A compassionate learning environment

Last Updated 10 September 2014, 15:46 IST

Subha Parthasarathy stresses the importance of providing a kind ambience to children in their formative stages.

Sameer was a child who was enthusiastic to share his knowledge, but lately his parents had noticed that he would hesitate to talk or even speak up when he knew certain things.

 On digging deeper, they found out that the teacher encouraged only the right answers.
 Every time he stood up to speak and took some time, the teacher would tell him to sit down and let someone else speak. This demoralised the child and he thought it was better not to answer at all.

Chandan was in his teens going through the growing up issues of acne. He was trying to work with the changes happening to him and the teachers did not spare him. They constantly commented on his acne and the way it impacted his looks. The other children interpreted this as “permission”  to make hurtful remarks.

Teachers play a very powerful role in facilitating learning in children. It may appear that the teachers are not sensitive enough or are clueless in dealing with such situations. It is also true that teachers working with more than thirty students at a time can be under  pressure to complete the syllabus, execute lesson plans, maintain order and administer tests, evaluations etc. 

It can be hard on teachers to meet the need of every student in the class. For learning to take place, the environment in class needs to be conducive for learning. This is the objective with which the schools need to work.

Teachers can make a big difference to the life of a student if they are open and willing to make just a few changes in the way they work and think. Here are a few things teachers can do to change their experiences with children in the class: 

If we are able to see children as people having fears, anxieties, desires, needs etc., it enables the teacher to treat them with respect. Children need to be treated the way an adult would like to be treated. Respect is not based on “what the children do, but on who they are”. 

A few ways to respond to situations that highlight understanding and compassion.

* “Each one of us is different and we respect each other the way we are.’’

* “It is not acceptable to ridicule or talk about other’s physical or mental abilities. We are here to help and support each other.’’ 

Accept that each child is different and acknowledge that he or she will learn at his or her own pace. Helping the child see his or her strengths would help in creating a growth-oriented learning environment. Pitting one student against another and comparing students creates an environment that chokes free flow of ideas.
 Responses that reflect acceptance are: * “You have explored the topic from a very different angle. It is interesting, could you share it with others too.’’

* “Can we have each one of you explain how you completed your project and share your thoughts on what you liked about it.’’
Wait Time

Children are constantly hurried into answering questions. This process does not encourage children to think or even listen to others. They are more into waiting for their turn or avoiding the question. ‘Wait time’ helps children who are in a hurry to slow down. It also helps those children who need some time to gather their thoughts. 

Teachers can create tools to implement wait time, like having a placard which says, ‘Think.’ Responses that promote wait time are, “I know you are eager to share your answers but we will wait till everyone gets time to think about it.’’ 

Typically, we have the tendency to stop with the right answers by saying, “That is correct …very good! Sit down.’’ Or, we explore the wrong answers with such responses, “You have not studied properly and that is the reason you are not getting it right.’’

These responses tend to send a message to the children that there are only right or wrong answers. Children get demotivated and putting in efforts does not make sense to them. In the above examples of responses, the  focus is on the child and not on the learning. 

Instead, if we are ready to explore the right and the not so right answers differently, it may open up a different world for children where they are exposed to the attitude that there is continuous learning and the focus is not on the person but on the learning. 
Choice of words

When teachers use words like ‘difficult’, ‘easy’, ‘tough’, ‘simple’ , it creates a closed mindset towards learning. Children start thinking in terms of whether they can do something or not and the focus shifts from learning to ‘I can’t’ or ‘I can’The vocabulary instead, can be something like this: 

* “This worksheet today is going to be really interesting for all of you. There may be some that  you are familiar with and some that may be new to you.’’

* “As you keep working on it, you will understand how it works though in the beginning, it may be confusing.’’

Reflections are an important aspect of learning. It enables teachers understand how much and what children have learnt or what they liked and did not like. Assessments, evaluations and quizzes are a reflection of the content, but to add to it, if the teachers are able to get a feedback on the methodology or their feelings, it would help the children express their needs. This would help the children understand their teacher better, without judgements.
ConsequencesThere have been lots of changes in our education system and it is really surprising that we still follow the system of impositions in many schools. Giving impositions is a punishment that drives home the message – “You better do this or else...”.

 The main objective is often lost and the exercise is reduced to an inane reproduction of sentences in a notebook instead of focusing on how the issue can be addressed. Compliance through fear or punishment is not conducive to a healthy learning environment.

There was a case where the child had to write twenty times that he would not forget to get his notebook. Instead he wrote, “I will forget to get the notebook,” and the teacher signed it without checking. 

Consequences for specific actions can be pre-decided by the children and the teacher after a discussion. There are other non-violent ways to communicate with children and respect them. They will be willing to go along and cooperate if they are seen as people and not as objects who are inferior to adults.

Small changes can create an environment that is conducive to growth and learning. Children, in turn, will be more than willing to share, cooperate and learn happily at school. Parents and teachers should work together on building a compassionate learning environment for the children.

(Published 10 September 2014, 15:46 IST)

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