Cynthia Dettman:  Author

Necessary Humility

During my 2017 Fulbright Scholar experience in India, when I provided faculty training in Student Centered Learning, I realized quickly that many of my recommended classroom strategies did not fully address classroom barriers in India.   A trainer needs to be flexible- so I kept adapting my training, the more I learned about the Indian higher education realities, and tried in each session to offer new approaches, tips and handouts.  It was humbling.  This is such a typical problem for a Western “do gooder” coming to an Asian country to “help”, but offering some approaches that are not useful or culturally appropriate.

Where were the gaps in my approach?  I do know that I skillfully conveyed the basics of student centered learning.  I was confident that I was convincing most of my “trainees” that:

  • they need to supplement their long, boring lectures with interactive activities
  • the activities can be very simple
  • they must learn to manage an interactive group in an atmosphere of absolute respect and equality
  • simple, free technology is available using smart phones for classroom interaction

I also felt confident that most got excited about these methods, and that were hearts were touched with anecdotes and interactions that demonstrated kindness and respect for poor, low-caste, and academically underprepared students. It was more challenging to convince them that they could still get through their syllabi and that students might very likely perform better on exams.

The problems, however, were many.  Classes are very big- 50-100 students.  Their classroom spaces are small and there is very little room for movement- yet I was teaching them activities that involved a lot of movement.  (I’ve never had to teach classes of this size!)  Students are not accustomed to these methods, and are likely to offer resistance and even disrespect.   And, many classrooms have no or very poor internet access.  To top it off, there is very little time and opportunity for faculty development and training.  Faculty got discouraged as they think about these barriers.  Science and math faculty were especially hard to convince that they can use these interactive techniques in the sciences.

On top of it all, I was recommending la system of education that would require a sea change in an educational environment that has been using antiquated lecture and rote learning for centuries, thanks to the British. Institutional reform is needed, but my training did not address that.  Faculty seemed somewhat passive in a very hierarchical environment and were not accustomed to lobbying for administrative changes.

So I continue to look online for new ideas- find videos that demonstrate free, easy to use cell-phone based interaction for science and math classes- and I openly acknowledge the many barriers that faculty face.  We talk about “planting seeds”, that change comes slowly.  I can only hope that some of my “trainees” are now beginning a grassroots reform movement within their college and perhaps in the region!  Change comes slowly in India.

Humility needs to always be my guide.

2012-07-19 16.28.44
Students at Lady Doak College, Madurai, India


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As an art educator for many years I found that even teaching art is difficult in some public schools, because the time is short and the teachers want a well laid out process that keeps the students “in control” ! Its the difference between authoritarianism and democracy. The first is much more efficient for rote learning, but the second is best for free thinking and problem solving.

I acknowledge you, Cynthia, for your courage to undertake introducing student-centered learning in colleges in India. Even here in the States, where there are continual calls for SCL and new strategies from ed reformers, it’s often still difficult for teachers to plan curriculum, manage classroom issues like space and movement, and direct group work. In almost all situations, eliciting concrete, long-term support from the institution’s administration is the key. Yes, humility and authentic respect are paramount.

You’re so right, Esther! Student Centered Learning goes against the grain in most educational systems, whether in the US or India or Belarus! These systems by nature and design tend to be hierarchical, rigid, and lacking in resources. Classrooms are too small, equipment is lacking, and teachers tend to teach as they were taught themselves. It’s a big philosophical and practical shift. Interestingly, almost all systems claim to promote student-centered learning; the concept is widely promoted in Indian education, but it’s mostly hot air.

I’m curious if there is a chance to create a shared student focused learning experience with another math/science class in another country? My art/special education teacher friend in Liverpool, England has done something with a creative arts program in Austin, Texas.

Hi Yatma, I’m not exactly sure about your question- if you’re wondering if folks are sharing “student-centered” teaching methods on a global basis, yes! My time in India is certainly an example- I came as an American educator and offered strategies for Indian educators, who are working in a VERY different cultural and educational system. And yes, I believe that student-centered teaching has universal principles that can be applied in a wide range of situations, whether it’s math classes in England or art classes in Austin or physics classes in Russia! Thanks for your comment and question. Cynthia

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