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May 15th, 2011

Choose your stories carefully – inspire or expire!

Teachers who share their own life stories with students find a special way into the hearts and minds of their pupils. Such stories bridge the mental and emotional gaps between the teacher and his/her students, making teaching/learning highly engaging.

However, teachers need to be selective of the kind of stories they share. There are times when teachers spontaneously recollect and share a personal story – this is an exception, and may not happen all the time. Otherwise, teachers need to be deliberate in their choice of stories shared in the classroom, during lessons.

There are two types of stories that teachers usually share with students. One is highly recommended and significantly impact students’ attitude toward learning and consequently, academic achievement. The other, is to be avoided at all costs.

Inspiring stories

The first kind of stories, which I call inspiring personal stories, is deeply appreciated by students. Students don’t get tired listening to them. They feel positively challenged when their teachers share this type of stories. The main feature of these stories is that they do not focus on the teacher per se. Instead, they point toward important life lessons that students could use as their own guide – be it at school, work or home.

Another characteristic of this kind of stories is that they are genuine. The teacher shares them without modifying any element of the story, even if it paints a not-so-rosy picture of him/herself. The teacher is not hesitant to share these stories because of the inherent inspirational value in them. Examples:

  1. How I chose college major?
  2. What did I do to pay for tuition?
  3. My first ‘F’ grade
  4. What my friends taught me about failing in love
  5. Peer pressure and how it affected me
  6. My favorite subject and why
  7. How I found out that looks are indeed deceiving
  8. Wrong choices and their consequences
  9. My favorite teacher and why
  10. My favorite cartoon character and why
  11. My favorite book and why, etc.

While the themes of the above-mentioned stories seem to be pointing to the teacher, in reality, they do not. The stories are only a means to an end – the aim of the stories is not to glorify the teacher and his/her life experiences; rather, they are meant to serve as lessons that would better students’ own choices and consequently, quality of life, even at the cost of admitting that teachers are humans who constantly undergo ups-and-downs.

Look-at-how-good-I-am stories

The second type of stories, which students get bored of hearing, are what I call, Look-at-how-good-I-am stories. These stories are meant to glorify the teacher, with no apparent, values-based lessons for students. They are often told to kill time and to show off, consequently creating a wider rift between the teacher and students.

Some students wonder why their teachers share such stories as they serve neither instructional purpose, nor entertain them. Often, these stories tend to repeat themselves over and over again until students know exactly what the teacher was going to say even before he/she re-tells the whole story. Psychological analysis would reveal that such stories do a good job in covering up for the teacher’s lack of honesty toward him/herself. They paint a good picture of the teacher – however students neither believe in them, nor take them seriously as they are incoherent from what they see in their teacher in reality. Examples:

  1. My pet dog and how nice, expensive and cute it is
  2. How many maids I have at home
  3. I got promotion and increase in salary
  4. My classmates are not doing as well as I am
  5. Why I was liked by my teachers
  6. My family background
  7. I had dinner with a VIP last night
  8. Why the headmaster thinks I am better than other teachers
  9. How I lost weight and am in shape
  10. My niece is Miss World 2010

One common feature among all of the above-mentioned themes is that they have no clear educational value for students – in other words, they are vain. They may be great stories, but they are not going to help bridge the mental and emotional gap between the teacher and students. As a matter of fact, they may do the opposite, very effectively.

Students do not appreciate teachers who hide behind a façade and pretend that they are infallible. Their stories and subsequent behaviors hint that they are the best role models for students. While teachers need to be role models, they should not promote themselves to be one. Students need to decide for themselves whether or not a teacher is worthy to be emulated. Hence, the most a teacher could do is to point out to other role models around them and encourage students to emulate those individual(s). In the process of doing so, many students, out of sincere appreciation for their teacher, would start emulating him/her.

Telling personal stories is important, and has its own value. However, the choice of stories shared determines the outcome. An inspirational story creates a positive classroom climate, motivates students to set greater goals and propels them to move in the direction of active learning.

On the other hand, the Look-at-how-good-I-am story serves no educational purpose and could be deemed as ineffective use of instructional time. While the former set of stories inspires students, the latter inevitably accelerates teachers’ expiry. (Note: teacher’s expiry may connote ‘becoming an unapproachable and ineffective’ teacher.)

May 7th, 2011

Do you listen enough?

One of the key ingredients for success in career during adulthood is the ability to manage relationships. Many adults, while having had the privilege of schooling, pursuing higher education and eventually graduating with flying colors, take a while and encounter a few falls before they accomplish something of significance. There is a definite reason for this.

Taught not to listen

Our current system of education was conceived during the time of industrial revolution. The industrial era required people to focus on production and output-related performance. As such, human relationship and the dynamics therein were not a priority. Consequently, educational institutions in the past and present focus almost exclusively on teaching people academic subjects in an attempt to prepare them for a specific workplace role. There was/is a lack of emphasis on developing students’ people-skills in almost every school and university.

While this trend is slowly changing in response to the new world order (information boom, social networking, tribal leadership, people power, etc.), it is far from gone. One would be shocked to see that many schools continue to operate on the basis of an educational philosophy founded in the 19th century factory-era.

However, since times have changed, societal values have changed as well. The 21st century rewards people who generate ideas and create movements of people around these ideas. The 21st century is an era where the only way to succeed is to effectively harness and manage people via appropriate networking tools, be it virtual or physical. As such, there is no denying or understating the importance of establishing and sustaining meaningful interpersonal and professional relationships if one is to achieve his/her life goals.

Re-visiting Listening

Listening is one the most crucial elements required for relationships to work. Listening facilitates and consolidates understanding of people and their inner workings through messages manifested in behavior, thought patterns and emotional responses. Without fully understanding people, it is difficult to handle the complexities involved in relationships. Unfortunately, most people do not know this, hence hardly practice the same.

In general, people are more comfortable talking than listening. For many, listening is a specialized skill reserved for people in the counseling profession. As a matter of fact, universities with counseling major offer semester-long classes on the subject of Active Listening, as if this is an exclusive skill needed only by counselors or those in the helping profession.

The lack of ability in listening in day-to-day life is also due to parents’ lack of modeling of such a behavior. How many of us can look back and proudly say that “my father and mother actively listened to everything I had to share with them back then” or “I was listened to by my teachers at school”?

Most of us were not listened to at school because teachers modeled talking more than listening (can’t really blame them because they were paid to talk, not listen). The same took place at home. Like teachers, parents told us a great number of things (mostly to do with what they expect from us and how they want us to behave to make them proud), and did very little to model the most important act in the process of relationship building.

In retrospect, it would have been absurd for parents to sit down and take time to listen to their children. The society would have punished them for doing this. Thus, people grew up believing that they need to talk their way through people and situations to succeed.

Listening: Success factor!

Contrary to this notion, tones of recent research indicate that a successful person is an emotionally intelligent individual, who’s got a realistic grasp of the fact that listening is the key to uncovering the secrets of understanding others and engaging in healthy relationships. An emotionally intelligent individual actively listens to gain deep, comprehensive understanding of people. He is effective in managing relationships because he truly understands people, instead of dealing with them at superficial, mechanical level.

Implications

All these have practical implications for teachers and parents living today! Without doubt, many of us still struggle to turn the table around and do what our teachers and parents did not do, i.e., LISTEN. I personally believe that children/students are the most misunderstood people on earth because they are simply not listened to. But by not listening to them, we are not being effective role models.

Emotional intelligence could be inculcated early in life, starting from home, continuing at school and maturing at workplace. All of relationships are founded on one’s willingness and ability to understand others. As such, there is no better way to mastering the art of forging and managing relationships than to learn how to engage in active listening through real-life examples set by teachers and parents on a daily basis.

How to?

While it may not come automatically, effective listening could be learned and utilized in a progressive manner. Some of the points to consider while listening to children/students are:

  • Pay attention by looking at the person you are listening to (maintain eye-contact)
  • Leave/drop everything else and focus on listening to the person talking to you
  • Listen to the feelings that accompany the words (message)
  • Show sincere involvement and interest in what the other person is talking about
  • From time to time, restate (in a summary form) what the other person just shared with you; e.g., “you are saying that you are angry at him because he didn’t show up for the meeting.” (note: here, the listener is restating both the message and the feeling without passing any judgmental comment)
  • If needed, ask clarification questions; e.g., “let me check if I understand you correctly…”
  • Be constantly aware and in control of your own feelings and opinions – listening is about understanding the other person, not advocating for your own ideals and feelings!
  • If you have to share your input or views, say them only after you have listened to everything that the person had to say
  • Most importantly, constantly remember that listening increases understanding of the other person’s thoughts, feelings and rationale for behaving in a certain manner – hence the time spent in listening strengthens relationships in the long-run

April 10th, 2011

Cross-curricular teaching: Starting small

Most teachers I talk to are aware of the concept of cross-curricular teaching. However, if I had to inquire how many are actually practicing it, I am sure that the numbers would look discouraging. Why is this so?

The answer lies in the fact that teachers attempt to implement the approach in its entirety instead of starting small. A lot of teachers are already doing cross-curricular instructions in one way or another. However, to be successful, they need to become more aware of its usage, recognize appropriate opportunities when such a technique would be effective, and become more deliberate in applying it in the classroom.

A simple example would clarify what I mean…

I had the privilege of observing a teacher in his class recently. He is a good teacher and does his best to make learning meaningful and fun.

At one point in his class, he talked about the two types of costs that companies usually incur: fixed costs and variable costs. He went on explaining the meaning of fixed costs and gave a few examples too. He checked for understanding by asking students to give a few more examples. Apparently, the concept did not pose much of a challenge to students.

Then the teacher moved on to the next concept which is variable costs. However, I sensed hesitation, doubt and concern (from the teacher) about whether or not students would understand this concept as well and as easily as the first one. He was correct to feel this way (for a reason I would state later) – but he was not able to make use of this “golden” opportunity to engage in cross-curricular teaching. What do I mean?

The reason he was hesitant, doubtful and less confident about the ease with which students would understand the second concept was because the word “variable” is not as commonly used in daily life as the word “fixed” – while fixed costs is almost self-explanatory in nature, variable costs may not be so. So, the actual concern here was not the understanding of the concept itself; rather, it was the concern that most students may not be familiar with the word “variable,” let alone the way it is used in this particular lesson.

Although his realization was correct (hence he accurately diagnosed the potential problem), he failed to remedy the situation. He had a great opportunity right there and then to engage in cross-curricular teaching (i.e., teaching vocabulary and business management) – instead of taking the same approach and explaining what “variable costs” is, he could have spent a few seconds or minutes sharing the actual meaning of the word “variable” – he could have refreshed their memories about the word being taught in their high school math classes, etc.

Teaching the meaning of an important word such as “variable” would go a long way to help students understand its usage in a variety of contexts. Once they understand the word, they would be able to assimilate its meaning and use it for the rest of their lives. Most importantly, the teacher would have had the assurance that students successfully acquired understanding of the concept of variable costs. This is one of the most practical ways to engaging in cross-curricular teaching, especially for those who wish to take a small step toward improving instruction and increasing quality of students’ learning.

8572vb!

March 27th, 2011

Re-examining Bullying: A new approach to helping a bully

Although bullying is not a common phenomenon, it still takes place at school, in the neighborhood and wherever children & young people gather and commune. It is said that bullying happens in all racial and ethnic groups, as well as across all socioeconomic classes. Bullying involves those who bully and those who are bullied. Sometimes, school-goers may experience both. Bullying takes various forms such as verbal abuse, physical harassment, taking away of privileges and rewards, or deprivation of basic rights and needs. Nowadays, bullying takes a virtual form as well, in online chat rooms, in social media sites, and sometimes through e-mails.

Prevalence & challenges

Bullying is easily monitored and controlled at primary school level. Children at this level are more readily frightened by the potential punishment they would receive for bullying from authoritarian adults. However, middle and high school pose a different challenge altogether due to the fact that teenagers are not as intimidated by adults as younger kids.

Teenagers tend to be more defiant and feel that they are equally, if not more powerful than adults. Additionally, middle and high schools tend to be bigger in size and almost always suffer from shortage of human resources (such as student services & support personnel) that could be allocated to pay more attention to the psychological well-being and development of students. In general, most resources are channeled to exam preparation and career development, with very little interest shown in the area of students’ mental health. The aforementioned points may well explain why bullying is a more difficult thing to deal with at middle and high school level.

Traditional approach

Conventional approaches to dealing with bullying have all focused on stopping the incidence through the use varying degrees of punishment. This “fighting fire with fire” approach (as I would call it) has proven to be ineffective for many reasons. As a matter of fact, administering punishment to a bully only reinforces his/her desire to engage in more such unhealthy behaviors.

Typically, if I am hit by someone stronger than myself, instead of hitting him back (knowing that I could never win since I am the weaker of the two), I would be tempted to hit another person who I perceive to be weaker than myself and whom I know would not retaliate. In psychology, this is called displacement, which means unconsciously transferring feelings for one object (perceived as threatening and difficult to defeat) toward another object (perceived as non-threatening and easy to conquer).

This explains why a woman who is mistreated by her husband takes out her anger and disappointments on her children; or a teacher who is humiliated in front of other colleagues by his principal takes out his dissatisfaction and frustration on his innocent students.

Psychological reason

Similarly, in all likelihood, a person who bullies others suffers from being bullied himself. For example, a child who may be bullied at home by his big brother may misplace his anger toward his older brother on other younger kids at school. Since humans learn the best by observing and imitating others (especially people close to them), bullying is learned from others and replicated in different situations.

New approach

Logically, to effectively deal with a bully, one needs to investigate the “true/actual” psychological experiences of the person. If someone bullies because he is being bullied in the first place, then administering punishment would not help the situation at all. What’s needed is a positive intervention to identify and eliminate the bully’s own misfortune and fix his negative psychological experiences that trigger unhealthy responses in the first place.

In this sense, the popular notion that a bully typically does what he does because he wants to get the attention of others and flaunt how bad he is should be RE-EXAMINED. If psychological displacement is indeed an unconscious experience, then a bully does what he does without realizing that he is hurting inside and that he needs someone to help him heal.

Adults (through their training at universities) are taught to “label” deviances as abnormal and treat them as such. The problem is, the moment we label someone a “bully”, we fail to see past the individual’s label. All that we see is the label and not the individual. This is why most psychological and/or educational intervention and treatments are shallow with little or no positive outcomes.

I would emphasize that in dealing with a bully, or any other crisis such as bullying, we MUST see and treat people as humans first, before we see and treat them as whatever it is that we label them (e.g. ADHD, Underachiever, Dyslexic, Bully, etc.). Doing this would allow us to deal with the matter with more humaneness. We would also be able to tackle the matter more realistically, practically and accurately. We often make mistakes in assessment and diagnosis of psychological conditions and behaviors because we choose to see what we want to see. We should stop doing this and start looking at things as they manifest themselves in reality. Otherwise, we would continue selecting and using the wrong tools, techniques, strategies and interventions to fix problems such as bullying. (Note: errors in assessment and diagnosis invariably lead to errors in the choice and application of interventions and treatments.)

Setting them free!

People who bully are actually normal. They just need to realize that a certain part of their behavior is maladaptive. They also need to be helped to become aware of the causes of the maladaptive behavior. Bringing their own hurt/pain/frustrations/anger into awareness and then allowing them to see how these negative experiences affect them and the people being bullied by them would open the eyes and minds of the bully to a truth that they never saw and experience before. They say that the truth would set us free. In this case, a bully, when is fully aware of his inner psychological functioning and how it ought to be monitored and regulated, allows the truth he learns about himself and others TO SET HIM FREE.

I would summarize the process with three simple steps, taken from the 2011 movie, The Chaperone:

  1. Confront it
  2. Be truthful (accept/admit the truth)
  3. Let it go

February 20th, 2011

Describing teaching

We come across documents that comprehensively describe jobs of various types on a daily basis, more so if we are actively looking for one. In workplace, these are called job descriptions. They are commonly found in the newspapers (classified section), online job-search sites, government and private employment centers/agencies, etc.

A good job description clearly indicates what someone holding a particular job does, how he carries out his duties, and who he is accountable to.  A thorough job description contains success criteria for the job. Often, a job description is accompanied by a job specification, i.e. description of what someone holding the job should possess in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities and other personal characteristics necessary for the job (KSAOs).

A job description is not simply written out of the blue; although this is the popular notion that most people have about it. As a matter of fact, in my administrative experience at international schools in Thailand and elsewhere, I see an unfortunate trend. School administrators in most schools do not follow the formal, professional, ethical protocol to come up with a job description for recruiting, selecting and hiring personnel. Instead, they copy job descriptions from many different sources (mainly online) and put them together for their “quick” use.

A careful examination of how job descriptions are created in a typical professional work setting would reveal the drawbacks of copying job descriptions from a variety of sources and using them for selection and hiring purposes.

Job analysis

Where do job descriptions come from? What is the origin of all the job descriptions that we currently have for almost all the jobs that exist on planet earth? People don’t give thought to this unless he/she takes a course on Human Resource Management or Personnel or Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

Job descriptions are one of the many bi-products of a highly-technical, professionally-conducted process called job analysis. In other words, job descriptions are just the eggs – the chicken that lays all these eggs is known as job analysis. As such, there is no debate about which one comes first. In this case, the chicken has to come first, always!

Job analysis is a systematic study of tasks, duties, and responsibilities of a job and the qualities needed (KSAOs) to perform it. Typically, a job analysis is conducted by a trained job analyst through naturalistic observations, on-site participation, close examination of existing data, conduct of interviews, administration of surveys, reading of job diaries, and formal exchanges with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts – i.e. supervisor, job incumbent, and job specialists).

Engaging in and relying on a thorough job analysis would yield a complete picture of a job and an accurate understanding of the kind of person required for it. Consequently, this enables employers to make better decisions about a job and who could be most suitably hired for it. Valuable effort, time and money could be saved as a result of investing in a systematic job analysis process. Ultimately, job analysis and its products, i.e. job description, job specification, job evaluation (a mechanism that helps to determine how to compensate for a job) and performance criteria (a mechanism for appraising worker success or failure), prevents wastage and potential harm.

Implication for schools

Businesses spend a lot of money and time appointing experts to carry out job analysis before publishing a job description. This is why businesses have HR departments. However, it is a different situation in schools. HR departments in schools are unheard of (at least I am not aware of any school that has a HR department). At schools, the highest operational leader is in-charge of recruitment, selection and hiring, along with all other responsibilities. While we could argue about the advantages of doing this, we cannot discount the fact that an operational school leader does not possess the expertise, time and patience to carry out a job analysis.

Hence, the easiest thing to do is to copy job descriptions from other schools. Often, school leaders feel comfortable copying job descriptions from schools operated in the west because they assume that those schools must have done what they are not able to do. While schools operated in the west have their own strengths, there is a problem in copying job descriptions from them because of a few fundamental reasons…

1.    Although the process of “educating” is the same everywhere, the philosophy of education may differ from school to school
2.    Differences in the vision and mission of the school
3.    Huge differences among students studying in one school from another – these differences are accentuated by the fact that people’s cultural experiences, language, and a variety of other socio-cultural factors make them very unique as reflected in their community identify and life-style
4.    Differences may also exist in the curriculum used and more specifically, the elements of the curricular emphasized and taught
5.    Differences in the needs and goals of the society – for example, in the west, schools are expected to nurture the sense of independence in students; however, in the east, students are taught to be obedient to authorities

A job description that is copied off from other sources does not factor in any of the above-mentioned points. However, these factors determine the direction and success of the school. Considering them allows school leaders to make the right choices in hiring teachers who has both the commitment and ability to adopt the school’s overall goals and contribute to its long-term growth.

Hence a job analysis specifically carried out in the context of the school’s philosophy, vision, mission, and its goal-orientation is more likely to lead to successful selection and hiring of teachers who would significantly help the school to progress.

Students & the BRAIN – important sources of information!

As mentioned earlier, there are several sources of information that could be identified and located in order to gather comprehensive data about a job through job analysis.

However, it must be noted that a Job analysis in an education setting is ONLY accurate and complete when a job analyst collects information on students’ viewpoints and carefully attempts to understand how the BRAIN really works and supports them in learning; e.g. interviewing a cognitive psychologist or neuroscientist. This should be done in addition to the conventional job analysis procedures, i.e. interviewing or observing teachers, collecting information from headmaster, etc.

If students are considered as important source of information for a job analysis, they could provide answers to questions such as…
1.    How much of contents could I handle and why?
1.    What ways of teaching/delivery motivates me to learn more/better?
2.    How do I like to be assessed to show mastery of knowledge / skills?
3.    When and how does learning take place most efficiently?
4.    When and why do I become disinterested in learning? (critical incident approach) – When teaching is good vs. bad?

A job analysis that does not consider the students and the mechanisms of learning (or the biology and psychology of learning) is incomplete and thus, invalid. Job descriptions that are derived from job analysis devoid of students’ involvement and inclusion of knowledge from cognitive psychology (neuroscience or the science of the BRAIN) would perpetuate traditional practices in teaching and would adversely affect learning and intended outcomes of 21st century education.

December 13th, 2010

Simple strategies, great results!

Teachers do not always need to employ elaborate classroom management techniques to keep students focused on learning tasks. Alternatively, teacher should consider using a variety of simple strategies (some educators call these strategies classroom procedures) during the course of their lessons.

These uncomplicated classroom procedures could be creatively sprinkled around throughout instructional period to break monotony and enhance the level of interest students have for the subject-matter being learned. At the same time, the procedures demand that students are constantly held responsible for their own learning through elevated sense of awareness of the learning process and its outcomes.

The two most popularly known, easy-to-use classroom procedures are turn-to-your-neighbor and pair-of-pairs.

Turn-to-your-neighbor

This classroom procedure is the easiest to implement, yet yields powerful results in terms of providing students with structured opportunities to consolidate their comprehension of a concept or idea. It could be used as many times as one thinks is appropriate – and in as many context as one could imagine.

For instance, when conducting a typical full-day workshop, I use this method at least three to four times, spread over different learning blocks; e.g. after having introduced and briefly elaborated on the concept of “Teacher Efficacy” I ask teachers to turn-to-their-neighbor and verbally share their understanding of the term (in their own words) to the person seated to the left, right, front, or behind him/her, in addition to providing personal illustrations and/or examples as evidence of mastery of the new concept.

Although the class gets noisy, everyone is given an opportunity to display mastery of the new concept. This elevates pupil’s sense of control and confidence over the subject in a progressive, step-by-step manner, within the context of a safe learning environment (students tend to listen to each other without being judgmental).

In a deeper, psychological sense, this exercise builds up the self-image of each student – as opposed to what happens when a teacher picks a representative sample of the class to gauge if a concept has been understood. Often, teachers tend to pick students who he/she knows have understood the new concept, in which case, the informal assessment results are unrepresentative of the larger and of no value, educationally.

Pair-of-Pairs

To encourage construction or creation of new ideas based on existing knowledge, teachers could use the pair-of-pairs classroom procedure. This method encourages students to stretch their imagination and generate as many creative ideas as possible without feeling threatened or having to feel like he/she is in competition with others.

For example, a teacher could ask students to create a list with a partner (usually someone seated in close proximity); e.g. “list down what would happen to the social and physical environment if multinational companies in Bangkok do not operate within the framework of corporate social responsibility”. As a follow-up, the teacher encourages students to think of and write down as many points as they can.

Once a pair completes the list, the teacher asks this pair to merge the list with another pair (one pair of students joins another pair). The combined list is obviously longer. However, students are asked to carefully examine items in the list to avoid duplication. Students are also required to have logical and/or intuitive reasons for why a particular point/answer is considered as valid in their group.

To make it more “thinking” oriented, teachers could ask students to rank their points, for example from the most effective to least effective, most common to least common, most dangerous to least dangerous, or most practical to least practical. This additional element would require engagement in higher order thinking skills, which serve as an effective interest booster.

Students could be asked to present their refined, well-thought-of list with the rest of the class and be exposed to constructive criticism for mutually-beneficial exchange of ideas.

December 1st, 2010

The ”I” message

Most teachers know that being firm yet loving toward students is not as easy as it sounds or taught in teacher training programs. The two acts are inherently paradoxical. Attempting to do both at the same time may communicate inconsistency and lead to further confusion in students. If not careful, teachers may give the impression that it is okay to be “moody” and be driven by impulses. This is not what “being firm yet loving” all about.

Most teachers are aware of this idea. Unfortunately, they complete teacher training without having had a role model (ideally his/her own teacher trainer) who demonstrated how this is done successfully. Often, teachers who know the idea attempt to use it, only to find out that they haven’t got a clue how it is done in real life, in actual classroom situations.

Source of answers

To really understand what it means to be firm yet loving, we need to carefully study research findings in the area of child psychology. It also helps to examine literature on effective parenting and appropriately transfer this knowledge to classroom settings.

The Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Children’s Bureau released a research paper in 2006 emphasizing the importance of fathers’ role in children’s psychological well-being and academic success. According to the authors who were commissioned to write on the topic, effective fathering requires that a father consistently plays the role of a strict disciplinarian, and at the same time, be calm and in control of his own emotion (i.e., anger and frustrations) and body language (i.e. his hands) in the process of disciplining his children. They added that “fathers who scream at their children, who pound tables, or who strike their children are destined to fail as effective disciplinarians.”

Further, it was noticed that fathers who modeled a lack of control over his emotion and behavior in the process of disciplining lost their children’s respect.

On the flip side of the coin, Dr. Arnon Bentovim, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that loving alone is not enough. He argues that children’s sense of security is boosted when parents consistently discipline them. Some single parents use permissiveness in an attempt to make up for the loss of the other parent. However, according to Helen, the editor of Consistent Parenting website, “permissiveness appears to have more negative than positive effects, with children often being impulsive, aggressive and lacking in independence and in personal responsibility.”  Both authors agree that insecurity is the direct outcome of the lack of firmness in parenting and failure of parents in setting behavioral and social-emotional boundaries.

A practical “starter”

One way to start learning to be firm yet loving is by practicing the use of “I” messages in the classroom. This is a behavior influencing technique wherein a teacher gets to clearly and concretely communicate how he feels about a student’s behavior, without losing control over his emotion and/or behavior. An example of an “I” message is: “When you talk excessively in the class (student’s behavior), I feel frustrated (teacher’s feeling) because I cannot focus on the lesson being taught and other students in the class (reason).

Because the teacher is given the opportunity to express his feeling about the student’s misbehavior and justify the same with a logical reason, he tends to be in control of his inner psychological state and its consequential behavior. The “I” message helps teachers to understand and feel (for real) the meaning of the concept of being firm, yet loving.

As such, “I” messages are good starters in the journey to becoming a firm yet loving teacher.

October 30th, 2010

Lesson from hairdresser

Techniques to improve teaching could be learned from a myriad of simple life experiences encountered through interactions with people in non-teaching professions. This is possible if teachers keep their eyes open and connect real-life phenomena to their own teaching experiences in the classroom.

Such was my own experience during a recent visit to a hair salon. Until that day, I held the opinion that I could not learn anything significant about teaching from a hairdresser. On the contrary and to my pleasant surprise, I found out that even hairdressers could teach educators such as myself a thing or two about teaching and being an affective teacher.

A closer look

A typical hairdresser is responsible to attend to his/her customer’s request to cut, color or style his/her hair. However, customers do not usually pay attention to all the detailed procedures, elaborate efforts, techniques, tools and equipments utilized by a hairdresser to perform his tasks.

For example, a simple haircut is done through the ingenious choice and use of a combination of different types of scissors (e.g., hair cut scissors, hair thinning scissors, professional hair scissors, hair shears scissors and stylist shears scissors). This could be observed if one pays close attention to the number of scissors used for even a simple haircut. One would also realize that each pair of scissors plays a distinct role and fulfills a specific purpose in the whole process of giving a haircut.

As such, each individual customer is treated differently and approaching the same task may require a hairdresser a totally different strategy and plan.

Eureka!

This observation led me to thinking about the seriousness and importance of treating every child as a unique individual who constantly requires personalized attention from teachers to fulfill his/her learning needs. If hairdressers typically differentiate the act of cutting hair for his customers, how much more should teachers consider differentiating instruction for their students?

Pre-requisite

Before teachers start believing in the need for differentiation and hence acting upon it, they need to accept the fact that every child is different and requires different types of stimulation to learn. Psychology teaches us that children differ with regards to their general background knowledge, socio-cultural and linguistic experiences, subject specific knowledge, language proficiencies and academic skills, interests and motivation to learn.

By accepting and acknowledging the fact that children are different, teachers would be able to deal with the challenges that are inherent in the profession. Often, teachers enter into the profession thinking that uniform treatment, approach and coping skill would suffice to succeed in the classroom. However, upon entering into the field and encountering children’s individual differences, they experience burnout.

In most cases, teacher burnout is not caused by their lack of competency. Rather, it is due to their unwillingness to accept that children are different and actively work toward meeting them at their own level of academic responsiveness.

The benefit

Having said that, it must be borne in mind that differentiated instruction promotes knowledge transfer, the ultimate aim of education! This happens because teachers who utilize differentiation teach not only content but more importantly, the individual child. Secondly, teachers who customize instructional approaches deliver content more effectively by knowing how to motivate each child effectively.

Techniques

Accomplishing this does not require extensive training or workshops. Teachers could, in their own simple way challenge every learner by providing materials and tasks (addressing a curriculum standard or a set of learning objectives) at varied levels of difficulty, with varying degrees of scaffolding, through multiple instructional groups (in the same class) and with time variations.

Key to effective implementation of the above-mentioned differentiation techniques is constructive classroom management, which could be easily established by setting up and adhering to a set of norms that everyone agrees upon for mutual academic benefit.

October 15th, 2010

Teaching sincerity

Experience teaches us that those who are sincere in executing whatever small, seemingly insignificant tasks are entrusted with greater responsibilities. These are the individuals who are more likely to succeed and live fulfilling lives in the long run.

People in general feel comfortable dealing with sincere individuals. Employers seek to find sincere workers who maximize work-time and produce expected results; men and women seek to find sincere companions to share their lives with and to keep the spark of love burning for a lifetime; teachers feel more motivated and encouraged when students show sincerity in learning and participation in class; mothers untiringly nurture and care for their infants out of sincere love for them; and individuals constantly attempt to be sincere to their inner selves so that they do not experience cognitive dissonance that may lead to insanity.

It pays to be sincere

In other words, sincerity is found in every aspect of life and is constantly sought after from infancy until old age. Sincerity is the factor that keeps human relationships alive and afresh. It is the key to healthy development of trust, self-esteem and eventually, the sense and actual experience of achievement.

A sincere individual values himself, takes the tasks assigned seriously and seeks ways to execute his responsibilities with utmost diligence and perfection. It is when an individual chooses the path of insincerity that he often exhibits the characteristics that communicate the “I don’t care” attitude.

This attitude is the main reason for failure, at school, work or home. Any enterprise founded on human relationship only works when the people involved care for each other and their individual and collective responsibilities.

Considering the aforementioned line of reasoning, it is worth teaching sincerity more deliberately at home and school. Lessons on sincerity address the psychological well-being of students as well as increase their chances of success in the future. Developing sincere students would mean that the schools and home join hands to create likable individuals who would attract others and success into their lives.

Defining sincerity

Sincerity is defined as being real, inside and out. Since our actions and words reflect inner feelings, a healthy personality would require that the former is in-sync with the latter. In other words, what one does or say must be in harmony with how he feels. A sincere person always allows his inner feelings to be mirrored in his interactions with the outside world.

Innate tendency

Children are naturally sincere. That’s why infants cry when they are hungry, wet or feel unsafe. This is also why a very young child does not know how to tell lies. However, as time passes children are taught out of sincerity by adults who demand more (untimely) mature behavior and administer punishment for improper behavior (improper according to adult standards).

As a result, children learn early in life that it pays to fake behaviors, feelings and experiences. They become so good at it that they fake sickness (usually labeled as psychosomatic illness) to avoid school, change grades in the report card to avoid parents’ wrath and fall prey to group pressures.

In my opinion, this is also the number one reason why teenagers face identity crisis. Years of denying critical truths about their inner selves and external experiences deprives them of the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.

How to teach it?

According to Dr. Helaine Sheias, executive director of Life Empowerment Action Program in San Francisco Bay area, “teaching sincerity means helping and guiding children to develop their innate ability to simply be real and be themselves in relationships with others and themselves.”

Regularly reinforcing, rewarding and celebrating sincerity in action (at home and school), narrating stories about sincere people, discussing their successes and modeling sincerity are examples of ways to teach this valuable quality to children. Displaying quotes such as, “It is those who are true to themselves and others who overcome the challenges of life” at strategic locations at home and school would also help.

October 4th, 2010

Redefining real-life learning

Although transfer of learning is the ultimate aim of education, every one is aware that it is a daunting task to accomplish. Educators utilize various approaches, strategies and contents to convince learners about the need to use what they learn at school in real-life.

However, most students do not engage in thinking about application of knowledge because they know that their success or failure in learning is not necessarily measured by their willingness and ability to apply what they learn. Rather, the greatest payoff is in the ability of students to reproduce what they learned from the textbook and teacher.

In the end, students simply go through the motion of schooling for the sake of it, without a greater involvement and personal identification with what education really means to them.

Examples

For example, it is common for a teacher-trainer to get e-mails from his/her former students asking for help in providing ideas on audio-visual materials, teaching methods, disciplining students, etc. These are the same students who have had the opportunity to work directly with the teacher-trainer, but took it for granted. They choose to learn (superficially) to pass tests. They are satisfied as long as they could graduate with a degree that they wrongly believe would make them fit for work.

It is only when they actually start working as a teacher that they realize and regret about all the missed opportunities to truly prepare themselves to face the challenges and demands of work. While it is still not too late, it does cause a lot of inconvenience, and in worst-case scenario, costs them their jobs.

A former student recently sent an e-mail asking me to coach him to teach the course, General Psychology. This is the first time he has been asked to teach the subject to a group of undergraduate students. He expressed hesitance and a lack of confidence to deliver the subject as it was not his major at college. However, he admitted taking a few psychology courses as electives. He did not pay much attention to what was happening while in class, and took the subject lightly.

This demonstrates a lack of awareness of how things operate in real-life. While the student possesses a great desire to succeed in the future, he/she did not realize that mastering subjects like psychology goes a long way to develop one’s own personality as well as increases the opportunities to diversify what he/she could offer an organization.

Painting a better picture

Students need to become fully aware of what it means to prepare themselves for the world of work. It is not enough for them to have a partial understanding of what awaits them. They need to know the whole picture, in its truest form and shape.

As educators, we are responsible to provide for this fundamental learning need. Without such an understanding, a great number of students will continue to take their learning experiences for granted and would engage in superficial learning to merely pass tests.

Call for action

For long, schools have been comfortable providing simulated real-life environments to students. But for effective application of knowledge, students must be allowed to learn in non-simulated settings.

In other words, students should learn at work place, with the help of working-mentors. These mentors would be able show them how concepts, knowledge and skills learned at school apply to various tasks at work place.

Just like one cannot be expected to learn how to swim without getting into a pool and trying it out first hand, no lesson could be effectively understood unless its application across real-life settings and situations are experienced by the learner himself.

Further reading

Such is the working model of a radically reformed education system advocated by the Big Picture schools in the United States. For more information about the Big Picture schools, visit http://www.bigpicture.org/

About

Edward Roy Krishnan is a young, dynamic, and enthusiastic lecturer in his late 20s. He teaches Psychology and Education in an international college in Thailand...

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