society to induce conformity, when they grow up?

The situation described in the news articles could have been remedied by simple reflection, and for teachers, the checklist above can help.

While we complain to no end about people who should have followed but haven’t, let us not forget that far worse things can stem from those who shouldn’t have followed but have. What better lesson can we teach our students than this?

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