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Posted on: April 4, 2016

What Did You Ask at School Today? A Handbook on Child LearningWhat Did You Ask at School Today? A Handbook on Child Learning by Kamala V. Mukunda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Warning a long read)

A wonderful book and a must read for all the teachers and parents.

The book is based on multiple researches done in different parts of the world including India in the educational institutes on the teaching practices.

Some the key interesting, not necessarily unknown, points that have been brought up in the book are
1. Stress is not good for learning. It prevents students from actually learning. She categorically states “Stress inhibits learning!. If we want students to learn, school must not be chronically stressful environment”.

2. Instead of asking “What is the answer to so-and-so?” ask “How would you do so-and-so?” and “Why is this the right answer?”. This leads the students to think and they end up understanding the subject better.

3. Encourage and ask the students to solve the problem by different means.

4. Encourage the students to classify different problems according to how they must be solved. Although the problems may appear different on the surface, there will be potentially common structures which will help the students solve the problems better.

5. Have the student to teach a concept to someone else. This is one of the best ways to make the student understanding the concept better.

6. Ensure that the word problems in mathematics are set in contexts familiar or relevant to the student. The students should be able to relate to the problem.

7. Use “Discovery Learning” which is letting the students discover things for themselves. I.e. give the students the material and let them learn the concepts on their own by running their own experiments. But for this they need to be guided and nudged to conduct the right set of experiments in the right order and gets an opportunity to understand all the concepts. The students must also be made to think and speak to further strengthen their understanding. This is much better than trying to “lecture” the students on a concept. This helps because students tend to understand better what they see happening in front of them rather than trying to imagine something abstract.

8. Use fruits and scales to explain solving equations.

9. Use gift wrapping/unwrapping to explain how mathematical equations should be unraveled.

10. Students tend to misunderstand the equation (2x + 4)/7 = 10 and tend to solve this as 2x / 7 = 10 – 4 and solve it wrongly. If the student is taught to look at this as a gift wrap where they are taught that they should be told that (2x + 4) is like the inner wrapper of the gift and / 7 is the next level of wrapper. If this is how it is taught then they will be ‘unwrap’ the equation correctly.

11. At one point, speaking about how drilling the concept is used in the Indian education system, the author makes a very pertinent statement “Concepts and Procedures are two different things, both of which students need to learn. Practice alone cannot lead to conceptual knowledge, and understanding alone cannot lead to mastery of procedure”. It is very important to understand clearly the difference between “Concepts” and “Procedures” to be a good teacher. Procedures are things that we do in our everyday life like learning to ride a cycle, handle a spoon, tie the shoelaces, light a match, cross a road etc. These are activities where repeated exposures leads to improvement in performance. Knowing about how balance is achieved in a cycle, or how properly tying the knot in the shoelace prevents it from being tangled are concepts. There is a need for this kind of learning too.

12. One important aspect that the author brings out it that every person has two types of memory
a) The working memory in which the data is stored for immediate use and
b) the long term memory where things are imprinted over a period of time and stay there for a long time and are retrieved when required.
An example of use of working memory is trying to remember the phone number of a person that has called one. This memory is limited and one should exercise caution when the child needs to use this memory. Some suggestions that the author has to help the child use this memory effectively is to
a) Reduce demand on a young child’s working memory by breaking up a task into smaller parts, and writing down instructions. Encourage them to write things down, so that they do not have keep excess material in working memory – this will free up space for other processes.
b) Give younger children guidelines on what to pay attention to and what it ignore in a given situation. Try to eliminate excessively distracting irrelevant stimuli from the material.
c) Connect all the new material with something the child already knows. Also, use familiar contexts to teach new ideas as far as possible.
A classic example the author gives of how a particular mathematical problem involving multiplication or division is solved by a child. They need to hold in their working memory the basic numbers that is required for the calculation. For a child that has not learnt her tables this act becomes difficult as every number she needs to multiple she requires the working memory and this can push out the base numbers that she needs to remember from this memory. If the child has the multiplication tables memorized (i.e. available in the long term memory) then it becomes more easier for the child solve the problem mentally as the working memory is not used for actual multiplication.

13. As people age people tend to avoid situations where they might be corrected. This means that they end up learning lesser and lesser as their lack of knowledge is not exposed and nobody is present to correct them. Whereas a young child does not hesitate to try and makes mistakes, which the people around promptly correct, and over a period of time the child starts correcting its mistakes. E.g. a child that is picking up a language does not hesitate to say “I goed” and as the adults keep correcting it to say “I went”, it picks up the right word. If an adult were to learn, they end up speaking less knowing fully well that they may be corrected in front of everybody and this would be unacceptable to them. So they tend not speak and thus learn a lot less or take longer to learn.

14. The author states how sometimes not learning things too early can be beneficial. It is accepted by many that the brain is plastic enough from the ages of 4 to 20 making it easier to learn new cognitive activities. These activities are ingrained during this phase and the reactions to situations are ingrained and so are quick. The downside is that changing these reactions become very difficult for the person preventing the person from adapting the responses. Albert Einstein is said to have quoted “I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. There are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up. Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child with normal abilities.” An interesting quote to think over.

15. Speaking about the evergreen debate of “Nature Vs Nurture” the author refers to some studies which have concluded that “schooling does not affect the children’s ways of thinking ‘in any deep and general way’. Instead schooling changes the way children perform on school-like tasks”. The author concludes that while a born child is not a blank slate, the environment in which the child is brought up does influence many of the outcomes in the life of the child.

16. Speaking about rewards and punishment the author has the following to say. More or less excerpted from the book as is.
The easiest ways to manipulate behaviour come from the behaviourist school of psychology, which recommends punishment and reward in different forms to get rid of undesired behaviours and boost desired ones. The author gives the example of an attempt to correct the rude by a child by punishing the child each time she has a rude behaviour could lead to the following:
a) The child stops the rude behaviour as long as the punisher is around, to avoid punishment, but continues otherwise.
b) The child stops the rude behaviour, but has not positive behaviour to replace it.
c) If she is required to ‘clean the classroom’ as a punishment, she learns that cleaning activity is a punishment.
d) She learns that to get people to do what she wants, punishment is the way
e) She reacts to you with anger and fear.
f) She associates you and/or classroom with emotions of anger and fear, which now come up automatically whenever either is encountered.
Instead if the strategy was to reward the child when the she was polite the consequence would be
a) She might be polite only in situations where she will be recognized for her good deeds
b) She might think that she should only do things for which she is rewarded
These are not desirable reactions.
At the same time not acknowledging good behaviour is also not a good idea. Appreciation should come, or rewards should be given, but the problem starts when the reward is unrelated to the activity itself. E.g. giving certificates for reading books, instead of natural consequence such as reading a book leads to your being able to borrow another. Positive reinforcement works best when it is given in the form of appreciation, encouragement and information feedback.

17. The three stages of maturity in humans are
a) I do it because I like it
b) I do it because others approve
c) I do it because it is right. Psychologists state that this last stage never reached by majority of human beings.

18. Everybody agrees that being unselfish and helping others is a desirable behaviour. The author points out how schools end up inadvertently subverting this behaviour by pulling up students when a) the student helps another with homework b) worse during the tests. When a student outranks others it is a triumph, not regret (so why would that student help others compete with her). One student’s success is at the expense of others, but such achievement is praised by all without being aware of the consequences of these actions on the young children’s internalization of moral principles. The author says that various researches have shown that children are inherently moral and just, but actions like being praised for coming first and being pulled up for helping others pushes the child towards selfishness to inflicting injustices inadvertently.

19. It is pointed out that we stress more on analytical skills of the person in schools rather than gearing them up for the real world. The academic tests of intelligence contain problems which
a) Have all the required information available from the start
b) are usually well defined
c) are not of personal interest
d) are detached from everyday experience
e) Have only one correct solution.
Whereas real world test of practical intelligence contain problems which
a) do not have all the required information available at the start
b) are not well defined
c) are of personal relevance
d) are related to everyday experience
e) have many solutions each with its advantages and disadvantages.

20. An example is quoted where a group of children from Zambia and those from the US were tested. Some tests involved wire models, some paper and pencil and some involved clay models. While the Zambian children performed well in wire models, the US children did well in paper and pencil tests while both did equally well in clay model. This proves that the way the test is administered also goes a long way in determining the outcome and conclusion. It is not sufficient to test using only one means to arrive at a conclusion.

21. The brief summary of effects of different types of rewards on intrinsic motivation are:
a) Tangible rewards (ranging from certificates to sweets) decrease intrinsic motivation, and children are more vulnerable to this effect than college students.
b) Rewards for trying, completing, bettering others and meeting standards – all decrease intrinsic motivation when they are seen as controlling our behaviour.
c) Verbal rewards or positive feedback do not decrease intrinsic motivation, and can even increase it. In fact, if any reward is given in the spirit of informational feedback, say to acknowledge good quality performance, and not with the intention to control the student’s behaviour, it can increase intrinsic motivation.
d) However, many students, in our schools who not perform up to the set standards may only rarely, if ever, receive rewards or positive feedback. This amounts to receiving continual negative feedback about one’s competence, which will in turn decrease intrinsic motivation for school work.

22. While praise is good it has to be carefully administered, otherwise it can lead to negative impact.
a) Praise can be seen as externally controlling and thus reducing the student’s autonomy which will lead to reduction in intrinsic motivation.
b) Praise can create pressure to continue good performance
c) Praise can lead to an obsession with maintaining one’s own image while tearing others’ images down.
d) Praise for extremely easy tasks can lead to a student feeling she has low ability
e) If a student senses praise as insincere, she may reject it outright, or feel that the teacher does not really know her.
It is likely that children below seven take praise at face value, by the time they reach the age of 12 they view praise with suspicion.

23. The right way to praise would be
a) Praise the process of an activity (strategies, ideas, effort) not the ability of the student.
b) make your praise descriptive, related to the student’s work, such that it works as useful feedback.
c) Praise without referring to comparison with other students.

24. The author states that very early on, certainly by middle school, children can be made to understand the special nature of their society and its demands – that at a young age, they must learn a great many things in order that, when they are older, they can better decide what they would like to go on with. This understanding can give them internally regulated extrinsic motivation to learn – similar to what motivates a teacher to correct students’ notebook. Free of performance anxiety and fear and taught with imagination and energy, learning anything can be enjoyable. And enjoyment is one of the prime factors that motivates human endeavour.

25. Most classes have a mix of students, some who are quick to grasp and some who take a while to grasp. It becomes difficult for a teacher to teach such as class as if she addresses the former the latter turn off as the are unable to keep pace and if she addresses the later the former turn off as they feel they are learning nothing. Some suggestions to fix this situation are
a) For some topics divide the students into small groups according to their level. Give them tasks appropriate to their level.
b) For some topics, divide the students into small mixed level groups. Device mini-projects where different group members have different responsibilities and can work at their own level without jeopardising the overall task
c) For some topics, find or create material that students can work through independently. Allow for some students to do more and more challenging work than others, by including extension topics. Make sure that everyone has learnt the core concepts an procedures.
d) For some topics, hold small group discussions about material, or use reciprocal teaching method. (Reciprocal teaching involves creating groups of students and making one of them read a paragraph, making another summarizing the paragraph, asking another to form questions based on the paragraph and asking one student to predict the contents of the following paragraph). This emphasizes the fact that regardless of the level, a group of children can be a community of learners and you do not always need a homogeneous group for meaningful learning to occur.
e) For some topics, by all means deliver lectures to the whole class. Keep an eye on the students for boredom or hopeless confusion, interrupt your own flow to ask questions at th right level to particular students, ask one student to summarize for others.

26. While one may be cautious enough not to compare, nobody stops comparing oneself to another. It is a natural human tendency. One way to limit comparison would be change the material in which the different students are working. This will limit the comparison as it will be difficult to compare apple to oranges. This may not always be possible especially in subjects such as mathematics and science where every student needs to learn and work on the same set of concepts. It is necessary for the school to recognize and encourage artistic and linguistic ability as much as mathematical and scientific ability.

27. Some of the negatives of present day education is that it all geared towards measuring what has been learnt. Some of the issues with this are
a) A significantly large percentage of learning time is devoted to preparing for, administering, and recovering from tests.
b) Motivation has shifted from processes of learning to outcomes, both for teachers and students.
c) Curricula are shaped by tests (this is called the curriculum backwash effect) and when tests are heavily knowledge-based curriculum pays less attention to understanding or application.
d) Students experience almost constant anxiety about tests
e) Tests make teachers anxious too, when they feel responsible for their students’ performance.
f) Tests encourage cheating among adolescents, who think education is about getting good marks rather than learning something.
g) the results of ‘high-stakes’ examinations can be unfair and depressing to countless young people.

28. Regarding testing the author says that the results of the tests conducted should not be taken as a conclusion of the ability of the children/person to perform certain tasks. Further probing questions should be asked to understand the real abilities of the child/person. Unfortunately in India a single number is used to determine who to allow or who to reject for further studies or for employment.

29. Some of the beautiful quotes/suggestions from the teachers are
a) Just think what you could do if you took all the time spent on testing and preparing for testing, and used it to teach. There is way too much testing.
b) They don’t need real teachers to prepare children for tests, and in fact, I think they could just develop computer programmes to do this.
c) Learning for the test isn’t meaningful … the scores are up, but the kids know less, and they are less as people
d) I think the tests were designed because everyone thinks there are so many bad teachers, and this would make the bad teachers improve. But it isn’t, in fact, it is giving bad teachers an excuse to continue what they have always done – lots of skill and drill. It’s a license for bad teaching.

30. Some good tests would be ones which assess more important skills such as
a) solving open-ended problems
b) framing problems
c) making and specifying assumptions
d) working in a group
e) being open to new ideas
f) dealing with data
g) using multiple perspectives
h) persisting in spite of failure
i) self-assessing and self-correcting
i) presenting information orally
j) ordering chaos.

31. One better way to assess students is use of portfolio where the portfolio contains a representative sample of a student’s class work, a variety of evidence of her performance in class.

32. Another useful way is collaborative testing, where the students are allowed to collaborate on assignments and both get the same rating. Some students would stay away and would work individually, others may join hands. It has shown that collaboration helps improve the rating of both the students.

33. Another method is the method of rubrics where a particular assignment is evaluated on multiple criterion like clarity, range, depth of understanding, sophistication of language etc. Each criteria would have levels e.g. clarity could have levels like
a) Points not clearly made, overall confused essay
b) A few points made clearly, rest mostly confused
c) Many clear points, a few confused areas
d) All points made clearly, overall very clear essay.
And thus for all the other criteria. The biggest resistance to this type of testing is because of the inherent subjective nature of evaluation and the fact that it does not lead to quantitative cut-offs.

34. It was assumed for a long time that having a high self-esteem with automatically lead to positive outcomes. But it was found out that this is not true. Baumeister who carried out a research to find out the impact of self-esteem states “It is therefore with considerable personal disappointment that I must report that the enthusiastic claims of self-esteem movement mostly range from fantasy to hogwash. The effects of self-esteem are small, limited and not all good. Yes, a few people here and there end up worse off because their self-esteem was too low. Then again, other people end up worse of because their self-esteem was too high. And most of the time self-esteem makes surprisingly little difference. For example, I think the world would be a better place if we could all manage to be a little nicer to each other. But that’s hard: We’d all have to discipline ourselves to change. The self-esteem approach, in contrast, is to skip over the hard work of changing our actions and instead just let us all think we’re nicer. That won’t make the world any better.”

35. Some of the reasons why the self-esteem movement has failed are
a) The self-esteem movement emphasizes  making students ‘feel good about themselves’, with insufficient attention paid to boosting actual skills and competence on which to base that self-esteem.
b) High self-esteem per se must be distinguished from the pursuit of self-esteem. Boosting a student’s self-esteem temporarily reduces anxiety. But, when the student takes on the work of protecting, maintaining and enhancing her own self-esteem, it increases anxiety. This is a truism of human beings in general; we all pursue self-esteem at the cost of our own peace of mind!.
c) While the successful pursuit of self-esteem reduces anxiety and other negative emotions, in many classrooms self-esteem can become a scarce resource gained only at the expense of others. For many students, therefore, the failed pursuit lead to increase in sadness, anger and shame.
d) Because failure leads to a loss in self-esteem, students whose self-esteem is contingent on academic performance experience great pressure to succeed, and this leads to lower intrinsic motivation to learn.
e) If self-esteem becomes a student’s goal, she will tend to over-generalize negative events to encompass her entire worth as a person. This can lead to depression.

36. The author quotes of the researcher who states “Education is also about assisting young people in becoming aware of and extricating themselves from habitual (automatic) ways of attending, perceiving, feeling, thinking and doing by cultivating more mindful approaches to these basic self processes and ways of being in the world, which is a precondition for creativity, freedom of thought and myriad forms of personal and social renewal.”
The author concludes the book with criteria for wisdom, which is what the children are expected to get from a well rounded education. Wisdom is
a) Rich conceptual knowledge about life: Knowing a wide variety of life’s issues in depth, both general and specific
b) Rich procedural knowledge about life: Knowing how to make decisions, solve problems, reach goals and give advice in a wide variety of situations
c) Life-span contextualism: Understanding past, present and possibly future circumstances.
d) Value relativism: Having both a small set of universal values (for the good of all) as well as the understanding of many values in life are relative.
e) Recognition and management of uncertainty: Knowing that life is inherently uncertain and knowing how to deal with that uncertainty.

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