Teachers who wish to sustain and encourage an epistemological approach in the classroom are often required to compromise on their educational philosophy, when student performance at examinations is the central focus of the system, given these constraints how can a pedagogue continue to inspire and arouse wonder for the student? The piece that follows throws light on this significant theme.
Dr. Kamakshi Balasubramanian is an educator and writer.
Teachers as professionals embody the principle of life-long learning every day in the work they do. Other professionals, too, can be life-long learners; but for most of them, it is a matter of choice. Teachers, by contrast, are constantly and repeatedly required to consider what constitutes learning and what the value of learning is. Even in the limited matter of delivering a defined syllabus, a teacher continually reviews her own knowledge of the content of every lesson before teaching it in the classroom, refining her understanding with every such review. This process of reviewing familiar content and refining one’s understanding is essential to improve teaching skills and for success in communicating knowledge in a classroom, often by altering or tweaking the teaching technique to improve delivery of the content.
A teacher of mathematics might know exactly how to derive the solution for a theorem in plane geometry and demonstrate it in the classroom, but when a student is unable to grasp the explanation, the teacher is forced to take a fresh look at even the most familiar and not infrequently simple content, by first understanding, and then responding to, its specific points of complexity for the learner. This process requires objectivity and analysis; it requires the teacher to review the student’s previously acquired knowledge (as a pre-requisite) and identify the specific step or steps that constitute the hurdle in the student’s effort to acquire knowledge. This process of examining the familiar and obvious for a possible complexity sometimes reveals a nuance or subtlety that might otherwise be easily missed. A sincere and dedicated teacher of mathematics to high school students thus has the opportunity to develop theoretical insights into established concepts through systematic analysis of their defining features, without which it is difficult to explain these concepts in simplified terms to the struggling student.
Teachers, who grow in their profession and increasingly come to see their own role in building formal knowledge and in building communities of knowledge seekers, realize that school systems and boards of education are not the masters of the endeavor in which they are engaged.
Such a process of investigating the familiar for clarity often leads a teacher to explore the value of the knowledge being imparted. Why should my student know what an adverb is, why should a student understand the relationship between interest rates and inflation, what is the purpose of examining diverse views on a particular event in history, are all among the concerns of a teacher.
Answers to these and similar questions open the door to important philosophical enquiries into the nature of knowledge itself. A teacher who grapples with such questions might veer in the direction of skill building and problem solving as the main focus of teaching as an activity, taking satisfaction in preparing students for success in examinations. The best among such teachers are like coaches, who prepare student to perform certain practical tasks. Or, the teacher might engage in active exploration of concepts and ideas to advance the student’s ability to acquire and build knowledge, using skill building and problem solving as tools. The best among such teachers are guides and mentors, who strive to establish a sound foundation of abstract thinking skills in their students.
An accomplished and dedicated teacher thus has certain opportunities and privileges that have the potential over time to vastly improve upon her own scholarship and erudition at the work place, rather than through formal advanced study in a structured course, for which, realistically speaking, very few teachers have easy access.
Beyond the classroom, a teacher’s responsibility extends to curriculum development, an important area in education, where interaction with peers is central. Curriculum development work leads directly to the concept of the links between disciplines as a key component of knowledge. Teachers are required as curriculum developers to take a holistic approach to education. This holistic approach contributes significantly to the growth of an individual as an informed and open-minded thinker, and I daresay that teachers are uniquely privileged to perform their duties with an unambiguous awareness of the interconnectedness of phenomena, ideas, concepts, and diverse social groups.
Training workshops, regular interaction with peers, question setting for tests and marking examinations, organizing extracurricular events in and outside the school, chaperoning and counseling students, and a host of other activities that a teacher is called upon to perform routinely open up avenues for personal and intellectual growth in the workplace, the educational institution in which one works.
What I have said applies essentially to a teacher in the formal and non-formal systems of education. The same cannot be asserted across the board when someone plays the role of a teacher in informal educational systems. I do not propose to explore that idea in detail here, but it is necessary to differentiate between formal and informal systems of education, with their own distinct environments in which a teacher grows as an intellectual.
Every teacher in the many formal educational systems cannot freely, or as a matter of course, use the kind of opportunities for growth that I have described. School systems with their own curricula, often prescribed by boards of education, frequently impose constraints on a teacher’s potential to grow. Examination-oriented systems, for example, pose hurdles for a teacher whose philosophical preference is for learner-centered, inquiry-based teaching. Regardless of the curriculum which may claim to be inquiry-based and learner-centered, we are familiar with the heavy bias in many systems in favor of final examinations. Teachers who wish to sustain and encourage an epistemological or, more simply, a knowledge-building (as opposed to skill-building) approach in the classroom are often required to compromise on their educational philosophy, when student performance at examinations is the main feature by which a teacher’s work is judged. School systems that stream students by ability frustrate teachers who are opposed to elitism. There are many hurdles that prevent a teacher from fully using the opportunities for growth in the teaching/learning environment, with the most serious, in my view, being a system of education that defines the purpose of education in narrow, utilitarian terms.
When teachers recognize the special quality of their work environment and make use of the opportunities present, they recognize that their work place serves not just the student to gain knowledge. Teachers are themselves beneficiaries of the learning that occurs.
Teachers, who grow in their profession and increasingly come to see their own role in building formal knowledge and in building communities of knowledge seekers, realize that school systems and boards of education are not the masters of the endeavor in which they are engaged. They also thus arrive at the recognition that teachers themselves are the designers and architects of these powerful and influential systems. They then become leaders and innovators, owing to their commitment to knowledge and their awareness of their own unique sphere of influence.
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