125. IATEFL 2015 Reflection 1 – Donald Freeman

Donald Freeman, IATEFL 2015Donald Freeman absolutely blew my mind with his opening plenary session. It was a very eye-opening session in which Freeman weaved stories to illustrate how we justify or give reasons to what we consciously and unconsciously do in the classroom. Freeman talks about three specific myths that have somehow become ‘frozen in our thought’ and we take them for granted in our action as well. Here’s an excerpt (mixed with my own tidbits) of his session:

Myth 1: Myth of Direct Causality There’s a myth that students learn through teaching only, that learning has direct relationship with teaching. Similarly, students are evaluated based on how they perform, and teachers are evaluated based on how students perform. In other words, good students mean a good teacher, bad students mean a bad teacher. Freeman used a metaphor of pool-game where the white ball (the teacher) propels the other balls (students) into action (learning). The myth is in thinking that there’s a direct cause and effect relation between teaching and learning. But teaching has a ‘relational connection’ between teaching and learning. A teacher’s move connects to student’s move and it connects to the teacher’s move and so on, and forms a spiral of seemingly disconnected interrelations. Teaching does relate to learning (that’s the myth) but it also informs learning, shapes possibilities and creates opportunities to learn.

Myth 2: Myth of Sole Responsibility The myth that as a teacher one is solely responsible for making learning happen in classroom. That when things work and don’t work, we are responsible for it. Many a times, we as teachers do think and act as if we are the ones responsible for everything that happens in classrooms. I make the lesson plans. I make the critical decisions. I prepare the questions. I check the exam answer sheets. So in some ways, whatever happens in the class is my responsibility as a teacher. That’s the myth of sole responsibility. Freeman disproved this myth with the help of a chess-board metaphor. The moves a teacher make opens up the moves the students make and then it opens up what the teacher does and so on. In reality, responsibility is not solely own, it is distributed. Moreover, distributed responsibility means distributed opportunities, both for the teacher and the students.

Myth 3: Myth of Proficiency as the goal The third myth is that the goal of classroom teaching is student proficiency. What’s right about this myth? Yes, teaching and learning in the classroom has to improve towards proficiency. What’s frozen about this idea? The relation between what we do in the classroom and the way we think about how it travels outside. One prominent example is that the goal of English language teaching and learning is to reach the native-speaker proficiency.

Freeman asserted that both ideas of native-ness and proficiency are mistaken. Native-ness is a geopolitical concept, not a linguistic concept. Proficiency, which is very appealing, is also conceptually problematic. Freeman labels it as a “usefully wrong idea”. “Language is like water, not like ice”, it is ever changing and therefore the goal of reaching proficiency is problematic. We have to re-think proficiency as Plural and that they are always situated in particular context and therefore bounded by a particular social practice.

Here’s what I am taking away from his session:

Myths indeed have some elements of reality in them, but as teachers, we have to challenge them, probe them and question them. And in doing so, we have to question ourselves. Learning is not only about what a teacher teaches in the classroom, it is not a product of cause and effect. Teaching is not only about managing what you can/can’t control but it is also about distributing responsibilities. And lastly, proficiency is not the ultimate goal, understanding is.


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.

104. Do you beat your students?


Words failed me and my jaws dropped when I read this article published on the op-ed column of the Himalayan Times today (July 16, 2014). I couldn’t believe that the author (probably a teacher) implied that beating the students should be allowed because the students don’t respect the teachers anymore. What a load of crap! I posted the photo of the article on my FB timeline and obviously there was a flood of comments. I think the conversation went very well and I am posting those comments just to make sure that those views remain in public blogosphere as well.

Person A:
I wonder if the education board plans to address this issue. Most of the times I hear students from Grade 2 – 3 saying “Mero mummy daddy ko paisa le yo school chalirako cha.” pathetic. I don’t think Nepal is headed towards development at all. Imagine a world full of adults who have had such ideas at such an age.

Umes Shrestha:
“If you beat me, my mom will kill you” I see it as good awareness in the student’s part because back in my school days, we would just remain silent. The student must have said so because the teacher was about to beat him/her. mero chorro lai hath haaleko thaha paye bhane tyo teacher ko khairat huney chaina.

Person B:
Bachha ta ho j ni bhancha nai ani petera tyo problem ko solution kaha aauncha ra?! Jhan bachha tarsincha….well I have been through that… was beaten up badly by a teacher in school when I was grade 5 just because I couldn’t solve a math sum. The teacher was well known for beating the students. I’d personally like to talk to this guy…. If you can plz number dinu na.

Person C:
From what I read and with my basic psychology education I can tell this guy himself got his ass whooped back in the days. He needs a serious reality check with what age he is living in. Sir needs to understand that you have to win and earn the respect not thrash it out of someone.

Person D:
All I can say is F**K! When I was growing up, I hated all the teachers who physically abused us. Those who physically abused the students were getting beaten by the students as well. The teachers who were respected by all students were assertive ones. Those who did not lose their cool but were very strong in their belief. Those who were able to make us feel guilty for not doing our homework with a smile on their faces. I have a list of these well respected teachers with me. This guy confuses fear with respect. Who would even publish an article like this?

Person E:
Most good teachers don’t have to whine like that. I said most because some of the issues could affect even teachers who do their best. Some issues have to do with things that are beyond a teacher’s or even school’s control–especially if they become “hot” issues picked up by the media. In the US right now, people leaving their kids in the car have become a source of national scandal and (while I absolutely don’t leave my kids in the car alone for a minute) I think that some parents are “caught” for going back into the house to get their phone! In this sense, the teacher may be talking about things that frustrate him, such as school children essentially saying, “You’re my parents’ paid servant.”

Person D:
I agree with you (Person E) but the problem is the teachers are still beating students. Even in Kathmandu Schools. The only schools where this does not happen are probably very rich top of the ladder schools. What he does not seem to understand is, corporal punishment is illegal. It is against the law. So, students have the rights to stand up against these teachers who think small children are their play toys. I have seen children who are 4 or 5 years old who are beaten up by teachers even in good private schools. We have in Nepal instances where students have committed suicide or even have had permanent physical damages because of this. But I agree with you that media can sometime really make a huge issue out of something really small.

Person E:
Oh, yes, beating is a thing of the twentieth century– it should have been one of the 19th actually. In that regard, the writer is just awful. But I also thought that he was bringing in other issues… although, the more I think about it, the more it seems that he’s sharing all those complaints in order to somehow justify corporal punishment? ! That side is totally pathetic.

Umes Shrestha:
He also laments the fact that “today, the student is very well aware of the fact that s/he will not be meted out any forms of physical punishment”. I want to thank the editor for deciding to print this article. It just shows how teachers still have criminally low ethical and moral sense.

Person D:
If I look at most schools today, nothing significant has changed since our school days and that really saddens me. I mean, the buildings have become bigger and more sophisticated labs and all but…. the idea is the same. The students don’t have to be respected. And it’s not just school. It has become our culture… someone who is smaller, less powerful or poorer than you somehow have less rights. There is not a lot of learning going on in schools. Its only when I hear ideas of teachers like Umes Shrestha and a few others, I become optimist. But otherwise, school still sounds like a 20 year life sentence.

Person F:
When I was in school I got my ass whooped almost every day… It was unfair, but come to think about it again, gluing the duster to the board was totally worth it !

Person G:
Wow so many comments that show true concerns by the stakeholders (some of us are parents, teachers and administrator of the same schools, who are blamed for the shameless act). But for the woes, we ourselves are responsible. If teachers/administration, children and guardians fulfill their responsibilities, the problem will sort out.

For instance, when a guardian does not make their children well-dressed and ready for the school, they are late and ultimately become victims from teachers. If the same teachers at school teach the students comprehensively and the parents make stationery and textbooks required for their kids, they will not fail to complete their assignments that prevent them from punishment.

Teachers who are unmotivated and poorly trained are more likely to resort to punitive and physically violent methods of control, but this is not always the case for all teachers. But, globally, the practice of corporal punishment in school is being rejected and promoted alternative non violent discipline method to facilitate children’s behaviour and learning activities.

103. An Appeal To All – Don’t fail any students


When every year – more than 50% of the total students fail the SLC exam – can you feel ecstatic about your brother passing with a distinction, or your sister, son, daughter passing with ‘flying colors’? How can you be even happy when over 300,000 students couldn’t make it through the ‘iron gate’ this year as well?

Our education system has failed us.
Our examination system has failed us.
Our government, policy makers, educationists and teachers – they have failed us.

I am a teacher and I want to make an appeal to all the teachers, examiners and those who check answer papers.

Don’t fail any students.

Yes, educate them, teach them and also let them through this stupid SLC system. Don’t push them back into darkness because they couldn’t impress you through this illogical three-hour exam system.

Give the students a benefit of doubt, especially to those weak students who perform poorly in exams.

Let them through.
Let all of them through.

Dear teachers, examiners and those who check answer papers. Please empathize with the students and send them through this exam!

If you can prevent students from committing suicide and save their lives, why not do so? As teachers, we are supposed to save our students’ lives, aren’t we? Screw the marks, LIVES are at stakes here. So, just send them through.

They will figure it out when they go to the real world later.
Just let them through.

(Pic: Internet)

101. Lesson from a puncture-taalney guy

I wanna share with you what this puncture-taalney guy taught me about Nepali way of customer care, and how we (entrepreneurs or business owners or service providers or even teachers) can learn from his huge mistake.

But first, here’s my bike!

So, I had a flat tire last evening. I was around Maharajgunj area for training. I got out of the venue only to see the rear tire laughing flat at me. If you have a motorbike, you can imagine how my face looked like at that moment. Complete hopelessness. Oh, did I tell you that it was raining and the road was completely messy. Anyway, I dragged my bike around searching for a workshop to fix the puncture. After 15 minutes, which lasted for a century, I found one on the side of ringroad.

Initially, I didn’t see anyone at the workshop but since the ‘air-tank’ was still rumbling, I knew there had to be someone. Then this guy appears, yawning, stretching his arms, looks at me and doesn’t even ask why I was there. He looked like Rajesh Hamal, only shorter, thinner and darker.

“Dai, puncture taalnu huncha?” I asked. He was not in a ‘response’ mode yet. He lit a cigarette and then replied with a snappy “Hmm.” Then he took out his tools and started unbolting the tire. He was completely relaxed. He had all the time in the world. But I didn’t. If you had been with me in that workshop, you would have seen an extreme desperation in my face. That could have been 20th puncture for him, it was the only one for me and it was getting late. You see, Maharajgun is in the north, I live near Lagankhel which in the south – if you know the geography of Kathmandu, you will get it. And on top of that, my urinary bladder was fighting to burst out. Murphy’s law all over.

I am not trying to judge that guy because later I felt glad that at least he had his workshop open. But still. May be he already had a tiring day. May be he was not feeling well. May be his wife had dumped him. I am not making any guesses. But, if I’m trying to pay for his service, he better get right at it. It’s not that just because I pay, I take granted for services people offer to me. I still say “dhanyabaad” even when I’m the one taking out the money.

So what was his huge mistake? He just lost a client. And may be, some goodwill.

I am never going back to his workshop again. I know it’s not in my area and chance of having a flat tire again near his workshop is very very slim. But still. I am never going there, nor will I recommend anyone to go there. Even though I also know for sure that my not going to his place won’t ruin his business.

But this is not only about that puncture-taalney guy alone. You have probably met similar people in restaurants, shops, stores, or offices. The waiter in a restaurant who looks at you as if you are interrupting him. The shopkeeper who speaks to you as if he has to pay to open his mouth. The receptionist who doesn’t even look toward you when you ask for information. The government officer who deliberately keeps delaying your work. The teller in the bank who keeps talking with a coworker even in the presence of a customer. And, the political leaders? I don’t want to even talk about them. This phenomenon or attitude is like our national characteristic installed in our genes.

So, what do I learn from this? I am a teacher aiming to be a great teacher trainer some day and besides ‘teaching’, I am also trying to build and maintain certain goodwill. In other words, I am building my brand. To be honest, I’ve acted like that puncture-taalney guy several times (I am certainly not beyond criticism) but now I will always keep this incident in my mind. Because every time I act like him, I actually destroy my dreams. And if you do that, so will you.

If you agree with me or find this blog useful, just shoot me a comment! I would love to hear from you.

99. Does the government care about education at all?

I am not surprised by the government’s recent announcement* that it has proposed a ten-year plan to run classes in English medium in all community schools. It says it wants to improve the quality of school-level education. Good job! I am not even surprised that the government has finally made public its desire to “increase attraction towards community schools”, which is absolutely wonderful. I am just a little bit surprised by its broader educational vision that equates ‘instruction in English language’ with ‘providing quality education’.

The proposal, according to the Ministry of Education, has been developed to bridge the gap between private and government schools, however it is quite clear that the government assumes “English as the medium of instruction” in private schools as the sole reason for that gap. And there’s a greater predicament for the government teachers. The ministry wants all the existing teachers “to undergo a test to see whether they can teach in English medium or not, otherwise they will get a choice of retirement along with some incentives”. Again, the assumption; to provide quality education, teachers must be able to teach in English. Everyone already knows the quality of government school English language teachers is very unsatisfactory and now the government wants other subject teachers to teach using English language. This is absurdity on a new level.

It obviously shows that Nepal’s government lacks a solid understanding of what quality education really means. (Hello ministers, hello policy makers.) And at the same time, it has apparently given in to the pressure created seen and unseen forces (globalization, standardization, donor agencies, success of private schools, people’s belief about English language, technology, internet, and so on).

I think the government should completely stop comparing the state run schools with the private schools and just focus on how to make education more accessible, practical and useful to the general people. Most importantly, the government should believe in itself and expand that belief into the public. Unfortunately, we see almost all government employees (from the ministers to the peons) send their children to private schools. Bitter truth: no one really trusts what the government plans and does, not even the same government employees who draft the plans.

I am not claiming that private schools are not money-grabbing opportunists (they are registered as private limited companies for dog’s sakes) but simply blaming the private schools for government’s failure is just a pathetic excuse. If the government wants to implement English medium in public schools, it should do it not because it feels threatened by the private schools but because it believes that by doing so the quality standards of education improves.

Or may be, just may be, the government just doesn’t want to improve the quality. Because once it does, the foreign money would stop coming in. Education is very political, just to quote critical thinkers. The government will thus let private schools create social inequality and at the same time it will play passive, act dumb, point fingers and blame others.

* Link to the news:

85. Opinion: Music and language learning

Music is a big part of my life. I can’t sleep without listening to music. I can’t study without some music in the background. I can’t go on a hike without listening to music. So it was only natural that I picked up an instrument and play music. And I picked up the guitar. I learnt the theories, went through tutorials on the internet, learnt the basic chords and started strumming it. As soon as I woke up, I would start practicing it. I would practice playing my favourite songs and would also come up with my own mini compositions. This went on for few months – quite sadly. Then, I stopped practicing the guitar. A very lame excuse: I didn’t have enough time. Studies, work and other hobbies. Even though I am constantly surrounded by music and musician friends, I haven’t been able to arrange time for practicing the guitar.

Now why am I flogging myself to death? What’s the point of all this moaning and mopping?

Here’s what I think.
Learning a (new) language is like learning to play the guitar (or any musical instrument). You can’t get better at it if you don’t practice it. You might learn about the language in the class from your teacher, but if you don’t use it outside to create your own discourse / dialogue / conversation with others – you, my friend, are just learning the language for tests. Not for real life.

I know a lot of musical theories, I think I know the grammar of music too. But when it comes to playing music, I am hopeless at it. Despite a constant barrage of ‘comprehensible musical input’, I haven’t been able to produce any significant output. I see a lot of English language learners (and even English language teachers) very competent at theories but when it comes to “language-ing”, they are as hopeless as I am .

There you go – a very blunt opinion!