Monday, March 17, 2014

Motivation and the Classroom

Mejopishi and I often discuss Rahul's schooling. She's one of the best junior school teachers I've ever known and I've found her teaching methods suitable for teaching adults as well as children. Rahul is not the easiest of scholars. While easily being one of the smartest kids in class he is usually the one handing in half-empty worksheets and illegible classwork. It can take a great deal of patience and ingenuity to teach him, as Vicky and I know to our cost. In fact, if he had been unlucky enough to have studied with me in some of my schools, this really intelligent young boy would have failed. He would have been caned, punished on a daily basis, and would have learned to fear his teachers. Instead, he is lucky to have me to go speak to his teachers and teachers who have the training and sensitivity to see beyond the wall of obduracy his shyness and lamentable self-confidence makes him put up.

And yet my aunt recently told me about an episode he had once confided in her when he asked about some aspect of the school Christmas celebrations and a teacher had mocked him and walked off without even giving him the information he clearly lacked. M'pishi was furious that anybody would dare call herself a teacher, with that attitude, in this day and age; I was resigned, being more used to being mocked for questions than having questions answered with dignity and respect in my own school years.

Around the same time we met Li'lpet and her mother P after ages. P is a qualified teacher herself, working on higher qualifications, and Li'lpet, like Rahul, is a child of no mean intellectual ability. Yet she has been used to hearing, since her earliest schooldays, that her handwriting/spelling/recitation/whathaveyou is not good enough, that her parents need to work her harder and so on. Recently it accidentally slipped out that in fact her school does not actually feel this way; this is how they push her. I say they are lucky that P is not easily cowed by schools and teachers and fought back to keep her daughter's self-esteem intact because some kids can take this nasty kind of pressure but most can't. Indeed, why should they have to?

Rahul learns from everyday things, when things are explained logically to him. He likes to think on these explanations and work out further theories. It doesn't make him Einstein but it does make him a very difficult person to explain arbitrary mathematical rules to. Why is it so? Because it is so. But why? (How the hell does his mother know!) And if the whys don't make sense he lets that line of thought lapse, which can complicate life when you want to build on that groundwork.

Over the last half a dozen years Vicky and I have had to dig into whatever little remains in us of our own education to explain natural phenomena, linguistic complications, mathematical contortions, even psychology. I'm aware this is only parenting and every parent does it, but it does remind me forcibly of all those ads advocating for educating the mothers of tomorrow for smarter future generations. At this point I have a child who will use 'obviously' in the most appropriate and annoying contexts but absent-mindedly write 'goned' for 'went' in his classwork. Obviously he needs a teacher who understands his capabilities and works to find ways to motivate him rather than pull him down for not knowing the past tense of 'to go' at age seven. So far he has had such teachers, but not all students do, as I know all too well.

Through my high school and middle school years I dealt with the confusion of occasionally knowing more than my teachers -- and them despising me for it. I learnt to hide my knowledge and despise them for it. I cannot think this was a healthy attitude for schooling. Things improved a little in high school and of course in university I had wonderful teachers, but those early scars remain... naturally, this piece on humiliation in the classroom struck a chord with me.

As a teacher and a parent I try to remind myself from time to time there are no poor students, only teachers who haven't yet found a way to motivate them to learn. Motivation comes in different ways and parents teach differently from schoolteachers. Yet we all need to remember that the common goal is to bring up a child who is healthy, confident and interested in the world. Every child wants to learn. It is up to us to work out ways that make it comfortable for them.

Lastly, here are a few tips on teaching that I have personally found helpful:

1. Prompt if required. Rahul is learning the multiplication tables and we found it much easier once I allowed myself to prompt him where he forgets. I don't give him the answer but I remind him how to work it out. The idea is to imprint the number on his brain through constant repetition, not let him focus on how difficult so much memorising is.

2. Make connections. When I teach a language I try to work in rhymes, opposites, synonyms and other related words, going back and forth so that no concept is ever taught in isolation. I realise I also do this with science and maths, and it works wonderfully if you can relate things to your students' daily lives or other learnings. Recently a demand for iced water ended in a flustered call to my father to find out why the fan makes ice cubes melt faster. The explanation was duly conveyed to the child in turn.

3. Do a little everyday. A few minutes on each subject, even a few lines of reading if your child doesn't read by him/herself. A quick oral give and take on weekend mornings. Repetition really is key.

4. Be realistic about attention spans. Not even an adult can give a class undivided attention for a full hour, so why expect the impossible for a child? See how long your child can maintain focus and organise the study accordingly. In theory I prefer to give R work that can be completed in 10-15 min max, allowing him a few minutes break while it is reviewed. Some of his classmates can go on for longer, but he can't and it's frustrating for us both if I force him to.

5. Be honest about feedback. Calling R an idiot when I'm in a temper has not helped his learning or my temper. Telling him to give me five minutes to myself so I don't give in to my temptation to strangle him was far more productive. When he fails at something I remind him that his problem is his lack of focus, never a lack of ability. I tell him this because it's important that he knows what his problem really his.


R's Mom said...

Wonderful wonderful wonderful post Sue...So much to learn about parenting and teaching..thank you very much for this!

Anonymous said...

You are leaving out the other side, where every parent thinks that their child is highly intelligent, unique snowflake when the child struggles at school and needs a lot of help. My cousin who is teacher (and a really good one) is often at odds with these helicopter parents who think their child can done no wrong and blames the teacher for the lack of progress (like using "goned")

Sue said...

R's Mom -- I hope you find it useful, thanks.

Anon -- Do leave a name, it's easier to address somebody with a name even if that's made up.

My piece was primarily based on the observations of at least three teachers I respect highly for their work. I have addressed the importance of working out what the problems are and my piece is about what the parents can do whether supported by the school (as I am) or receiving limited support (as my friend P does). At no point do I advocate teacher blaming or delusional parenting.

Rashi Ravi Ganguly said...

I can relate to this post on so many levels... My nearly-3-year-old son simply refuses to repeat correctly the rhymes and numbers he's been taught at school at our behest, yet we've sneaked upto him 'teaching' those very same rhymes and numbers in perfect sequence to his cars and puppets quite often. His whats-and-whys are also driving me crazy these days, and I too have found myself using repetition, connection and prompting as effective learning aids :-)

Sue said...

Rashi -- I'm sure your son is doing very well indeed and of course you teach him best!