What works best?

Real beauty is breathtaking. Whether it is a figure of beauty or an act of beauty.

The tea plantations, for example, of the Niligiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, will take your breath away. A sort of shock sets in at the sight of the beds of green coral covering the valleys and sides of hills thousands of feet above sea level. Shock transforms to wonder the more you stare.

It is not just landscape that strikes us. Cities make us catch our breath, too. With their rivers, parks and towers, granite and sandstone buildings, and streaming populations.

With its mountains, tea plantations, rice paddies, wheat fields and forests, India also has urban beauty.

But perhaps the greatest types of beauty I’ve seen in India are acts of goodness, rather than land and cityscapes. Especially acts relating to education.

In a country where there is much poverty, educators are bringing vivid and potent futures to children by teaching them to read and learn Math.

Initiatives on sharing expertise, or what has proved effective in classrooms, are particularly moving and impressive.

Some teachers are lazy and their classes fall victim to their character failure; but more often than not, teachers want to teach well and to develop expertise in the classroom. Not for their own aggrandisement, but because they love working with kids and care for them. They pool their IP with others, and reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching. The best among them are learners; they work at finding out which of their strategies produced the best learning, and how they can replicate these or modify them for different topics or new settings.

This is visible with STIR Education. It is a teacher led movement that aims to reignite passion among teachers for their profession, and for the art of teaching. Beauty in action.

STIR achieves this through ‘integration’; through sharing teaching moments that have been successful.

Success is not just measured by joy and engagement, but learning effect: can a child now do something that she could not do previously—long division, for example?

STIR teachers not only share pedagogical successes, they also integrate them into classroom practices. The IP doesn’t simply remain a point of interest or discussion. It is taken and used by others. Evidence-based practices that are effective in helping children learn are assimilated into a 10,000 strong network of teachers.

What is particularly impressive is that STIR teachers are shifting the focus of discussion from student ability and aptitude to teacher ability and aptitude. In other words, the movement is making its teachers ask ‘How effective am I in the classroom?’; ‘How successful was the way I taught that?’; and ‘How could I have done that better?’ In short, its teachers are taking the question of what it means to teach, seriously. And they are tackling these questions collaboratively.

By way of example, and far away from the Niligiri Hills (1500 miles) on the edges of Delhi, a woman called Kalpana Sagar is bringing life to her Math classes. At SMMC Girls in Malviya Nagar, she posed a simple question: ‘How can I raise interest levels in Math?’

Her ‘micro-innovation’ (a focused small, but effective innovation) identified popular and mathematically relevant games such as Monopoly, puzzles, tangrams, etc.; placed these games in class (Math corner); encouraged students to play the games whenever they were free; timetabled one session per week for students to play the games; and ensured all students had the opportunity to play each of the games.

On further reflection Ms Sagar also saw the value of involving students in making games using recyclable material.

The impact of her micro-innovation has been an increase of interest in Math. It sounds simple, but it has been a beautiful innovation that has carved out a different and positive path for students who otherwise find Math dull and impenetrable.

Many teachers who love their subject and care for their students cannot escape from themselves. They teach from within their world to an outside world. This is their problem: they do not stand in the place of the child or start where she stands. Their failure is not one of good will, but of communication. They are talking (read: teaching) over their students’ heads.

This is why movements, training and professional development programmes that are worth their salt force teachers to beg questions on whether (1) they have grasped their students’ places on the learning curve (prior learning achievements); and (2) how effective their learning interventions have been.

David Ausubel, the celebrated educational psychologist and scientist stated: “If I reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.’”

Ms Sagar’ introduction of games into her class time has merged her students horizons with her own. Caught up, for instance, in negotiations in Monopoly, they are leveraging something they already know a lot about (bartering and negotiation) with something Ms Sagar wants them to learn (probability, percentage and interest).

While these innovations lack glamour; they have impact and address such facts as: for better or for worse Math ability at the age of seven has a link to employment and income 35 years later; or that an eleven year old with low self-belief/esteem in consequence of literacy failure (reading and Math) has a high likelihood of dropping out of school and into crime.

Clarity about what it is we want our children to learn is important. Getting right inside their world in an effort to understand what they know and how they learn is important. And sharing successful strategies for learning is important. Common sense? Yes. But worth reiterating because adults like children are slow learners and we need to hear something at least three times before it affects us. The beauty and simplicity of a good education.

Take Away Points: Education is important for human development. It significantly enables us to reach our potential and work for the common good: for wealth creation, employment, healthcare, recreation and leisure, justice and government. Longitudinal research consistently confirms that effective education is garnered by a teaching profession that (1) strives to identify student understanding (not taking it for granted); (2) builds on student understanding; and (3) seeks out and updates (dependent on context and setting) the best means of learning—doing so collaboratively, acting as a brains trust.

Research: Something beautiful: STIR Education

Moving reading: Micro-Innovations 2015

Something every teacher or educator should have at hand: J Hattie. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on Learning. Routledge, Oxon: 2012.

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