Packaged or flexible learning

Formal education, today, is packaged learning. The pedagogy is synonymous to the packaging of a product, while the curriculum is the content. Packaged learning is efficient– it is easy to distribute, a fixed package for every grade. It is easy to monitor and assess how that one package is consumed by the child. But it has serious problems.

It is a ‘one size, fits all’ production and distribution for an immensely varied consumer base. It overlooks the unique needs, abilities, and interests of a child. Invalidating their individuality, it assumes authority over what the child should learn at which age.

When all children are assumed alike, laggards appear. Inherently, there is no comparison between two individual personalities. But, when both are provided the same learning, one may absorb it faster than another- which is a difference in preferences and abilities.

In contrast, flexible learning promotes the personalization of learning, catering uniquely to every child. It moves away from the brick-mortar schooling structure, away from the bells which mark the end of a lecture towards a wonderland where a child learns on their own terms.

At the outset, one can think about flexibility in four aspects:

1. Time and place: Education today is timed, usually mornings, and at school. So, if one prefers to learn at night, it is a problem. Flexibility in this aspect is learning when one is the freshest and where is at most comfort. For instance, lounging on the bed in the middle of night with a cup of coffee!

2. Subject: A typical day at school is laden with classes and subjects already decided for you, like an a la carte. When it is flexible, one can learn what they please. They can learn astrophysics followed by guitar lessons right after- it is their choice. There must be a 24/7 buffet for learning. Change your servings with every visit and try something new if you please.

3. Tutors: Currently, for every grade and every division within it, the teaching faculty is fixed. If Lola studies in Grade-3A, they have Ms. Monroe for Math, for the whole year. Their friend may have Mr. Raman whose classes are more enjoyable but that is not an available choice for Lola. When learning revolves around a child, they can experiment with different tutors before they settle for one. Or, they can pick different tutors for different topics!

4. Media of learning: In a packaged framework, only one medium, for instance- a presentation, is used for the entire class of children. Flexibility implies opting for one’s own preferred media of learning. One could like a video for a topic, an audio for another and a book for yet another. One could want videos through and through. If that is what the child wants, let them have it.

The true potential of any child will be harnessed when they are given the power to do so. Flexibility is of paramount importance today if we want a generation ready for challenges of tomorrow.

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Moving towards the learning journey paradigm

Upon hearing the word ‘teach’, the first image most of us have is that of a class being ‘taught’ by a figure of authority. Inherent to this visual is the dichotomy of a student and a teacher.

It remains an unstated assumption that the teacher and student are mutually exclusive entities, bound by a classroom for an exercise of learning, and/or hints perhaps only subtly that one cannot play the other. It is often a term that symbolizes a knowledge divide. More deeply, it also symbolizes knowledge as a static entity that has been passed from generation to generation.

The setup positions teacher as merely a disseminator of knowledge. Thus, teachers are bound by pressures of knowing everything and also delivering effectively. The teacher’s own learning is in improving on these two dimensions: subject matter and presentation. Or a combination that leads to a new discipline called pedagogy.

The student in this scenario becomes a subject; losing autonomy over thinking, simply being the clay to be molded. The scope of learning is determined outside of his capacities to seek what s/he wants to learn. Institutionally, curriculum establishment confines the stretch of curiosity. The expectation from students is receptivity, ironically a subject on which they are not often trained.

Learning in this model is reduced to an academic exercise. Inspiring curiosity is among the delivery burden of the teachers, and effective learning is a function of students’ hardwork. Definitely. there is something amiss in this model.

In fact, there was one question that bothered several teachers I interacted with: “Why is it that the way you learn the subject is not the exact way you prescribe your students to learn?” Almost all teachers confirmed, positively, that they put in abundant hours into preparing to deliver a class. And through the exercise, they learn not just the subject matter, but also stuff that matters such as what is not subject matter, and what is the best way to reason and articulate. The teachers’ learning is self-directed, objective-driven, and therefore more comprehensive.

Just imagine what might happen if the teachers’ learning journey is tracked as it is, and shown to the students. It is a matter of conjecture now, but I place my bets on the possibility that students would at the least have more appreciation for teachers’ efforts, and, additionally, might learn more than just the subject matter: and that is learning to learn. And then, just imagine if the students had the opportunity to showcase their learning journey to peers and teachers.

If the learning journey is the common denominator for conversation, wouldn’t learning be more yielding? Now, more than ever, technology enables this perspective on learning journey. But to realize the fruit of technology, both students and teachers must embrace the perspective of being learners first, and shed their roles assigned institutionally.

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Think of that time in class when a group project was announced. The teacher said, ‘pick a partner’ and almost instantly you knew who yours was. An idea of fun kicked in and the project activity was certainly looked forward to. While some learners enjoy group activities, some do not. But, beyond the component of fun, co-learning benefits all learners.

Co-learning implies learning with peers and so simply put, group projects. Two types of learning which deal with groups are- collaborative and cooperative. The two differ from each other based on the absence (collaborative) or presence (cooperative) of an instructor. So, group projects as part of curriculum facilitated by teachers are a form of cooperative learning. Collaborative learning rests the authority of the project and its discussion with the group itself. The benefits of co-learning are common to both.

Co-learning breeds new ideas and skills. Working with others exposes learners to different methods and styles of learning. The horizons of learning are widened as new perspectives are given room. The problem at hand is understood more deeply and through different angles. The solutions listed are numerous and more thorough.

To learn with other learners is to place individual learning in the larger context of a group. Every individual’s insight is a contribution to the group’s understanding which in turn, impacts every individual’s learning. Every individual is thus part of something bigger than themselves. It instils responsibility of task, a sense of contribution and

Co-learning promotes development of interpersonal faculties, inculcating among learners the ability to work with others. One learns to listen and empathize with their fellows in times of need. They learn to express discomfort and assert themselves respectfully.

Learners learn to support each other and share responsibilities to attain mutual goals. There is recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses; our own weakness is someone else’s strength which effectively amounts to learners with varied strengths working together.

Another key learning is resolution of conflicts. The differential experiences, capabilities and preferences of learners may often clash among themselves creating a tough atmosphere. In a group project, with a deadline and an expected outcome, conflicts need to be resolved to make any progress. Hence, one learns to compromise and negotiate.

So, learning in groups is fun and laden with benefits. The playful jest lightens the possible stress, a laugh or two lifts the spirit, the workload is shared, and numerous skills unlocked!

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Learning benefits teaching

Teaching is an act of sharing knowledge about a particular topic. Invariably, this activity involves an audience and a varied audience, at that. It’s the presence of this audience, of learners awaiting new understanding that makes teaching a challenging task. Learning by oneself is easier- we have a fair idea of our strengths, weaknesses, and our preferred medium of learning. The involvement of other learners presents the teacher with multiple combinations of varied capabilities and preferences in learning.

Learning makes teaching more effective. The goal of teaching is to facilitate an understanding. Given a varied audience, the teacher needs to individually cater to the multitude of learning preferences. Assume the topic for the day is Rain. Some may prefer a visual aid like a video of a rainy day, while some may like a graphic novel- a story weaved into the concept of rain with the sky and clouds as characters. Both require the teacher to have learnt to use these media to explain the concept effectively. In this case, to learn is to explore new avenues of explanation. The introduction of projectors and slideshows is a new avenue. To perform a short skit imbibing the fundamentals of a concept is one, too.

Learning enables the teacher to guide different students differently. The preferences in learning are varied to the extent that some prefer to have a basic understanding while some prefer a more nuanced foundation. The heart pumps blood to the rest of the body is a satisfactory concept to some. Yet others may want a closer look into the anatomy, knowing exactly where it is that blood enters first in the heart, what creates the pump and how it is transported to the different body parts through different vessels.

Similarly, a learner may be content with knowing about the six planets in our solar system and yet another may want to explore asteroids and meteors or different facts about the Milky Way galaxy or a new galaxy altogether. These differential needs lead the teacher back to the drawing board to, this time, learn more deeply to guide the understanding in a new direction which the learner may enjoy. A broad and deep understanding of the topic equips the teacher to nurture new inquiries.

Thus, learning significantly improves teaching. Built into this conclusion is the dynamic nature of learning- our understanding of a concept is always evolving, and rightly so. There are hidden treasures of insights under different beds of knowledge. The best teachers are adventurers who are always in pursuit of those.

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