Ensuring Equity in Learning

Students often feel left out and sad about not being involved in class discussions, Q & A sessions, etc. Usually, a few students dominate interactive sessions such as these; a few others attempt to get involved, while the rest remain quiet throughout. At Wells International School, teachers and students work together to deliberately and systematically provide equal opportunity to all. Teachers accomplish this through a variety of creative techniques. The following is one such example:

Step 1: Have every student’s name represented in a set – be creative!

Every student's name pasted on ice-cream sticks

Step 2: Put them all together in a cup – to allow easy access

Put them all in a cup

Step 3: Pose question(s) or present task(s) – e.g. “State a question by looking at this picture using any one of the following words.”

"State a question by looking at this picture..."

equity in learning

Step 4: Pick up a name, randomly

IMG_0420

Step 5: Call out student name and give him/her time to answer the question or perform the task

equity in learning

Step 6: Put the name out of the set/pile and use the rest of the names until everyone have had a chance to participate – for another round, put all the names back in the cup and start all over

Advantages:

  1. no one can say “no” or “I don’t know”
  2. everyone is happy- everyone gets equal opportunity
  3. no ill-feelings – teacher is fair to all students
  4. those who dominate learn to give others a chance
  5. those who shy away are gently “forced” to participate – no excuses
  6. great way to teach respect for each others’ answers and perspectives
  7. creation of positive learning environment that helps in overall learning

Acknowledgment:

Thanks to Mr. Neal Hawthorne (Homeroom Teacher), Ms. Kate (Teaching Assistant) and students of Grade 2 of Wells International School (Thong Lor Campus).

Learning naturally

Children get all worked up when adults observe them during classes. They put up a front and try their best to impress the visitor. High achievers take this opportunity to boost their pride by displaying special abilities. Average students try to catch up. Under-achievers usually shy away and feel that it is not important for them to make any impression on the visitor. This is what one would usually observe when visiting math, science, language arts, and social studies classes.

However, the dynamics of observer-student interaction is different in physical education, music, computer, and visual arts classes. Why is this so?

Different subject, different response

Somehow, the protective guards that students wear in core subject classes are dropped in non-core classes. For whatever reason, students look forward to non-core subject classes, although they are scheduled less frequently. Non-core subjects do not pose as much threat as do the core subjects. Students, regardless of performance level, feel a greater sense of control, want to show what they can do (regardless of how well they can do it), and feel less pressured to engage in social and academic comparison with their peers.

In parents’ mind, non-core subjects like computer, music, visual art and physical education are not as important as core subjects. The former do not determine the eventual success of students either at university or work. There are parents who require children to get good grades in core subjects and care less about performances in non-core subjects.

Herein lies the secret to unlocking the true potential of every student to excel in learning. Learning experiences that are characterized by high degree of freedom in pressure-free environment arouse students’ interest and motivation to learn, naturally. Hence students’ level of engagement in non-core classes is high, without any extra effort on the part of teachers.

Psychological basis

Psychologically speaking, the primary difference in educational experiences of students in core and non-core subject classes has to do with social and academic comparisons. This factor, coupled with a variety of other factors, give rise to differences in students’ responses toward learning.

Every student learns to compare him or herself with other students. Ideally, this comparison is done with someone, against whom students believe they should have reasonable similarity. Unfortunately, in the absence of such a benchmark, students use almost anyone to compare themselves and arrive at a conclusion of how good/bad they are.

Upward comparison occurs when students compare themselves with others who they consider to be academically better. Downward comparison acts in the opposite direction. For example, a university software engineer student who compares himself with Bill Gates (in software programming) is engaging in upward comparison. The same individual engages in downward comparison when he compares himself with a high school ITC student.

Obviously, both types have adverse effect on students. Students who engage in upward comparison feel disempowered to learn, while students who engage in downward comparison feel unchallenged and lose interest.

Implications

This is what happens in core subject classes. Social and academic comparisons in these classes are at the peak, at all times. Students know this and succumb to the norm to compare. In the end they learn for the sake of proving their self-worth to others.

On the contrary, non-core subject classes do not require such comparisons. Fortunately, grades for these classes are not as important. Hence everyone is relaxed and learn at his/her own pace. External pressures are removed and intrinsic motivation is high. Each looks at him or herself as uniquely and personally responsible for learning experiences and outcome. Because of this positive experience, students often surprise teachers with exceptional, creative performances/products in some of these classes.

Tapping into your child’s potential

In our society, parents desire to give the best to their children. Enrollment in expensive, well-reputed school, purchase of the best educational resources available in the market and opportunity to participate in a variety of fun and enriching experiences are some ways parents cater to the needs of a growing child.

Parents living in this century feel the pressure to focus on providing the best education to their offspring (more than any other time in the history of our civilization) for a wide range of reasons. Many of them feel that their own educational experiences were mostly defective. Others believe that a good education has the potential to make people successful, responsible, and caring. And there are others who recognize the importance of a good education in preparing their children for the complex, uncertain, highly challenging future.

However, the future is unknown. While parents assume that a particular kind of education would prepare children for the future (work and life itself), they cannot guarantee it. Hence everyone approaches the whole issue by relying on subjective experience and judgment about what constitutes the best education. In reality, no one can actually say what their children really need, and how they should be assisted in acquiring them.

With this background information, let us explore ways to increase children’s potential to deal with an exciting and unpredictable future.

1. Children’s quality of life is proportionally affected by the quality of relationship they enjoy with parents, siblings, and other significant individuals in society. Ask any adult what he or she remembers from his or her classes or school/college/university and the answers would invariably point toward experiences that are based in relationships (e.g. “I had a great Chemistry teacher who encouraged and supported us,” “I remember this one time when we sang Happy Birthday to our teacher in the middle of a test,” and “Our principal was a strict man and never smiled.”). It is uncommon to hear answers such as, “I remember how plants make food and the formula for photosynthesis,” or “I remember all the events that led to the Second World War in sequence,” etc. In other words, people recall relationships more readily than what they learned at school. This is not wrong. This is simply how humans are. Hence, there is value in focusing on providing children with healthy, positive social-emotional experiences both at home and school. When children feel happy, they are ready and want to learn. Children who experience fear, insecurity, distrust, doubt, threat, and rejection are highly stressed, frustrated, and do not want to learn. Parents and teachers who genuinely love and care for their children provide them with opportunities to grow as functional individuals who are happy with themselves and others around them. This is a very important characteristic for survival and success in the future. Children who have a good quality of life grow up to become successful individuals. Good quality of life does not come from giving children all that they want (monetary sense), but from giving them sufficient exposure to positive human relationships.

2. Believe in your child – by nature, humans like to compare themselves with others. However, our tendency is to compare ourselves with those who are better off. When we do this, we feel small and disadvantaged, leading to negative feelings toward our own capacity to grow and achieve in life. Children learn to engage in social comparison early in life from parents and teachers. Because of this, many individuals develop negative attitudes toward themselves – they doubt their own potential, and before long, they believe that they are good for nothing. DO NOT compare your child with another child. There is no value in doing so. In fact, when we compare one child to another, it destroys the self-image, motivation, and confidence of both. Several research by Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University indicate that adults send a negative message to children when they use labels such as smart, average, or dull. In reality, these do not exist (ranking only exist for the purpose of employment, university admission, etc). They do not represent the true ability or potential of a child. Hence, parents and teachers must be careful not to compare children with others, including themselves. Every child is special. Every child has his or her own strengths. Children who succeed (regardless of school achievement records) are those whose strengths are tapped into and nurtured. A child’s strength could be in an academic subject. It could also be in non-academic areas. As parents, we should be open to accepting children’s strength without judging the field/area in which the strength is manifested. For example, in the past, when children did well in dance class or athletics, parents shunned the idea by telling them that these are not going earn them a living. Today, these pre-conceptions are proven wrong. In fact, when one area of strength is celebrated and nurtured, other areas of life undergo significant improvement as well. Believe in your child, sincerely. Believe that he or she has a special place and role in the world. Be supportive in bringing the best of your child. When parents and teachers believe in their children, the latter develop positive attitude toward themselves and become internally motivated to climb up the ladder of success.

3. Empower rather than spoon feed – We can take a horse to the river, but definitely cannot force it to drink from the water. At the end of the day, every child makes his or her own decisions about a variety of things. Parents and teachers who think that they have complete control over children’s lives are making a big mistake. While children may listen and obey, they are forming their own personal mental framework as to what they want and do not want. Psychologically speaking, children who are allowed freedom to engage in collective decision making are well-adjusted and responsible compared to those for whom all decisions are made by parents and/or teachers. This should begin early – earlier than most adults think is possible. For example, when a mother bakes cookies, she could ask her two or three year old to join in – the child could be involved in deciding about the type of cookies to be baked, the shapes, the flavor, etc. By involving children in this manner, they get to engage in higher order thinking, form preferences, and defend their choices. Creativity can be introduced and sharpened through a variety of simple, day-to-day activities at home and school, if parents and teachers spend a little bit more time thinking about designing learning experiences suitable for children.

Adults have spent a lot of time teaching children. It is time to stop teaching and start inspiring! Children who are inspired do more than what is expected of them. They push their own limits to continue treading new and challenging territories. Success for such children is inevitable and real. These are the kinds of people who will face the challenges of the 21st century, wisely.