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When You Go Back to School, Remember to Ask ‘How’ You Will Learn, Not ‘What’

When You Go Back to School, Remember to Ask ‘How’ You Will Learn, Not ‘What’

Schoolgirls make their way to their school through a vegetable field in New Delhi, December 2013. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

  • As schools reopen and teachers and students return to the classroom, they will need to pay more attention to learning and less to outcomes.
  • The objectivity of educational assessments is a myth, and it could put students under more pressure to perform better post-COVID than they deserve to be under.
  • Outcomes – especially those common in schools and colleges – are a by-product of learning, and shouldn’t be the purpose itself.

Every year, I see billboards displaying the photographs of children who have topped various exams. Every school principal’s office showcases trophies, and every school-wall is plastered with chart-work created by students.

In fact, the biggest online provider of higher education for professionals in India indicates its foremost strength as being “about outcomes”, and claims everyone is “looking for a return on their investment”.

If degrees, trophies and returns on investment are what education is about, we are preparing our future generations well for disappointment, anger and frustration.

It is crucial for us to reflect on this sort of outcome-driven-ness, especially now, when schools have started to reopen and school principals and teachers are waiting to measure how much their students have learnt while studying online during the worst of the epidemic.

I say this because I expect schools will experience an immense shock in terms of learning outcomes. That is, when in-person classrooms resume, schools will discover that most students have forgotten concepts and ideas that they had grasped two years ago. And instead of supporting our children when they need time to readjust, we are likely to blame them for inadequate learning and/or their lack of discipline, and ultimately push them harder to score higher and ‘catch up’ with students at other schools. In our rush to meet learner outcomes, we relegate the learner.

Outcomes – especially those common in schools and colleges – are a by-product of learning, and not the purpose of learning. Learning-outcomes help students and teachers plan their teaching methods. But when outcomes become a tool to motivate children to outperform others, we will be using a by-product of learning as the goal of learning.

When we reserve our praise and pride for only the ‘best’ chart-work, trophies and toppers, we reaffirm that a student’s learning journey doesn’t matter. Instead, we say what matters is whether what they created was better than what others created – whether they were better than others.

In both cases, ‘better’ and ‘best’ are someone else’s judgement. We repeat the same mistake when we hand out ‘best teacher’ awards. There is ample research showing that conferring awards based on retrospective performance subsequently lowers performance. When dealing with a subject as complex as learning and teaching, reducing everything to a single grade or a ‘best’ outcome is simple, but not smart.

Second, assessments in education are inherently subjective, yet the myth of objectivity persists. It is as if a student’s score of 65/100 in the board exam in, say, English is presumed to faithfully represent her grasp of the language. Even in mathematics – which is one of the more traditionally ‘objective’ subjects – assessments are subjective.

In 2005, as a mathematics teacher, I experimented by deciding to anonymise the assessments. The scores changed. Much to my professional hurt, I realised that I had begun scoring a student’s performance as soon as I read their name on the paper. Even if someone who doesn’t know the students scores the paper, subjectivity persists.

Experts have shown that “an apparently straightforward question of the most common and traditional type” has produced “assessment information that says as much about the scorer as it does about the student”. At best, even if two experienced, reflective and expert teachers independently arrive at a similar student score, it is still only “agreed-on subjectivity”.

And by confusing this with objectivity, we are encouraging our students to tie their self-worth and choice of career to someone else’s opinion of how ‘better’ they are than others. ‘Being better than others’ is a harmful psychological and social myth that good education must break or at least challenge – not reify.

My third concern with focusing on outcomes is that, instead of prompting reflection, they paradoxically hide poor teaching and learning. I am reminded of American writer Robert Pirsig’s thought-provoking remarks, in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out the scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not.”

I bet most of us have experienced such meaningless, outcome-driven education.

Instead of focusing on outcomes, let us talk about the learning process – about the daily (extra)ordinary work that students and teachers do as they engage in the messiness and flow of learning.

When students and teachers return to schools after COVID-19, please pause and reflect on in-person learning, especially because it could feel a bit strange. Teachers and students must figure out what they can borrow and adapt from online learning. Reflecting on the process is sacred, an endless source of curiosity that will keep students and teachers going when they feel stuck.

In her research, American psychologist Carol Dweck found that students oriented towards outcomes give up easier in the face of a difficult problem than those oriented towards learning, plainly. Schools must search for and rediscover the joy in writing that difficult paragraph, solving that complex equation and painting that intricate acrylic landscape. If students find joy in the process, they will have a better chance of their outcomes being wonderful as well.

To be sure, I don’t say that we must ignore outcomes. They are necessary for some drama (as Pirsig also writes) and afford a measurable sense of progress. They are proxy-indicators of what someone might be skilled at. In addition, we needn’t have to transform the education system to pivot from outcomes to learning. For example, we can start in the morning by initiating a conversation at school on how we can celebrate the learning journey.

And in the evening, when your child comes back home, ask her ‘how’ she learnt at school today, instead of ‘what’.

Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.

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