How my new job provided a fresh perspective on my educational experience
My introduction to Deans for Impact was through The Science of Learning, a publication that summarizes how humans learn. I was fascinated by the cognitive principles included in the publication, particularly this idea of interleaving: learning is more effective if we revisit a concept after getting exposed to related ideas. It provides additional lines of reference and facilitates deeper learning.
After joining the organization as its director of finance, I have explored the topic in more depth as part of employee learning that is encouraged and supported. I recently read Lucy Crehan’s CleverLands, Elizabeth Green’s Building A+ Better Teacher, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The concepts and examples included in these books, and the cognitive principles laid out in The Science of Learning, prodded me to reflect on my own upbringing and educational experience in Nepal. Three concepts in particular have been thought provoking: a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, student mistakes as learning opportunities for teachers, and the value of memorization.
I grew up with the notion that intelligence is innate. There’s a Nepali proverb that states “a seedling with smooth leaves prognosticates a healthy tree,” which is a classic example of that fixed mindset. This proverb was often repeated in conversations to hint at whether a child would ultimately become successful. It was my grandmother’s go-to proverb whenever my brother resisted studying. It was also woven into textbook lessons to teach children about character traits. This belief clearly does not give consideration to any underlying circumstances that might have stunted the growth, and it also ignores the power of nurture. Yet, I had not questioned this mindset nor had I realized its grave implications for children, especially slow-starters, until I started reading Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindset.
This fixed mindset also pervaded Nepal’s education system. Crehan describes how setting was used in England (and in Finland prior to 1983) to place students in different classes based on their abilities. We had a very similar system in Nepal. In middle and high school we were put into sets in math and science classes – two subjects that were deemed important for success – based on our performance on a final exam in each course. This practice may have had some value if the low-performing students received special coaching or extra help to catch up. Rather a student’s set was a signpost that allowed teachers, classmates, schoolmates, and parents to judge his or her ability. I struggled with transitioning to a new school in grade seven and landed in set “C” in science in grade eight. I still remember my feeling of doom, which was exacerbated by my family’s disappointment. Reading Crehan’s work made me realize how setting puts “poor performers” at a distinct disadvantage. It limits the opportunity to learn from high-performers and inculcates the fixed mindset.
In this fixed mindset, mistakes were a sign of weakness. The sinking feeling of being reprimanded by a teacher when I unknowingly used the ammeter (an instrument that measures current) incorrectly is still fresh in my mind. So when I read Building A+ Better Teacher, which introduced me to the practice of “lesson study” in Japan, I was amazed to say the least. Japanese teachers analyze student mistakes to probe the gap in understanding and then develop problems and examples that help students fill those gaps. Mistakes are viewed as an opportunity to improve teaching and enhance student learning. For me, that was a surprising but powerful and refreshing insight.
Another aspect of my early educational experience was the focus on process, particularly memorization. In elementary school, we had to memorize the multiplication tables and the past and future tenses of English language verbs. My father used to quiz me on these, even during dinner, to test my knowledge. When I mastered the multiplication table up to 10, the next goal was to memorize 11 through 15. I was told it would make me strong in math, but I despised the pressure. I had always associated rote learning with mindless learning, so I was very surprised to find that there is some value in rote learning (or, as Crehan puts it, repeat learning) as long as it is used to store information in long-term memory in order to expedite more complex problem solving. If I had known its benefits, and if the educators had known to frame this as a scaffolding strategy, I perhaps could have avoided engaging in what I learned is called “grudging compliance.”