Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to evaluate learning-centric schools?

As we discussed in our earlier blog, we require two different set of schools: one for urban towns and one for rural villages. As school is part of its environment, there is no 'universally good' school. The school, to be good, has to be compatible with the environment around it.

In urban towns, as learning-centric schools are not enough for our children's development to compensate for our non-conducive social-environment, we need development-centric schools. In villages it is the reverse. In a village, we need learning-centric schools, because the development-environment is conducive for the child's growth. The challenge of education in school is different for urban and rural schools. ( I am implicitly assuming that the purpose of education is to prepare a child for life, not just for job)

Implicit purpose of learning

The purpose of learning different subjects is to enable the student to understand (analyse) the world and then be able to synthesise it in his own way.

To make it easier, we use different subjects to understand the world - physical world through science, the living world through biology, the social world through history, the ecological world through geography and environmental science, the cultural world through languages and art subjects, and the manipulation of world ( via formalism) through mathematics. Please note the purpose of mathematics.

Characteristics of good learning-centric schools

At a broad level, we learnt from the best school systems in the world, that the three criteria for evaluating a learning environment schools are 1> find if they have the best and passionate teachers for a subject, 2> find how they guarantee that the teachers remain the best in their pedagogic approach and 3> how do they step in when the student lag behind.

At a more detailed level, I can think of five minimum characteristics of the good learning-centric schools:

1. Good schools use different styles and tools to suit a subject.

Every subject, due to its unique linkage with the external world, require different approaches to convert the understanding into knowledge. A student gains 'knowledge' only when the student can use the understanding of a subject in a different context. For instance, the student may understand 'gravity' by solving all the questions of gravity perfectly, but he gains knowledge only when he understands how 'laws of gravity' are utilised in flying an airplane.

In the same way, each subject/topic requires different teaching style, tools and methods to convert understanding into knowledge. While knowledge of language can be easily gained by 'taking part in debates and elocutions', it requires additional tools and methods to 'synthesise' language with different 'arts such as drama and literature' to understand the 'culture' of our environment. While the understanding of 'ecology' through geography can be facilitated by use of 'computer' simulation, computers are not useful in understanding the 'social world' through history. While the 'quadratic equations' can be solved easily by rote, the formalism of quadratic equations can be understood fully only if the teacher's quality is excellent !

The mix of teacher's quality, tool set and methodology of teaching should be appropriate to the subject. What is suitable for one subject, say language, is unsuitable for another subject, say physics. One cannot use a cookie-cutter formula that is universally applicable to every subject.

2. Good schools balance long term and short term objectives of learning 

Because school performance directly impacts the admissions in graduate and other important courses, it is imperative that the school also enables the student to perform well in 'time-based' exams and tests, while simultaneously enabling the student to 'gain' knowledge.

Both objectives are important to achieve for a learning-centric school. In 70', the exam papers were not as objective. We could learn a subject in-depth and hope to score good marks. But in todays's system of evaluation, the performance in exams have to be given a special guidance.

3. Good schools initiate a topic of a subject only after 'creating' interest

Without interest, one cannot 'understand' anything. This is the basic principle of learning. There are various methods of achieving this. Which methods school approach?

In schools with multi-age batch, a student observes other student taking an advance course because of which his interest is tickled. In Montessori method, an overall perspective is initially given so that the student can 'tie' the small picture with the bigger perspective and therefore get interested. In a primary school i have read of in Japan, every day all the topics to be covered are written on the blackboard at the start of the day so that students can chose and determine their own pace of work .

4. Good schools initiate students to self-create their knowledge

It is presumed that the purpose of teaching is to ensure that 'the knowledge in the head of the teacher' is transferred to the 'student's head'. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Learning happens only when the student 'uses the teacher's content' to self-construct his own knowledge by engaging with the topic. It is the student who 'self-constructs' knowledge. The teacher can only 'transfer the content' and create the right conditions for the student to 'engage with the topic'. If the topic for instance is Indian history, the teacher enables the conditions due to which student  understand the views both of the 'vanquished' ( Indians) and the 'victors' ( English), not just Indians. Without this self-construction, the students fail to gather differing point of views intrinsic in social world, and therefore miss 'knowledge'.

5. Good schools constantly verify if the teaching is delivering the intended result 

Teachers normally assume that a subject is learnt when they have 'taught'. It is forgotten that the subject is learnt, only when the student 'understands' it.

A school therefore has to design tests to measure student's understanding of a topic so that appropriate corrective mechanism can be immediately instituted by the teacher if the student is lagging. As we saw in the best school systems in the world, 33% of the students do not 'understand' a topic in the first time. Topical tests therefore measure teacher's progress, not student's progress.

Year-end exams have different purpose than that of 'topical tests'; year-end exams measure student's progress.Both progress have to be tracked. Very often, teacher's progress is not even measured; it is just ignored. Good schools do not ignore it !

How is your child's school rated on these five measures?  

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