All that humdrum about Intelligence – Part 2

At the end of week 2 in What future for education, the one focused on intelligence, I was left ruminating about the differences in teaching styles and learning objectives across institutions, countries and cultures.

I did a quick review of my notes from university on this chapter to re-validate what I remembered. There were extensive notes on the various intelligence test types including Stanford-Binet, Raven’s Progressive matrices and Cattell’s test. There was a huge chapter on differential abilities of learning and how to deal with these differences, everything from exceptional to low ability children. We did extensive practice on preparing lesson plans to cater to multiple intelligences. In the last two years at school, I had not used a single one of these intelligence tests, I had participated in various discussions that segregated children based on abilities, and had prepared many lessons to cater to various intelligence types.

And what did the WFE do? Have a lecture that simply focused on squashing most of these traditional interpretations of intelligence. Professor Stobart wove in various examples of successful people from our lives to prove that factors like opportunities, family drive, teacher willingness and societal culture affect our intelligence extensively. He spoke about an expert learner, and how deliberate practice distinguishes children’s learning more than inherent abilities. Most importantly, he spoke about how customizing our teaching by catering to specific ‘learning abilities’ boxes children and gives them very little scope to move to an zone of higher ability.

What I perceived was for their good

This last aspect was alive for me in school; children admitted through the Right to Education scheme came from socio-economic backgrounds that stripped the context of learning from them entirely. The language and the topics of conversations at home left them feeling alien to the discussions in school. Most of them sat in class staring vacantly back at us, copying copious (yet meaningless) notes from their peers, or looking out the window at the tree, with eyes that yearned for freedom from this cage.

And our solution to this major concern was to give them ability-focused, special education. While the rest of the class learnt identification of continuous and perfect tenses, this class (of ‘low ability children’) learnt spellings for basic 4 letter words. We just conveniently demoted them down two levels because they were not learning at the current level, eventually forcing them down a path that gave them fewer opportunities, lesser learning and a life-long brand.

Tests, Ranks and Exams

My own education over the years has been flooded with tests, exams and ranks. Like the weekly class tests and monthly tests and term-end exams were not sufficient, I even wrote olympiads to see how my learning compared against children in my zone, city, and the country.

Since I managed to stay in the top 3% of the class in most grades, I feel like I wasn’t pressured too much, performance-wise. Of course, the crux of ranks is their relativity and there was always some loophole in them to make you feel miserable and incompetent. If I was a little too ecstatic about a second or a third rank in class, a visit to the ancestral home was sufficient to burst one’s bubble; uncles and cousins would flaunt their perfect records of first rank, right from when they started teething. If I was joyfully dragged my parents in to meet the teacher, fully aware of my second rank ‘victory’, the teacher would highlight the huge marks difference between the first rank child and me, imploring me to study harder the next time.

In the end, I believe that the person that I am today is purely because of that judgement of intelligence over the years of schooling. The final ranks in grade 10 decided where I went to study higher secondary, final marks in grade 12 combined with the ominous rank from the entrance exams decided which university I went to for my under-graduate studies. Which branch I selected was also driven by this, automatically putting my engineering degree below the more worthy ones.

The person that I am today is a culmination of all the experiences over all these years. So, my life, in fact, has been driven by the educational opportunities presented, which were driven by the system’s gauge of my intelligence.

Learner for life?

I definitely consider myself a learner, albeit not an expert learner. I catch myself being curious about a lot of things and with the urge to keep myself appraised with things that excite me. I find myself learning through various mediums and methods, and more often driven by the joy of learning than the outcome or benefits of learning.

Day 6: Troubled kids

I was introduced to two very differently abled children today. Ms. LineMonitor is a bubbly ten year old, who always greets me with a hug and doesn’t hesitate to tell me when the class is a bore. I’ve seen her play with an RTE child’s hair with absolutely no hesitations unlike a few others. And yet, she doesn’t write like a normal ten year old. Her focus and attention constantly waver and she needs constant reminding to stay on point. I see the mind map she’s copied from the blackboard into her notebook and it’s a squiggly mess that leaves me worried. Moreover, when answering to questions in class, she doesn’t hesitate to raise her hands and begins answering. But midway, she loses her train of thought, jumps to a different topic entirely and often leaves herself frustrated and confused. All these difficulties are masked when I ask her to read aloud and she shows brilliant control of intonation and pauses. I’m beginning to sense the areas where we’ll be working on through the year now.

Ms. Tender is my other find from today’s English class. We did some choral reading in the session and her finger followed along the lines of the textbook diligently, almost seeming normal. Except, they were following an entire line above the one we were reading. As I promoted her, she beautifully repeated what I read, with the same tone and pronunciation. But her reading, and her fingers stopped, when I stopped. She wasnt able to read on her own at all because she had no idea what these letters and words looked like in print. I picked up her notebook for corrections and her answers were absolutely wrong. She wrote about what she liked doing and about her family members when I had asked about an activity we’d done in class. Her letters and words jumped around the line, sometimes trailing from one to another. This was clearly another child that wasn’t reading or writing appropriate to her age.

Day 55: A fitting finale

I remember watching a few cultural performances by special children in the past. Mostly when I was a child myself, and I had not yet been introduced to the concept of disabilities. I majorly remember feeling disgust, and some shame as the kids flayed aimlessly on the stage. I almost felt a tinge of disgust when the adults appreciated such a half-assed performance, while the normal kids had done much-much better. I have a second cousin with some developmental disabilities, and I remember always making some excuse to not visit that aunt. Even when I was there, I’d try my best to avoid any eye contact. Her loud voice and a lack of personal space all scared the adolescent me.

As we sat at Bethany School, watching the students of the Special School perform for their Prize Day, I felt none of those old emotions. In fact, I felt an abundance of pride while watching these students perform the little skit that we had scripted. I felt awe and amazement as the kids danced for one of the newest Bollywood numbers, never batting an eyelid away from their dance master amongst the audience. I felt mirth as an autistic child broke step from their action song to wave at Ms. Shanti sitting in the first row.

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Jeslyn’s Jesus Loves me 🙂

We reached a good 15 minutes early and I had an opportunity to observe the audience very closely. Most looked like any other parent in any other school; eager to watch their child perform on stage, engaging the other child who is too distracted to see his brother or sister on stage. Most of them had an empathy that is often missing in the competitive nature amongst us normal folk. They had a child that was suffering, and in that they were all united as a community. I felt that powerful bond in the hall.

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We also noticed parents react very differently to their child’s condition. I know it is very naive of me to judge an experience purely from the 15 second interaction that we were purview to. But we saw our dear Stuti run over to her mom and dad sitting a few seats away from us. The mother, first in her path, did not change her morose look at all, as she simply passed the daughter over to her partner beside her. The father was all smiles at Stuti as he hoisted her up on his lap and checked emphatically about her upcoming dance. Just in that body language, the mother somehow seemed to come out as the less supportive parent of the lot. Who knows what demons lurk under her breath there! Did she blame herself for her child’s condition? Does she fight the demons of depression that our society very conveniently ignores? Did she battle complications during her pregnancy that have scarred both her daughter and her for life?

If nothing else, the experience through this teaching practicum has taught me how normal these special children are and how abnormal our ‘normal’ lives are. The two lead boys, who vocalized our entire play, could have been kids in any normal school. I’ve already talked about how a major lapse in awareness can result in children getting taken out of normal schools, and pushed to a slower track.

It pains me that the society still has a strange but deep-rooted taboo associated with disabilities. The current schooling has definitely progressed since my time, and integrated education has brought our kids closer to disabilities. But there is still so much to do. Parents and students need to be caught up on so many issues faced by these children. Only when the mainstream starts worrying about these special children will the policy makers start worrying too.

While you were busy enjoying your morning at the Special School, I’ve spent the morning stalking mom and dad for food. So much so that now daddy refuses to look at me while he eats. 

Look how silly he looks, S. And that’s him eating my fave dosas. How can I let him be? “Scotch 

And I’ll be right here, waiting for you, dosa! 

Day 53: Woman Leaders

Over the last year, I’ve been observing leaders in education closely, and I’m pretty impressed with the contributions made by the women in the industry. It’s unfortunate that a number of these talented ladies do not hold positions of power, but when did a position or an official title ever stop someone from being a true leader?

I met Dr. Shalini at a conference on Service Learning and was immediately impressed by her thought process. She’s accredited for being the only Indian author to have published a book in Service Learning. Her clarity of thought on the subject was extremely clear when she made the distinction between Service and Service Learning. While a number of presenters at the conference treaded left of center, and tried passing off community service as service learning, she was very persistent in her stand point. It’s maybe that attention to detail that caught my interest, but I left the conference impressed with the lady. 

None have influenced me in recent times as much as Ms. Shanti, at the Bethany Special School, has. Ms. Shanti Gnanaolivu moved from Southern Tamil Nadu to Bangalore in the early 1980s, looking to get a degree in Special Education. It was a time when kids with any mental disability were automatically branded as mentally retarded, and there were only 3 special schools in Bangalore. She attended one of the 3 centers that trained teachers in special education needs, while teaching Math at a mainstream school to make a living.

We’ve had the pleasure of listening to her life story over the many weeks that we visited Bethany. She has never shown an air of being the Principal of such a successful establishment, has never turned us away when we went looking for inspiration. Simplicity and passion for her job resonate in everything that she does. She answers her own phone calls and treats her assistant like a human being.

She shared stories of her trips to Holland and Netherlands in the 80s, and anecdotes about learning from such diverse cultures. She told us about how she coached and escorted the women’s basketball team to the Special Olympics in 1992. The team won gold in Minneapolis, and she was there to make sure every child reached home safely.

She comes from a generation that saw education as a necessity and not as a business prospect. She started her first teaching job not worrying about what the take-home salary was. Truly inspiring!

Women do make the world move around. They run the house, take care of their babies and find time to stay socially active.

Maybe if I kept string at Amma like this, she’ll get off Facebook and bring me a treat. What say, S?” Scotch 

Day 46: Quiet Cracks

Quiet

We walked into the Special School today and immediately knew something was amiss. An eerie silence had replaced the usual cacophony of bawling and yelling. Turned out that the whole school had driven over to the main school, to do a stage rehearsal of the skit. I was excited and dejected, all in one. We hadn’t seen a single rehearsal this far and were hoping we’d see them practice today. Turns out we’ll directly see our skit performed on stage.

With the kids gone, and no constant questions from Jeslyn to worry about, we got a lot of work done on the props today. We colored the car, cut out the scooter, colored its tyres and the seat. I even managed to make little number plates for both before the kids came back from practice, jumping with excitement.

Mum had donated 7 of her sarees that were never getting worn but were presentable. I brought it to the loom so the kids could do their magic and give me 2 big carpets. I’m looking forward to their call in September to pick up my finished product.

Cracks

There was an underlying cold air amidst the three of us through the whole day. While we were able to keep some of the differences aside and work professionally, it was clear that there was a crack in the China and no amount of mending could fix it.

I drove with Ms. RS to college earlier today and caught her up on the Religion’s drama. Having been an alumni of the same program that I am in, she was able to relate to similar issues in her senior batch, her own batch and her junior batch too. I remember, AA was frustrated by the time he reached the 4th semester, and couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over. Would I be in a similar state in half a year too?

All these data got the two of us wondering if the teachers in the department were catalysts to these discernments in a huge way. A majority of the teachers here are catholics, in a catholic institution, teaching sisters like SrA every year. Say what you might but there’s only so much objectivity they can bring in. Teachers definitely pick favorites early on, their little caddies to run their errands and play administrative staff. I remember this from school too: the popular kids that ran behind teachers with their bags and books. Would you really grade you caddy poorly and continue to expect him to pick up after you?

When bound by their duty to their profession and to their religion, what would the teachers pick first? There lies one key problem in our secular, but not so secular, education system.

Sigh! Why are you so caught up in this religion blah, S? 

Relax. Do your karma. Give me some food. The rest will follow.” Scotch 

Day 39: Respect

We spent the afternoon at the Special School, preparing props for their upcoming Prize Day. The theme for the year is “Respect: Give it to Get it”. Could any other topic be closer to my heart than this one? We were excited to watch the kids rehearse for the skit that we put together based on this theme. We had fun writing the scenes for the play. Equally fun was preparing this colorful backdrop for the skit.

My hair inspired the yellow boy, I think

As we were working, Jeslyn, one of the children in the fast learner’s class hung around, trying to help us. She is one of the most chatty ones in the class; she took us around the lunch group on our first day and introduced us to all her friends. She sings ‘Jesus loves me’ beautifully and tells me that Jesus loves her a lot because she prays to him every day when she goes home.

In the course of the two hours that we spent there working, Jeslyn asked me thrice if I had lunch, about four times what I had for lunch, definitely about five times if the Principal had allowed us to watch them sing during the Prize Day, and another three times if I knew her name was Jeslyn. She reminded me about four times that her Johnu also studied at Christ, asked me about five times what happened to my hands and if it hurt, and mentioned around ten times that she loved singing ‘Jesus loves me’. She asked me about five times if we could go down to play and about ten times where her class teacher was.

As she asked me the same question over and over again, and as SrA’s responses to her started getting more and more snide, I wondered what was really going through this little child’s mind. She is in the top performing class in the Special school, but was removed from regular school for being slow and disrupting others in class. What was truly going through her brain that made her forget what was said only 5 minutes back, and yet remember the entire lyrics to her favorite Jesus song? She never missed reminding Stuti to wipe the drool off her face, or helping Kelly find her favorite crayons. But when she was looking for her own English book, she looked over and over at the same spot, expecting it to magically appear.

It’s funny when we see movies like 50 first dates and laugh off at people that forget the present within 10 seconds. But what would life for Jeslyn truly be, if her mind worked so fast that it did not even capture what was responded to her first question because it was already making up the third question to ask? Would everyone have patience like her dear teacher, to tell her for the fifth time that we will come back next Thursday to help her finish the scooter prop?

Sometimes I wonder if you’re a little slow and suffer from memory issues like this Jeslyn too, S. Why else would you not give me food right now and make me wait for it instead?” Scotch 

Day 32: Dog eaters and Occupational Therapists 

Dog eaters

We had an interesting conversation over tea today. My classmate is from Manipur (a state in the northeast of India) and we got talking about how some tribes in the north east eat dog meat. Continue reading →

Day 18: Of experiences

Numero Uno

The trip to the Special school was short today and yet eventful, if you asked me. There’s always something to learn and the principal is so inspiring to just talk to.

We were all genuinely shocked by how rude the teachers and the aayas were to most children in the school. It seemed like these kids needed a quiet, soothing voice to handle their disabilities while all they got was constant chiding and yelling.

And then I began to wonder how I’d react if I meeting these kids day in and out, and teaching them the same things over and over again. Some of these teachers have to repeat the same instruction a thousand times before the child might even recognize this. Any progress that they have with the child is reset when he goes back home. When the children come back from their summer break, the two months have taken away almost 6 months worth of training.

What surprised me most was the resilience the kids showed to any anger coming their way. They’d almost immediately forget that they had just been yelled at by a teacher. They’d hunt the very same teacher down to show her the art work they just made. A regular child, come what age, would have some amount of residual angst and with repeated chiding from the teacher, would begin to stray away. Not the special ones.

Aussies

Had an interesting session towards the end of the day, interacting with the exchange students from Australia. Their professor completely ruined and hour and a half, taking about some really disconnected, random things. Sometimes I think it’s the curse of us Indians. But once he left, I was able to review some of the major differences between their education system and ours. A few points that stood out are:

  • The school boards are entirely managed by the government. While states can design and run their own schools, the government oversees it all.
  • There are no prescribed textbooks. The board sets the curriculum and the curricular objectives and the entire planning process stays with the teacher. Powerful!
  • Most students take trade or skills courses after grade 12. Very few actually opt for engineering, medicine or pure sciences.

Fun Cooking Experience

Had fun cooking some unique dishes for the keto diet today. Made a keto coconut barfi since I’ve been craving some dessert since I got on this diet and Priya at Keto for India made it seem very easy. Turned out well although I think something needs to be tuned in the recipe if you’re using coconut directly.

The second trial was a broccoli cheese soup. Replaced cheddar with parmesan and it smelt like pizza all through the cooking process. So, next attempt is going to be the keto pizza that H was talking about.

Oh yeah! I smelt all the ghee in the coconut dish and it made me go crazy. Where’s my portion, lady?” Scotch 

Where’s my coconut barfi?

Day 11: Of learning from special children

Remember my trip to the Special school last Thursday? I wrote about it here. We went back today to continue our conversations with the teachers and students. While our learning from just spending an hour with them is immense, our aim was to see how we could help them with our limited skills.

Continue reading →

Day 4: Of special children 

Teaching practicum today was a revelation. We visited a special school in the city and spent two hours learning about the various roles the teachers play, the challenges that they face and what makes them do it day over day.

A stark contrast between these schools and a normal school was the vibrance of the smile that each teacher carried. Veena, the computer teacher told us about how she’d walk into the school, in the morning, with her mundane worries and problems. But within the first five minutes, the children would bring a smile on her face and she invariably goes back home rejuvenated. Compare that to the general energy curve of teachers in “normal” institutions. It wanes through the day and by evening they are ready to snap at the first minor slight like a sharp twig.

Ajay, was a child of about 6 or 7, who had spinal issues that prevented him from standing up straight or walking on his own. He was sitting quietly, by himself, in the grass when he spotted me. He asked me to sit next to him. When I did, he asked me to call A over, and then sister as well. The child was collecting friends.

We met the “nerds” of the school, extremely regular-looking children, complete with their nerd glasses. They were the furthest in academics in the school. They had all attended regular schools at one point and were forced to switch over because they were either slow learners or showed minor signs of mental retardation. In most cases, it was the parents of other children that wanted these kids gone from regular schools. Huh!

Tarun was one of the senior boys in the school and walked us through their games room. Half his brain seemed to be eaten out from the inside, while the outside looked normal, with hair and all. His smile made it all disappear.

Stuti had a severe speech impairment and she could only call me ‘Se-Ah’. But that didn’t stop her from coming over and introducing herself to me or offering me her lunch.

All the teachers spoke passionately about how each child was an individual and there was no canned, one-size-fits-all approach with these kids. They talked about how most of these kids forget a lot of what was taught when they return from the summer vacations and they had to redo these lessons over. All are common with the mainstream education around us. Except, here that reality pinches much deeper.

I was surprised by the strange indifference that the principal showed to the kids. As she walked into the class for the autistic kids, Tuvon walked over to her to say hello. She almost looked past him towards the walls and moved on.

It made me wonder if that is what is bred when you do this long enough. When you teach special children for enough years, do they just become like normal children to you? And is that a bad thing? After all, we do want them to feel included, don’t we?

Oh! All this talk is making me ultra solemn. Am I not your very own, crazy, special child? Pet me and your worries will be forgotten! ” Scotch