Spark the fire of thinking in the classroom

Nick Tayag

AT the onset, let me make a disclosure. I am neither a professional educator nor an expert in pedagogy.

But there was a time when I handled classes and conducted workshops in creative conceptualization and scriptwriting.

During the first sessions, I noted that the young participants were restless, fidgety, and bored as I droned on, giving out information that they could just as well get from reading a book. I then tried to enliven it up with support slides to illustrate my talk. No dice.

Then comes the next batch, I changed my approach. I made the sessions interactive. I turned the table around and made them do the thinking and the talking. On the very first day of class, I randomly divided them into pairs and asked them to interview each other. After a while, I told them to introduce each other using the information culled from on the spot interviews. The session was ice-breaking. It also gave me an inkling about each attendee’s skill in storytelling and characterization. From there, bonding among them became easier.

Every day I had a surprise activity. For an exercise in visualization, I took them outside the room and made them walk in pairs. One was blindfolded while the other would verbally guide his partner as they walked, describing for him what the place looked like. Back in the classroom, I made them reflect on the experience.

Throughout the two weeks, I made them do short, simple activities like journal writing, paired brainstorming and role-playing. One moment they would be making stick drawings, next moment they were acting, trying to bring to life what they’ve just written. At other times, I would bring some of my video collection and we would watch, then I urged them to critique what we just saw.

I functioned more as a facilitator, prompter and a standby moderator. I would just trigger the learning process by tossing the ball and let them carry it from there. My class would always begin with a two-question mantra: “What if? Why not?” At the end, they would present what they had accomplished and reflect on it, with comments from me and the rest of the class. Best of all, they went away feeling that they “owned” the learnings, for truly it was them who brought it out of themselves.

All of these memories came flooding my mind when I recently stumbled into a Japanese high school dorama series with the prosaic title: “High School Business.”

It revolves around the travails of a corporate executive who was tasked to reverse the fortune of a financially distressed private high school and make it profitable. The guy who assigned him there thought it was a surefire way to make him fail, which was what he intended.

To turn it around, the poor fellow cuts costs and makes the bold decision to infuse fresh new life into the school’s traditional system with the adoption of the so-called “Active Learning” mode of teaching. It turns out to be a stroke of genius and the school gets into the black again.

While watching it I began to realize that back then I was probably into an educational approach called “active learning” although I didn’t know the term then.

It turns out that “active learning” is not really something new as it is now being practiced in many schools abroad. What is more notable to me is its less emphasis on lecture but more on involving students in doing and thinking. It encourages the student to think actively rather than just passively receive information from the teacher.

As opposed to conventional passive learning, it engages students, using such activities as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving, which in turn promote analysis and synthesis. It also provides students with opportunities for feedback on how well they understood the material.

Now that class sessions have migrated to the virtual space, shouldn’t we consider employing the active learning mode to engage the students who, like my granddaughter, are attending their socially distanced class sessions in their bedrooms, still in their pajamas?

Let’s face it. Arousing and maintaining the enthusiasm of a virtual class is a daily struggle. Distraction is at the heart of the problem. Not to mention the problem of unstable signal and clear reception.

We need to reimagine teaching as no longer just a way of imparting information but also of sparking thought. The teacher’s role is to activate students’ minds. Just like teaching someone how to ride a bike, you let the newbie pedal off by himself after the initial push.

I’m glad to see my granddaughter always busy doing something, such as cutting pieces of paper to create characters, doing pastiche or collage on an illustration board, writing a poem, or sketching a story about people in our neighborhood during the long lockdown, recycling plastic cups as plant pots, taking pictures with her tablet and so on. I don’t know what these activities are for, or if she’s learning anything, but it appears she is having fun! Is her teacher on active learning mode? Maybe, but it seems to be working.

Flexibility, resourcefulness, and talent for creativity are key to virtual teaching at this unstable time. If the techniques and tools of active learning can help energize the learning process, why stick to the traditional mode? What matters is that it starts the development of the student’s ability to think for himself.

Keep in mind the Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” That, in essence, is what learning should be about: knowledge through the process of actual experience and self-discovery.

Let us use active learning to spark our youth to ask fundamental questions and draw lessons from the world around them, such as “How should I live?” “What is truth in the age of manufactured reality?” “What is a good society?” and other relevant questions that will develop the power of thinking for themselves. No more emphasis on memorization of names and dates. No more uncritical acceptance of given information.

But then again, as I said at the start, I am no pedagogic expert and I don’t pretend to know anything about teaching. All I’m asking is to give this think piece a chance and hopefully it sparks something in the minds of enlightened education authorities out there.

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