The new school year

Nina MK, Ph.D.

September 1 is almost upon us. In Russia, it is the beginning of the school year for schools and universities, for every age and level. While children are enjoying the last week of the long summer vacation, teachers are gearing up for the new challenges. Reading about the new methodologies and approaches, learning about our colleagues’ innovations is a good way to boost up one’s professional readiness. Recently I have read a British review of the two teaching methodologies, MASTERY and MINDSET*. Mastery it seems evoked interest and attracted attention because this is the name for the approach widely used in China in teaching mathematics, with very good results. According to the description, rather than dividing the pupils into groups by their level and aptitude, the new material is continuously presented to the whole class. ALL the children perform the same exercises to the best of their abilities and then recycle, retell and revise the new topics many times thus ensuring that absolutely every child imbibes the necessary data. Once the students and the teachers feel confident that the theme is well studied, they go on to the next one. Frankly, it sounds a lot like what is routinely done in my country in ALL subjects. Through their primary and middle school, children are not divided into groups or levels. They get the same “packages” of new knowledge on a daily basis. The continuation however is different. Teachers have to follow quite a rigorous plan; so many or so few hours are devoted to one theme. A test is done then, with the usual Gaussian curve showing in the results: approximately half of the students get good and satisfactory marks, about one-fourth receive excellent marks and about one-fourth fail. Naturally there are occasions when absolutely everybody manages to pass the test and a few instances when most everybody fails. What does a good teacher do? If everybody passes, there is a small pocket of time which may be used for in-depth studies, revision or even relaxation. If everybody fails, a really bad teacher would go forward with the plan and leave the pupils to struggle with the difficult topic themselves or with the help of a private tutor. A really good conscientious teacher would find a way to modify the plan so that the theme can be studied again and the test re-done. After all, if most everybody in your class fails a test, it is not their fault. You are the one who taught them, right?

MINDSET approach presupposes taking into account each individual’s intellectual abilities and an intuitive way of teaching. Let the students try to grasp the main ideas or develop the main concepts and make their own conclusions. It is quite clear that not every child can do that, so the results may be quite disastrous. Yet occasionally this approach brings is good results and helps teachers identify the strongest and the weakest children.

Reading even one methodological review before the new academic year starts is enough for us adults to perk up and to stimulate our thoughts and ideas flow. Now we are facing the eternal problem, that of pupils returning after their summer break with their brains often free of any knowledge that we imparted to them during the previous school year. What can we do to ensure that they do something, how do we help them to remember their English? One of the answers is, advise the parents to send their children to a language course or camp if possible. The choice is great. Not everybody can afford it, alas. A lot can be done at home even if none of the parents can speak any foreign language. A niece of mine told me how she worked at her language skills, without any prompting from the adults. She watches an episode from her favourite TV show in English with sun-titles first. If she cannot understand a sentence, she clicks Pause, checks the unfamiliar words in a dictionary, then proceeds. After she is done with the whole episode, she watches it with subtitles off and listens carefully to the way people talk. She clicks Pause at times to repeat what they said. I was much impressed by this method of summer exercise!

Contrary to popular opinion, children do read. I would say that the activity itself changed greatly, so we do not always recognize it for what it is. Reading used to mean books, literature. In this sense, many children, especially adolescents, do not read much. One of the reasons is that the things they are interested in are not in any curriculum, which is really good. If, say, “The Three Musketeers” by the French writer Alexander Dumas was included into a school program I would never have read it as a teenager. Why? Because everything that is included into the school list of literature is boring by definition (at least in an adolescent mind). Is it really possible to nurture the love of reading by making “War and Peace” a compulsory book to be read by sixteen-year-olds? I doubt it. Today’s teens read reference books and encyclopedias, they surf the web and leaf through magazines. And they do have their own special interests. They may diligently search the internet for any new Manga installment or download, translate and even learn by heart the lyrics of a popular song. Surprising though it may seem, it is also reading, vocabulary enrichment work.

Lots of parents do not realize that a child needs encouragement, attention and caring about what they are doing. We can find a way to tactfully advise them, and help maintain their offspring’s interest to our subject even through the summer vacation.

Happy new school year, colleagues!


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