Why Do Students Learn

21 Apr

“If you don’t practice, how will you learn”, said the mother persuasively to the child.


The child was tired. He had spent eight hours at school being alert for bullies, being callously careful about his books, tiffin and water bottle. And then, there was the classroom with the teacher who was so sure of everything that he was unsure of, writing so fast on the board. The Teacher wanted them to copy down everything and then go home and memorise it for the exams. What a terrible thing to happen to little children, the boy thought. A monster called examinations. His best friend was strange, she liked exams. She always said- “what is so special about exams? They ask questions, I answer them just like I answer them in class. If I don’t know the answers, I go home and find out more about it. Exams tell me what I need to figure out”. She was different, he know. The strange thing is that she always did quite well, just like he did.


He hated the stress of learning. Ma would say, “You are a child, how can you have stress?” But it was difficult. He was a good boy and always tried his best. Dad would say, “you have to try better than your best. Then you know you are learning.” Of course dad must be right, so he tried even harder. How could he not? What if he did not get perfect marks? What if he did not come first? He had to come first, and get better marks than last time.


He could not imagine being like the naughty children in class who seemed to have fun all the time. They never seemed to care much. But he did. One thing he could not bear was when marks were cut.. it was like someone had chopped off what belonged to him. “What happened? Where did two marks go?”, his aunt had asked him the last time he got 98 marks in Maths. He did not know, but it was horrible. Such a silly mistake and so much shame to bear for it. Never, never would he let the marks slip away – it was the worst punishment ever, felt even worse than being beaten (not that he was ever beaten). But he would do everything he could to stay away from bad performance. It wasn’t just marks, it was other things too. He worried about school assembly too – what if if went wrong? And worked harder.


He was a hard worker and really organised. Nothing would stop him from winning. And nothing conquered his fear of losing more than organising his time table and revising his answers.





Not all children are like the boy described above, but there is  little doubt that he would be known as a ‘good’ boy. Diligent, attentive in class, focused on ‘learning’ his material and achieving good grades. The perfect student one would think. Working hard to ensure that he never faces failure.


What if we took away his fear of failure?


Would he still know what to do? Would he still learn the same way?


Did his best friend learn the same way, for the same reasons? She was not so afraid of failure, taking it in her stride. Any gaps were hers to fill. Her stakes were not so high, it seemed. And she seemed to do just as well as he did.




All children learn differently. For many decades people have tried to create a taxonomy of learning styles, only to be discredited in recent times. From visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles to exhortations such as “”I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Teachers have been told to design their lessons to ensure that all learning styles get an opportunity to learn in their own way. Yet, as teachers juggle with range management in the classroom, learners of today are evolving in new ways. Given that the children (and youth) of today are more used to multiple stimuli, some of them learn quite well even in the middle of distraction. This is not just learning one’s ‘portions’ with the music on, it is more discordant than that. Children seem to learn, now, in the midst of chaos, of playing games, juggling toys and music and various communication devices. Distractions have grown, as have grades. (gasp, could there be social learning tools?!) For many, it is futile to pin them down to their books and expect better rote learning or understanding of a subject. Students now learn on the move too.


Begs the question.. what is this learning that we seek the ‘how’ of? It is clearly more than rote learning or memorisation. While definitions abound, it is clearly the process of getting to ‘know’ something, and to know it well enough to be able to use it in a new context or situation. The test of the learning is in the use.


Does that mean that we cannot ever be sure of learning till we have tested for this abillity to use it? Yes. Testing is an integral part of the learning and gap analysis cycle. But testing does not have to be any more than an exercise in gap analysis. Frequent low stakes testing removes the pressure from the learning cycle and is significantly preferable to end of year examinations (or even regular ones) that doom some to ‘failure’.


Educators keep reminding each other that they do not know what skills and knowledge are going to be required for the future. Much of the knowledge in current books will be redundant soon, so we must show our students how to learn rather than what to learn. The new mantra is ‘Learning how to Learn’.


Learning how to learn is an interesting concept, as it implies that the content is less important than the techniques. The focus moves to the process, and the flow of knowledge rather than its static retention at the end of the year. There will still be lessons and books and examinations and results. But the emphasis will be on ensuring that various learning techniques and skills have been tried and practiced.


But why would students do so? If tests are low stakes, and the content is not tested as much as the process is (as with the CCE regime), then what is the incentive for students to participate in the process of learning? Can the process build in a love of learning for its own sake? Can learning become a habit, or even an addiction? So much so that it is not only self sustaining but has learning innovation built into the process.


As before,


What if we remove the fear of failure, then will students seek learning?




This was published in the Times of India Blogs on April 18, 2013 and is linked here and http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/why-do-students-learn

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