121. Published: Students are not the problems, Teachers are

Article published on the national daily The Kathmandu Post, on Jan 18, 2015.

Umes Shrestha

I teach teenage students in a couple of undergraduate colleges. And, during breaks my teacher colleagues and I gather in the faculty room, sip milk tea and vent out our frustrations. We complain that our students are ‘ekdam khattam’; they have terrible concentration and just don’t like to study; that ‘student haru testai hun, jati padhaaye pani kaam chaina’; and that they have horrible sense of discipline and manner. ‘The problem is ten times worse in the students of plus two level’, we moan and decry. ‘Class ma ta chhirnai dikka laagcha’, another teacher confesses with a dikka laageko face.

These complain-sessions with my colleagues have made me question my own perception on this issue: are today’s teenage students the real problem? In this reflective article, I argue that they are simply different and we need to rethink on our outdated teaching principles. I also talk about how our students are very active and critical thinkers contrary to our quick assumption of how ‘bad’ they are; and at last I urge on the need to change our perception about students in general.

Teach for the Future, not for the Past:

Things change. With time, the meaning of education has also changed. But what about the teaching method? Has it changed? When I was in school, I had a Math teacher who would not hesitate to slap, punch and kick the students every time we could not blurt out algebra formulas. Our Science teacher believed in giving ‘notes’ and making us cram up every definition word by word. Most of the teachers were utterly mean, scary and forceful; and they made sure that everybody answered in the same pattern during exams.

That was a long time ago and, to quote our politicians, a lot of water has flown under the Bagmati Bridge since then.

However, we are still teaching as if we are the preachers at the center of a grand stage. We expect the students to be obedient and listen through our lecture. Some of us still believe in brandishing sticks and thrashing our students to yield compliance. We share them our glorious feat, “I used to study for eight hours a day when I was your age” but completely misread their faces – they are not going to do that. They don’t want to do that.

We insist on discipline management but the very word ‘management’ reeks off control and authority. They don’t want to be controlled.

The classrooms still resemble a horse stable with desks and chairs fixed to keep the students arranged, assembled and tamed. Schools and colleges look like factories that manufacture standard ‘products’ ready to join the workforce. And what about the curriculum? The pedagogy? The methodology? We tell students to think outside the box but rarely do we step outside the textbook and question patterns of the examination. Our teaching is largely directed by the standardized examination and we still measure our students with the percentage they get in SLC exam.

And here’s the kicker – our students know these all.

Our students are smart thinkers:

Our students are not ‘normal’ teenagers the way we want them to be; they are the screenagers who grew up with television, technology and internet. We ridicule them by calling them facebook generation, cellphone generation, Xbox generation, internet generation, Generation Y, etc. In the contrary, we are the ones who need an upgrade, similar to regular virus updates.

If Darwinism makes sense, we should know that human brain is highly malleable and adaptive. Studies say, because theses younger generations have been massively exposed to technology and digital media since their childhood, their brains have been wired digitally. Their brains have evolved to adapt with this new environment of constant interference and information overload. But that’s why they are the way they are – different from us when we were at their age.

Of course there’s a flip side to this digital evolution. Youngsters these days do want ‘instant gratification’. May be because of Reality TV, they think success and fame can be easily achieved. There are some who display obsessive compulsive behavior and are hooked on to technology and social media sites. Cell phones, for some of my students, are more important than the books. Facebook presence, for some, is more real than their offline lives. But that’s the environment they grew up in and they will eventually adapt to that environment.

Steven Johnson, the writer of the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” argues that today’s movies, television programs, videogames, etc are challenging the young viewers to think like grown up, to analyze complex social networks. There’s too much information out there, and it can be accessed freely. And thus as a result, Johnson suggests, our students have become very sophisticated thinkers who can understand opportunities and risks on their own. And hence, now we are not the traditional ‘pool of knowledge’ teachers anymore. We are just facilitators. We can’t treat our students like they are blank slates lying around in a corner, waiting for us to fill up their minds with our ‘outdated’ knowledge and ‘bookish’ skills.

Change is a must:

Our teaching is linear and one-dimensional, very left-brain approach. Where as the youngsters are more multidimensional and inclined towards right-brain approach. We need to realize this new truth and help our students see the big picture. But sadly our education system doesn’t have a tangible big picture. And as teachers, we are helpless and without vision.

Therefore, in many ways, students are not the problems, but we are. Let’s understand: they are different. Let’s accept: they will be disruptive. Let’s expect: they will not comply, they will not confirm. They simply have a different style and motivation of learning. We need to stop making quick judgment. We need to stop labeling them as jhur students.

We are still driven by the ethos of our past education and the teaching culture we valued so much. We believe in Guru devo bhawa – teacher is god. And with this ‘godlike’ authority and sometimes with abuse of authority, we still set out to make students obedient. Where as, we should be giving them autonomy and collaborative learning opportunities so they can understand and form their own construct.

We also need to step out of our daily classroom routine, defy the irrelevant ‘factory’ model of education and make efforts towards transforming it. I know this is a lot to ask because we might also say that teachers don’t have any authority over education policy, university policies, curriculum and so on. But let’s not wait for someone else to bring about any change in the field we are responsible for. Let’s be critical about everything. Our teaching, our education and our vision of education. There will be a change.

In conclusion:

We still imitate our own school-teachers and their methods. We are consciously or unconsciously becoming the teachers we used to hate. We hated them because they used to dominate us, abuse us and lecture us. Let’s not make our students suffer through our sufferings. Most of us were once the same khattam, manner-less, and hopeless students but let’s not give those labels to our students anymore. Because, what goes around comes around. Imagine our students sipping tea in a nearby shop, complaining and badmouthing us with the same adjectives – khattam teacher, jhur teacher, lecture matra diney teacher.

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120. Life is but a presentation!

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On Dec 24, 2014 my friend Prashanta Manandhar and I started a very unique platform for students where they could come, deliver presentations and learn from each other.

We knew that most students hated delivering presentations, for two major reasons. First, they take presentations as extra work. They feel compelled to do it because it is a part of internal assessment. Second, they fear presentations, as they don’t want to be on the spotlight, stand in front of the class and face criticisms.

But we wanted to stab the stigma. We wanted to make our students love and embrace presentations, and deliver with passion and charisma. And we wanted to create a community of vibrant presenters who would learn, share and inspire.

Thus, we started the platform #PresentationStuffs and since Dec 24, we have run four amazing weekly sessions at Edushala, Kupondole. We select four or five presenters for a session and they give it a shot for ten minutes. Then we give them positive feedback and we also let audience members throw in their comments.

We have been quite taken back with sheer enthusiasm of the presenters and the overwhelming participation of the students and professionals. Most importantly, with each sessions, I can feel I’m learning, growing and getting inspired from them (I’m sure Prashanta is also going through the same phase.) Watching the presenters owning the stage, sharing their stories and captivating the audience is truly truly truly motivating.

We started with a clear vision. We want to help students and professionals enhance their presentation skills by incorporating the essence of creative design and the core of public speaking.

We had hoped that our small initiation would make small differences in the lives of the students. Our hope, it seems, is turning into a reality.

(Prashanta Manandhar teaches Marketing to undergrad students. He is also the founder of The Storytellers and runs an ad agency. He is a gifted guitar player as well. We’ve been friends for almost 15 years.)

119. Delivering my first TOT session

On December 30, 2014 I had an amazing opportunity to deliver a master training session for the trainers of English language teachers, held at National Center for Education Development (NCED) Sanothimi. The training was a part of Ministry of Education’s continuous professional development for teachers.

Generally called the TOT, it was a new experience for me. It was more of a sharing session than a training session with these twenty experienced trainers. I can’t thank enough to my mentor Laxman sir for encouragement and the opportunity.

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