From phone applications to lessons in school, our levels of understanding and competence may not be the same, yet we need to set realistic goals before we start on something.
I HAD asked my daughter to show me how to use some new phone applications, and the dialogue between us went mostly like this;
Daughter: How can you not get this? It is so simple. I already showed you twice.
Me: Of course I don’t get it. How can you expect me to master advanced level stuff when I am only at elementary stage?
After about 15 minutes of fruitless exchanges, interspersed with allusions to generations X and Y differences, and little success in trying to get me to understand the whole thing, she said in exasperation, “Even my friend’s grandmother who is twice your age can get this, why can’t you?’
I decided that my feelings were hurt, so instead of telling her that the likelihood of anyone being twice my age and still living, let alone using smartphone applications, were infinitesimal, I went upstairs, shut the door, and indulged in about an hour of self-pity.
I could hear her telling my other daughter over the phone, “you can’t believe how immature Ma is” and I knew I was behaving badly.
After giving the two of them ample time to reflect on the million sacrifices their mother had made on their behalf including the long hours of painful labour during childbirth and the line “don’t regret it after I’m gone”, I came down to discover a long hand-written and guilt-ridden list left on the dinner table by my daughter detailing step by step with illustrations how the application worked.
Later, as I went through the steps beginning from the basics, I realised that if we had done this earlier and begun from the level I was at, so much of time could have been saved and real results could have begun taking place, instead of the vexed mother-daughter interchange.
Also, it got me to think about other things, and how we deal with teaching a specified curriculum to groups of students, who are simply not ready because they have yet to reach the required competence level for the new sujects they are supposed to learn.
I also reflected on how so much of our teaching frustration could be reduced, if only we are allowed to begin with our students at the level they really are, instead of where they are expected to be.
I wondered if students feel the way I had felt when they are loaded with knowledge and expectations of skills that are way beyond them. Never having mastered a first level competence of a particular subject, how are they expected to produce something of a higher level even if that is what the curriculum says that they should be capable of?
We teachers know that when our students come to us at whatever level, they are already assumed to have reached a certain level of competence that allows them to be in our classes.
Sometimes the public examination results stridently proclaim they are of an acceptable level of competence, and though we may have our doubts, we have no recourse but to accept what has been documented.
Sometimes it is because of our own system which automatically allows students to keep moving up a grade even if they have not acquired the minimum competence required of a certain subject.
Sometimes, as a result of space constraints at schools, those who have not mastered the basics get swept up along with those who do.
We know that Form Four students who come to us without knowing how to write a complete sentence in any language, may very well leave school the same way, if we adhere to the curriculum specifications and desired outcomes.
We know that students who cannot do simple multiplication or division at the age of 15, may likewise never learn this in school, if we continue with the topics that we are obliged to teach as part of the syllabus.
Also, we tell ourselves that it is not everyone in the class who is this bad.
Maybe we can “salvage” six out of 30 students, and with proper “drills” and exam-answering techniques, we can get them to make the minimum grade for the next examination.
After all, achieving a 20% pass rate in a class with weak students is no mean feat and actually looks not too bad on paper.
In the end, isn’t it all about numbers?
As for the rest who didn’t make it, all we can do is shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that we tried our best but we are not miracle workers.
We have heard of the theories that are loaded for us during professional development courses and some during our pedagogical training.
We have heard of the ZPD concept (zone of proximal development) in education which is roughly about what the student is capable of doing independently and with the teachers help.
Language teachers may be familiar with Krashen’s (1982) i + 1 theory of comprehensible input which refers to the necessity of input being slightly beyond the current level of competence, in order for development of language competence in the learner to take place.
And yet, many of us day after day, face a classful of students who are nowhere near the level of competence that is required of them at that level.
We feel duty-bound to prepare them for examinations or assessments which are way beyond their current level of competence.
Whenever a student has a question regarding a particular subject, for instance a Mathematics problem, the question that immediately comes to the mind of the teacher is the student’s level of competence ... what does the student know and where to start from?
For any real learning to take place, the starting point cannot be beyond a student’s present “location”.
I suppose that is the same for every other kind of training.
People who have never exercised in their lives are no doubt advised by their doctors to begin moderately, and then build up their energy and fitness levels and not go out and attempt a strenuous two-hour workout on the first day.
I am also convinced that there are many times when teachers do wish they could stop midway in a lesson.
This is because they empathise with their students and do feel obligated to go back to the starting point or to the level of competence that their students are at.
For instance, instead of memorising model test answers a Fifth Form low proficiency English class would benefit much more from learning how to construct simple sentences even if this is not what is tested.
In the end, a genuine progress from one level to the other is preferable to one that is merely a simulation. The bottom line is that the starting point should be realistic.
While the word “progress” and “moving forward” are constantly reeled out in the education scene, we may need to remember that at times we may need to take a step or two backwards before we can actually start and move ahead.