The Head Teacher had called for a staff meeting. He wanted the teachers to understand how crucial it is that every child attains the skill of being able to learn; basically, every child should learn how to learn. “Let us attempt to instil the spirit of a child being its own teacher, you will just be the catalyst,” he initiated the discussion.

“Then we might as well close shop. What is the need of teachers if they will self-teach?” said Alphabet Teacher half scornfully. “The classic way of learning remains relevant. First, supply facts and pictures to students, then some logic to organise the pieces of information. Finally, lead them to find conclusions,” said the Head Teacher ignoring the jibe.

“I realise that one has to become as childish as they are, as innocent as they seem. This is the key to understanding them and penetrating their thinking. But the questions! They are exasperating when they take off,” lamented the Language Teacher, though good-naturedly.

“It’s like a test of our understanding. But I am in total agreement that this is the most needed skill in every child,” concurred the Science Teacher.

“Yes, we need to find ways and means to motivate them to become self-learners,” summed up the Language Teacher.

“I have found that children really lap up praise, and it encourages them to do better at learning,” Buddy Teacher said. This last statement led to immense discussion back and forth.

“But praise may not always be suitable.”

“Yes, true. Children rapidly see through the automatic praise, regardless of the work, effort, or behaviour, and it loses its impact. Only suitable labour, effort, or behaviour should be rewarded with praise.”

“My experience with adolescents is that many of them feel embarrassed by praise, especially if it is given in front of their peers. In fact, they do not respond positively to it.”

“I think I took the implications of praising to the other extreme when I began to ignore Cuebee for not being touted as my favourite.”

“There are some students like Mindesh, who work hard to get good grades in their homework and complete the syllabus on time. They do deserve open praise, in my view, even if it means that they might be considered teacher’s chamcha.”

“I use a system of feedback to inform children about their progress and encourage them to keep going. When feedback is combined with praise, I find that a child is more likely to learn successfully and act correctly.”

“We need to use discretion when doling out praise. Praising a child who is misbehaving may be perceived as rewarding poor behaviour, thus motivating the child to misbehave in order to get attention. Children have a unique psychology. Narrative is very important!” The Head Teacher was very cautious yet democratic in his advice to teachers. “As your professional expertise and judgement grow, I am sure each of you will figure out how best to use praise to drive their learning,” he concluded.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. My classroom-mates had begun to notice the absence of Cuebee’s antics in our portrayal of the events in the school, and my related and growing sadness. Almost seven to eight months into Grade 5, I had steadily begun to discern a modicum of change in the classroom transactions of Alphabet Teacher. Though her haughty and firm demeanour did not show any signs of delayed sublimity at that point, there was certainly something that was changing in her approach.

Take her class on fractions, for example. Erstwhile, Alphabet Teacher would have written some stuff on the chalkboard, entered into a monologue with the children about fractions and the multiple ways in which they can be deduced, and left the room after a full 45 minutes convinced that she could tick off one more box in the syllabus. But this new avatar of Alphabet Teacher seemed to have thrown all caution to the wind.

“We will study fractions today. Fractions are nothing but a part of a whole. Let me give you an example.” She raised her palm with three fingers folded. “How many fingers do you see?”

“Teacher, two.”

“Good. Two out of how many in this hand?”

“Two out of five, Teacher.”

“That’s right. So, we are talking about two parts or two fingers out of a whole that has five parts or five fingers in one hand. Therefore, when I raise my palm like this, two is a fraction of five.”

“Teacher, if we consider all fingers, should it be two as a fraction of ten?”

“Very good! That is correct. Now let us think of some real-life examples.”

“We are in one classroom out of eight in the school.”

“Shabaash! Any other examples?”

“Teacher, whenever Cuebee decides to smile these days, we can see only a fraction of her teeth. Maybe six out of 32.” Bullie with his sardonic sense of humour was getting increasingly better at making the class happy.

“What else?”

“Teacher, when we buy groceries, then half kilogram means one-half part of one kilogram.”

“Excellent! How do you know this?”

“Teacher, I sit in my father’s shop every day after school,” said Sky to the unconcealed amazement of the teacher. “That’s a good start. Let us all find out the ways in which your Ma and Papa use fractions in their daily life.”

That was the beginning of the free flow once again of unfettered minds.

The Power of Curiosity: In and Beyond Classrooms

Excerpted with permission from The Power of Curiosity: In and Beyond Classrooms, Anita Karwal, Rashi Sharma, and Rajnish Kumar, HarperCollins India.