Do schools know how we learn?

Posted by Admin on January 19, 2016

By Sandy Hooda
Co-Founder, Vega Schools

My classroom was boring.

I spent most of my time looking at my watch, or at life outside. What went on inside didn't have much to do with my interests and passions. Excepting the few front-benchers, this was true for most of my class. So, many hours, days and years were wasted. Things haven’t changed much even today.

In my personal experience, the way schools deliver learning is diametrically opposite to why and how we learn. Only much later in life have I understood that how schools deliver learning is possibly not how learning actually happens for most people. According to Neuroscience, learning is reflected in the brain’s neural activity, which takes place when we want to learn, and are interested in the topic we are learning. Every child, (for that matter every adult), not only has varied interests, but they also want to learn things differently.

Extensive research, (OECD 2006 (b)), confirms that more effective learning will occur if each learner receives a customized learning experience. So, it’s no surprise that many children lose interest in learning at some point along their school journey. Schools kill the desire to learn. Eventually, many of our children start struggling in exams, then college admissions, and in life after college.

Therefore, all children simply cannot be taught the same thing in the same way and at the same pace. The traditional classroom, limited by its design, forces teachers to teach all children the same thing in the same way, thereby leading to declining interest levels.

Another thing I disliked in school were exams. Until recently, I had a recurring nightmare of facing an exam the next day. While I would wake up relieved, it made me mindful of the fear I’ve lived with since childhood. I’m yet to fully understand its ramifications on the quality of my life. Psychologists tell me most of our fears are created during childhood. While I partly understand the logic of exams in transitioning from school to college, there appears to be no logic in pushing students through exams repeatedly, and throughout their school journey. It's the short cut taken by most schools.

Therefore, it’s a revelation to hear what research says about learning under fear. According to neurological analysis (OECD 2002 and 2007), “The study of the brain also highlights the importance of emotions. Emotional states induced by fear or stress directly affect learning and memory. Brain studies have illuminated how negative emotions block learning and have identified the amygdala, the hippocampus and stress hormones, as playing a crucial role in mediating the effects of negative emotions on learning and memory.”

This is shocking, considering most school exams operate on making learning happen through principles of fear. Fear does not help us to retain much of anything just a few days after exams. Unsurprisingly, the stigma attached to sitting for examinations makes India lead the world in student suicides. Why are we subjecting our children to this torture when research shows us it is futile?

It is easy to be critical. So I’ve wondered if there are any good solutions. Travelling around the world, I came across great schools that have succeeded in personalizing learning. They have done away with classrooms, and created customized learning spaces, for children to learn individually, and in small groups. Strategies of team teaching, peer learning, and multi-age learning have ensured all this can be achieved by maintaining a good student-teacher ratio. Adaptive software, and personalized student assessment portals have freed up teacher time, and enhanced both student and parent experience.

The results are dramatic. Students love learning, passionate teachers love teaching, and exam results have improved dramatically, as have the soft skills required to succeed in life beyond school. Students want to learn through rigorous projects that dovetail with their interests and strengths. Schools help create e-portfolios that bring to life world-class student work to future employers. A far more powerful and real world validation for student performance.

Assessments are done regularly to gauge students’ abilities and individual progress, especially in the context of real world applications. These ensure that all children learn, and that no child is left behind. Students have the opportunities to critique and improve their work throughout the year. Non-threatening formative assessments ensure all students learn without fear. Learning built around individual interests ensures a love of learning with higher levels of attention and retention.

This is a win-win. Parents need to start demanding school education based on research. This is the greatest need of our time. Every child has a star within!

(The author is a first generation entrepreneur and the co-founder of Vega Schools. These views are personal.)