FROM THE FIELD
Activity-Based Learning for Communicative Teaching: Study of a Government School in South Delhi
Activity-based learning enlivens the classroom and generates an interest among learners, however despite its impact there are many who resist it and do not wish to adopt it, here we explore why.
Dr. Ruchira Das is Assistant Professor, Dept. Of Elementary Education, Institute of Home Economics, University Of Delhi, New Delhi.
Activity based learning is an interesting, innovative and participatory approach that enables children to meaningfully relate to what they are learning. The approach facilitates teachers to go beyond the text and draw connections between what is learnt from the books and the experiential learning that takes place through activities. This helps children to construct knowledge themselves and be able to grasp abstract concepts for a communicative pedagogy in the classrooms. The approach centers around the usage and importance of resources[i] to initiate an effective-enabling learning discourse. Hence to introduce such an approach in government schools, a study was conducted in the primary classes of one of the Sarvodaya schools of South Delhi.
Data was collected[ii] from seven teachers of primary classes and forty students of the fourth standard through participant observation, semi structured interview schedule and informal group discussions. The aim was to enquire how teachers view activity based learning to ensure feasibility of introducing the approach in the primary classes of the school. The idea was also to understand the possibility of further work towards orienting the teachers about resources-understanding them and using them with children during their lessons. Children’s response to activity based learning was further explored to understand how concept formation/understanding happens through activities. Also the role of resources in building conceptual linkages for a holistic understanding about themes taught in the class across various subjects such as Mathematics, Environmental Studies and Language was carefully studied
The article is divided into two parts. The first part discusses the teachers’ perception on activity based learning and the second part reflects on the children’s understanding of the approach.conceptual linkages for a holistic understanding about themes taught in the class across various subjects such as Mathematics, Environmental Studies and Language was carefully studied.
This study reflects that the primary teachers of the Sarvodaya school are resistant to activity based learning. The teachers are not against the purpose, ideology or methodology of the approach. They do not also have a negative vision about the practice. But they did state specific reasons as to why they are not in favour of the approach being introduced in their classes. The reasons expressed by the teachers are circumstantial and concerning the system. For the teachers the support of the school administration is crucial to practice such an innovative learning approach. The authorities of the school do not allow them to teach in the way they want. The teachers informed that for activity based learning it is important that they have the autonomy to decide which lessons to cover, in what order and what methods they will take up for teaching these. If this kind of space is created by the school administration then they are willing to introduce such an approach in their classes. The teachers further stated that effective implementation of activity based learning approach even if introduced will not be feasible in terms of practice in government schools. This is because of the skewed student teacher ratio. The teachers informed that each of them manages a class of 50-60 students. With such a huge strength, chances of a teacher using activities in class become impossible. Teachers further expressed concerns such as being overburdened and pressurized with different kinds of non-teaching work and hence the inability to practice activity based learning in their classes.
A teacher of the 3rd standard said “the fact that we manage to go to the class and teach children is itself a big thing given the kind of pressure we undergo .We are doing all kinds of non-teaching work in the school. It is impossible for me to prepare activities and use them in class”. The teacher further informed, “ the parents of these children are also not in favour of the activity based learning approach. Parents feel that doing activities and playing with materials in class is no serious learning. Parents come to school to enquire when activity based learning will end so that serious teaching can begin”. The teacher is thus of the view that school allows internship not because they want innovative teaching in school but only because the Directorate of Education wants their school to permit internship.
However, most of the teachers were agreeable that clarity in understanding concepts is possible through activities and usage of resources. But at the same time the teachers asserted that meaningful pedagogy can never happen without textbooks. What needs to remain at the core is teaching of the text. Teachers felt that activity based learning approach tend to over emphasize on activities and materials and this sidelines the text. The other concern that the teacher expressed was that activity based learning is subject specific. According to most of the teachers this approach is not appropriate for all subjects. According to the teachers, in Mathematics, activity based learning through the usage of concrete materials is appropriate in understanding the abstract concepts of the subject with clarity. The teacher of the 2nd standard said, “observing the interns I tried using stones and marbles to teach addition and subtraction in my Maths class. For the same purpose I have also tried using the ganit mala one day. I was amazed to see that almost the entire class was able to learn addition and subtraction through concrete materials like marbles or the ganit mala”. Not only did the teachers across the primary classes appreciate the kind of activities done by the interns in their mathematics classes, some of them also ensured that the interns leave back their resources so that teachers are able to use them in their Mathematics classes.
In the Environmental Studies (EVS) class the teachers did agree that certain resource based activities do help them in engaging children to their immediate environment and understanding it better. But they also stated that over emphasis of the interns on the social concerns of the environment is affecting the scientific aspects of the subject. According to one of the teachers of the 4th standard, “activity based learning in EVS does not give much importance to the usage of scientific terms. This is diluting the subject. If the interns are only doing activities, games and specifically stories to teach EVS then what will be the difference between teaching EVS and teaching Language.”
It was for teaching language that the maximum disproval for activity based learning was voiced. The teachers felt that language is about speaking, reading and writing. Though activities in language have been able to improve the speaking and reading skills of many students but as far as writing is concerned, activities and materials serve no purpose. Most students are unable to write. According to one of the teachers of the 1st standard, “children in this age are in the initial stages of learning language specifically where reading and writing is concerned. Hence in any kind of reading-writing activity it becomes important to rectify the mistakes children make during reading or writing. But the focus of the interns have never been on pointing out the mistakes and rectifying it. Rather the focus has been on providing space for children to read and write in the way they want. This is not the right way of teaching language. Reading and writing anything will not help them in learning language”. The apprehension towards activity based teaching in language is also stated by another teacher of the 3rd standard. According to her, “the intern of my class gave the children the task to write about the problems they face with the mid-day meal and address it to the school authorities. The activity was interesting but the problem was that the intern’s focus was more on appreciating the content of the letter but the intern did not focus on whether the students wrote complete, correct sentences or used the right kind of punctuation marks while writing the letter. This kind of activity is not suitable for a language class”. The teachers thus felt that in the case of teaching language the traditional approach is far more effective.
Subject specific data was gathered from the 4th standard students of the school to understand their response to activity based learning across different subjects (Mathematics, Environmental Studies and Language) that they are taught. What emerged from the data is that interns across the primary classes felt that mathematical concepts are abstract entities and hence activities provide scope for reflective abstraction[iii] from physical knowledge (physical properties) of objects to form concepts. According to the intern[iv] teaching class 4, “physical knowledge about the material/resource and logical knowledge constructed by the learner form concepts”. One of the observations of the intern reveals that a child, Varsha finds that difference in size can lead to difference in weights and deduces that Simran’s eraser is heavier than her’s as it is bigger in size. Here what is small and what is big are the physical properties of the eraser but relation between size and weight is logically constructed by Varsha. In mathematics there is a hierarchy of concepts which means that one concept is built over the other. It is the secondary concepts that form the basis of another concept that children construct through reflective abstraction. Another observation of the intern showed that children made patterns and while doing the activity they organized shapes in such a way so that they lock and fit completely to form a pattern. This can only happen when children have knowledge of sides and length. Gautam, a child of the 4th class arranged triangle pattern in such a way that each of the shapes completely fitted into the pattern. Had he not understood the concept of sides and length he would not have deduced the shape that fits correctly with no gap remaining in between the formation of the pattern. Hence, children build mathematical concepts one over the other while learning. According to another intern of the 3rd standard, children form concepts by reflective abstraction or by thinking they sometimes form alternate concepts or generalize certain concepts. In order to avoid this they need to be provided with varied examples. During an activity on making weights a few students generalized that 50 gram of weight means packet full of stones and 20 gram means half a packet of stones. Hence, children were asked to do the same activity with different size of packets to make them understand that space occupied and weight has so such relation. Validation of mathematical concepts was another area explored. Students were encouraged to find their own error and given an opportunity to rectify it so that they are able to construct and self -correct the concepts. In one of the observations of an intern it was found that while calculating the area a child Rahul pasted a one unit square over another so as to cover the entire surface. Nikita however went ahead and corrected him saying that a square can only occupy one space. Hearing that, Rahul rearranged the unit squares on paper till it covered the whole area (surface). While doing so he realized that he had organized the square in a zigzag way which left an uneven gap. So during the activity interaction between students provide scope for correction and validation.
In Environmental Studies children are able to learn concepts while interacting, engaging and relating to their environment. Learning indicators of EVS[v] that are based on processes/skills are crucial for children to understand concepts. An intern teaching EVS in the 4th class said, “Activities and materials support children in their struggle to relate any experience to the existing concepts and then accommodate them as per their cognitive structures. But before that what is crucial to understand is that children first gather and perceive new experiences which happen through the help of the processes/skills”. Children move from simple to complex concepts by raising questions and by making linkages between various concepts. Raising questions creates imbalance in childrens’ way of thinking (cognitive conflict). Hence to maintain the balance children mould their thinking accordingly to accommodate or add new concepts/experience. Another observation of an intern of the 3rd class reveals that while sorting out beaks of birds according to their eating habits, a child called Sunny raised a question that how was it possible that ducks stay in water but still have a beak which functions like a tongue and not like straw. To this Roshni answered that beaks are made according to eating habits and not habitat. Ducks eat fish and not water. This question raising not only cleared Sunny’s doubt but also helped him learn a new concept which made his idea on beaks more clear and specific. While making food chain/food web children are found to be forming relations between many organisms and the food that they eat. This helps them organize and link their concepts, forming better cognitive structures. But they were not able to understand the concept of food web. What they understood was that one organism became the food of another and one can be eaten by many others. They failed to deduce the concept of food web by using skills and prior concepts of food web during the activity. As children are forming concepts by interacting they sometime commit error or form alternative concepts. This error can be removed in course of the activities to overcome misconception through specially designed activities. However, both errors and misconceptions are part of learning.
As far as language is concerned; children have their own way of coping with it. They learn the language spoken in their homes without any formal structure. Hence when the child enters the school she/he is already aware of the structure and function of language and uses it in various contexts (home, school, community, etc) and for various expressions (command, request, etc). Interns of the Sarvodaya school are of the view that in the activity based learning approach writing as a task has no fixed format. According to one of the interns of the 3rd standard, when she asked children to describe the characteristics of a person close to them, she only instructed children to provide every detail of the person. It is while writing that children used their prior experiences and organized them as per the objectives of the writing. Not only are the contents of the writing but also the words children used are from their everyday language. Children are capable of organizing and sequencing their thoughts. This came up all the more clearly in the story formation activity given to children. However, as far as the writing part was concerned, the sentence structure was not completely correct but it was comprehendible. Punctuation marks are not used most of the time which makes it difficult to read but even then children are able to read their stories and explain the sequence of the events. An Intern of the 4th standard expressed “in behaviorist-traditional the teaching of language starts from teaching rules of grammar and sentence construction ignoring the ability of the child to do it. The writing forms are completely isolated from what children verbally communicate. But in activity based learning, language or writing form is seen as the extension of what children verbally express. Because of this writing becomes fearless for children and they are motivated and feel confident to write and be able to understand the meaning and purpose of writing as a form of communication”.
Interns across the other primary classes also affirmed that language activities provide connectivity between what children talk and what they write. This kind of connectivity helps children in visualizing writing as a form of communication. It is through activities that children can be familiarized with various forms of writing.
To conclude, all children have a curiosity to know about the world around them and activity based learning to a great extent provides a channel for this. Children are found to have immense potentialities and are capable of directing their own learning while interacting with resources/materials during activities. Hence activity based learning provides scope for self-learning and allows children to follow their own ways to construct knowledge. Such kind of learning interests them and therefore is more meaningful unlike the behaviorist method of teaching. The understanding and perspective of every student varies, and activity based learning caters to diversity. It provides an equal platform to every student to share their experiences and understanding. Also this method keeps a scope for correction and validation which can only happen through a dialogue with the children providing assistance to rectify their own mistakes. However, despite the significant strengths of the approach there is resistance for activity based learning in government schools. Hence, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the pedagogical approach of government schools. The responsibility, however, does not lie on the teachers alone. It has to be a collaborative effort of the stakeholders- the school authorities, the parents/community, government, teachers and children on how they visualize education and the meaningful ways to acquire it.
[i] Resources/materials can be texts, concrete materials, children’s literature, theatre, field visits, audio-visuals, art-craftwork and other relevant materials like charts and worksheets.
[ii]The field data is collected by the B.El.Ed (Bachelors in Elementary Education) interns of Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi who went for their 14 week internship programme in one of the Sarvodaya schools of South Delhi. The study was conducted as part of a project funded by Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Mumbai.
[iii] Reflective abstraction is a concept introduced to describe construction of logical mathematical structures by an individual during the course of cognitive development (Beth and Piaget, 1966: 203-08)
[iv] Interns’ perspectives across the primary classes are taken while discussing the section on 4th standard children’s response to activity based learning as the approach was been introduced and practiced across primary classes by the B.El.Ed interns as part of their 14 week internship programme in the school.
[v] Broadly EVS learning is around ten broad process/skill based indicators. Across the primary classes (I-V), the learning indicators are same. However, the progression of learning from classes III to V can be seen through the complexity in the indicator. The indicators are: observation and reporting, discussion, expression, explanation, classification, questioning, analysis, experimentation, concern for justice and equality and cooperation
Beth E.W, Piaget J (1966). Mathematical Epistemology and Psychology, Netherlands, Springer
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This article is published in The New Leam, OCTOBER Issue( Vol.2 No.16) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at firstname.lastname@example.org