On Teaching

A  Lecture  given  on Sep.4, 1997 at Sai Ram Engg. College Teachers' Day

By ProfVK

 

 

We have to learn from one another how we can improve our teaching methods and become better and better teachers. At BITS, Pilani, in the seventies and eighties, we used to conduct intensive teaching workshops where we mutually learnt from one another several improved methods of conducting our classes.

Teaching and Learning are two complementary faces of the same coin known as the process of education.  This teaching-learning process is made up of four parts.  Of these, the first two are basic, they pertain to the physical methodology. These are:

i. oral communication;

ii. visual presentation. 

The third is more conceptual:  Awareness and mutual rapport.

 The last part, which is the most important of all, is what we started to talk about – it is the difficult task of being creative, of generating creativity, of making our pupils think.  It is the one task for which teachers are paid, it is the one task for which nobody else in society takes full responsibility, it is the one task for which we should all prepare ourselves.  But before we come to this most important part of a teacher’s job, it is necessary that we generally understand the other three fairly comprehensively.

 

Articulation

Poor articulation to be compensated by more writing

Fast speaking to be compensated by intensive articulation

Pauses at the right place

Conversational style of speaking

Simple sentences – not long-winding

Visual props to break the monotony

Consciousness of mannerisms

Loud and clear; watch for unconscious lowering of the voice

Key ideas to be in a sequence

Keep the outline visible

Left-out details to be so stated

Summary at the end of each topic

Focus attention on important points either by voice modulation or repetition

Keep your prepared lecture within your reach

Drive home the general point and see that there is no confusion with exceptional cases

 

Planning for visual presentation including what you will write on the blackboard

Write legibly. Separate your letters

Write fast, but not at the expense of clarity

Write with force, bold and thick

Dividing the blackboard space into compartments

Don’t crowd the writing

Indicate change of topic in the sequence of writing

Number the important topics and record them somewhere in a visible corner

Other visual props like overhead projector, etc.

 

Adjust your teaching method according to the size of the class

Face the audience and make eye contacts. Look them in the eye

Adopt a non-static posture. Keep scanning the entire class during an intense explanation on the blackboard

Inter-relate your subject with other studies and subjects

Link your current lecture with the past and future lectures

Motivate them by telling them the ‘why’ of things as often as possible in addition to the ‘how’ of things

Keep the audience alert by having dialogues with them

Do not get absorbed in your subject so much that you forget your audience

Be aware of the academic background of your audience. Plan accordingly. A spiral method may be very effective, especially when the fundamentals of the subject are new to your audience. In the spiral method one comes back to the same topic more than once but each time with more breadth and depth.

Do not keep criticizing the text book, even if it deserves the criticism

Show genuine concern and warmth

Get to know your students well; they will be greatly impressed

Avoid unnecessary repetition

Accept your mistakes; Impression of integrity is more important than an impression of omniscience

Be clear as to what you want them to do while listening to you

Come out of your place near the blackboard once a while

Abstraction and illustrative situations should be balanced as per needs of class

Global picture of what is going on.

One method of keeping them alert is to ask questions and involve them

If a question is asked by some one in the audience and you think others should know it repeat it to the class before answering it

Do not ridicule questions or the questioner; any sarcasm will boomerang on you

Do not make the subject more difficult than what it really is; don’t mystify things

Attempt a lot more than just narration and information; transferring to the next generation some hieroglyphics and an encyclopedia of facts is not education

 

Give short assignments, taking into consideration what other teachers might give the same set of students

Try to provoke them into thinking by asking simple questions in the beginning, making them talk and slowly getting into more and more subtle questions

It takes more time no doubt; but it is worth it

Do not expect to cover everything; leave something for the student.

If Managements compel you to ‘cover’ everything, convince them that this way they will be able to learn more

If examination-oriented teaching has to be done, devote one session every week for innovative and creative teaching

Be innovative; keep the clarion call for innovation high up

 

 

Spot out talent and encourage it

Design special and faster courses for talented students

Do not mix up the slow learner and the fast learner and teach all alike, for the sake of equity; if necessary, fight the system for this purpose

How to handle first-generation learners

Do not dilute the subject for them, but give them more time to learn and spend more time with them

Subsidy for the longer period of time needed to bring them to the same level must become the responsibility of society and the government

 

 

High School teachers blame middle school teachers why their students have not learnt to manipulate fractions well. When we go to the middle school we see that they have been teaching fractions almost every year, each year more intensely than the previous year.  but the students have not learnt it. The fault probably lies with the modern behaviour of students who want to get good grades without lifting a pencil. That is because they are being brought up as passive listeners in a TV generation. While the teacher is teaching, the students are often glassy-eyed and watching what is happening as if the teacher were a TV performer.  The students do not receive what is being said. For instance, a Mathematics class is not a spectator sport.  Lecturing and listening form the least effective mode for learning science and technology, particularly Mathematics. In this method the teachers prescribe and the students transcribe. These are ineffective strategies for long-term learning, for higher-order thinking and versatile problem solving. The objective of learning is not just to master the skills. Skill is only a strategy used by good teachers to help students achieve the broader goals of learning.

They must be taught about active listening and know how to distinguish it from passive listening. This is where we have to make a major breakthrough if we are really going to improve our students' ability to learn. Wrong information can be corrected later; but wrong habits of thinking may become impossible to overcome. If we want to inculcate the right habits of thinking, we have to make them think, in class, while we are teaching.

We who are engaged in the imparting of knowledge in science and technology are faced with a new experience. This was not experienced by our teachers 30 years ago. For the first time in history we are teaching a generation of students who have been brought up to tune out whatever noise is going on around them.  Haven't you seen the modern student who deliberately sets up the machinery for noise, miscalled music, in his study room, while he is studying?  He says he cannot concentrate, otherwise!  Thus he trains himself to tune out the noise around him so that he can do what he wants to do. So in the class also, he tunes out the teaching noise that you teachers make, so that he can be revelling in his own thoughts and preoccupations.  Your teaching has to counter this phenomenon of 'tuning out'.

Teach to learn instead of teaching to inform. There are three things here. (i) Teach the student so that he may learn. (ii) Teach the student so that you also learn. (iii) Teach the student how to learn.   The first one is the ordinary meaning of teaching. The tragedy of our teaching profession is the misconception that this is all there is to teaching. The second and third ones are equally important.  Many of us are familiar with the experience implied by the second one. We have felt it in our bones whenever we come out of the classroom more illumined than when we entered it. But this does not happen often. Whenever this does not happen you can take it for certain that we have failed to communicate. You would have heard of the joke that expositors usually make at the end of a lecture. They ask whether there are any questions from the audience to be answered. When there are no questions the lecturer jokes by saying: either everything I have said has been understood and agreed to or nothing has been understood. So whenever there is no reaction or response from your students there is nothing to illuminate you. Of course in your own way you might have seen for the first time certain subtleties of the material taught by you but this is in the very nature of speaking out.  But this is not what we mean  when we say: Teach so that you may learn.  There should have been relevant questions from the students and this could illumine you in two different ways.  One is that, in your next presentation of the same subject you may want to build your answer to this question in your lecture itself.  The second is that, the question tells you whether the student is thinking in the right direction or not and you are illumined to know what (and whether) you have failed to communicate. Sometimes a question might open out for you what you have not yourself seen till then.  The long and short of it is: Expect and encourage questions from the student. Learn how to respond to them, at the same time not losing your track of the subject. Let us not say there is no time for a discussion (of questions and answers) in the classroom. In one hour of lecture time at least ten minutes, can be reserved for questions and discussion. This illuminates both you and the student. The simple example that this happens is in the experience of every one of us. It happens when we return answer books to the students after an examination and tell them where and how questions have been wrongly answered or incompletely answered in the exam. Very often some of us teachers are afraid that someone will ask questions that they cannot answer. Such insecurity breeds rigidity. Teachers need experience in exploring, guessing, testing, estimating, arguing and proving in order to develop confidence that they can respond constructively to unexpected situations that emerge as students follow their own paths in approaching problems. The habit of questioning when encouraged paves the way for (iii).

This (iii) namely, Teaching how to learn is most important. It can be very creative and satisfying intellectually. It is at the undergraduate level of education that the student develops an interest in a 'specific' direction in his field of study.  In the school it is too early for him to do so. It is in the undergraduate classes that the chords are struck between him and certain sub-areas in his discipline. And the whole thing depends on how his teacher handles the teaching of the subject. If the teacher is not creative, but teaches the subject in a humdrum routine way, the student loses interest. Can you provoke him into thinking? Can you make him reason out for himself and stand on his own, intellectually? This is the right objective of teaching.  To be able to guess, to make a scientific guess, to initiate an investigation to discover whether the guess is plausible or not, to collect necessary information, to design experiments, to observe data, to interpret information, to make the next approximation in the guessing art, to continue this life-long process of self-education -- all this could be made to happen right in the classroom or the laboratory, provided the teacher believes in it and enjoys both his subject and his methodology of teaching. No one who cannot exhibit his enjoyment can hope to transmit any. Creative teaching has no set formulae. Each teacher worth his salt can and should find out ways and means for himself in order to innovate and make the classroom a pleasure for students to look forward to.  A teacher who cannot be a teacher like this is blind. And, with rare exceptions, a researcher (creator) who cannot be a teacher is lame.

Teach for the future instead of teaching from the past. We have always been teaching what we learnt several years earlier, in a context, almost irrelevant for the present. To teach for the future it is necessary to anticipate what the student might need in the (distant) future. Maybe he (and perhaps you also) will never know what he will need. That is the crux of the problem. In the forties they thought Civil Engineering was the greatest money-spinner. In the sixties everybody preferred to want Electrical Engineering and Electronics. In the seventies and eighties it was computers. In the nineties it was Managment Science. Today it is Information Technology. What it will be tomorrow, nobody knows. In such a situation how do you anticipate what to teach for the future?  That is where exactly the key idea 'Teach him how to learn' applies. Never expect to have taught him what all he needs to know.  Were you taught everything that you now know.? Ask yourself the question: Have I all along trained my student to face unknown problems and unfamiliar situations? This is true both of life and of education.  When the opportunity comes, he should be ready to learn to model the unmodelled, to answer the unanswered and to face the unfamiliar.  Thus the key ideas are overlapping and interlinked. Only if you teach how to learn, even in new situations, you will be teaching for the future. Only if you stop the emphasis on rote learning, you will be teaching him how to learn and discover. This is the research that most of us teachers should be engaged in rather than attempt to mimick other researchers, dot their i's and cross their t's and frantically seek to publish articles in unknown journals, only to be unread, unhonoured and unsung. Are we ready? Can we make up our minds? I hope we can and I believe we should.

 

The last point that I wanted to emphasize today is the fact that science and technology is not the end of it. The purpose of education is to create knowledgeable citizens of course but it is also to create useful citizens who will be human enough to be useful to the rest of the society in a respectable way. In other words education has to transform you into a cultured person. Science can only inform you; it cannot transform the animal passions of man into human qualities like compassion, sympathy and kindliness. For this we have to lean back on the age-old values which have been handed down to us for more than 20 centuries. Great people of the world like Socrates and Plato, Yajnavalkya and Sanatkumara, Vyasa and Valmiki, Tiruvalluvar and Tirumoolar, Confucius and Lao-tse,  Alwars and Nayanmars, Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva have handed down to us profound thoughts. You have to imbibe as much of that treasure as possible. For this you have to keep reading. Keep the reading habit alive, by reading yourself and motivating your students to read.  Tell them about the good books you have recently read.

 

Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy  1 Jan. 2007    Homepage