"One-size-fits-all" doesn't work for lesson plans...
...especially in India.
Hello and welcome to the 48th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.
Imagine this situation: You are a Grade 3 English teacher in India, and you are following a manual of standardised lesson plans to teach skills of reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary. This week, the lesson plan requires you to read the poem ‘Bed in Summer’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish novelist and poet. This poem comes highly recommended, because it forms part of the poet’s collection called “A Child’s Garden of Verses”, it is at just the right reading level for Grade 3 students, and it uses endearing imagery and rhyme.
Let’s have a look at the poem:
Will this poem make sense to a child who has grown up in India? The simple answer is no. No, because summers in most of India are nothing like this. We mostly don’t wake up when it’s dark outside and we definitely don’t go to bed when the sky is clear and blue.
But, this DOES happen in Scotland, where the poet is from. In Scotland, summer days are long, and it doesn’t get fully dark until around 11pm. This is because of the latitudinal position of Scotland, the tilt of the Earth and its revolution around the sun. Knowing this context helps us, in India, make sense of this poem.
However, students don’t learn about longitudes, latitudes or rotation and revolution of the Earth till grade 5 or 6, and about the cause of seasons till grade 6 or 7. So, it is impossible to fully explain this poem to Grade 3 students in India – the only way is to simply tell them that the sun rises late and sets late in the part of the world where the little child is the poem is from.
But the deeper problem is that even if Grade 3 students in India understand the logic of the poem, they won’t be able to relate to it at all. It will just be a superficial reading activity. On the other hand, a poem about the woes of a child in India dealing with the sweltering heat of the summer will be more relatable, will spark conversation, will help them appreciate the imagery and the rhyme, and will form the basis for their own poem writing exercises. Something like this:
In May and June, as the sun does shine,
I dream of nariyal paani, a sweet summer sign.
But power cuts pop, no TV's glow,
So I sing in the shower, where the cool water flows.
In cotton clothes, feeling oh-so-free,
On summer break, like a buzzing bumblebee.
Mangoes are juicy, such a tasty delight,
In this hot summer, everything's just right!
Context matters. It matters to students’ motivation, to their ability to relate to what they are learning, to give their own opinions, and finally, to their understanding.
Let’s take another example from a different subject and grade level. At the preschool level, students across the country are taught topics like letters of the alphabet, numbers, colours, seasons, means of transport, domestic and wild animals and community helpers, among many others. Any standardised curriculum will include these, along with pages and pages of practice worksheets for each.
Let’s pause here and ask ourselves: What is our goal in teaching students about animals? One, for general knowledge. Two, for them to appreciate animals around them, understand them and respect them.
Now, imagine a 3-year-old student in a city like Bangalore. Does this child need to spend hours labelling domestic and wild animals, most of which she has probably never seen nor will see for years to come? In order to meet the goals mentioned above, it is more useful to teach students about animals found in cities, like dogs and cats, frogs and toads, caterpillars and butterflies, bulbuls and kites, and how they form an integral part of our life. It is more useful to teach students about animals that they can see around them. Also, a good approach could be to start them off with some rudimentary classification of animals – maybe into small, medium and large animals or based on the food the animals eat.
Similarly, a 3-year-old student in a town on the outskirts of the Ranthambhore forest won’t benefit from simply labelling wild and domestic animals either. Once they have learnt to recognise them, teaching them about the sounds they make, marks they leave behind, what they eat, and how to stay safe around them is far more important. And this happens through experiential learning for students in these areas. So why not make it a part of the formal curriculum?
Context matters. It matters to students’ real-life skills and to their future learning experiences. And standardised lesson plans fail in taking context into consideration.
There is another aspect to context that is equally important – teacher experience and expertise. A new or young teacher may need some handholding from contextualised but structured lesson plans. This will help them create their own processes in the first few years of teaching. On the other hand, an experienced teacher may only need ideas on novel pedagogical approaches or even just a variety of activities. Similarly, a teacher with high expertise in pedagogy has different needs. We know such a teacher who, due to this expertise, has been given different grades and subjects to handle – English and EVS in Grades 2 and 3, and Maths in Grade 5. Such a teacher may not need activity ideas as much as subject-specific explanations that she can create her approach and discussion questions around.
We have discussed two aspects of context – one, the surroundings and practices in which we live; two, teacher experience and expertise. Standardised lesson plans, by definition, do not take such specific contexts into account. The solution is not for curriculum developers to create contextualised lesson plans for each and every situation. The solution, we believe, is giving teachers the support in the form of training and resources in the form of a variety of choices of activity suggestions, discussion prompts and questions, which teachers can choose, modify and contextualise as per their own experience and expertise and according to the needs of their students.
We have been working on a teaching tool called TEPS, which provides teachers with a variety of teaching strategies for each learning outcome and aligned to different pedagogical approaches. These are supported by infographics of the pedagogical approaches, which teachers can use as a quick reference to plan their lessons. If you are interested in getting early access to TEPS, please sign up here.
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