The Perils of Notes Dictation

Thinking about my history lessons in schools, one picture comes to mind readily. A dark Mallu lady (she taught us history in the formative years between 6th and 8th) looking down at her set of voluminous notes and dictating. And all of us furiously writing so as to not miss a word of what she said. For forty minutes this exercise would continue, and then the bell would ring. Hands weary with all the writing, we would put our notebooks in our bags and look forward to a hopefully less strenuous next “perriod”.

The impact of this kind of “teaching” on schoolchildren’s attitude towards history, and their collective fflocking to science in 11th standard is obvious. There are so many things that are so obviously wrong with this mode of “teaching”. I suppose I’ll save that for else-where. Right now, I’m trying to talk about the perils of note-making in itself.

Before sixth standard and history, in almost all courses we would be dictated “questions and answers”. The questions that would appear in the exam would typically be a subset of these Q&A dictated in class. In fact, I remember that some of the more enthu teachers would write out the stuff on the board rather htan just dictating. I’m still amazed how I used to fairly consistently top the class in those days of “database query” exams.

I’m thinking about this from the point of view of impact on language. Most people who taught me English in that school had fairly good command over the language, and could be trusted to teach us good English. However, I’m not sure if I can say the same about the quality of language of other teachers. All of them were conversant in English, yes, and my schoool was fairly strict about being “English-medium”. However, the quality of English, especially in terms of grammar and pronunciation, of a fair number of teachers left a lot to be desired.

I can still remember the odd image of me thinking “this is obviously grammatically incorrect” and then proceeding to jot down what the teacher said “in my own words“. I’m sure there were other classmates who did the same. However, I’m also sure that a large number of people in the class just accepted what the teacher said to be right, in terms of language that is.

What this process of “dictation of notes” did was that teachers with horrible accents, grammar, pronunciation or all of the above passed on their bad language skills to the unsuspecting students. All the possible good work that English teachers had done was undone.There is a chance that this bad pronunciation, grammar, etc. would have been passed on even if the teachers didn’t give notes – for the students would just blindly imitate what the teachers would say. However, the amount by which they copied different teachers would not then be weighted by the amount of notes that each teacher dictated, and I think a case can be made that the quality of a teacher is inversely proportional to the amount of notes he/she dictates.

Teachers will not change because dictation is the way that they have been taught to “teach”. The onus needs to go to schools to make sure that the teachers don’t pass on their annoying language habits to the students. And a good place to start would be to stop them from dictating notes. And I still don’t understand the value of writing down notes that you don’t really bother to understand when you have a number of reasonably good text books and guide books available in the market. I agree that for earlier classes, some amount of note-making might be necessary (I think even that can be dispensed with), but in that case the school needs to be mroe careful regarding the language skills of people it recruits in order to dictate these notes.

16 thoughts on “The Perils of Notes Dictation”

  1. If schools want better teachers, they have to be willing to compensate them. A lot of bright people just move away from schools to private sector because the pay is better and there’s greater respect.

    One of the schools in which I taught pays teachers more than a regular public school, and it treats its faculty like professionals. The faculty works long, difficult hours, but it’s worth it because you’re surrounded by a supportive professional environment and there’s high job satisfaction. (Yes, despite the little brats. ;))

    But this model isn’t easily scaled, certainly not without the govt. rethinking how it funds education. And this is this US.

    Where/how do you think we might find funding in India to create schools more along these lines?

    1. i think part of the blame can be put on the generation of “volunteer-teachers” – mostly upper middle class women with masters degrees who taught in schools not really for money – but also for stuff like interacting with kids, “timepass”, blah blah.

      this generation has spoilt schools so much that they refuse to pay market rates, and lose teachers to BPOs, etc among other things. i know a bunch of teachers from my earlier school who all left to go join an education website, creating notes and other study material.

      here in india, there is no hope for govt funding. given how bad a job they’ve done running their schools all these years there’s no way the govts here can do anything about this. i think it has to happen in a trickle-down manner – starting from the more elite schools where they can charge more from students; and then the quality will trickle down etc.

  2. I remember very vividly, one day in my History class, we had a teacher who was sometimes called “Meese Miss”-cause she sprouted whiskers!, the teacher said “today I will ‘correct’ your notes” and after some “corrections” she started scolding people for writing wrong answers.
    The mistake was that the answers were in proper English.

    1. i’m sure she didn’t understand what these guys had written and so scolded them! i don’t think she herself knew what she was talking about – basically relied on a set of mugged up notes i suppose

  3. We ran to science stream in 11th in our school, but waiting for us there was our vice-principal (and Chemistry teacher) with her copy of “Comprehensive Chemistry”. She would dictate notes for the entire class and then politely inquire of the whole class “why are you writing notes all the time, kanna?”. Thankfully, the other teachers in 11th and 12th avoided this practice.

    1. yeah i agree that guides are not necessarily good. i remember that comprehensive physics for class XI had much more than just hte prescribed syllabus, and this guy who taught us insisted on doing all of it. and i don’t htink he knew the head or tail of what he was teaching.

  4. Strong agreer – my nephew refused to believe me when I corrected his English grammar when he was telling me an answer for his History exam. Clearly, his teacher is sacrosanct as she WROTE this wrong sentence on the board 🙁 Or more likely what will fetch him marks in the exams! Looks like more doom for the new generations who are burdened with so many subjects that one additional learning at home will only put them off…

    1. i’m not sure things are getting worse. i think things have been quite bad for a while, starting from our times.

  5. Yes, used to be the case. But thankfully, some schools in Bangalore have changed. In my daughter’s school they don’t dictate notes at all. Teacher explains the contents of the lesson, then the class does the q&a in an interactive session and finally each student writes down the answers in the note book during their spare time. And the questions asked in tests/exams are rarely from the set of questions at the end of the chapter. Marks are cut if the answer happens to be verbatim paragraph from the text book.

      1. But of course, even they have trouble retaining and finding good teachers. Luckily for them, some of the long-serving teachers have stuck around and they are the ones who are really good. But among the new ones, quality isn’t that consistent. There was this incident in a Maths test recently. There was a geometry problem in the text book. A straight angle was divided into three parts, angles named a, b and c. Values of a and b were given and you had to find c. Because of this policy of not giving text book problems for tests, she copied the figure from the text book, but changed the values of a and b. So while a was 90 deg in the text book, she changed it to 60 in the test. Students were thoroughly confused whether to go by the diagram or the values given 🙂

        Two months later, she was no longer with the school.

  6. The problem with not dictating notes is that most students have very limited attention span. Given this, the only way to get students to actually learn something like history would be to make classes amazingly interactive, give projects/presentations, talk somewhat humorously etc. Remember how our English textbooks for 9th standard changed a couple of years before your batch – that was a step in the correct direction ( why are vernacular language organizations not demanding that? ). But then few teachers have enough charisma to carry on such gracefully.

    However I also think it is good that people don’t choose history or humanities. Liberal arts people are heavily concentrated on the left ( both economic and social ) spectrum, they brainwash their students to be so, because they are all lefties they still think all sane people have to be on the left too.

  7. In kid’s mind, teacher is someone who will not make any mistakes. It is very difficult to convince the kid that what has been taught is wrong and make him/her correct it.

    Some time ago, I was going through notebooks of my little cousin. One of the dictated answers stood out! The question was ‘What is your surname?’ and the answer the teacher dictated was his own name! Lo, surname was interpreted as ‘sir’s name’! No matter how I tried to convince my cousin that the correct answer is Shastry (her surname), not her sir’s name, she wouldn’t agree! ‘shankhadinda bandre maathra theertha’!! I wish teachers too do some homework before teaching. Finally, we had to call up her school and make that teacher dictate the correct answer!

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