Thursday, March 21, 2013

Syllabus- Coverage is Enemy of Understanding

The operative word in conventional schools is "cover". There is a mad rush for coverage. Every one is after this elusive goal.

  • The designers develop the lesson plans keeping in view how much of the subject can be covered during one period. 
  • The teacher is now forced to cover the lesson during one period. 
  • Teacher fills out the coverage form. 
  • The administrator measures the coverage and holds the teacher to task for not being able to cover the material.
  • The test is designed to measure the coverage  of the students. 
Everyone is talking about coverageand no one seems to be worrying about the understanding. 

Coverage vs Understanding

"Greatest Enemy of Understanding is Coverage" --- Howard Gardner
My elder sons used to go to one of the schools which has a very big name. I noticed that even in junior classes, i.e. class 4th, 5th and 6th the teacher seemed to be in a mad rush to cover. When I asked why do you move to the next topic even though the students are not yet proficient in the previous concepts, their refrain was the sword of "coverage" hanging on their head because the child was being prepared for the O'Levels. When I asked  why are you worrying about the O'Levels in class 6th, they are not yet at the stage of O'Level? They used to say that unless we prepare them now how can they be up to the O'Levels!! 

I was unable to convince them that preparation of O'Level should be done at O'Level stage and preparation of 5th grade should be done at 5th grade, and preparation of 6th grade should be done at the 6th grade level. Rushing to higher level preparation when the understanding of the basic levels is not solid is counter productive. I couldn't convince them that preparation for the O'Levels will follow automatically when the child has gone through the junior clases firming up the basics. At the earlier classes stage (class 4-8), you should be worrying more about the concepts of junior classes. Why you want to move to concepts of ratio and proportion when they student has not yet mastered the understanding of fractions. 


"Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning" ---- Linda McNeil, Rice University. 
The underlying cause of this mad rush for coverage is the need to measure the outcomes. Coverage is probably the easiest things to measure. Understanding of a student, however, is difficult to measure. Hence, the emphasis on coverage. It is easy to make lesson plan, deliver a lecture according to plan, and then tick mark the parts of the plan that have been covered. Administrator finds it easy to look at the coverage and point out the deficiency. It is easy to make a question paper covering the material covered in the lesson plans. Every one is happy except the students. Students do not know what is happening. The are not allowed to find connections of the material with their experiences and things happening around them. Teacher, even when able to, does not have the time either to make these connections. She simply goes through the motions of covering for the sake of covering paying no heed to the understanding and mastery of the students on the given material.

Unlink coverage, understanding and learning does not proceed in a linear fashion. The path it may take is unpredictable. It can depend upon the particular circumstances, happening in the city, weather, political events, news of natural disasters around the world, interest of the children etc. A skilled teacher has to make all these detours to keep alive the interest and attention of the child. But, these detours, taken to their logical conclusion, may take hours or even weeks depending upon the depth and impact of the events on the society. Failure to relate the material to the active interests of the child, makes the material life-less, dull and drab. Consequently when the teacher loses the attention of the child, the child gets labeled as demotivated. Later when teh child is unable to reproduce such a dull and life less material eventual lead him to be labeled as a failure. 

Hence coverage is often considered to be the enemy of understanding. It is like Heisenberg principle, the more you try to focus on coverage , the more elusive the understanding becomes and vice versa, i.e. the more one focuses on understanding, the more elusive the measurablity of coverage becomes.