14 September 2009

Computers in the Classroom

“In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your side,
Your legs got nothing to do,
Some machine’s doing that for you.”

So sang Denny Zager and Rick Evans in their 1969 hit song “In the Year 2525”.

As one who was born in the middle of the past century, I guess, late ‘60s bring nostalgic memories to people who belong to my generation: I was a teenager doing my Physics major freshman year at a local college. In the afternoons, we used to have lab projects. Those of us who completed the assigned experiments early, used to return home earlier than other classmates. As soon as I returned home, I would listen to programs such as “Date with the Disc” on BBC World Service or “Studio 1” on VOA. [In the mornings, VOA Breakfast Show was my regular favorite; I never used to miss Saturday morning shows as they were hosted completely by college students]. Whenever I used to go out of town during holidays, I used to carry my short wave radio without fail. Short wave receivers, manual typewriters and bicycles were an integral part of our lives. But, we never allowed these machines to `rule’ our lives.

Well, today the situation is very different. Information and communications technology has changed so rapidly that our lives are increasingly governed by automation. Many of us have become completely dependent on machines such as mobile phones, laptops and datacards. [If we don’t keep a mobile phone in our pocket, we feel as if we are `physically’ handicapped].

Today, there is no service industry in which computers are not used. Within K-12 scenario, increasing number of schools use computers in different ways. At one end of a continuum, there are low budget schools that use computers only to teach computer science related subjects whereas at the other end, there are affluent schools that use computers by exploiting their full potential (Broadband Internet etc). This article attempts to throw some light on how best computers can be used even in very low budget schools.

I was a physics teacher in a high school (2nd oldest) in Botswana, Southern Africa in the late ‘80s. Each department in the school had one or two BBC Microcomputers. (Internet was yet to get functional at a global level). That was a time when there was no animation software such as Flash. Still, we could create simple animations by using BASIC programming. We could use computers to take readings of physical quantities such as velocity during experiments, by interfacing. As audiovisual coordinator of the science department, I had the pleasure of collecting resources such as 16mm films and videotapes for use in classrooms, from the British Council Library in Gaborone. Although the Library was nearly 65 km from my residence, the journey would seldom be tiresome, thanks to my Toyota Corolla, nice road (as shown in the photograph below) that connected my town with the capital city, and far less people who violated road rules, than in my own country, India.


Thanks to computer technology of today. Things have become much simpler particularly since the PC revolution.  Students’ work can be corrected and feedback given, by using simple word processor packages like Word 2000. (I have used options such as “Track changes” very effectively in my work with students and colleagues). But such programs should be used only when students have already mastered spelling and grammar in the traditional manner. Otherwise, they will depend entirely on PC’s spell check and grammar, which is not as perfect as a good dictionary and a grammar book.

Presentation software packages such as MS PowerPoint, Open Office Impress or Apple Keynote can be immensely useful in developing lessons. With appropriate add-ons such as Windows Media Player, CVDs and DVDs can be used without any technical problems. It is also possible to download animation sequences from the Net and use them in the classroom, of course without violating any copyright laws. [In fact computers without Internet connection can be used almost as effectively in our classrooms as those with Net].

One main problem that many schools face is the assessment of oral skills of children. In some of the schools where I worked, I had the pleasure of training teachers to use MS Office “Sound recorder” to sort this problem out. The program enables not only to edit but also change the speed of flow of the file. This program is particularly useful in closely monitoring speech outputs of children so that remedial action can be taken.

Spreadsheets such as Excel can be immensely useful in Maths, Scince and other subjects where students need to interpret graphs. But when it comes to plotting graphs, paper and pencil are the best resources, for obvious reasons.

Although there are many more advantages of using computers in school systems, because they save a lot of time that can be used for other productive activities, no computer (or no machine for that matter) can teach children by itself. Hence, within classrooms, computers must never be used as alternative to activity based methods of teaching learning. There cannot be any classroom in which there is no human teacher, as after all, only he or she can empathize, understand and effectively interact with (human) students.  We should not aim for virtual classrooms in our real world.

Let us hope that machines are used to an extent that is sensibly adequate and not too much as Denny Zager and Rick Evans had visualised, though sarcastically, 40 years back.

Questioning Techniques in the Classroom

A few months back, I read the following classroom joke on the web:  Middle school science teacher: What is germination? Pupil: It is the process in which a person becomes a citizen of Germany.

As teachers, all of us have studied Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives in our teacher training programs before entering the profession.

In many countries, the taxonomy is used in all the three core areas of school processes: curriculum development, classroom interaction and assessment of pupil learning. In my work, I have used the taxonomy as well as other effective structures when planning my questioning techniques in the classroom. In this article, I am sharing my experience of using Bloom's taxonomy to increase the skill levels of children, by illustrating specific examples.

Bloom talks about 7 skills, in the ascending order of their complexity, as shown below:
1. Knowledge
2. Comprehension
3. Understanding
4. Application
5. Analysis (by Segmenting)
6. Synthesis (holistic look)
7. Evaluation

In my work with teachers, I had tried to train them as to how any one question (that can be addressed to children) can be modified to raise skill levels, as illustrated in the following examples:

The question, "What is the capital of Cambodia?" tests a lower order skill (Bloom's objective 1) whereas "What makes Phnom Penh suitable to be the capital city of Cambodia?" tests objective 3 at the very least.

"What is matter?" which is related to Bloom’s objective 1, can be converted to "Imagine that there are 3 identical glass containers filled with colored water, sand and a gas respectively, and placed in front of you. Which of the containers would have the largest mass? Explain your reasoning". The modified question is deeper and is related to Bloom’s objective 2.

Another high order question (corresponding to Bloom’s objectives 1, 3 and 4) is as follows: "You are traveling on a road by bus. On the way, there is a culvert. As the bus slows down and approaches the culvert very closely, the driver suspects that the culvert and the bus are of the same height and hence the bus cannot move any further. To confirm his doubt, he measures the heights and finds that they are equal. However, the bus has to pass the culvert. If you were the driver, how can you solve the problem?" When I once presented this question to teacher trainees, it took a few minutes for (one of) them to suggest a practical solution: "Deflate the tires, push the bus past the culvert and then inflate".

Some times, the same question can be perceived differently, as the following example illustrates:  I remember the question "What is photosynthesis?" that I set in a test paper for my middle school biology children, 30 years back. Some kids answered, "It is a botanical process". Although I knew that the answer is correct, I was reluctant to give them full mark, as it was not the answer that I expected. I expected the answer to be as follows: Photosynthesis is a process by which plants make their own food". The next day, I realized that the problem was that I was not precise in my questioning. My question should have been "How do plants make food?" or "What happens in a green leaf during photosynthesis?" That is, actual wording in questions can be seen to be related to the tested skill level.

In most developing countries teachers rely heavily on textbooks, probably because of quantity driven syllabi or lack of adequate time for them to prepare high order questions. For this reason, I think that textbook publishing industry should strive to include "out of the box" questions, examples of which are as follows:

1. The question "Prove that paper is a poorer conductor of heat than metal" is not as effective as "You and your friend plan to spend a holiday in a village. As the village does not have any restaurant, you take some hot food from your place. You get your food packed in a metal container, whereas your friend carries it in a tetra-pack carton. Whose food, do you think, will be warm enough to eat by lunchtime at the village? Explain your answer".

2. The question, "How would you know as to whether any water sample is acidic or alkaline?" can be changed as follows, to bring in better reward: James is visiting a new town on work. He stays in a guesthouse. He likes to test as to whether the water given to him is neutral. Which is the most cost effective and easiest way for him to test for water?

3. "Why are racing cars designed to have their centre of mass at a lower level than in other cars?" is better than "What is the relationship between the centre of mass of an object and its equilibrium?"

Once in 1985, when teaching physics at Cochin Refineries School, I introduced "wave motion" by displaying a few photographs of water ripples to my students and mentioning that the knowledge gained at the end of the lesson would help them to avert problems and dangers associated in swimming. In the process, I changed the usual textbook question "State the relationship between wavelength of a water ripple and the depth of water" to "Look at the photographs and identify the deepest region in each photograph. Explain your reason for thinking so. Do you think that such knowledge is very important to swimmers?"  I had the pleasure of using PSSC PHYSICS Text Book (developed by a team of physicists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and high school physics teachers in the US in the '50s) as a reference material during my Pre-University Course to learn lesson concepts and later on, to teach them to my students in different countries.
Twenty years back, when I was teaching in Southern Africa, I had gone to a shopping mall in Gaborone, at around 1 PM on a hot day. I had parked my car and left for shopping by keeping my videotape inside the rear windshield, by mistake. The tape was wound around two spools in a black colored plastic structure. When I came back to my car after an hour, the plastic structure was in a melted condition. I displayed the videotape to my class and asked my students "Explain the reason why the tape melted. How could I have averted the problem?". After a few minutes of silent thinking, many of my students could come up with solutions. Although I lost my videotape, I gained confidence that my students understood the concept "Dark colored objects absorb heat more effectively than light colored objects"!

Sometimes, questions can lead children to think beyond the subject boundaries as the following two examples illustrate:

1. "Our bones are cylindrical in shape. In many houses, the pillars are cylindrical in shape. Cylindrical shape is associated with strength. How can you prove the statement by doing a simple activity?" This question can enable children perform a simple activity to prove the concept. Mathematically inclined children can use their math skills to prove the concept, with teacher guidance if needed.

2. "You are at a construction site. You happen to see a small sparrow trapped in a one foot long hole, the diameter of which is such that the sparrow cannot get out on its own. How can you save the sparrow? (Clue: Use your knowledge of Archimedes Principle, to solve the problem)". This question can make children appreciate the utility value of science concepts.

While appropriate questioning techniques are inevitably important in all types of classroom processes, their implementation in web-based situations requires teachers to possess not only very good content knowledge but also technical expertise of the web-based tool/s that they use. (This is one reason why real time, activity based classroom processes are better than those which use virtual reality environments unless the former is impossible in any given context).

Having said all this, there are numerous instances in which even very effective questions fail to evoke desired pupil response. One of the main reasons for this problem, as I have seen, is that children are not given adequate time to respond (to questions). Numerous research studies and my own experience in classrooms have proved that an increase in wait time enables children to give `high level’ responses to teachers’ questions. My own classroom questioning skills improved after reading the article `Interaction of wait time, feedback and questioning instruction in middle school science teaching’ written by Swift and Gooding and published in “Journal of Research in Science Teaching”, way back in 1983!

CBSE Board Exams

Recently there have been media reports that Class X Public Examinations conducted by Central Board of Secondary Education, New Delhi, are going to be optional in its affiliate schools with effect from 2010.

Instead of making Class X examinations optional, emphasis should be on more important issues like school quality, curricular load and better assessment methods in the Board exams.

Although the K-12 syllabus is developed and prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, CBSE should coordinate with NCERT and come up with more quality-oriented syllabus incorporating easily measurable knowledge, skills and attitudes. As CBSE and NCERT are like two wheels of a bicycle, it is important that they function in synchrony with each other.

As a professional who has spent over 30 years in school education at different levels in different countries including India, I think that these two agencies need to pull up their sleeves and bring in improvements by systematically analyzing best practices in different countries. We have witnessed several education commissions suggesting reforms, but none of them have been translated into reality. Instead of developing strategies based on hypothetical intentions, however good they may seem to be, we should look at issues at realistic angles, hold discussions with representatives of all stakeholders concerned with school education, take up structured quality oriented studies, record the findings, analyze as to what have gone wrong and explore strategies for trouble shooting and improvement, develop draft proposals and implement pilot projects. Most importantly, these projects should be finalized only if they are proven to have made an impact on the beneficiaries (students, job market, institutes of higher learning and the community).

I recall one instance when I had been a center superintendent for Class X CBSE exams in Chennai, in March 2005. There was an ambiguous question in the Hindi question paper. As I had the moral obligation of getting it clarified from CBSE and intimating it to the examinees, I phoned the designated spokesperson, based in Bangalore, in accordance with the CBSE rules. The spokesperson asked me to speak in Hindi and read the question as it was printed in the question paper. Fortunately, I was able to explain to him by reading the ambiguous question and got the clarification passed on to the candidates. What would have happened if I never knew Hindi? At that time, as far as I knew, there was no mandatory requirement that school principals (who used to be Center Superintendents) needed to possess a functional knowledge of Hindi.

Coming back to Class X Exams, I think that the main problem is not the Exam itself, but it is the pressure exerted on children due to quantity driven curriculum, teaching learning resources (print as well as multimedia) and methods. These should be developed to be more stakeholder-friendly. An important step in this direction would be to empathise with children.

While it cannot be denied that CBSE and NCERT have taken several pioneering steps within the Indian context, such as implementation of Mathematics laboratories and posting of textbooks online as freedownloads, these two Agencies should try to prioritize their agenda and team up with stakeholders so that they can come up with very effective mechanisms in the K-12 scenario.

About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a K-12 Education Management Professional turned freelance Education writer. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.