Towards Exploration of Pedagogical Pyramid in the Context of Nepalese ELT

Dr Binod Luitel
Associate Professor, English Education
CERID, Tribhuvan University

‘Pyramid’, one of the ‘7 wonders of the world’, is a marvelous achievement of human civilization, which is flat on the bottom with pointed shape on the top. In this article, I am trying to draw the readers’ attention towards the metaphorical rather than literal meaning of ‘pyramid’ and apply the meaning in the context of classroom with mixed-ability group of learners where their population is extremely varied in terms of the level of language competence. This kind of pedagogical pyramid, instead of being a ‘marvelous’ phenomenon, has been a source of bitter experience for teachers and learners. Moreover, while the physical pyramid has been discussed quite a lot, the pedagogical pyramid depicting the classroom reality has not been a matter of discussion in the mass of Nepalese pedagogues.

If we analyze the traditional classrooms of Nepalese schools and colleges (particularly if the class size is large in students’ population), as I had hypothesized previously (Luitel, 2010, 2011), we can notice such a pyramidal structure of learners’ population – with several layers that make a hierarchy of ‘strata’. Such a structure is noticed from the point of view of learners’ preparatory condition required for learning (such as aptitude and motivation), their participation in learning, and the level of learning achievement – whereby we find a few learners on the top stratum, and the size of the strata increases as we move down from the top in the hierarchical structure. In most cases, this situation either goes unnoticed by the teachers or is neglected even after knowing this ground reality due to various reasons.

To support the hypothesis of pedagogical pyramid, this article seeks data from two works of the author: (1) a research work that has been completed (Luitel, 2012), and (2) an ongoing research (Luitel and others, forthcoming). While the first one was carried out for the purpose of surveying the existing situation of vocabulary knowledge among the students of B.Ed. studying in the campuses of Tribhuvan University who had just completed their study in compulsory English, the latter is being undertaken as an action research among the students who are now studying the same subject at the same level.
Quantitative data derived from learners’ performance in the testing tools designed to test their vocabulary and reading comprehension (vocabulary in the first study and vocabulary plus reading comprehension in the second one) were analyzed. In both the studies, achievement scores were converted into percentage and the students were categorized under various layers of score range, as presented below.

Previous Study
The students’ vocabulary achievement was tested in context as well as out of context. Based on their response in a battery of 5 different vocabulary tests (checklist test, multiple choice test, matching test, selective deletion cloze test and L1-L2 translation test) conducted among 59 participants, the result depicted in the following table shows a hierarchical situation of learners’ population divided into the various layers or ‘strata’.
Layer categories (Score range)          Students
Layer 7 (85-100%)                                    0%
Layer 6 (70-84.9%)                                   12%
Layer 5 (55-69.9%)                                    24%
Layer 4 (40-54.9%)                                  42%
Layer 3 (25-39.9%)                                   22%
Layer 2 (10-24.9%)                                   0%
Layer 1 (0-9.9%)                                         0%

 (Source: Luitel, 2012)

Thus, the total sample population was found in four different layers (6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd), while there was no student in the 1st, 2nd and 7th layers. As such, keeping the case of the bottommost layer of students aside, the figures clearly depicted a pyramidal structure with a narrower space on top and relatively wider space on the bottom. The data showed that the hypothesis of pyramidal structure of learners’ population was proved true at least among 78% students in vocabulary achievement. However, since the sampling of students in the study was completely ‘voluntary’ instead of being ‘random’ or systematic (the subjects were asked to participate in the test if they wished), the study might not have represented the actual bottommost layer of students’ population in the classrooms. A significant portion of their population having poor level of competence had not shown their willingness to participate in testing. Had the students of all intellectual levels participated in the study, the bottommost layer could yield a figure greater than that shown here.

Ongoing Study
In the ongoing action research project, as mentioned above, students of B.Ed. first year have been tested in vocabulary as well as reading comprehension, using the same vocabulary testing tools employed in earlier study; and multiple choice test has been employed to test reading comprehension. These test items were based on the reading texts given in New Generation English (the textbook of General English for B.Ed. students) being taught to the students. Altogether 197 students from 2 campuses of Tribhuvan University (Mahendra Ratna Campus Tahachal; and Surkhet Education Campus) had participated in testing. Unlike in the previous study, the participation of students was not entirely ‘voluntary’: All the students present in the classrooms were encouraged to participate in testing. Based on their correct responses in the testing tools, the students’ performance has been demonstrated below after categorizing them into several layers.
Layer categories (Score range)              Students
Layer 7 (85-100%)                                          0%
Layer 6 (70-84.9%)                                        1.02%
Layer 5 (55-69.9%)                                         0.51%
Layer 4 (40-54.9%)                                       4.06%
Layer 3 (25-39.9%)                                         29.4%
Layer 2 (10-24.9%)                                         56.9%
Layer 1 (0-9.9%)                                               8.12%

It should be noted that students’ performance in the tests has ranged from 4% to 74.4% – showing a drastic difference between the two extremes. As depicted in the table, 6 layers have been identified using the same scale for categorizing students employed earlier. Keeping a small size of students’ population (9.14% including those in layer 1 and layer 6) aside, data have clearly depicted the situation of pyramidal structure of learners – the population size increasing progressively as we go downwards from layer 5 till we reach layer 2.

When we confront the situation of a vast degree of intellectual difference between the students studying English in our colleges on one hand and the highly demanding standard of course materials in English offered to them on the other, we are in a dilemma of how to handle the lessons. If we think over why such an ‘unwanted’ kind of disparity occurred among the students who have passed the same level exam, our minds start ‘roaming around’ the contemporary educational situation in the country and mull over the issues related to unhealthy practices in the exam, lack of conducive teaching-learning environment, lack of proper efforts on the part of schools and teachers to transform the situation of teaching-learning, etc.
The quantitative data from two sources just mentioned, of course, represent a huge world of evidence from the English language classrooms at various levels in Nepalese context, whether the language teaching professionals are aware about it or not, and whether the circumstances they are working in is encouraging towards initiating something to deeply reflect on the problem or not. However, the situation can be explained further only after studying our learners closely – including their psychology, personal life stories, educational history, family/household situations, parental education, community situation, etc.

If we are in a position to consider the problem of learner hierarchy with importance, the situation depicted here instigates the need for further exploration into the qualitative dimension of the phenomenon. In this connection, our temptation of inquiry needs to be directed towards studying the variation in learner characteristics associated with the pyramidal structure of classroom population from elementary school to the level of higher education.

Some of the questions that deserve our attention in this regard include the following:

  1. Designated as the ‘same grade students’ (studying in the same class and taught through the same course), what are the factors contributing to such a vast degree of variation among the learners? How far are the factors related to the institutional functioning and environment associated with the hierarchy among learners? Is the environment external to school/college playing role in creating the problem?
  2. Have the learners noticed this situation? What is their perception about it?
  3. Do the learners of different strata have the willingness of working together? Are those in the upper strata willing to support those who are in the lower ones?
  4. How far are teachers noticing this problem? What do they feel about it? Are they thinking creatively to address the issue?
  5. Is the hierarchy temporary or permanent in a learner? Can anything be done to minimize the problem in classrooms and enhance the learning of students from the lower strata in particular?

Concluding Remarks
Particularly for addressing the problems of English language teaching (in schools and colleges), there is the need for focused attention in transforming our classrooms after a thorough study of existing situation incorporating the issues pointed out above and the like. Awareness among stakeholders is an essential condition for initiating any new action in this regard. The traditional ‘preaching’ in the name of teaching without concern for students’ learning cannot address the problem at all. Some of the efforts made by the Campus Level Action Research Team (CLART) members working in two campuses of TU for addressing the learning problems in the areas of vocabulary and reading comprehension in the ongoing action research project mentioned in this article are noteworthy in this connection. The result of this intervention is yet to be seen.

Luitel, B. (2010). ‘A Cooperative Learning Model: Strategy to Address Learner Hierarchy’. A paper presented in the 15th International Conference of NELTA, Surkhet, 24-25 February 2010. NELTA Conference Proceedings 2010. Kathmandu: Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association.

_______(2011). Samajik rupantaranka lagi kaksha kotha (“Classroom for social transformation”) Terhathum Today, Monday, 19 Poush 2067 B.S. (3 January, 2011).

________(2012) Vocabulary in the English Language Pedagogy: Input, Process and Product (A Study in the Context of Bachelor’s Degree Level under Faculty of Education, Tribhuvan University). A research report submitted to University Grants Commission/Nepal. Sanothimi, Bhaktapur.

Luitel, B. and et. al. (Forthcoming). Improving Students’ Learning of English and Teacher Professional Development through Action Research: The Case of Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension at B.Ed. Level. An ongoing research project undertaken by CERID with the support of University Grants Commission/Nepal.

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