Thursday, February 22, 2018

Teaching lessons


Mark Fraser

 In the aftermath of the infamous schoolgirls’ fight, several commentators have stated that bad behaviour in schools must be stamped out so children can learn. In fact, the opposite is the case: if children are learning, bad behaviour will become almost non-existent.

The reason that most commentators have instead focused on the disruptive behaviour is simple: the reflex in this place is to turn to punitive and authoritarian measures to solve problems. Hence PNM leader Keith Rowley at a political meeting a few days after the incident said that “all of those girls in that video should face some serious disciplinary charges, so they will learn what they call a right is in fact a privilege, to go to a secondary school”.

The Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association, followed this tack of demonising children, cited as an example of pupil violence an incident where a five-year-old boy slapped a teacher. Teacher failure, in my view, is a better interpretation.

But the following week, at a “Parenting in Education” consultation arranged by the Education Ministry, parents offered their usual solutions to all pedagogical problems: prayer and licks. According to one Gifford Fletcher, “We use other First World nations to model ourselves after and, if we observe, these First World nations are coming down.”

The fact that the average young person in a developed country has a higher IQ and is less violent than the average young person in Trinidad and Tobago makes no difference to Mr Fletcher’s uninformed opinions, of course. And so we encounter our first stumbling block to improving T&T’s education system: that we do have to draw from nations like Japan and Singapore and Finland, all of which had under-performing systems until their governments instituted deliberate and long-term reforms.

It took less than 30 years for each of these countries to create top-rated education systems. Their pupils now regularly score in the upper percentiles on international tests in mathematics and science, and their populations have the highest levels of learning in the world. 

Disciplinary problems from pupils are infrequent and never disrupt the school. And it will no doubt shock the majority of adults in this place to learn that all this was achieved without licks or even sending delinquent teens to what Dr Rowley called “a different kind of school”.

Focusing on the needs of the pupils is a core principle of successful education. Indeed, the Education Ministry always cites “pupil-centred learning” as one of its buzz phrases, although it has not actually instituted any concrete measures to move beyond this pedagogical jargon.

In Finland, for example, they do not have set classrooms for pupils. Instead, subjects are taught by modules, which allows students who are behind (or ahead) in a particular course to attend different modules so they can master a particular level before moving on. Teachers, moreover, do not primarily teach content, but teach students how to teach themselves.

In Japan, they also put pupils at the centre in a different way. Every year, teams of teachers create a lesson plan to teach a specific component of a subject. The lesson plan is then taught to a sample class, and sometimes teachers from other schools will come to view the lesson. 

Afterward, the lesson is critiqued to see what worked and what didn’t, as measured by how well the pupils understood the subject matter. The lesson plan is then fine-tuned and tried again, and the process repeated until the teaching teams are satisfied they have an effective approach. 

Often, the method is written up in a  monograph, which other teachers can buy or access. And nowhere in all this will you hear that standard Trini refrain that “some chirrun just cyar learn”.

But pupils-centred learning requires teachers who know how to do research, create curriculums, and structure the subject matter so it is just a little too difficult for most pupils: because, again contrary to conventional wisdom in this place, children learn best when challenged. Teachers in these societies are well-paid, have significant autonomy, and are highly respected for their professional knowledge.

In this place, however, technocrats institute reforms without input from teachers, often based on some fashionable pedagogical theory that hasn’t actually been experimentally tested. 

Moreover, in their book The Teaching Gap, education researchers James W Stigler and James Hiebert point out that teaching is a cultural activity, which means that how teachers teach is determined by “a relatively small and tacit set of core beliefs about the nature of the subject, about how pupils learn, and about the role a teacher should play in the classroom”.

So, in a society where educated individuals assert that reading makes people civilised and in the next breath argue in favour of corporal and capital punishment, it is no wonder that the term “book learning” is an expression of contempt. And it is that attitude which explains why schoolchildren behave badly.