Changing schools, outside-in

Students spend about six to eight hours a day, five days a week (sometimes more) at school. These long hours are supposed to equip students with enough knowledge and skills to prepare them for future work. After school, students continue learning in tuition centers or other self-development institutes to compensate for knowledge or skills that schools do not teach.

At home, students continue learning through homework. In other words, an average student (regardless of performance level) spends about twelve to fourteen hours per day learning. High school students preparing for standardized exams may spend more than fourteen hours per day.

Society’s obsession

While learning itself is not harmful for students, the assumption behind how students learn needs to be re-visited. Long hours are required for learning because society wrongly believes that people who know more are more successful than those who know less. Secondly, society fails to acknowledge that students are humans whose capacity for learning is proportional to their qualitative experience in life. Thus, unlike a robot or machine, students’ ability to learn effectively is not only dependent on repetition of facts and/or cognitive skills, but more importantly, on meaningful repetition (which only comes as a result of connecting learning with personal experiences and reality).

The amount of knowledge acquired and the number of skills mastered have become an obsession in our society. Students are expected to learn at school and then at home. Instead of asking children, “How are you and how did school go?” parents ask, “How did you do in Math? Did you get a good grade? Are you going to work on your homework?” Students are pressured to learn at all times.

Competing outcome

Surprisingly, if adults are asked what they remember from school, the most common answers pertain to friends, fun experiences, good teachers, and other things related to human interaction. It is rare for people to talk about what they learned at school, leave alone applying their knowledge in real life. If this is the case, it is logical to think that we require students to spend countless hours in learning to pass tests for no apparent long-term gains. However, the trend continues without much hope for a significant change in the overall system.

Where does the problem lie? How do we change this scenario to reflect a genuine sensitivity toward the learning process that allows us to provide students with only relevant learning experiences?

Change agent

Society, past and present, continues to expect schools to manufacture individuals who are heavily equipped with subject knowledge but devoid of everything else important to humans (e.g. social-emotional intelligence, physical development, global citizenship, etc.). Despite numerous attempts to change how education is practiced, schools find it difficult to change because the people who make up the pillars of the system refuse to value new approaches and ideas.

Since 1960’s, literally hundreds of educational and psychological research have indicated that children learn only 10% of what is taught and that they learn through different modalities. In other words, not all children learn at the same rate and with same style. However, schools remain unchanged because parents (society) refuse to give their children an education that is different from their own. Parents figure that if the education they received made them “successful” it should work well for their children as well.

What they don’t realize is that different times require different learning. If society does not raise its expectation of student learning, schools will continue providing what they are asked to deliver. Hence the inability of schools to provide a more progressive education to students is directly linked to the unwillingness of parents (society) to relinquish their wrong ideology about the sacredness of traditional education or way of teaching/learning.

Society’s role

Schools do not and will not rise above parents’ expectations. A holistic change in education system worldwide will only be possible when parents raise their expectations of what schools should and can do as a center for learning.

Revisiting “at-risk”

For a novice or a teacher without teaching credential, the work of dealing with idiosyncrasies in children’s learning behavior is the duty of either school administration or counselor. Every little difference in social-emotional experiences and/or behavior of students (compared to the norm) could be seen as a possible warning sign. Hence, these teachers are quick to refer students, after having them labeled as extremely withdrawn, hyperactive, slow, deviant, etc.

However, when schools resort to such a referral system and permit the mindset that go with it, they are actually condoning a wrong-doing in how students are educated, especially the so-called “at-risk” learners. This approach places the blame for academic failure solely on students. But countless research findings indicate that academic success is determined by both student and teacher characteristics. What teachers do and/or do not do is equally responsible for under-achievement as what students do and/or do not do – a truth conveniently overlooked in the past.

For many decades, it was believed that students are fully responsible for their own failures. While this may be partly true, it is a narrow way of looking at the issue. There has been no breakthrough in dealing with students with specific learning difficulties because educators have been looking for the answer in the wrong place.


The term “at-risk” is used to refer to students who are not experiencing success in school and are potential academic failure. When a child is suspected to be at-risk of failing, teachers, administrators and counselors examine the child’s family background, home environment, past achievement records, etc. All attention turns to the child. School personnel consult with internal as well as external departments or agencies to come up with scientifically sound educational intervention to help the child. At least this is what happened in the old system.

New paradigm

Experienced and/or teachers with teaching credential usually understand the term “at-risk” differently. For these individuals, the condition is preventable. They correctly know that many at-risk students ended up being such because of what teachers do or do not do.


When a teacher is boring and monotonous, he could expect young learners to lose focus and engage in behaviors similar to hyperactive-attention-deficit conditions. Because of ignorance and oversight, the teacher then refers children who display such behaviors as ADHD cases and label them as at-risk of failing in test/exam.

Teachers who speak too softly place children at-risk of hearing impairment, and potential academic failure. Ineffective use of whiteboard (e.g. very small or illegible handwriting, disorganized presentation of points, etc.) increases potential difficulties in reading, following instructions and completing homework assignments.

Teachers with unpleasant personality and negative attitude discourage students from seeking help, hence increasing possibilities of under-performance. In this example, it is students’ refusal to seek guidance, rather than their actual intellectual prowess that places them in the at-risk category. This could be easily averted if a teacher is approachable and friendly.

Way ahead

Since most at-risk students are the direct outcome of teacher characteristics, teachers must start looking at themselves as active agents of students’ academic successes and failures in a more responsible manner. Teachers must become more perceptive of each student’s strengths and weaknesses and provide differentiated, individualized attention to each child to maximize his/her potential. They should reflect on their profession, understand its seriousness and accept to do all that it takes to help every child to succeed.

Change of expectation and attitude, engaging students in active, meaningful learning, getting students interested in lessons without judging/labeling them, believing that every child can and does learn, and utilizing multiple approaches to reaching out to students are some effective ways to prevent academic failure, successfully!

First impression

Unlike in real world, first impressions are formed on a daily basis in the classroom. Impressions are formed every time a teacher introduces a new topic or concept. As such, every new concept taught is perceived in a certain way by students. Some view a new topic positively, some negatively, and some others find themselves between the two. Further, these first impressions affect how a new concept is learned, processed, and assimilated.

Anticipatory set

In education, first impression is affected by whether or not a teacher uses an anticipatory set to start his lessons. This instructional practice is built into lesson planning. Teacher trainers and student-teachers in any teacher training program spend significant amount of time learning about, planning for, and using a variety of anticipatory set in their demonstration lessons. This may range from bringing in a visual aid, showing a short video clip, listening to a short audio clip, sharing a skit, singing a song, involving students in a short game/fun activity, or posing a question that makes everyone think hard for answer.

A teacher who goes straight into lessons without warming up the class by using appropriate anticipatory sets risk losing students’ focus, motivation and interest in learning. Subsequently, students manifest disruptive behaviors that directly originate from boredom, feeling of disconnection from lesson, and a sense of being academically overworked.

Psychological explanation

From information processing perspective, the use of an anticipatory set activates the most important step in the learning process – paying attention. If students do not pay attention, they do not learn. Often, students look like they are paying attention, but closer examination would reveal otherwise. Checking whether or not students pay attention is even more challenging as gathering feedback from every child is not always feasible. A good solution to this is to start every class with an anticipatory set. When creatively applied, it helps capture and retain the attention of every student. Students are hooked to the topic and seldom stray from learning objectives. Consequently, good attention leads to better processing of information in the working, short-term, and long-term memory.


A good anticipatory set is novel, enthusiastically executed, actively involves students, related to objectives of the lesson, provides continuity from previous lesson, activates students’ prior knowledge, gauges readiness for learning, whets appetite for lesson, involves every learner, uses student-friendly language, and gives learners an idea about outcome of the lesson (the big picture). It must also be remembered that anticipatory sets that possess all these features work effectively for all levels of learners (achievement level and age are not barriers to how learners respond to anticipatory sets).


A lesson on Parts of Sentences could begin by the teacher coming into classroom and throwing a ball or stuffed toy to a child and asking everyone else, “What did I just do?” Students’ answers are written on the board and used for discussion later. In this scenario, the teacher has used both visual and kinesthetic modalities to activate curiosity to learn.

My favorite anticipatory set when teaching the topic of Intelligence is asking students to write down the name of the most intelligent person they know (in the class or outside) and list down three reasons for saying so. I collect all the answers and share with the rest of the class. This exercise excites everyone, especially those considered to be the most intelligent. The emphasis though is not on who is the most intelligent. (Inductively) identifying characteristics of and defining intelligence as a psychological construct are the learning objectives targeted through the use of this anticipatory set.

A lesson on Metamorphosis could begin with a story about a caterpillar that went missing and later found in a different form.