Mentor Mag

Examining Assumptions

It is exam time and you come  home  to find the television on and your dear child glued to the screen. ‘Stop wasting your time on TV when you should be studying!’ you admonish. ‘I’m sure you’ve been sitting here since the time you got back from school!’ Your teenager glares back at you, leaves the room and refuses to speak to you for the rest of the evening. When you finally make your peace, you find that your child had, in fact, studied and had just settled down for a TV break when you arrived.

Assumptions at play

So often, as in here, our reading of a situation is based on an erroneous assumption. Here, we assumed that our child + unsupervised time = television or wasteful use of time. Assumptions are the underlying basis on which our reasoning, theories, strategies, plans of actions and actions are based.

We often base our actions on false assumptions that seem to be justified by one of the statements above. We rarely challenge our assumptions and proceed to take action based on these assumptions.

Unfortunately, the actions that follow will not likely give us the solution we want, instead our actions would be fragmented, contradictory and confusing and may look like this – Let us examine another situation where the underlying assumption leads to unexpected results.

A pre-school in Singapore found that almost every other day, a number of parents would be late at pick-up time. They had tried sending reminders and requests to parents to be on time; however, without much effect. A suggestion was made to charge a nominal penalty fee every time a parent was late by more than 10 mins.

What do you think happened when this new rule was implemented?

Result A: The number of late parents increased.


Result B: The number of late parents decreased.

What followed was that more number of parents were late and for longer! On inquiry, it was found that while the parents had earlier felt a moral duty to be on time, now with the new ‘penalty fee’, it simply became a monetary transaction. They felt – ‘Oh, well, since I’m paying for it, it’s ok if I’m late!’ Here, the management based its  action  on the ‘it-will-hurt-to-pay’ assumption  –  that asking parents to ‘pay’ for being late would reduce this undesirable behaviour. In hindsight, if they had built their action plan on the ‘moral guilt’ of making the teacher wait beyond school hours, it may have had the desired effect. Perhaps a direct note from the teacher explaining that her personal time was affected on account of having to stay back in school with the children of late parents may have been more effective.

Assumptions for a successful life

A dearly held assumption is that high marks and excellent grades in school are the strongest indicators of a successful student and by extension, a successful life. This assumption tends to lead to rewards and praise being centered largely on academic performance, and if tuitions and extra classes are needed to achieve the same, then so be it. However, this may be a case of misplaced focus as a number of significant longitudinal studies have established that academic excellence is not a pre-requisite to a happy and successful life. A number of other factors seem to have greater impact. A more recent report from the London School of Economics

– ‘What Predicts a Successful Life’, noted, “The most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health. Next comes the child’s conduct.  The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.” Further, it goes on to say, “many well-intentioned programmes carried out with the best will in the world have been found to make no difference”.

Breaking old assumptions of Classroom practices

One of the most exquistely designed research projects and a personal favourite, is the 1999 Hole-in-the-Wall experiment headed by Dr. Sugadha Mitra in which he set out to measure the amount of ‘teaching’ that computer learning required. To do so, he embedded a computer and mouse into a wall on a street corner in an urban slum.  A camera opposite captured the people who would come  forward  to  engage  with the PC. Not unexpectedly, it was the children who twiddled with the computer and through trial and error, self-discovery and group discussions over a period of three months, grasped browsing, file saving and other functions completely. The results were so surprising that he then expanded the experiment to more cities and regions across the country. Everywhere, without any formal teaching, with no knowledge of English, children discovered the computer and the internet and mastered them. Some of the key findings that emerged were:

  • that primary education can happen on its own, it does not have to be imposed by the teacher!
  • given the resources, 6-13 year olds can self –organize and achieve an educational objective!

In conclusion of this research that spanned almost a decade, Dr. Mitra concludes that

  • Learning is a self-organizing system
  • Values are acquired, doctrine and dogma are imposed

New assumptions of a teacher’s role in the classroom

If indeed learning is a self-organizing system as evidenced by various research, perhaps the real value that teachers bring to their classrooms and students needs to be uncovered. Good teachers no doubt leave a lasting impression on students who recall with fondness the care, the guidance, the support they may have received from their teachers. Indeed, good teachers positively influence a child’s emotional health and conduct within the classroom experience and curriculum demands. In light of these, let us examine what drives learning and how best a teacher may contribute to her/his students’ learning and development.


Children are always asking questions, inquiring, probing, discovering.

Children, especially young children, ask a million questions a minute! Do they need to have all the answers or ‘know everything?’ Not really. It’s the path of discovery rather than the end, that inculcates life skills, allows contextualized learning and brings them greater joy. It is themselves they discover during their investigations. Unfortunately, this is easily buried by ‘answers’ eagerly given out by textbooks, teachers and parents. My advice is to increasingly engage, chat, listen, do with the students and lessen the telling, the teaching and the checking. Create more conversations and opportunites for curiosity to be stoked.


Why do I need to know this?

Every teacher is confronted with this question a couple  of  times  a  year,  if  not  more.  It’s a wonderful question, yet it remains unanswered   satisfactorily   most   times. The encylopaedic approach to learning appears meaningless to children – how much of Pythagorus Theorem, the Law of Thermodynamics or the differences between monocots and dicots do adults recall  or use in their daily lives? Learning must hold real world meaning for the child. Leading them to discover/ observe/ derive at least a few direct applications of each chapter’s content to the students’ lives is essential to creating inventors, researchers and life long learners.


Are we good listeners? Do we communicate our thoughts effectively?

Teachers and parents need to be aware   of the tremendous impact they have in establishing classroom climate, and on the other hand, they need to actively create opportunities and spaces that cause students to communicate with each other. Small group work or partner work that are built around information-gap pedagogy supported by rubrics for self and peer assessment are ideal for building communication skills in a very personalized development continuum and minimum teacher intervention.

Verifying assumptions, then acting on them The next time you come home to find your child in front of the television, I hope you will react on an assumption that you don’t know how your child utilized the time while you were away and why; and hence, you would inquire from your young one of how he/she is, what kind of day in school it was and how they are feeling (emotional health). Only after bonding with your child would you inquire how he/she used the time, praising their good conduct or guiding them for better. And lastly, you would find out about the studies they did/ need to do. Similarly, teachers tend to rush into their syllabus and textbook. Pause, engage with your students, find out about how they are feeling, how their day or week is going. Guide them on their conduct, praise them for courtesies and kindness. Pay attention to their emotional health and conduct, the rest will follow.

  • ­­customer insights have helped them articulate their So we have opened up a market that did not exist before.
  • And most importantly the practice of managing waste at source, of making waste visible and beautiful is something that is being transmitted to the next generation. When they see their parents, their teachers and the community making this the default option only then will they continue and grow the “cleaning up” mission.

For us the rhythm of natural cycles, the face that nature has no waste, the throbbing life force of composting all inspire us to see

the beauty in the idea of “waste”.

It makes us want to do much more and there is no doubt  in   our minds  that if we continue making waste “beautiful” and “meaningful”, we will come a step closer to understanding on how to make the planet a better place daily. For us perceptions and mind-sets are at the core of this issue as  much  as  technology and legislation.

Besides, the first time ever this year, the MENTOR Conclave will have a forum which is for Principals and by Principals, wherein every selected school gets a chance to showcase the following:

  • legacy of the school
  • attributes of the school which has led to its sustainability
  • best practices of the school: in governance, leadership,
  • co-scholastics, academia or pedagogy
  • leadership and vision of the Management’
  • showcase one practice of the school as a takeaway for the other schools
  • impact on society and the way forward through education’

As a part of the curtain raiser and  to  ensure that the audience and the illustrious participants are clear on the expectations from each of the sessions and the outcomes, here is a quick synopsis of what each session has in hold for all of us…so read on before you participate.

About the Author /

Learning is a social and emotional process. It is enhanced by positive social engagements and negatively impacted by stress.Ms. Ruvneet Bains, Chief Consultant, Assessments and Professional Development, Pearson Education, Delhi shares with MENTOR how to improve learning outcomes.

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