Do schools know how we learn?

My classroom was boring. I spent most of my time looking at my watch or visualizing life outside the classroom. What went on inside didn’t have much to do with my interests and passions. But for some front-benchers, this was true for most of my class. So many hours, days and years wasted. Things haven’t changed – even until today.

It’s only much later in life that I learnt that how schools deliver learning is possibly not how learning for most people actually happens. In my personal experience too, the way schools deliver learning is diametrically opposite to why and how we learn. According to neuroscience learning is represented by neural activity in the brain. The activity takes place when we want to learn and are interested in the topic we are learning. Every child (for that matter every adult) has varied interests and they want to learn different things in varied ways. Therefore all children simply cannot be taught the same thing in the same way and at the same pace. The traditional classroom, limited by its design, forces teachers to teach all children the same thing in the same way thereby leading to declining interest levels in most. It’s no surprise that many children lose interest in learning at some point along their school journey. Schools are killing the desire to learn. Eventually, many of our children will struggle in exams, in college admissions and in lives beyond college.

Extensive research (OECD 2006 (b)) confirms that more effective learning will occur if each learner receives a customized learning experience.”

I also disliked exams. Until not such a long ago, I’ve had this recurring nightmare that I have an exam the next day. While I wake up relieved, I’m also mindful of the fear I’ve lived with since childhood. I’m yet to fully understand the ramifications of this fear on the quality of my life. Psychologists tell me most of the fears we live within our lives are created during childhood. While I partly understand the logic of exams while transitioning from school to college, there appears to be no logic in pushing all students through exams repeatedly and throughout their school journey. It’s the shortcut taken by most schools.

It’s therefore a revelation to hear what research says about learning under fear. According to the analysis (OECD 2002 and 2007) “The study of the brain also highlights the importance of emotions. Emotional states induced by fear or stress directly affect learning and memory. Brain studies have illuminated how negative emotions block learning and have identified the amygdala, the hippocampus and stress hormones, as playing a crucial role in mediating the effects of negative emotions on learning and memory.” This is shocking considering most school exams operate on making learning happen through principles of fear. While this fear does not help us to remember much of what we learn for exams after a few days after the exams, unsurprisingly, the stigma attached to sitting an examinations makes India lead the world in student suicides. One must question why we are subjecting our children to this torture when research tells us otherwise?

I know it is easy to be critical and so I wondered if there are any good solutions? As I travelled across the world I came across great schools that have succeeded in personalizing learning. They have done away with classrooms and created customized learning spaces for children to learn individually and in small groups. Strategies for team teaching, peer learning and multi-age learning have ensured all this can be achieved by maintaining an affordable teacher-student ratio. Adaptive software and personalized student assessment portals have freed up teacher time and enhanced both student and parent experience. The results are dramatic. Students love learning, passionate teachers love teaching, exam results have dramatically improved, as have soft skills required to succeed in real life beyond school. Students want to learn through rigorous projects that dovetail with their interests and strengths. Schools help create e-portfolios that bring to life world-class student work to future employers. A far more powerful and real-world validation for student performance.

Assessments are regularly done to assess students’ abilities and individual learning progress, especially in the context of real-world applications. These ensure all children learn and that no child is left behind. Students have the opportunities to critique and improve their work throughout the year. Non-threatening formative assessments ensure all students learn without fear. Learning built around interests of each child ensures a love of learning with higher levels of attention and retention.

There is and can be a win-win. Parents need to start demanding school education based on research. Every child has a star within. This is the greatest need of our time!

Sandy Hooda, Co-Founder, Vega Schools

Sandy Hooda

Sandy Hooda

Sandy Hooda is a first generation entrepreneur with an outstanding track record in technology and hospitality ventures. He realised through personal experience that his school education not only undermined his love of learning, but also played an insignificant role in him becoming successful in life. To better understand whether anyone had solved this education puzzle, he spent three years traveling around the world identifying the most progressive schools and galvanising the superstar education leaders behind these schools in order to create Vega Schools. His life mission is to revolutionise education based on research on ‘why’ and ‘how’ we learn so there is perfect harmony between school education, love of learning, and success in life.

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