Minakshi Balkrishna | Teacher, Educator
Minakshi Balkrishna has a teaching and administrative experience for over 30 years. She has vast experience in teaching in international schools in India and abroad and has implemented the International Baccalaureate PYP programme and, conducted the Evaluation and self-study for the school she was working with. She was completely responsible for the planning, implementation and execution of the programme. She has conducted several workshops to initiate the school teachers to orient in the mode of International curriculum, methodology and pedagogy. Her last tenure was from an international school as Executive Director.
She has attended workshops at Harvard Graduate School of Education for the future of learning, programme. She has attended several workshops to get insights of teaching and learning and trickled it into her school domain.
Her last stint was at Centre of Environment Education (CEE) as Program Director, Primary and Pre-Primary Schools, where she implemented a nature-based program for 3–6-year-olds.
Minakshi Balakrishna’s passion in education has helped many a start up like wonder boxx, a science-based DIY kit, to help in concept and program. She is now an education consultant for several schools and is also on the advisory committee and on the board of some schools in Ahmedabad. She is an avid reader and likes books on education and management. This passion has delved into research in this field. She is pursuing her PhD in education and management from the Academy of Human Resource, Ahmedabad.
1. What or who inspired you to get into the teaching field?
In 1988, I started teaching in a school called Chettinad Vidyashram, Chennai. Dr. Meena Muthiah, the owner of Chettinad Vidyashram, asked me if I had applied for my B.Ed degree. I was a postgraduate in Economics from Stella Maris College, Chennai. I was not sure whether I wanted to be a school teacher, I had plans of getting into the corporate world then. I was also not sure if I could handle a bunch of kids in class. The two kids I had were a handful. When I communicated this to her, she said she had already filled and submitted my B.Ed application. Later I completed my degree in Education, this is how I began my teaching career.
The school was new with progressive ideas in teaching, and I was given the freedom to teach. The school was in a palace and some rooms were converted to classrooms and I was part of all of that. I was very enthusiastic to create and design lessons for children which were happy, fun and play-based. At that time, I did not know any of the educational terminologies, I wanted children to be engaged and enjoy their learning and saw how they responded. I was intrinsically interested in being with children. We had projects for children and they had a great learning experience. My journey as a teacher had taken its first step.
I have worked in a lot of places. I taught in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and then in Sao Paulo in Brazil. It was in Brazil that I got the taste of the International Baccalaureate programme (IB). This IB program kindled my curiosity and helped me understand what pedagogy looks like. Though I had completed my B.Ed., the IB programme helped me look at the aspect of education in a different way. It was so rich and helped children feel comfortable in their learning spaces giving varied learning opportunities. The best part was what the mission statement and this has stayed with me. A part of it was ‘people with their differences can also be right’. This is profound.
2. Please share your thought on how teaching and education has changed to what it has become today.
The role of a teacher has changed a lot over time. Now with NEP 2020 being introduced, it will change further. A few years ago, education was textbook based and more chalk and talk. Some progressive schools did have different methods of teaching and had art exhibitions, science fairs and literary weeks and so on. But at the end of the day, in most schools what a teacher asked in class and what the students knew was largely based on what was at the end of the chapter in the textbook.
Apart from the knowledge a teacher had in terms of the subject and proficiency, teachers depended on the textbook. It was largely about reading the textbook and making the children understand, and thereby completing the lessons by the way of Q&A and examinations. A lot of this happened by rote. Children were never asked ‘what they know’, instead they were asked ‘what they don’t know’. Questions were usually knowledge-based – from memory and recall. Teachers had little exposure about educational pedagogy and lesson plans were more of what was in the textbooks. There was less methodology on how the lesson will take place.
Later, we moved to technology developed lessons where digital presence was seen in the classroom. Smart boards were introduced. Teachers could use these in class and show a lot of pictures, videos and drawings as educational aids. This too had some drawbacks. It became a tool to help the teacher reproduce things on the board. Here again, we were not helping the students to promote ‘thinking’. Schools did not teach ‘how to think’ What we saw, we perceived. What we perceived, we made conclusion based on it. Today, this has evolved to online teaching, due to the pandemic.
With the NEP 2020 there is a conscious movement to make a change, this transition has helped most schools to become progressive in pedagogy.
There is emphasis on approaches in teaching and learning, emphasis on learning excellence, science and STEM orientation. environment awareness, the emphasis on SDG goals and global citizenship – connecting the local and the global. Children need real life experiences to connect their learning to construct their own meaning.
3. How do you think the pandemic has changed the way we look at classrooms and learning?
The pandemic has completely changed the way teachers look at teaching and how to engage children at home. The teacher is virtual, and the child is sitting at home and taking lessons. How to make the lessons engaging is the biggest challenge.
There have been multiple challenges for teachers. Some of the teachers have been stressed and some have had very uncomfortable moments. Some teachers were not very tech savvy, some did not even have laptops or computers at home. Things changed overnight, where teachers had to become tech savvy, had to prepare presentations and the real now became all too virtual.
Now the emphasis was how to prepare for an online classroom- preparing for an online class is different from preparing for a physical classroom. If you ask me, lesson planning is a very important part of a teachers’ profession. To be creative, innovative, to bring a scientific temperament, language skills and vocabulary of a particular subject is very crucial. The emotional quotient is crucial in a class and in an online class, it becomes difficult to make that connect. A lot of emphasis needs to be provided for communication skills, reading, writing, speaking and presenting skills. How to incorporate thinking skills, social skills, research skills, self-management skills become a challenge for the teachers. How to make an online lesson relevant, challenging and engaging is a paramount task for them. A click of a button, the world is a village. Living in a global village, teachers need to make things local and at the same time global. In a pandemic situation this can be extremely tough to provide the creative expressions in lessons.
4. Most of the teaching methods used by teachers, are meant for physical classrooms. How do you think teachers can effectively move their lesson plans to suit the online environment?
First thing is to make an online lesson plan. I would start with how to make children think.
We should move to research methods in classrooms. We can start with hypothesis which will generate a lot of questions. The generation of questions will lead to inquiry-based learning. It will lead to the basic principle of epistemology which speaks of how we should investigate the world and then ontology, on how we view the world. So, in an online class it is important to bring about critical thinking and look at problem solving in a big way. We need to create lessons which will become real – why am I learning trigonometry? Why am I learning Geography? Where will I use it? Can I understand supply and demand with real examples?
Teachers now should look at metacognition, ‘thinking about thinking’, understanding the effective domain, the cognitive domain and the psychomotor domain.
Online classrooms should be made as real as possible and should bring in multidimensional thinking which has three parts to it – critical thinking, creative thinking and ‘caring’ thinking.
The classes are already auditory and visual. My suggestion is to make the classrooms kinaesthetic as well. If you are speaking of a concept in class today, tell the children to prepare on it and be ready. Engage them with some kind of an exercise. Otherwise, there will be a disconnect in an online medium where the teacher is saying something and the child is doing something else, oblivious of what the teacher is saying.
Another important thing is to reduce using animations! Children are already seeing so much of it. Show them real pictures, show the real stuff, do experiments with them. Start with an inquiry process with them where the children have to ask a lot of questions. Start the lessons with a lot of questions – what is it that you know already and what is it that you want to know, and then proceed with the lessons. This brings clarity in the learning objective and outcomes.
5. A classroom is filled with different kinds of learners. How can teachers make sure he/she caters to the slow learners and the difficult ones online?
If you see how a person becomes a genius, it starts from the root word ‘generate’ or to ‘beget’. Ask any mother and she’ll will see a genius in her child.
The human brain is like an enchanted loom, ready to take creative self-expression.
Provide those learning stimuli.
Every child is unique in their own way. Why label them as slow learners or genius or gifted? The only way we can handle different kinds of learners is to provide extension lessons. A teacher will have to do a lot of work for this. In an online class scenario, emails can be sent on the lessons to students where they can contribute based on that. Provide them enough curiosity. ‘Gifted’ children can use this opportunity, do some research and share their thoughts on the lessons with the class and teacher. Teachers should be able to provide thinking strategies to enhance their learning. For those children who have not reached the benchmark of a standardised test, it is because they have missed something somewhere. For this, they need help from teachers to reach the desired mark. For this, some extra sessions and lessons can be provided to bridge that learning gap. If the concept of pie chart was taught in class, the previous lesson has to be of percentages and if the child was absent due to an illness and has missed the lessons, how will he/she know what it is when they are back to class? The child will not be able to understand what is being taught. There is a backlog here. Here is where they need to bridge the gap. So, most of the time, children do not have a medical condition or learning ability issues. It is more about bridging the gap between the backlog that they have had in class and in learning because the teacher taught, and the child was unable to learn due to the circumstances. There is a difference between the taught and the learnt. Let each child blossom. So metaphorically, the gardener is the same, the water, sunlight and soil is the same, each will take its time to blossom in this nursery of creation. Let each child think on their own, let each child find their meaning. Why should kids be labelled?
In large classrooms, there is very limited opportunity for children to show their talent. Also, there is less opportunity for the teachers to provide multiple assessments, activities and experiments for learners or individual education plans. So here, the research method of teaching works. Can children have a self-evaluation of their own? Can they have group activities which will provide them to have peer assessments? Maybe some kids are not ready on their own, but when provided with good inputs they can collaborate and learn. Team building exercise helps while working with a group. Projects, group activities come to help during such situations. This will also provide a different method of learning apart from the regular lessons.
Assessment practices and how we assess becomes very crucial and important part in each stage of learning. There are so many methods of assessments – project-based, problem solving, group discussions, creative writing, concept based and more. A qualitative and quantitative method of reporting helps the students get feedback. Children should be given the concept for them work with their own lens and provide ownership of learning. They love it when they have ownership. There is a sense of belonging.
In cases where there are children with medical conditions, we need a special needs teacher who can understand the psychology of the child and not label him/her. In a typical class, if you are a special needs student, you are already labelled, as it has not been integrated in the mainstream education. If you have problems understanding or if you haven’t done well, you go to the special needs teacher. Hence you miss catching up with what the others have been taught in a regular class and the backlog gets larger and larger. This creates a huge backlog. So, providing assessment at different levels and not labelling them would be a wonderful way of bridging the learning gap.
Special needs program is not another classroom for the teacher. It has to get merged with the ‘regular’ classroom. What needs to be done is just provide another level of assessment for the children who require it. You cannot have standardised tests or benchmarks for these children and categorize them unsuccessful. It is like having one uniform that fits all.
When you say a child is a slow learner or has ADHD or difficulties in understanding, the only way for us to understand what is going on is to know whether they can communicate the language and whether they have analytical skills. These two facts are focal in learning as well as in online classes too.
6. What do you think is the future of education, with the new online classes and ‘teach/learn from home’ system? How are physical classes going to be different once schools reopen?
Sooner or later, the schools are going to reopen. I think once they do, things are going to be exciting. In a physical classroom, group discussions, teamwork and a lot of learning from the peers by just observation makes learning happen.
I think the physical classroom is the spirit & soul of the school. If the children are not there, there is no school.
You can have teachers, and a bunch of students on a screen, but it is not the same as having your presence in class. Classrooms under the tree or informal classes or classroom without walls is a possibility.
What should change when schools reopen physically, is to make classes inquiry-based learning. For this again, making lesson plans is very crucial. According to me, lesson plans are like recipes to classrooms. It is like baking a cake. For those who say lesson plans are not important, that for me is like saying I have all the ingredients, but I forgot the baking powder!! Recipes keep track of the ingredients required and makes sure nothing is left out. I believe if you have lesson plans ready, you have a recipe – a recipe to know what you need to do, how you need to do it, why you need to do it and what is available. Lesson plans become important to ask questions such as how I can make them think and learn, and how I can make them curious. How can I give sufficient space? How can I give place and time? How can I provoke their imagination? How can I give them the platform to communicate their ideas and opinions?
Speaking of the future of education, it is all about being creative, make available critical thinking engagements, making them caring and empathetic individuals, thinking individuals. The future of education is going to be transdisciplinary, creative and innovative. So, there needs to be high emphasis on communication, language and analytical skills. It is important to analyse, apply and synthesise the information in all that we learn. If a student is not able to analyse the data, understand the text, it will become very difficult to apply the text.
7. What are a few important things/changes that every teacher should be prepared for, after the implementation of NEP 2020?
I think NEP is fantastic as it has addressed it to make it a ‘thinking curriculum’. It is innovative pedagogy, integrating pedagogy with technology, making all subjects interdisciplinary & multilingual, and providing STEM exercises. The core essentials have been critical thinking, to make classrooms interactive and experiential.
We will need teachers who read a lot and who have been trained well. Training here does not refer to workshops. Training here is using the learnt knowledge and helping it percolate into the classroom setting. Schools should have solid audits where the standards and practices of NEP are getting implemented in the classrooms.
Knowledge on holistic education is very important and not just subjects they teach. Isolating subjects needs to be avoided. ‘Casteism of subjects’ should be completely avoided. Right now, NEP is speaking of equity, making sure all subjects are at par. This will become really important as all subjects and subject teachers will be treated equally and given equal importance. The casteism of subjects will be eradicated. This will bring in innovative pedagogy where you have art in math and biology in literature!
For such things to happen successfully, teacher education, workshops, lesson plans, and assessments will have to be looked at very closely and scrutinised. Whether all these engagements trickle into the classroom and what kind of assessments are taken, will make the NEP 2020 a success. Training will be paramount at all levels. It will be approaches to teaching and learning and meaningful assessments.
8. The new National Education Policy 2020 focuses a lot on ‘Teacher Eligibility Tests’ and teacher training. How do you think this is going to help?
Most of the teachers who teach have got some degree or the other – a graduation or post-graduation degree, BEd. or a PhD. In India there is little about teaching how to think.
Where is the art of asking questions? Do we follow Socrates’ rhetoric questioning? So, most teachers do not know what to do because they are not exposed to that – there is very little exposure. Making a strong basis for teachers to understand educational pedagogy and to make lessons meaningful to address the future of learning is important. Evolve to make new connections with what the world is right now. And the future of learning is to make children think. Thinking teachers make thinking classrooms.
While teaching, connections need to happen all the time. When we think of language, we may think of Shakespeare and how he wrote with the emotional quotient. How is language making the connect in my life? There are so many regional authors, to name one Mythili Sharan Gupt in Hindi or Narsihn Mehta in Gujarati. What was their contribution and how does their writing connect with my life? When we think of Gandhiji, let us think of truth and non-violence and how it affects our life with our own take on ethical issues and why integrity is important in our lives. When we talk compassion, we think of Mother Teresa. Can we be kind and caring individuals? When we see bright colours and patterns, we think of Vincent van Gogh or S.H. Raza - what can art teach us? Is there Maths or Poetry or Geography in the painting? What should come to our mind is looking at the world of education as one, holistic and not in isolation. The mind should be channelled to make real-life connections. We live in the real world.
Teacher eligibility tests and training will help in reflective thinking and teaching practices. It will be a herculean task, but I do see India changing!
9. Your message for the teaching community…
Teachers need to be thinking, caring individuals. They should respect and be respected. I think teachers should be life-long learners.
They should be learning to love and loving to learn. They must embark on the voyage of learning and be constantly evolving. They should be reflective practitioners. Teachers should change their mindset and be proud to be teachers and love what they do.
Teachers should be global citizens where they connect with the world. They should constantly strive to build an intellectual character. Having a cultural link, looking at the world, looking at sustainable development goals as it will help us connect with the world, how you share the planet and provide a global outlook to everything you do is necessary. The awareness of the earth and the planet is very important. We are just a pale blue dot in this large universe and the mysteries of the universe is still to be explored.
Let them constantly be abreast with things happening around the world. Most importantly, ask a lot of questions! Why? Why not? What if? So what? …
The art of asking questions leads to lots of questions which finally becomes the basis of understanding the philosophical questions of life leading to understanding the world and making it a better place to live in.