Sunday, 23 March 2014

The mind and learning


The mind is that part of our being which allows us to perceive sense stimuli and to make sense of them. It is the centre of our intellect. It allows us to think. It allows us to learn. It is the essence of our being. It has been the subject of intellectual studies throughout the ages, yet not fully comprehended.

I am going to proffer my commonsensical notion of the mind and learning in this article. This notion has come out of my observations of human behaviour in the classroom and in other settings.

When it comes to learning I believe that there are two types of minds. There is one which is quietly receptive of whatever to which it is introduced. It is suited to the traditional conceptualisation of education. The teacher is the possessor of all knowledge relevant to a particular subject. The teacher imparts this knowledge via the traditional lecture method. The mind absorbs the knowledge and later reproduces it as given. That is, the minds which care about the information which the teacher imparts.

This uncritical mind welcomes the "banking concept of education" which was so heartily criticised by well-known Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. His view, like many who are proponents of a critical pedagogy in education, is that education should prepare one to think critically, that is, to challenge any facet of life which is deemed to be oppressive in order to bring about change. However, the mind I am talking about here does not want to challenge anything. It wants to be told what to do. It is content with the status quo.

Some students who possess this mind do very well on tests. Others who possess this mind do very poorly. They want to be told everything but they cannot be bothered to act on anything they are told.

The second kind of mind is one which thrives on curiosity. Whatever captures its interest is subject to prolonged, profound questioning. This mind wants to know. Like a dog with a bone, this mind will not stop gnawing at an idea, a procedure, a task in which it is interested until it conquers it. That is, it fully understands the object of its interest. Then it moves on to another source of interest. This mind is constantly working. This mind will welcome the critical pedagogical approach to instruction.

The uncritical mind applies itself in the same manner to every facet of life, with acceptance, feigned interest. The critical mind, on the other hand, may bring criticality to every aspect of life or it may be selective. It may bring criticality only to that aspect of life in which it has an interest.  This criticality may be on display in the classroom, if criticality is welcomed there. Those who possess this critical mind will question received wisdom and provide their own alternative, even though the knowledge base on which they draw may, sometimes, be quite limited. But, most times these persons who possess this critical mind are willing to explore further any issue by doing the necessary research and are willing to revise their position after acquiring new knowledge.

This mind may not necessarily perform well on tests because it only produces what it understands. It does not memorise facts for the sake of memorising them.

This critical mind may not be motivated by the subjects which are taught in school. Instead, it brings its critical focus to that which it is truly interested. For example, in schools, many students who are interested in sports, and may be termed sporting prodigies, do poorly at the academics.

Let us examine this critical mind in relation to the team sport, “soccer”. This mind understands the purpose of the game – winning. It has developed an understanding of strategy in this sport – strategy of passing the ball, strategy of dribbling the ball, strategy of controlling the ball, strategy of defending the goal, strategy of scoring goals, strategy of working as a team. This mind understands its role on the team and it tries to help the team to be successful.

I am sure that we know many persons who have had great success, some by orthodox means, and some by unorthodox means but had performed poorly in school, this poor performance measured in terms of success in tests, which is the standard measuring device of performance in many educational contexts. However, through their own ingenuity they have achieved success by performing well in their chosen fields.

Now, if this mind can perform well in many aspects of life, why cannot it excel in the academic realm?

Should we stream students, putting them in classes with students of like interest and infuse all subjects which they are required to take with illustrations drawn from their interests? That is, should we have classes, for example, which are peopled with only students who are interested in sports?

This may be a desirable strategy to enhance performance in school. The leaders of the education enterprise often say that to improve performance of students teachers must meet them where they are at. This usually means that teachers should provide instruction to students according to their academic level when they come to them. This idea could be extended to incorporate another idea, that of instructing students according to their interests and/or their experience when they come to them. Doing this may help to develop students' interests in the lessons, and their general performance in school as they begin to see the relevance of the lessons to their real life interests and situations.

The above is just the ramblings of a mind which is always looking for answers to the “why” questions. For example, why do some students perform satisfactorily in school and some do not? No doubt, the answer is multi-faceted. I have provided one possible facet of the answer for consideration.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Interacting with education policies

Educational policies are “blueprints” or intended plans of actions which government has devised with the aid of experts to solve perceived problems in the education sector of the society. These perceived problems may be related, for example, to improving literacy and numeracy among everyone in the society, improving the educational performance of students at the different levels of the education system, creating a link between the education system and the world of work, using the education system as a tool to develop a national identity among other such noble goals. We get a very general idea of government’s policy direction for the sectors of society by reading the manifesto which they usually unveil during their campaign for political office.

Once the policy direction for the education sector has been agreed on experts are tasked with devising programmes which will give effect to these policies. That is, the government believes that these specific programmes of action which they have devised, when implemented, will solve the identified problem/s.

Every time government rolls out a “new” policy in education much debate is generated, which should be the case. The responses of interested stakeholders to government’s policy direction in the education sector are always mixed. In responding to education policies parents, principals, teachers, students, educational experts who were not a part of the policy conceptualisation and creation process, among other interested parties, will have contrasting inputs.

Out of the policy for improving students’ performance in schools, for example, may emerge a programme which requires that the school year be extended to eleven months of the year. Teachers, principals, parents, students and other interested parties will bring their own ideas borne out of their lived experiences to their reaction to the general policy direction as well as to this programme. These may force a tweaking or reconceptualization of the programme.

Teachers, for example, may be livid. The number of vacation days which they usually look forward to will be reduced. This reduces the number of days which they have to de-stress from a physically, mentally and emotionally draining school year. They may view government as being insensitive and, therefore, may undermine the implementation of this policy.

Some principals may welcome the change. After all, they are on call every day of the school year. Others may respond like the teachers, seeing the extension of the school year as being insensitive on the part of government and may lack commitment to the implementation of the policy as government intended.

Some parents may be happy. Either they do not have to worry about the cost of day care and other protective facilities for their children or they may applaud the policy initiative as a way to ensure that their children get more time to be educated than before. Some parents, however, will be annoyed as they may be concerned about finding the extra resources to send their children to school for an extended period.  

Most students will be quite annoyed. They live for holidays. It provides, for a while, escape and fun from the drudgery of school.

The positions taken by other interested parties may run the gamut of the ones outlined above while some may totally reject the efficacy of the policy and suggest their own alternatives to solve the perceived problem.

Obviously, the situation will require some compromise, some give and take, some suspension of animosity, and some middle ground if the government expects implementation of their policy to achieve its intended goal – improved performance.

Stephen J. Ball, Meg Mcguire, and Anette Braun doing research in the context of England, in their book, How schools do policy: policy enactments in secondary schools (2012) point out what may be evident to policymakers, that the policy process is not a linear one. Government does not send down policy prescriptions to schools and they get enacted as is. The policy enactment process as done in schools is a messy one. It is a negotiated process. And this process may have both intended and unintended consequences.

How do schools do policy in the contexts in which we as teachers live and work? Who are the major actors in the educational policy process? Whose voice has authority? Who is listened to? How is policy implemented? Is there a synergy between the expectations of the government and the schools from policy prescriptions? These and other questions as regards the policy conception, policy making and policy implementation process need to be answered in every context.

The input of all the actors in the policy process should be considered from the conceptualisation stage of the policy to the implementation stage. Because, success or failure of the policy depends on these actors, especially those at the implementation stage.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sharing information: One of the key components of organisational success


Being in a position of leadership in an organisation is being in a group, an “in-group”, that is, a group which some of those on the outside perceive as being desirable, one that they would give anything to be a part of, one whose status is elevated.

While some of those on the outside of this group, that is the “out-group” are longing to take their place in this “in-group”, many of those who have found themselves in this group keep on devising ways to maintain their position and to keep subordinates firmly in their subordinate position.

The problem with this behaviour is that the goals of the organisation will not be fully met if there is a gap in the organisation which subordinates perceive is being deliberately constructed by leadership in order to keep the two groups from developing any sort of group identity. This is a problem which is compounded by the animosity towards and distrust of leadership which usually ensue in situations like these. Since all members in the organisation are supposed to be working to achieve the objectives of the organisation in a spirit of interdependence, with the leadership leading the process, the absence of this interdependence, the absence of the necessary camaraderie and trust will make the achievement of the objectives of the organisation an uphill task.

 At the heart of this leading should be the ability and willingness on the part of the leadership to effectively communicate the organisation’s mission and goals, the strategy or strategies for achieving them, providing updates on the result of effort expended at different stages and to motivate the led towards greater effort than previously expended.

However, in the “in-group” of leadership, information becomes a most valuable resource. Information is power. It is the group’s source of authority. Therefore, this information is held very “close to the chest”. It is shared reluctantly and not in its entirety. It seems that persons in this group believe that in sharing information with subordinates they will erode their authority.

When the group underperforms, leadership apportions blame, but only to subordinates. When performance improves leadership takes most of the credit.

For persons who are committed to the organisations of which they are a part and display this commitment by carrying out their duties well, this attitude on the part of leadership is a source of frustration. And it is one of the major reasons why many persons in organisations either opt out mentally or physically from the organisation.

To get the best from members of the organisation, those in positions of leadership have to be willing to control their egos. They can enjoy the satisfaction of their elevated status without treating those whom they lead as unimportant cogs in the machinery of the organisation. Being transparent by sharing information is a good start and nothing says respect more than that.