How Children Learn: Some Common Myths

There is no lack of opinions on what children should learn. This topic has been the center of discussions among policy makers, educators, administrators, students and the general public alike, with each section of society bringing in fresh perspectives. While the ‘what’ has received considerable interest, the how of children’s learning processes has stayed in the shadows, often taking shape as misconceptions and myths. Today, we’ll bust some of the most common ones. 

Myth #1: Children know how to learn 

In conversation with parents and teachers, it is often heard that ‘the child refuses to learn’. In truth, there is no such thing. A more plausible reason is that the child doesn’t know how. Imagine having to drive a car with the knowledge of what a steering wheel is. For example, on any given school day, it is highly likely that we hear something like this in classrooms:

‘Today we’ll be organising our thoughts in the form of mind maps. This is the structure for it. Let’s see you give it a try’. 

While this is a great instruction for what is to be done, it doesn’t necessarily explain how. 

Let us look at another instruction for the same purpose.

‘Today, we’ll be organising our thoughts in the form of a mind map. First, write the central theme in the center of a page of paper. Then, think of what the different categories are under this topic. For instance, if my theme is transport, then my categories would be roadways, railways, waterways and airways. I will draw them in my mind map as branches from the central theme. I will repeat this if each category has more sub-categories’.

If you, as a learner were trying to draw a mind map, which one would suit your need? 

Myth #2: Children learn best in their mother tongue 

The role of a child’s mother tongue in their learning has been much debated, with educators and education theorists wholeheartedly endorsing its benefits. While this is not completely untrue, this statement does not present the complete picture. A child learns best in the language to which they are most exposed through interactions with adults and peers. Children whose families have relocated to areas where the local language is not their mother tongue become more fluent in the local language than their mother tongue within a year or two, to a point that parents have to be especially conscious of speaking only in the mother tongue at home with the child so the child does not lose her connection with her roots. Ask any NRI parent.

Myth #3: Memorisation and rote learning are always ineffective 

First, we must make a distinction between memorisation and rote learning. Memorisation is being able to recall 2 by 2 equals 4 without the need to calculate it each time, but knowing how one gets 4 when 2 is multiplied by 2. Rote learning is being able to recall the product as 4 but not being able to explain the process by which the product was arrived at. Much attention has been paid to the use of rote learning in schools and its inefficiency in cultivating a wholesome learning atmosphere. Many of us may even consider memorisation as an ineffective way of learning. While it is true that meaningful and logical learning is deeper, these higher levels of cognition require a learner to have some foundational knowledge, which is developed effectively through retaining some facts in memory and using them appropriately. 

Myth #4: Writing equals language acquisition 

In the Indian context, a disproportionate amount of time and effort has been devoted to developing the mechanics of writing in young learners. If you were to recall the type of homework you were given in a language class or the nature of the practice that was associated with it, more often than not, you would recall putting pen to paper. The assumption behind these tasks is that, if a learner can produce a written piece in a language, they have acquired the language in its entirety. Educators’ decisions and actions stemming from this assumption have resulted in a large section of the student population being proficient in the mechanism of writing without understanding the fundamentals of the language. In order for learners to be able to generate ideas and original thought in a given language, they should be able to speak it well, which means they must possess a rich vocabulary in that language first. However, unless learners are provided an immersive environment where they listen to the language frequently, their listening skills, and in turn their speaking skills will remain stunted, leading an extremely poor level of language acquisition

The ‘what’ of a child’s learning process is contextual and subjective. As parents, teachers and policymakers it is necessary to further discussions and equip ourselves with knowledge on how a child is learning. Although this may require some unlearning on our part, understanding this paradigm of education is fundamental to improving the quality and standards of primary grade instruction. 

Posted by Mathangi PN

Media for Development: Some knots to disentangle

From the videos we create to attract potential donors, to the posters we design for awareness raising campaigns, and the words we choose to fill our impact reports, we are constantly in the business of media creation as workers in not for profit organisations. Media, in its myriad forms, is our tool to communicate to the rest of the world why our field of work is important and how we are contributing to social change. But an oft ignored story that our collaterals tell, is that of who we are as an organisation within the complex weave of the development sector. 

The evolutionary cycle of media for development work has seen the use of ‘shock effect’, of positive imagery, of decontextualised stories and of innovative campaigns that attempt to bring the reality of distant suffering uncomfortably close. As producers of this content, we must be aware of our responsibilities to the stakeholders we work with and the consequences of the way we choose to represent them and our work. Through this short post, I hope to explore a few of these messy knots and share some questions I find useful to consider while creating media content.

 Am I relying on a ‘shock effect’ to draw in my audience?

We have all seen, and been shocked, by the heartbreaking and now infamous photograph of a vulture eyeing a starving child in famine stricken Sudan, taken by Kevin Carter. The photograph and the photographer have both been the centre of much attention and criticism, and offer a classic example of the use of shock effect in humanitarian campaigns. In ridding the people in the photograph of their individualising features, their dignity, and their consent to being represented that way, ‘shock effect’ campaigns that use photographs such as Kevin Carter’s not only violate ethical codes, but also present the subjects of the campaign as the disenfranchised ‘other’. 

While working in a sector that is so deeply ingrained in attempting to alleviate suffering and injustice, it is not rare for us to encounter shocking visuals that bring to the fore the horrors of hunger, or war, or violence. We must, however, be careful to evaluate the nature of such imagery (both visual and written) that we use in our communications and to ensure that we respect the dignity and privacy of those in the stories that we share.

 Am I contributing to the narrative of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’?

Stakeholders, beneficiaries or partners? Donation, charity or contribution? The power structures veiled behind the meanings of these words reflect a post-colonial world order, patriarchal mindsets, the hierarchies of class and caste systems, and other such hegemonic structures. Using images of young black or brown children smiling at the receipt of international aid, is a typical instance where the rhetoric of a ‘grateful receiver’ and a ‘generous donor’ is repeated. Contributing to this narrative can undermine ongoing efforts to break free from the very same repressive structures and can be disrespectful of the complex socio-cultural history of a given community.

It is ours to shoulder, as members of social justice movements and as individuals enjoying certain privileges, the weight of understanding and evaluating the nuanced meanings of our communication and delivery.

 Am I stripping a story of its contextual complexity?

In an effort to evade the aforementioned pitfalls, the development industry has embraced its creative side and in the recent years we have seen very many impactful billboard campaigns, animated short films and humanitarian artwork. Catered to fit a minimalist aesthetic sense and the extremely scarce text-space available on social media, these campaigns are often designed to cut right to the crux of the message. While this is an extremely effective strategy in many respects, it is useful for us to introspect whether the story does justice to the complex contexts that it takes place in, and to ask ourselves who benefits from the blurred complexities. As in the example explored earlier, the use of the smiling faces of black and brown children to homogeneously represent the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ world, does not speak of the local contexts of the children or of the many identities they occupy, and conveniently brushes under the carpet colonial and racist histories.

Similar criticism could hold true for the stick figure cartoons we draw, or the 280-character stories that populate our social media handles. Instead of refraining from the use of such creative storytelling methods, we could add to them some flourishes that hint at the many untold stories that we have chosen to not elaborate upon.

 Am I violating any ethical codes of consent, privacy or security?

The importance of respecting the rights of consent, privacy and security of personal information needs no introduction. We each closely guard everything from online banking passwords to Facebook profile pictures and biometric data. In creating our media libraries too, we must carry forward this diligence and verify that no media or personal information is published without consent, or in a way that endangers the privacy or security of those represented. While this last question might be a staple and obvious one to consider, it is often tricky to adhere to these standards within the complex dynamics that are at play in our field work. Developing comprehensive guidelines and policies that dictate the creation and storage of such content can, however, help us navigate these ethical and legal considerations with relative ease.

It is the ethos of an organisation that is distilled into the way we tell every story or communicate every milestone. In the tone of our communication lies secrets of our place within the complex development sector riddled with competing power structures, of our political leanings, and of our commitment to each of our partners and stakeholders. Closely paying attention to this tone, and being aware of its implications, is therefore a critical step while creating media for development work.

Posted by Urmila Reghunath