When the famous physicist Richard Feynman reflected on the role of his parents, he said that his parents did not ask him "What did you learn at school today ?" but "What did you ask at school today ?". Of the many "Whats" that fill the school life, i somehow think this probably should be the most important "What". Schools have been placing unreasonable emphasis on right answers whereas some of the most profound thoughts germinate from asking the right questions and not the answers. Intellectual curiosity is reflected best in questions and more often, holds a better mirror to a person's thinking than the answers. The best intellectuals have always asked themselves the right questions and in many cases that is the hardest part. Can a school stimulate a child's intellectual curiosity than stifle it ? There has been enormous research on such questions all over the world and less so in India. However what can be extrapolated from these studies to the Indian context ? Is there some concrete advice that can be implemented at an individual level ? These are some of the questions answered eloquently by Kamala V. Mukunda in her book "What did you ask at school today - An handbook of child learning". Some thoughts from the very interesting book interspersed with additions from personal experiences and other sources.
Schools assume that children enter school with minds like a blank slate and set out to "educate" them. But on the contrary, children start their education the day they are born or probably earlier. They observe and form their own theories of the way the world functions. Yet, one fine day someone asks them to erase their existing theories and replace them with new theories prescribed by a book. While some do the replacement and reproduction successfully, many struggle. Real understanding involves a struggle between the two theories. The wrongs with the pre-conceived theories or "folk ideas" needs to be figured out for children to better understand the newer ideas. This is a more difficult and painstaking process than it seems. Science is a subject where the hypotheses are conjectured, tested, refined, re-tested before arriving at some sort of an answer. But school, to the contrary, gives students the final answers as dictums mysteriously plucked from a tree. When i asked a bunch of science PhDs why do they think that the earth is round, the best answer was "I've seen pictures in school books" and the worst was they started questioning my sanity :-)
The answers that we know today are products of someone's struggle and evolution. Appreciation and understanding requires that we travel a bit on that road. We try, fail, re-try, fail and then understand and appreciate. Most of us appreciate prose or poetry more easily because we have sub-conciously made efforts to write one and failed while someone else has captured those very thoughts more beautifully. Sadly, this trial and error method is more necessary in Science and Mathematics but ironically it is most neglected there. How many of us can appreciate the beauty of decimal value system ? It was only last year when i was for a few days thinking of an alternate number system, its beauty and simplicity was evident to me. This after a Ph.D. in Mathematics ! By depriving the students of struggle and spoon-feeding them, the school is depriving them of the beauty and understanding of a subject.
Are there ways one can encourage a more hands-on learning ? Is it economically feasible in a country like India ? To many people's surprise and to a great extent the answer is emphatically YES. For more on the same, read Arvind Gupta's article, his website or watch his videos on youtube ( "They forget that the true task of a teacher is not to “cover” the course but to “uncover” it" ).
For years, India had a oral system of learning and a non-classroom structure whose products rivalled and at times, suprassed the best in the world. But sometime we bought into the industrialization-inspired European (or factory) model of classroom, textbook learning. A certain bespectacled congressman (it was a respectable tag in early 20th century) had warned of why this textbook learning system will place an heavy burden on India's resources and its rural population. "To impose on children of tender age a knowledge of the alphabet and the ability to read before they can gain general knowledge is to deprive them, whilst they are fresh, of the power of assimilating instruction by word of mouth. Should, for instance, a lad of seven wait for learning Ramayana till he can read it ?" Today when we are speaking of poor being excluded from education, it is all the more clear why a system that demands so much of our resources is bad especially when an oral learning system works well and probably better in the early years of a kid.
What about methods to encourage hands-on learning ? Science is used by many people around us except that we do not recognise it easily. A bicycle mechanic, potter, cobbler, carpenter and many more craftsmen use science in ways not obvious to a casual glance. Some of them are extremely skilled and a demonstration by them punctuated with explanations from a teacher would be as interesting an exercise in science as any. The effects of this exercise are two-fold : Science in practice as well as respect for such craftsmen. Again, one man did try out this system in his own school in Tolstoy farm. He learnt shoe-making and taught it to the kids in Tolstoy farm. To be fair, his emphasis was purely on the second effect of such an exercise. Another of his collegues taught carpentry. Carpenters use geometry in manifold ways without using the jargon of books. In Feynman's words, it can be said that they probably know about "it" and school merely teaches us the name of "it". But now vocational training is looked down upon and is considered to be as something for "un-intelligent". But in practice, this approach is really easy and some schools do use it. Auroville school, CFL (where Kamala V. Mukunda works), Barefoot College , Shikshantar have been using the approach of viewing knowledge and wisdom from all sources equally. No suprise that a couple of them have been inspired by the Tolstoy farm initiatives.
A second possible solution is - Instead of asking the "What" question, an "How" or "Why" question is more intellectually stimulating. Instead of training children to be computers (in polite terms) or chimpanzees (in blunt terms) to follow a certain method when they see a set of problems, posing the problem and provoking a solution is what i meant by asking the "How" or "Why" question. "How" forces them to try, fail and may be succeed, "Why" forces further examination and exploration. Educators term it as "guided discovery" but figuratively it is the same as a mother teaching a child to walk and requires equally enormous effort and time. Allowing the child to fall, rise and walk requires enormous patience. This is very hard in the fast world we inhabit but yet a middle path can be found. Dan Meyer has expounded on the "How" question beautifully in the context of mathematical education in US in his TED Talk. The questions which motivated a problem are many a time very simple. The complex applications in Quantum physics, Satellite communications and all that came much later. Instead of bombarding the children with these mysterious jargons which even we do not understand, the simple problem which has motivated men thousands of years ago is still the best starting point to ask the "How" question.
"Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me and I will understand". Confucius (450 BC).
It is a moot point whether the relevance of the quote to today is a tribute to Confucius's intelligence or a damning verdict on our own continued generational stupidity. Schools are increasingly trying to remove children's involvement in learning and at the best place the onus of involvement on the children. I believe there is a need to take children beyond textbooks to actually involve or interest them. Two examples - one from the book and other personal - convinced me of it.
# 1 A bunch of mentally challenged kids were to be subjected to an maze test, the sort one enounters in puzzles where one is expected to find a way through a maze. Few hours before the test, all the kids managed to escape from the school despite the elaborate security & all that. But when few hours later when they were brought back to school, they all failed the maze test. Children who could actually find their way through a maze in real time failed to do on paper. In a society with heads in the right place, i wonder which would be considered more important. The kids most likely felt hardly involved with a question on paper as compared to the more exciting question in real life.
# 2 I was sitting in a 3rd grade class in a village. The teacher was writing things on board and kids were dutifully copying them. The same kids who were full of life few minutes ago outside were dull and motionless in the class. The next day i tried this simple exercise with the children and the results even suprised me. The lesson was on geometry and the exercise was to identify all the triangles, rectangles and circles in the classroom. The children took a few minutes to warm up and then they were all over the place classifying things i didn't even notice. One kid went to the extent of pointing out that the light-bulb holder on the ceiling is circular in shape. When i asked them to do the same at home, two of them (out of a class of four) jumped in as soon as i met them the next day to show me their efforts. Again, teachers were of the opinion that homework is alien to those village kids. In one sense it is true that the kids are spending their evenings in the fields with the cattle and other interesting stuff that they will never feel involved with dull "Do Exercises 1-10" sort of home-work.
PS : The book deals with more issues than that i have chosen to focus on. It pays important attention to emotional and moral aspects of child learning as well. So, this post is at best to be considered as something triggered by the book and not as a book review.
Related links : I decided to add a few other related links on child-learning, education et al and would be happy to add any of your suggestion as well.
#1 Richard Feynman's father
#2 Innovation 101 - On why it is important to give students "experience".
#4 Learning beyond Textbooks - Call for a "nature education". The Teacherplus website is a great resource for articles on school education.
#5 The Uncollege - To change the notion that university is the only path to success and to help people to thrive in an ever changing world in which it is virtually impossible for educational intuitions to adapt.
#6 On why Science needs art - "The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination." - Max Planck.