Columns Education

Talk with teachers: The critical inputs

Urvashi Bhattacharyya

We got three teachers talking on their teaching methodology and the changes they would like to see. In a two part interview we bring forth the views of Charu Dogra Rawat (Assistant Professor, Ramjas College, Delhi University), Smitha Hegde (Professor, Nitte University of Science Education and Research), and Vidya Jonnalagadda (Educator, Bhavan’s Vivekanand College of Science, Humanities and Commerce, Hyderabad). In part one, the educators stated their efforts to keep the classroom up-to-date and bring in career awareness. Here, they share views on the future of dissemination of educational material and their expectations from educational policy makers.

Charu Dogra Rawat (left), Smitha Hegde (middle, in the black and red jacket) and Vidya Jonnalagadda (right)
Charu Dogra Rawat (left), Smitha Hegde (middle, in the black and red jacket) and Vidya Jonnalagadda (right)  

What teaching aids/methods have become obsolete? If you could bring change at a systemic level, what would you suggest?

Charu: I do not believe any method has become obsolete per se. However, a blend of various aids such as chalk-board and digital tools could become important. The diversity of students we teach is large, so a wholescale adoption of either of these methods might not be suitable. I thus believe some content knowledge should be imparted through straightaway dissemination. Additionally, the concept of giving assignments involving copying from text book should be done away with – the assignments should involve critical thinking.

Smitha: Chalk-board is still the most effective method of drawing a draft sketch of the topics, however, PowerPoint presentations can be fillers (with colours and images) for better understanding. OHPs have become obsolete.

As far as bringing change is concerned, we need to reduce the content of lecture based syllabus delivery. At undergraduate level, 6 hours of theory and 4 hours practical per subject, per week seems sufficient. Also, equal weightage should be given to theory and practical in terms of syllabus as well as credits. I would suggest that the student time table should have mandatory self-study hours. Average contact hours is nearly 30-32 hours per week. It should be limited to 28-30 hours. 40 plus hours, that a few colleges boast of, should be discouraged as it is inhumane and kills the spirit of self-learning.

Vidya: Most of my students prefer the chalk-talk method; in fact they dislike PowerPoint presentations. I support their choice because the chalk-talk is more flexible and spontaneous.

Most educators believe that lectures are — or should be — obsolete because the outcome in terms of student learning is far inferior to active-learning methods. However, I have found that being an only teacher who uses a different teaching method is hard on the students. For example, my aim is to flip the classroom, but it has not worked yet (trying since past 10 years) because the students simply do not read the textbook before coming to class (maybe they never read it!). The sad and challenging part of my class is that students see the class as something they need to sit through to earn enough attendance to qualify for appearing in the final exams. Asking them to work by themselves or in groups often causes stress and under-confidence. Even in the statistics class, where I give them a customised workbook to solve questions, most students wait for me or someone to solve the problem and then just note down the answer. In this context, even when we solve problems using MS Excel, students are reluctant to try exploring the power of computer spreadsheets; each year I see a few students adding up numbers on their cell phones and then entering the result in the Excel sheet. Funny, yes, but also very sad! Therefore, I think that (at least my) students first need to become comfortable with a new method of teaching before they accept it as a good replacement for the traditional lecture.

By the time I see them — usually in M.Sc., or sometimes in B.Sc. — they are pretty set in their expectations of what a teacher does in a classroom. So, at a systemic level, teachers may need to be trained in non-lecture modes of teaching and perhaps given a few sample lessons/exercises to make them feel confident about a new pedagogical tool. Once all (or most of) the teachers start using different methods of teaching, students too will learn how to learn in alternate ways.

It is also a real challenge for the teachers to firstly design and implement activities that require innovative thinking, and secondly to get students motivated to participate with original work (and not duplicate projects seen on the internet). In this respect, I think the activity of “scientific writing”, where we provide outline diagrams of an experiment and ask students to describe and interpret the results, holds great potential. I call it “virtual witnessing”, in which student participation is motivated by some small recognition.

A new national policy on education is being drafted. What key areas would you want to be addressed in the new policy?

Charu: A key component in the new policy needs to be enquiry/research based learning and the implementation of the same needs to start at the foundational levels, where rote based learning gives way to student’s own/ self-initiated learning. Unfortunately, by the time students reach college, they are so used to the rote system that we are not able to bring about much change. This level of training needs to be applied to the teachers too, and can be used as a part of their assessment. The policy should be at a national level and should also include skill based knowledge dissemination to enable an innovative line of thinking.

Smitha: The policy makers should limit the content and instead improve its validity and quality. Equal weightage for practical and theory for science topics should be introduced. Focus should also be on improving the working condition of teachers – not hiring contract teachers will improve the quality of teaching. If research is also introduced as a part of the curriculum, then the teacher: student ratio should be maintained at 1:6.

Vidya: Moving away from rewarding (only) rote learning with good grades is the primary need of the National Policy on Education. However, teachers themselves might value the memorization of obscure facts and hence may not be able to set up classrooms/examination systems where creativity and individuality are fostered and rewarded.

Secondly, the syllabus needs to be updated regularly to be of topical interest. For example, at least 10% of the syllabus should cover events that happened in the past 5 years, around 10% of the syllabus should cover events that occurred in the previous 5-10 years, and around 10% should cover events that occurred within the country/state or region. This will encourage the faculty to develop content with a current and regional flavour.