Doggie Treat

There’s an obvious paradox that seems to have pervaded our schools today and it has brought about the miseducation of our students.

During my formative years, my parents bombarded me with books instead of toys in an effort to cajole me to parrot and learn my ABC’s and 123’s and was subsequently lauded for such behavior. At this early stage, my self-worth was conditioned and developed as both my parents, relatives and teachers showered me with doggie treats in the form of praises, hugs, kisses, certificates and presents. I started reading the newspaper at the age of 3, or so my mom says. My parents could not have been more proud. My ecstatic parents enthusiastically raved about my teacher, her noble efforts and her effective model of teaching.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this experience. This ego gratification goes on all the way from grade school to high school where smart and talented students are separated from the “inferior” students. When I was in grade school, our teachers would change our seating arrangement every quarter depending on our scores during the recently concluded quarterly exams. Some teachers would choose to place their “star” pupils in front, while others preferred to put them in the back (the rationale being “star” pupils require less guidance than their “not-so-bright” counterparts who occupied the front row seats so teachers can keep a close eye on them). As a student, my self-worth became dependent on the seating arrangement.

It was a cycle that my teachers and parents put me through and which I happily obliged. I listened to the lectures, copiously and diligently took notes, memorized and regurgitated one complex material after another in my quarterly tests. Listen – Absorb – Regurgitate – Receive doggie treat – Repeat. I felt like a Pavlovian lab rat.

I’m an auditory learner, a type A personality (obsessive-compulsive personality) and the eldest among my siblings. Luckily, I also have good memory retention. There was just no way that I could have been anything but the “star” pupil. My skills, birth order and personality just refuse to allow anything but. I went to a traditional school and a science high school later on, and my teachers’ style was primarily lecture-type. Looking back, my education was a fortuitous event because my learning style matched my teachers’ mode of teaching.

My younger sister was not so lucky. She’s a tactile-kinesthetic learner. Lecture was not her thing, and school (or rather, the traditional mode of teaching in our alma mater) was not her cup of tea. It wasn’t until she transferred to a progressive school that her star started to shine.

I think the miseducation that has pervaded schools today stems from this mismatch. No two teachers are the same just as no two students learn the same way. Some students have no problems learning under the teacher-centered method depending on their culture, upbringing, beliefs about learning and learning style.

When I started in the field of training, I admit that I had a very pedantic approach. As a teacher who learned through the traditional lecture method, I realized I had to make the conscious effort not to teach my trainees the way I was taught because not all of them have the same learning style as I do. I realized that my knowledge of the course content and the materials are just secondary to the learning context. Being an effective teacher is not a matter of intelligence but flexibility in altering one’s teaching style in order to create a teacher-student style match through a wide-range of activities that will cater to the different learning styles. I must be learner-centered and consider learner-related factors such as students’ needs, prior knowledge, talents, interests, social orientations, linguistic abilities, and cultures” (D.M. Brown, 2003)  After all, how can I equip them with what they need if I don’t know their needs? How will I teach them if I do not know how they learn (Dunn & Griggs, 2000)?

I’ve read articles justifying why some teachers fail to take into consideration their students’ learning styles, most of which  attribute it to the sheer number of students a teacher has under her wing. It is indeed such a huge feat to be held responsible for your students’ learning. But in the end, don’t we all want the same thing for our students – a meaningful, rewarding and enjoyable learning experience? Can we expect all students to be willing Pavlovian lab rats and merely reward them with doggie treats?

 

 

References:

Brown, D.M. (2003). ‘Learner-centered Conditions That Ensure Students’ Success in Learning’. Education, Vol. 124, No. 1, pp. 99-104, p. 107.

Dunn, R. & Griggs, S.A. (eds.). (2000). Practical Approaches to Using Learning Styles in Higher Education. Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.

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My Intellectual Quest

I was a consistent honor student from grade school all the way through high school, and even graduated salutatorian both times. When I was in high school, I took a standardized assessment test and scored 99+. During senior year in high school, I applied for a spot in a highly elite program (quota course) in UP Manila and got in. Freshman and sophomore year in university was a breeze. There were some hiccups along the way, but those couple of years flew by uneventfully. A number of years later, I took the Berlitz CEFR and got a C2 and a band level of 9 for IELTS. Frankly, no one in my circle made a big fuss over it. It didn’t mean anything to me and my friends. (I went to a science high school and was expected to perform well. Anything less than the best was simply unacceptable.)  When we were in school, my cousin regularly sought my help for homework and school projects/papers. You could say that I’ve been registering scores like that all my life, so I developed the complacency that I’m highly intelligent.

My junior year in university was a different story though. For the first time in my life, my grades were plummeting. I was struggling with my major subjects, not some of them but all of them. Anatomy and Kinesiology were my biggest hurdles. My study habits had not changed; in fact, I was burning the midnight oil more than ever. I was not any less focused than before. I watched myself as I went for a nosedive from being a teacher’s pet to a complete pariah in class. (Our professors were tough on us, but they were even more so on students with lackluster performance.) I took Anatomy and Kinesiology twice and failed both times. I felt like the wind was taken away from my sails. I transferred to UP Diliman soon after and got in the Creative Writing program. Acceptance was a hard thing to muster. It was a fall from grace. I had so wanted to be a doctor but I just couldn’t hack it. With my grades quickly jumping back to its pre-junior year state, it wasn’t long before I re-discovered my confidence and found my footing.

If I were so intelligent, how can I have been so reduced to being a blundering, stammering, constipated idiot in my junior year? Such thoughts were running through my mind as I coasted through one semester after another. Everything about my journey to the Creative Writing program was a sign that life as I knew it and my identity was one world, one galaxy almost, and now another. I realized that my aptitude is not in the Sciences. Looking back, I only managed to endure Biology, Chemistry and Physics in high school. I was intelligent, or I am intelligent, but my scores in Anatomy and Kinesiology were an indication that my inclination lies somewhere else. I’m not very good at answering test questions designed to measure a skill that is worlds away from my inclination, and that’s ok.

When we say that a person is intelligent and try to measure their “intelligence”, aren’t we limiting that person and our understanding of “intelligence”? One person may seem “unintelligent” in a test, while he could very well be highly skilled in different areas that are different from what society has conventionally deemed so.

Nowadays, I no longer wear my intelligence like a brooch. I’ve come to accept my limitations, but I know that doesn’t make me any less smart than the person I ask for help. In my field, I train a lot of IT professionals on English Proficiency. Most days I could only hope for them to get a B2 level in the CEFR. Yet I know that if they were to design a test, I would fail miserably. Somehow I know that doesn’t make  any one of us any less intelligent.

As a trainer dealing with adult learners, I try to regard my students with as much respect as they should be accorded not just as learners but as professionals. Sometimes I forget when the demands for hit rate and pass rate are looming and their grammar is still horrendous and their sentence structure just as atrocious. But I try to remember how it was to not perform as well as you’d expected. I’m not dealing with a dunce, and their poor communication skills does not make them one.

When my PC, laptop or tablet decides to have a mind of its own or some other thing decides to conk out on me, I call on that same cousin who used to hasten to me when he had concerns in school. I would watch him anxiously as he tinkers, reconfigures and revives my ailing technological devices and listen to his explanations, pronouncements and diagnosis much like I would my doctor or a divine oracle. Much of what he says would go above my head, yet I’d always nod meekly. The teacher has now become the student.

First Day Fears

I’ve been an English Training Specialist since 2007. Prior to that, I was teaching EFL. With this level of experience, you’d think that I never get the case of the jitters anymore, but the opposite is true. I still get nervous on the first day of class just as I did when I was a student. No, my hands don’t get all wet and clammy and I don’t feel like wetting my knickers. But those first few moments are punctuated by awkward silence, unease and trepidation. This is made even worse on that moment when I introduce myself to the class as I watch them squirm in their seats or look at their beady expressions. Once they get to know each other and their bored or constipated faces break out into a tentative smile, the tensions drops and the mood takes on a different turn.

Looking back to the time when I was a student, I know that this prevented me from learning and achieving my full potential. Now that I’m on the opposite side of the fence, I try to take this into consideration. When I’m nervous, I know that somehow my students can sense this, and this anxiety can translate to them. In the field of training, this is never a good thing. If my students are nervous, they will not do as well in class and will even hesitate to participate. In language learning, participation and use of the target language is key. Thus, for my own sanity, I always incorporate an ice-breaker activity. I just hate that look of fear and panic in students during the first day. I think that’s what makes me nervous, so I try to get them smiling as early during the training as possible.

As I pored over the readings for this class, I realized that I have been ignorant as to how learning happens. I have likewise ignored that fact that my job as a trainer does not stop with teaching concepts. I should also teach them how to learn. At this point, I know that learning is not linear. I see this in my trainees. I am never assured of their progression even with quality input. Studying a particular lesson does not automatically lead to them understanding it, mastering it and moving on to the next lesson. As stated in one of our readings, sometimes what the teacher wants the students to learn may be different from what the students want to learn (http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/whatlearn.htm).

Learning is not a magical thing. It is a physical process, and though it is the student’s responsibility to learn, the process can be aided by the teacher.

I guess the next question is under what conditions can a student learn best?