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Changes in learning styles

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN

D. N. Bezboruah
While it is common practice to talk about education being a teaching-learning process, over the years I have grown used to regarding it as a learning process. This is largely because I am inclined to think of the learning that takes place (or is supposed to take place) as a result of the teaching that takes place. Since there has to be some input for all worthwhile human activities, I have generally regarded teaching as the required input for the learning that takes place as a consequence of the teachers’ efforts. However, over the years, I have also begun to appreciate that the equation is not all that simple. There are several factors that queer the pitch. First of all, teaching is a very special ability that results in great outcomes at times, but fails to produce the desired effect at other times. On any given school day, children have four or five subjects to learn. The emphasis given to all the subjects either by the school or the Education authorities of the State is not the same. And yet we have no way of being sure that children appreciate or understand the reasons for certain subjects being given greater importance than others. For instance, English has always been given far greater importance in the school curriculum than all other subjects. But when one stops to think of the very small percentage of people who will be using English as much as their mother tongue in their life time, the importance given to the subject in Indian schools seems unduly excessive. After all, there are quite a few countries even in Europe that have English as a compulsory subject in their schools. They make sure that English is efficiently taught, even though they do not go in for replacing the language of the country with English. In India, we are permitting badly taught English to supplant the mother tongues of the school children due to some mistaken notion that even badly taught English is more important than the mother tongue. This is an attitude that has to be given up if we know what is good for our children and are not mindlessly obsessed with the language of our one-time rulers. I am likely to be corrected here by those who regard the teaching of English as being still very important for India, not because it was the language of our British rulers, but rather because it is the most important language of the world. If that is the reason for giving so much importance to English, we have every reason to teach it well, and none for the kind of mockery that goes on in most schools in the name of English teaching. The reason why about half-a-dozen European countries have made English a compulsory subject in their schools is that they realize that children would be better off if they knew English rather than knowing only one European language not so widely spoken. And they do an excellent job of teaching English in their schools. 
Having said what had to be said about the undue importance given to English badly taught, it is also important to pay attention to what most of our brighter school students think about some of the more important subjects in the school curriculum such as Mathematics and Science. Besides, one cannot tell children what subjects they ought to like. There are children who prefer Geography to all other school subjects. One must let them have their preferences. In any case, the opportunities for those who excel in other subjects have increased so much that there is no reason to entertain irrational fears about the future prospects of children who give greater importance to subjects other than English, Mathematics or Science. 
There is yet another important factor that determines the preference of children for what may be considered less important subjects. It is the manner in which a subject is taught. It is very often a teacher’s teaching style that influences the learner’s learning style. One might very rightly ask whether there can be something like a learning style. Over the decades, I have closely observed how different children have different styles of learning what they have to learn. Learning styles are much in evidence before examination time. That is when even those children who tend to read silently might suddenly develop the style of articulating fairly loudly the kind of rote learning they have to do. I have also seen children using acronyms to remember the salient points they need to remember for writing answers to certain questions. There are others who colour code the answers they prepare for their examinations. However, preparing for examinations is not what I have in mind when talking about learning styles. I am far more concerned about what induces a student to be more interested in one subject than in another and the methods devised for improving the process for learning the subject more efficiently. This is perhaps much more in evidence in the pursuit of science than in other subjects. A child who has a keen interest in collecting different kinds of leaves or butterflies or even coins may well be getting into the right strides for a scientific approach to learning a subject. And that is how one acquires what I like to call a learning style. One may begin by collecting things in a random fashion. But very soon the need to have some system and order in doing such things takes over because people do not take very long to evolve a style that makes the process of collecting and learning more organized and systematic. 
One very important reason why learning styles have changed a lot is that teaching styles too have changed a lot. Let us begin by looking at the role of homework in the learning process. In the 1940s when I was in high school, we hardly had any homework. Much of the work involved in learning (like drawing maps) was done at school under the eyes and the cane of our teachers. The swish of a supple cane on our palms, backs or knees was a common experience. There was even an oft-mentioned justification for it in Assamese that said ‘sekonir aagat bidyaa’ . A rough translation of it would be: learning is to be found at the tip of a cane. What had to be understood was that it was not just any cane but the cane of the teacher. The one significant difference is that the use of the cane by a teacher is no longer approved or possible, no matter what our adages might have to say about the benefits that went with the teacher’s cane. Today, any teacher who had to discipline a student would have to find ways that were very far from corporal punishment. He would perhaps have to load him with the amount of homework that would not permit him to even think of any other work until the overload of homework was completed. 
The one surprising aspect of today’s curricular planning is that it has no room for games and sports of any kind. This is astonishing because in the past there could have been no question of a school securing recognition if it did not have the land for a playground. In other words, a school that lacked the space for a playground was regarded as being disqualified for official recognition. And today, any school that has the required number of classrooms can secure official recognition even though it may not have the required space for a playground. And schools that are without playgrounds have no problems about securing recognition in today’s scheme of things. 
We are unable to understand how schools can be recognized without the space for games and sports. There was a time when this was considered absolutely essential because children had to have physical exercise through games and sports, since this was an essential requirement for the all-round development of children. Over the years, we have hastened to make undesirable and unfortunate compromises with what is essential merely because there is a lack of space and because we have had to find rationalizations about reframing time-honoured rules to accommodate unwholesome revisions of good judgement. It is time for those in the corridors of power to undo many of the unfortunate decisions hastily approved merely because we did not have the good sense to retain rules and laws framed for the greatest good of the greatest number.