Have You Really Learned?

Published March 27, 2020, 9:55 AM

by Joem Antonio

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If there’s anything I’m thankful for during this time of quarantine, it is that the deprivation of the classroom has forced me to reassess and question my own pedagogy. I suppose, too, I am not alone in the academe who’s undergoing this experience.

This quarantine has affirmed my calling as a teacher. A teacher is someone who cannot let their students not learn. Despite this period of social distancing, we want our students to continue learning even without our physical presence.

Some students don’t feel the same way. On the Freedom Wall dedicated to my school community, I’ve seen numerous rants (from students presumably) that the school is heartless and elitist for wanting education to continue. While it’s easy to just get defensive and brand these complainers as whiny, snowflakey, and entitled, it is more important to see past the vitriol.

Past the vitriol, there are a number of valid points: Some teachers do demand the unreasonable (video group projects, really?), some students have to rely on limited prepaid data, and the pressure of the current situation is starting to crack them down. These should not be ignored.

But the teacher’s goal remains: We still want you to learn despite these trying times. A student may now say that they have learned already before the quarantine began. To which we teachers can respond, yes, but have you learned what you should?

And this, I believe, is the crux of the students’ complaints: They don’t want to be tested in these pressuring times. But say what you want about tests. Just like the test kits tell doctors who has Covid-19, tests tell teachers what level of learning students have already achieved. Is there, then, a way to test students from home without being unreasonable?

A few days ago, I wrote an article entitled “Covid-19 and the APOLLO 13 Challenge,” wherein I mentioned that the people from NASA built a way to preserve the astronauts’ oxygen, using only what the astronauts have in the spaceship as the material. I’ve decided to walk my talk to find what we teachers can do to conduct teaching and learning despite constraints. The objective is clear.

Now to define the constraints: There are students who have poor internet access, limited data, under pressure at home. Given the direness of the situation, we should also consider the limited time they have for study (some teachers will say debatable, but I say, let’s assume the students are honest).

And the resources?

Despite the limited data, students have demonstrated that they can go online long enough to check on school decisions and to rant about those decisions. The rant ranges from five to 20 sentences. When students rant about being given school work, they can say quite much.

Another resource to consider is the students’ knowledge of the subject before the quarantine. By this time, they should have some readings and some notes. Or, at least, stock knowledge. Without any of these, I believe a student deserves to fail, with or without the quarantine.

We teachers might be working on limited data as well, but we know what we have covered before the quarantine. We know what students should already know by this time. With these, we should find a way to spark learning. We’ll have to MacGyver our way through education.

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Video projects, obviously, should be out of the question. These are outside student resources for now, and we teachers should see what is doable within Facebook and 20 sentences or less.

To this, three approaches come to mind.

First, we teachers can throw a single well-thought out question, which students have to answer in 20 sentences or less. Of course, there is the real danger of students just Googling up the answer and plagiarizing. That’s why it’s good to look at the next option.

Have the students develop a question based on what they have learned so far, and have them justify why the question is answerable and worth asking. This is much harder to plagiarize, as the questions have to be based on the teacher’s syllabus and classes. A conscious teacher would know if the students’ question is sincere, well-thought out, and practical, as opposed to pretentious, shallow, and detached from the classroom. I am somewhat partial to this, since questions demonstrate thinking a lot more than answers do. There is the danger for this that the student can pay a classmate to make a question for them. Which leads to the third option.

The question that the students will ask must be the question they’ll answer in the classroom when classes resume. After having justified that the question is answerable and worth asking—if the student is sincere with the question—they should be ready to look for the answers. As Claude Levi-Strauss would say, “The scientist is not the one who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.” In this way, too, during the time of quarantine, the students get a chance that they can be responsible to learn on their own without the supervision of the teacher.

Great students will come up with great questions, that’s for sure. But even the average student, if the question is sincere, will come up with worthwhile questions. Only the ones who comply for the sake of complying are likely to botch this up.

These requirements are within the resources.

Students will only have to use data on two occasions: When they check the teacher’s instructions and when they upload their answers. If the student has no internet data at all, a benevolent classmate can forward the teacher’s question via SMS, and the student can show the teacher the developed question come the resumption of classes.

Developing the question takes time, but this can be done while doing other activities. Agatha Christie plans her books while doing the dishes, while Archimedes solves physics problems while in the bathtub. Students just have to let their questions stew before they upload it to their teacher. The writing of the question itself should only take between five to 20 minutes… About the same time it takes to rant about homeworks.

Should this question-making test be done frequently? I don’t think so. Personally, one round should be enough. Good questions are good breeding grounds for ideas, and breeding ideas is a sign that you’re truly thinking and learning. And, as a teacher, that is enough proof a student can show me.

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