The teacher factor

In last week’s column, I focused on the role that language of instruction plays in determining learning outcomes, especially in the early years of formal schooling. Numerous studies have shown that learners are doubly burdened when the language used in teaching, say, math or science, is totally different from what they use at home. If learning happens when students are able to comprehend the language in which they are taught, then it seems logical to use the mother tongue, at least in the early grades.

There is clearly still no consensus on this issue. Children from Filipino middle-class families appear to have no problem with English as the sole medium of instruction—not just in grade school but in all levels of the educational system. Most of them are born and raised in bilingual homes. To them, using the mother tongue in the classroom is a regression, akin to forcing students to learn something new with a language that is unsuited to the task.

This point of view is rooted in the belief that unlike any of our local languages, English is a global language, the embodiment of everything modern. And that among all the nations that became independent after World War II, we had the advantage of an early start in modern nation-building because of English, which the American colonizers introduced through the public educational system. We raised an entire generation of educated Filipinos who spoke English. Our neighbors sent their children to our schools to learn English. Why give up that advantage now?

This belief seems to be shared by lower-income families that regard proficiency in English as their children’s main passport to a better life. They think that the real problem of Philippine education lies elsewhere—in the overcrowded and dimly-lit classrooms, in our overworked and undertrained teachers, in the paucity of quality teaching materials and textbooks, and in the hunger and malnutrition that continue to impair the learning capacity of many Filipino children.

These conditions, no doubt, contribute immensely to the alarming outcomes that have been noted among the vast majority of our students in various international assessments. To address them would require substantially increasing the current budget for education to acceptable levels.

But, in addition, I would argue that a large part of that investment must go to continuing teacher education. In the years immediately following the end of the war, much attention was given to the training of Filipino specialists in the teaching of English as a foreign language. Many of them became principals and supervisors of public schools. They trained their fellow teachers in the use of this modern language as the primary medium of instruction.

I studied in a public elementary school in Pampanga. I can still name all my teachers from grade one to grade six, and distinctly remember all their faces. I believe that the one thing that made them effective in the classroom, more than anything else, was the enthusiasm they exuded as teachers. They had no problem switching from English to Kapampangan as the need arose.

They made learning not just worthwhile but interesting. I saw them as inspiring examples of the educated person. That is also how I feel about all the professors who made an enduring impression on me throughout my college and graduate school years.

Such teachers, as the Chilean cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana described them, “… do not simply transmit some content; they acquaint their pupils with a way of living. In the process, the rules of arithmetic, the laws of physics, or the grammar of a language will be acquired… Pupils learn teachers.”

“Children are quite ready to become enthusiastically involved in anything provided of course there are no people around who keep signaling and saying, ‘mathematics is tedious, grammar is dull, biology is uninteresting.’” It’s important, Maturana says, for teachers “to listen to their pupils intensely, and to listen to their listening.” Teachers need to continually ask what their students are actually hearing when they’re talking to them. Patience is what is most needed, particularly when dealing with those who appear to be lagging behind.

This last point is of crucial importance — because it is what spells the difference between an educational system that reproduces the inequalities of society and that which aims to rectify them.

There’s an ongoing debate within my family (two of my children are full-time faculty members of UP) concerning the proper role of a teacher, which touches precisely on the question of inequality. One of them thinks of this role as that of a “shepherd” who devotes time to making sure the slower ones among the flock do not fall so far behind the fastest. The other insists on the primacy of the “gatekeeper” role, which is to ensure that the minimum standards of excellence are upheld and that the needs of the more advanced students are not forgotten or sacrificed.

My own view, as a teacher of more than four decades, is that both roles are needed, and that they don’t have to clash with one another. The problem arises when, in the name of compassion, shepherding takes the form of automatic promotion even of those who do not qualify. Instead of actively assisting them, teachers allow underperforming students to get by on the misplaced charity of a dysfunctional school system. It also arises when gatekeeping puts primacy on the unbending enforcement of standards, ignoring the unequal circumstances in which students pursue the quest for education.