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‘Mommy, I don’t want to go to school today. It is too boring. They only teach stuff that I already know from last year’
My daughter’s statement while combatting our Monday morning blues at 6.00 am.
Our curriculum and style of teaching in schools is a great equalizer. It caters to the slowest learner at times leaving the faster one bored. Vice versa at the higher grades, the curriculum rushes at breakneck speed, leaving the slower ones scrambling to catch up. Eventually these kids just develop an indifferent attitude towards everything happening in class.
In western education, there is a process to winnow the students based on their competence. When I was living abroad, all the Indian kids, at least in the county where I lived, would make it to a gifted classJ. Third grade was when the tests would be conducted and from that time on- the gifted and talented students who passed these tests would skip one or two regular periods in a week to go to a different class to do more challenging, creative as well as technical stuff.
Well, my initial perception of this gifted section was that kids with some supernatural capability to grasp difficult concepts and with the ability to solve convoluted math problems were bunched together. Maybe true for many of them. But on greater investigation, I realized the gifted section is more to help a child find his comfortable pace of learning without sowing seeds of boredom- for precisely the statement my daughter made- to challenge a student to the best of their abilities! You sift the students based on their capabilities and devise a customized curriculum to ensure that their brain is fed according to THEIR NEEDS and not your judgement.
We had this approach too in our schools 30 yrs ago, didn’t we? All the brightest ones would be transferred to division A based on exam results with teachers following a different schedule of teaching and examination pattern. (Let us forego the argument at this point that criteria used to propel a child to section A was not linked to creative capability but only to academic excellence in a given topic but it was a good enough system which managed to sift children). Now such division creation no longer exists at least in our school. I understand the perspective of not making such divisions anymore. Probably due to the negative impact this had on the self confidence of students who don’t make it to the A division. Fair enough.
This brought me to a realization that it is upon me as a parent to make sure that my child doesn’t lose out her edge and interest and that he or she still gets the customized education. Children will loose interest pretty rapidly if they feel under or over challenged. If their time in school is being underutilized and there is no novelty in the topics they are learning, they will get bored. On the contrary, if a topic is difficult and not enough time is given to dwell on the concept, they will lose interest. It is important to keep children engaged, not because we expect them to stand first in the hamster race, but because it is important that they retain that inquisitive nature which soaks in all information thrown at them. They should never give up on asking.
How do you customize
Customization of the learning process based on child’s aptitude is key for engagement. And our monolithic education system is certainly not capable of handling this. I have now understood that our curriculums are made to be boring in elementary (tons of homework to write ABC in cursive is not what I am talking about here) and head-over-heels stressful at higher grades (periods are like a fast train approaching a station (or examination). Dump as much as you can in each lecture without giving a thought to concept clarity. All that the poor teacher can make sure is to reach the destination while the students are panting behind with the knowledge dump.
So, how exactly do you keep your kid challenged? How do you make sure they enjoy the journey of learning?
There are some rules you can set, some NO’s and maybe’s. DON’T cut down their playtime, DON’T have them burn out with studying all day. They need to enjoy and learn from everything they do- from peeling a banana to solving challenge mathematics in a book.
Here are certain tips.
1. It is natural for parents to compare development milestones across kids. For example my son was reading by the time he was 5 and my daughter is still putting words together at almost 6 (she is almost there). My son was always indifferent towards studies but daughter wants to be on top of it. We have heard it many times each child is different with their learning capabilities and so DON’T compare with the neighbor, with the cousin, with the sibling or the friend. I am sometimes amazed at the competitiveness and the insecurity that parents show. Change your attitude first before you embark on this teaching journey. Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid- Albert Einstein.
2. It is not about grades. You need to understand what education is about. It doesn’t really matter if they stand first or last in the class. Ask yourself 3 questions.
Have they understood it? How do they analyse it? Where will they apply it?
To be honest, if you have satisfactory answers even 2 of to the 3 questions, your child will not be among the last in her class. I can guarantee that.
Education is not a means for good grades, good grades are a byproduct of meaningful education!
3. Who says these curriculum defined topics are the subjects a first grader should know about? I don’t believe in restricting myself to a particular syllabus. Let the child pick what interests them. If in first grade, the child wants to talk about human evolution, then provide her with lessons to do that. Of course you have to tone it down to her level but even if it only familiarizes her with a topic, it is worth it.
4. Be involved. It is very convenient to push the onus of knowledge imparting to a third party (a coaching class, tuitions etc). While these are great resources to ensure that the child masters whatever is mentioned according to curriculum, you can expect very few external parties to help children develop thinking and analytical skills while studying a topic. As a parent the more you are involved, the more the child will feel positive about the education process.
And for that, you have to be prepared to be a student yourself. When I teach my kids, I am not the most knowledgeable on the topic, nor is the teacher. We have an unfair habit of expecting the teacher to be a subject matter expert. Everyone learns the same way, studying information. So I never rely on a teacher alone to give information. The teacher’s job is to present the information in a palatable format to the kid. And that is what I aim to do when I teach at home, even if I don’t know the topic. Be a student when you teach your kid.
But hold on, I am not saying that your child shouldn’t go to tuitions or classes etc. Mine don’t but that is because I like to teach. All parents are not geared or equipped to teach. But what I recommend is you teach at home beyond what is taught in your school and class. Same topics in a more enjoyable manner and see the exponential increase in the grasping ability.
5. Education is NOT always fun, it is also hard work. Make sure you don’t teach the child to take everything easy. They have to be prepared to handle pressure. But at the same time, education should be happy, not dry and dull. It should be enjoyable, not a pull-your-hair kind of exercise. It should be comprehensive, not only limited to science and math. It should enable the student to link science and math to language arts and help understand how learning this is going to help himself and society.
6. But why do all this, why go through so much effort? Depends on you actually. Parental involvement can do wonders. I do it because it helps me bond wonderfully with the kids. They look forward to these every day sessions. It inculcates a certain discipline in me more than them, especially in my terribly disorganized, robotic full time working life. It is always easy to give an excuse, I have no time, my day as well as his/her day is super busy. Take a breath, step back and take charge. Teaching random things with no boundaries leaves you feeling empowered in your kids upbringing and your child more challenged, absorbent and willing to learn. It is intrinsic to human nature to be challenged, our brain is what differentiates us from other animals. We thrive on thinking and on pushing ourselves to limits. It is just naturally satisfying.
To summarize, make sure, you gave a fair trial to discovering your little ones hidden interests because they will most certainly remain concealed and eventually suppressed in a class of 40 students run by one over-burdened teacher rushing to get the train to the destination!