Skepticism or Faith

As I sign off (albeit momentarily I’m guessing as future courses would require me to keep this blog in one way or another. I’m debating whether or not I should keep this blog as a journal of sorts long after I have fulfilled its initial need), I am left to contemplate one crucial question, which I have painfully and regretfully missed in that stretch of time that I’ve been a trainer: Who is responsible for learning in the classroom — is it the student or the teacher?

I did the rounds for a while asking each educator and student I know. The group was split down the middle with neither one conceding, and I am left with the crux of this quandary I had inadvertently imposed upon myself. If each group so boldly puts the finger on the other, then no one picks up the slack. No one is responsible. If no one feels responsible, then what is the point of all this madness?

As a teacher/trainer, I do understand. After all, how many times have I secretly (or maybe not so secretly) said, “He/She is un-trainable/weak. Why did you put him/her in my class?” And how many times have I blamed the Philippine educational system for producing graduates who can hardly produce a string of grammatically accurate sentences in English? How many times have I lamented the fact that I merely have two short weeks to undo 20+ years carabao English and magically transform them into Energizer bunnies with a twang and an acceptable level of English. They must think I’m Jesus Christ (pun intended).

As a pre-med student in a previous life, it was is easy to blame my professors for my inability to grasp the lessons. Their pedagogy was boring and bookish. They were too harsh, punctilious, and quite frankly, pompous in their ways.

I wish I could say I got the answers, but I do know that at some point, the finger-pointing has to stop and we have got to start finding workarounds to this situation. As an educator, I endeavor to provide the full commitment that every one in my class will learn something. Outcomes and performances may vary, but each one of them will take something away from my class. I can help my students grow by changing my mindset.

If there’s one thing I got from this class, it’s that learning is not linear. Therefore, we can’t just accept the premise that students learn what we teach them — that good students learn what we teach them, and those who don’t…well, too bad. It used to be that simple: I teach, you learn. “It’s your only responsibility. Why can’t you do it right?” As if their inability to learn is their fault. Though it’s generally true that students who exert a great deal of effort are usually successful, that doesn’t always ring true. Perhaps he used the wrong strategy or studied for the wrong things or just wasn’t cut out for it (Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences). Or maybe my approach failed to reach everyone. Perhaps instead of telling them what’s wrong, I should also focus on equipping them with the tools to fix the gap. Perhaps instead of thinking of myself as the Saviour (again, pun intended), I should have a little bit more faith.

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False Notes

Long before we’d had a chance to become truly familiar with the teaching learning process, we may be filled with the curious sense that we know it already by heart. It can seem as though being knowledgeable or smart or even a smartass and occasionally signing up for a seminar on this and that and getting nothing more than a Certificate of Completion is synonymous to being an effective trainer. It’s as if the whole process were as simple as pouring liquid onto a jar.

When I started in the field of training, I thought I had all my ducks in a row. I was young, eager and wet behind the ears. I thought I knew everything there is to know to be an effective trainer. Several hits and misses and two terms at UPOU, I realize I have barely scratched the surface. I have no regrets, but I come out of each course humbled and even less pedantic than when I started. In more ways than one, I’ve been tempered by kindness and a better understanding of the teaching learning process.  This was not always the case. See, I run a very tight ship. Not a very long time ago, I regarded inaccuracies as incompetency and was very vocal about it.

Why is it that even in the educational setting we rarely consider the learning process? It is as if we regard it as a controlled variable in this social experiment we call education. Why don’t educators factor in how students learn as a guide to their practice? Do we even know what it looks like? Do we even know what it is we are looking for? Would we even recognize it when we see it or would we dismiss it even if it were dangled it front of us like a carrot? It seems like an absurd hypothesis and an even more inconvenient truth.

Oftentimes, it’s more tempting to base our presuppositions on learning upon insufficient material, and supplement our ignorance with a desire. As an educator, we should reserve our leap of judgment regarding effectiveness until we have completed a clear-eyed investigation of the depths and nature of the waters. Only after we have undertaken a thorough analysis of our learners, their needs, the parameters of learning should we embark on this pursuit, otherwise it will be a futile and meaningless exercise of transference.

 

The Thing with Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
– from  “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

Here’s the big truth of life: It’s not like the movies. We rarely get happy endings, and things will hurt us a lot more than they will make us happy. Whatever does make us happy will end up hurting us even more in the end. Ironic, isn’t it? Sometimes or a lot of times, that guy you obsessed about and who sent your heart a-fluttering and soaring to the heights of outer space is the very same guy who would make you crash and burn to the very depths of the Marianas Trench. Or your dream of being a doctor or the next Steve Jobs sends you into a downward spiral of regret and frustration.

There are days when you feel sad and you can’t pinpoint why exactly. There are days when you cry your eyes out. There are days when you catch yourself  staring blankly off into space because you don’t know what it is exactly you’re doing with your life. There are days when nothing  goes right and shit hits the fan and you’re left ducking for cover. There are days when you find yourself wishing that you could just stay within the comforts of your bed and never wake up.

Why do we even wake up every morning  when out of the 365 days that a year gives us, more than 300 of them are spent wishing we could just sleep longer to get more rest, to heal a broken heart or to retreat from the pressures of  life.

Life is a lot like learning. In our lifetime, we accumulate an endless amount of stories and experiences that change the course of our lives. And teachers become the most influential role models by virtue of proximity. I’ve had teachers whom I have fond memories of, and there are others still whom I would rather forget. Sadly, I’ve had teachers who made me feel like not getting out of bed to face school. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that though I’ve been a straight arrow for most of my life, there was a time when I found myself on the wayside because I got into the wrong program. For the first time in my life, I found myself begging for alms; but instead of getting the support and motivation from my teachers, I even found myself at the receiving end of their deathly stares. They might as well have put me on death row because a failing mark, for them, was tantamount to a student’s death sentence.

I am not saying that teachers should condone mediocrity, and in no way should teachers enable students who are lazy, irresponsible and just basically a bad apple. While it certainly is important to come to class on time, turn in your homework and be prepared, instilling a sense of hope in the students is more important than demanding excellence. Isn’t the grading system a whole complicated system of operant conditioning?  Listen – Take copious notes – Study – Regurgitate. And if luck is on your side – and by luck, I mean you either have good memory retention or you have the angels and all the saints smiling down at you such that you are well-prepared for whatever kind of test is thrown your way – you’ll get every student’s much coveted marks, along with the respect and admiration of your friends, your parents’ approval and your teacher’s unmerited favor and grace.

Does a failing mark really spell the end of the world? When I was a student, it did basically feel that way. As an adult and as someone who has found her niche, I can afford to look back. There are days when I wish that my present self could talk to my 19-year-old self and tell her that there is hope, that that failing grade in Anatomy, albeit her nth one in the same class, is not the end of the world.

Hope must precede excellence because a student who doesn’t have hope has no incentive to even try. There’s no reason to be motivated unless the student feels that his opinion and effort, however miniscule, matters. Most students lack the motivation because they have been fed this lie all their lives and have grown accustomed to this socially-imposed internal reality that they can’t be successful. After all, reality is a relative concept based on one’s situation, prejudices, presuppositions and preconceptions. The teaching-learning process is not about the demand for excellence but is anchored in the premise of giving opportunities for students to be awakened to the fact that they can be successful in life. Real learning is not measured by tests and cannot be quantified. A teacher must inspire students to want to learn even if the end result isn’t perfect. Education should be for the sake of learning. Good grades are the icing on the cake. Stellar grades are nice and fluffy but they don’t tell you the whole story. Those failing grades are unpleasant like bruises and scars that one sustains after a tedious fight, but they make for interesting conversation more than a flawless and blemish-free canvas ever could. Nice to look at but infinitely bland and uninspiring.

To Stream or Not To Stream

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”
Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

 

Vygotsky’s theory of the More Knowledgeable Other veers away from the largely traditional and conservative view of ability as a fixed central factor and the principal determinant of learning and intelligence. Sadly, this currency creates the very disparity it purports to solve and impinges on the child’s self-image. Though it is obvious that teachers do not intentionally set out to harm their students. Yet in the end, we realize that it’s not the intent that matters but the result. Student do pick up on how their teachers view them. Inevitably, students do live up (or down) to the expectations of their teachers. Students do end up resenting those labels, and sometimes the pressure mounts to maintain certain standards that they are held up against. It does not benefit either the lower ability students or their “smarter” counterparts. It becomes a no-win situation as the smart ones slowly succumb to pressure and spiral into depression and the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the so-called “bottom performers”.

Why spend time winnowing students according to their abilities when teachers can have their heterogeneous classrooms running like a well-oiled machine by gauging their students’ interests, personalities and capabilities and placing them in situations where their individual strengths can be used to leverage and complement others’ weaknesses?

By incorporating Vygotsky’s theory of the More Knowledgeable Other, lower ability students are not made to feel less important than the rest of the group. This promotes unity and diversity in the classroom. 1 Corinthians 12 states that the body in its singularity is composed of many parts, and God has so placed these parts where He wants them to be. All parts are equal, and one is not superior to another.

For the sake of preciseness, let me quote the Bible:

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Being a trainer is disconcerting, draining, stress-inducing and nerve-wracking. It’s not as glamorous as you think it is. The clothes, the shoes, the demeanor and the confidence are nothing but smokes and mirrors. I feel duped. When I first started out in the field of training, I was a ball of mess. My knees were shaking and there were dinosaurs in my stomach. (The butterflies had rapidly morphed into megalosaurus-sized creatures that threatened my mental stability.) Just the thought of being entrusted with “educating” 24 learners at a time, making sure they were “picture-perfect” and ready for assessments at the end of two weeks while facing random observations from your training manager was enough to make one curl himself up in the corner of the room and suffer a nervous breakdown.

Frankly, there was no hallelujah moment. I don’t remember there being a time when the heavens opened up and angels started singing and showing me the way. When I first started de-grouping my trainees according to their abilities, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I wasn’t sure if it would work. I’d had one exasperating class after another mainly because of the dwindling pool. I would have classes where there would be one or two strong contenders at most while the rest were a dizzying array of black horses, wild cards, nuisance candidates and charity cases. As much as we wanted to preserve the quality, training is still a numbers game. And so we gambled. I had nothing left to lose. I figured that everything that could go wrong already did in the blink of an eye. I was tired and at my wits’ end and was dangerously hanging by a very narrow thread of hope and sanity. Isn’t it strange how we cease thinking about the costs and we’re brashly treading a very narrow ledge?

Let me just correct a perception you may have at this point that I just completely let go and let the trainees run loose like a bunch of screaming banshees. I did no such thing. I merely chose to utilize and tap into the resources I has however limited they were. It was pretty clear to me that my “no-so-smart” students were not going to be experts in the two weeks I had with them. The team stopped betting on that because I had already set their expectations.

At that time, I didn’t know that Vygotsky had a name to it. Frankly, I don’t think it would have mattered at that point. And just like that, my classroom was no longer comprised of 24 empty vessels to be filled, 24 blank spaces to write on, 24 needy mouths to be fed. The shy ones, the outgoing ones, the quiet ones, the loud ones and the strugglers all worked together not without a hitch, but they all walked away as partners and social equals.