Tag Archives: school

Learning from One Another

16 Sep

“When children teach other, they learn better”. I remember hearing this from a teacher in a simple school in a small town. Then I heard the same last year from Vicky Colbert WISE Laureate – indeed this is what transformed education in Colombia via the Escola Neuva system. Through difficult terrain, poor communities, scarce resources – here was a power to be harnessed – the peer.

Learning from each other is a natural way of picking up knowledge and skills. As children and as adults we learn by watching each other, even more so by copying each other’s actions. The next stage is trying it out – learning by doing. There is an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” But there is one more step. A recent study of retention in learning marked out a pyramid where ‘learning by teaching’ showed a retention rate of 90%, compared to a 5% retention rate for a lecture or a 30% retention rate for a demonstration.

What does that look like in a classroom? A class full of teachers will be chaotic surely? If all the students are teaching each other, then what is the role of the teacher? The role of the teacher evolves to being so much more than a passive fount of knowledge. A peer learning class needs to be arranged differently. They are given challenges, tasks and resources. They share their learning journey, nudged and directed by the teacher till all the students have reached basic competence in that learning module. This means that the style of teaching must be very different. Not only is it more participative but also engages the teacher in different ways. The learning resources became important but what is most important is the question asked by the teacher that sets the children off on the adventure. Too wide, and there is chaos. Too narrow and they are merely parroting lines to each other, even copying from each other mindlessly. This is a trap the teacher must avoid – the point of peer learning in classrooms is to encourage students to think and engage with the learning. Not just copy from each other or the board.  Designing the question, organising the class, managing the range, channelling energy constructively – the teacher’s focus moves to these in peer learning classes. And learning levels go up more – not only has each child been engaged, each child has received personal attention from the teacher and has been taught using a pedagogy that improves retention levels.

Changing pedagogies midstream is always a bit daunting for most teachers. Only few would have been trained in peer learning, others will have to figure it out on their own. Unless, they have a peer learning group. What is applied to the classroom can, and does work for teachers too. Teaching and learning is enhanced with peers (or why would schools exist!) and the best teachers keep learning new techniques and sharing them with their peers. Not just colleagues.

There was a time when peer learning was restricted to one’s circle of colleagues and the only peer learning network that was active was in the staffroom. Occasional training sessions extended it for a while to peers across other schools or in the same district. Technology has now removed these barriers. Peer learning groups are being supported by tech companies such as google, by newspaper groups such as the Times (UK based, working in India) and others. Facebook groups are a great way of creating peer learning networks across the country and even the globe. Look up a group to join, or even create one of your own. It doesn’t have to be all serious and theoretical for learning to happen. For example, we used to share little stories of what happened in class with the Facebook group. Sometimes we would share laughter and often it would get responses that were very supportive and helpful. Teaching tips can be shared. Another great tool to create a peer learning network is twitter. Teachers and educators come together and discuss ways to improve their teaching practice or other issues in education. The Indian education chat is called #EduIn where one can meet a community of educators. Others are more global and include groups for new teachers, teachers learning to incorporate technology in their classes, mathematics teachers etc. Shared blogs with multiple contributors work as peer learning for both teachers and students, as do whatsapp groups. Both the flipped classroom model as well as peer learning pedagogies can use these tools extensively.

Whether peer learning is technology driven or not, there is a great deal of value in peer learning groups. In Punjab, STIR and NISA are working in the Rajpura district of Punjab to bring teachers together regularly to speak about in class innovations, teaching practices, solutions and experiences. The teaching community meet at one of the schools in the district on a regular basis and worked together to share and learn. They were able to improve many outcomes in the school district in a short while, but of course there is a lot more to be done. Similar efforts have been in place for decades in Rajasthan and other places.

Peer Learning Networks do not have to be an overly formal construct – each of us can create a PLN where we identify and nurture our sources of learning. While many of us do so naturally it is more of a conscious effort for others. A PLN gives better results if there is a semi-formal structure around it not the least because it ensures that we put in the time and resources required to make it work. A semi-formal or formal PLN will also set its goals, monitor progress and have a community of care that helps it course correct as required. For example, subject based peer learning networks of teachers could be very useful where they share teaching tools, resolve classroom hurdles, share worksheets and quizzes and even create intra-school events. Sometimes only a peer learning network can help – or even understand what the problem is and how to find your way through the maze.

Peer Learning is not a magic wand that resolves all problems but it does form the basis of sustainable solutions. This is where we tap into all parts of learning – previous knowledge, relevant experience and the adventure of sharing to grow our skills together. The PLN grows together as it encourages and supports the whole group to improve themselves.

Meeta Sengupta is a writer and advisor on education. She designs institutional interventions to improve learning outcomes and bring a sense of fun and movement in classrooms. She can be contacted at meetasengupta@gmail.com or on twitter at the handle @meetasengupta


Handling a Crisis at School

13 Jan

Bad news in schools. Happens. What does the school leadership do? How are they supposed to handle the crisis? Does it depend upon the nature of the crisis? Naturally yes, but are there standard procedures that can be put in place to help the leader when the need arises. Certainly. And this must be done. Or the crisis can only become worse. 


Just this week, the father of my son’s classmate (best friend actually) passed away. He died in a train accident. All the children are in their early teens. Does the school have a responsibility to do anything in this case? Are the other children in their care in need of support? Last year, in the same school, a few children beat up a boy and fractured his arm. This is a large school, incidents like this do occur, frequently. Does the school call this a crisis? Do they deal with this as an incident? A disciplinary issue? If it recurs, then? What if such behaviour escalates – a child throws another off a parapet? Is that a crisis? 


The shooting incidents in schools in America are indeed a crisis. As are the instances of violence in schools in India, whether perpetrated by teachers or students. Crisis could be a medical emergency, such as with the Bird Flu epidemic where certain classes or entire schools had to be shut down. Then of course there are those crisis that we bring upon ourselves by bad maintenence of equipment – many electricity junctions are fire hazards. Or buses killing children. Many such instances across schools and colleges. We do reel from crisis to crisis, survive by firefighting, create angst and move on – and in the process we lose much. We lose our faith in systems, because we have none. 

Should we not? 

Crises come in various shapes and forms, from earthquakes, to fires to incidents inside and outside the schools. A dharna outside a school is as much a risk to children coming and going as is a child missing a school bus. These are everyday risks that must have standardised operating procedures. Elite schools do conduct risk assessments, and often the others too have evolved processes. But these need to be codified. Everybody must clearly know their role and responsibility in a crises, so that anxiety is minimised and all the essential things get done. We have seen city wide exercises in responses to earthquakes, and these exercises received much criticism – they were disorderly, badly organised and did not establish any protocols as they should. Schools may not even have fire alarms, let alone weekly tests and monthly fire drills. 


Nor are communication protocols in place. Crises are rare, but it would only make things worse if parents and helpers could not contact each other. Or worse, received the wrong messages. Even worse would be falling prey to rumours and speculation. In any crisis, as in war, the key is planning and communication. 


There can be nothing worse for a parent than to not be sure that their child is safe. And nothing more callous than for schools to ignore the need to plan for the parents and the community. You would not want to be in a postion where everybody is calling all the numbers they have, and not getting a clear response anywhere. 


A few things that all school leaders must put in place as part of their responsibility. 


  1. Run a risk audit, even if you do it yourself, with responsible staff. Figure out where the school is vulnerable and plan to rectify those issues
  2. Plan for severe outages of water, electricity, telephones – if your school is used to these luxuries and depends on them
  3. Plan exit routes and practice a safety drill at least once a month. Yes, it is hard work, but will save lives and tension on the day it is needed. 
  4. Allocate responsibilities in case of a crisis to staff and parents, ensure that there is back up. Draw up scenarios and plan for safety. 
  5. Have a communication plan ready. And have a general agreement (if a policy feels to formal) on the tone of the communication. If a teacher calls up parents in a crisis and speaks in a panicked voice, parents will also get agitated and may react inappropriately. 
  6. Ensure all contact lists are updated regularly. And details such as blood group, allergies are recorded in a place where they can be easily accessed. 
  7. Ensure that the school has access to counsellors and supportive professions to deal with the distress of a crisis. 
  8. Ensure good flow of information to the school authorities to try to pre-empt the problem, if possible. 
  9. Ensure that the follow up plan for after the crisis is in place. 
  10. Ensure that adequate training is given for critical tasks to ensure smooth execution.

Use Common Sense – ensure that for each scenario the the basic questions are answered: Who is doing what, when and where are they supposed to be doing their allocated task and how they do it – all of these need to be in the plan. Verify, Collate, Plan, Liase, Support, Contact, Review – build all of these into the process. Above all, be considerate and human in interactions. 

There is much more to be said about planning for smooth management of emergencies, and those who seek help only have to ask. Do have a plan in place, for a problem is not a problem when there is a (good) plan. Then it becomes an understood task, easily done.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 18, 2012 and is linked here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/handling-a-crisis-at-school