Why are our kids not learning meaningfully? (Part5 of series on Education)

In Part1 we concluded that there is something wrong with our education system because of which our kids are not able to learn meaningfully. In Part2 we endeavored to find out, what good education is all about and concluded that good education helps us grasp concepts in a manner that they stick to our memory so as to be recalled and applied when required. In Part3 we learnt as to why it’s critical to structure an education system around curiosity emanating from the kids and not from the teachers. We also learnt in this part that curiosity plays an important role in making a concept stick to memory and also the fact that curiosity is a learning in itself. In Part4 we grasped the importance of developing interconnections between subjects and concepts so that kids can “imagine” the answers. This allows them to put their arms and legs around concepts from a complete perspective thereby developing an independent thinking ability. We also understood that meaningful education is in the process and not in the end result. Let’s continue the journey forward.

As I spent more time with kids, giving adequate respect to their curiosity and allowing them to explore their questions following an approach of interconnectedness between concepts, I realized one very important thing. Let me share an incidence with a kid, whom I used to teach, to bring out my learning. One of our discussions happened on what an electron is. We followed our standard model of conversation led education whereby kids work on their curiosity, with support from me, to reach answers. When mankind started exploring the whole phenomenon of electricity they first reached a conclusion that electricity is like an invisible fluid that flows between bodies. As new observations came in we were compelled to revise this one fluid theory of electricity into a two-fluid theory of electricity whereby electricity was imagined to be actually composed of two different kind of fluids that gets exchanged between bodies. Then came one of the founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin, who provided evidence that took us back to believing in one fluid theory of electricity. This continued for sometime till more evidences emerged which started making us believe that electricity is actually made up of constituent physical particles called electrons. JJ Thomson provided mankind with a confirmation of existence of these particles called as electrons in 1897 though he himself was not very sure of the same when he stated that. He got a Nobel Prize for the same. However, there were already evidences that made us believe that electrons are not particles but actually waves like sound or light. The best part is that JJ Thomson’s son Jean Paget Thomson proved that electrons are like waves and he also got a Nobel Prize in 1937 for this effort. Now this is a confusion — what is electricity — is it composed of electrons which are particles or is it composed of electrons which are waves. Well we don’t know the answer. For the time being we believe in what we call as dual nature of matter i.e. every piece of matter, including an electron, has a wave associated with it. Given that electron has a dual nature — sometimes it behaves like physical particle and sometimes like waves. Yes, what we are saying is precisely … well we are not quite sure. This entire series of sessions that I had with this kid on understanding electricity and electron, where we built on evidences one by one to reach a so-called answer, taught me a very important lesson and i.e. its only in schools and in our dealing with the kids on a day to day basis, we behave as if every question has a perfect answer. In life, as well as in Science, there are no perfect answers — rather, we at any point of time have approximate answers that evolve with time. This 1Question-1Answer (1Q-1A) model works only inside the four walls of a school and gets us marks there. Outside that everywhere one question has multiple answers and each answer is approximately correct at a given instant. In fact those who remain stuck to one answer fail in many exams of life.

This was an important learning for me. Whatever in life we call as an answer to a problem is not a perfect answer — it’s one of the many possible answers but just that at this point in time, given the set of evidence we have or the set of constraints we have, it makes most sense. At one point in time, this fight, whether electron is a particle or wave, literally became a war of nationality and patriotism. The English scientists believed that electron is a particle while German scientists were of the view that it is a wave. Both answers made sense at that time — it just depended on which view one wanted to pick for it depended on which evidence one gave more credibility. Later the particle view won the first round, then the wave view won the next round and finally both the views won. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, “The electron is a theory. But the theory is so good we can almost consider them real”. This is what all our answers in life are all about — they are theories — they are not realities.

Science is the art of the appropriate approximation. While the flat earth model is usually spoken of with derision it is still widely used. Flat maps, either in atlases or road maps, use the flat earth model as an approximation to the more complicated shape.

- Byron K. Jennings

That’s the crux — sometimes the answers look so good that we almost forget that they are still approximations. Once this realization came in, it became important for me to teach in a way that kids not only understand the answers, but also understand the fact that they are approximations to reality. With this realization multiple things became clear to me.

  • When we teach kids with an absolute confidence in our answers or when we follow this 1Q-1A model, we are inherently teaching them to stick to their viewpoints as the only meaningful viewpoint. In life, empathy i.e. an ability to remain open to alternate viewpoints while simultaneously subscribing to one of them based on some logic or rational approach, is very essential. For empathetic individuals, answer that they likes today are not important for they never subscribes to any answer as one etched in stone. They know inherently that answers evolve with time and that’s why they gives due respect to all answers for they knows that at the end of the day, every answer is just an approximate answer or a theory. In the absence of empathy, we become fundamentalist. We only talk about religious fundamentalism — there are far more dangerous fundamentalisms that rule the world and all of them start from this unempathetic viewpoint of life which is in some way inculcated by our belief in so called perfect answers drilled into us, without realizing, by this 1Q-1A model of our faulty education system.
  • To innovate or create something new, one needs to know problems with the existing things or views. If we take every answer as perfect and every product as best, then how will we ever think of creating something better? If Apple has not seen something better in touch screen phones we would have continued to live with those clumsy keypads. If Edison has not seen problem with normal lamps, he would have never thought of inventing bulb. If we want India to invent we need to understand that inventions happen only when individuals are willing to question accepted realities and only those individuals will question accepted realities, who inherently believe that answers are not perfect, that all answers are nothing but theories. Another thing that struck me, when it comes to inventing a new product or service is that every new product or service is invented by utilizing concepts across subjects. No invention happens inside one subject or concept — it happens on the borders or meeting points of subjects or concepts. Given that a person who wants to invent, not only has to see mistake/s or possible improvements with an existing product or service but must have also learn through a process of interconnections so that knowledge has an applicability.

As I reflected more on my experiences with these wonderful kids, meaningful education just boiled down to doing three simple things:

  1. Start with the curiosity of kid
  2. Explore the curiosity through a series of interconnected concepts
  3. End the journey of curiosity in a way that kids not only understand the answer derived, but also understand the element of approximation in that.

In short education is nothing but a development of two qualities or skills viz. independent thinking and empathy. Independent thinking allows an individual to explore his curiosity in a manner that the curiosity by itself becomes the learning. Empathy allows him to understand that his learning is but one of the many alternate learnings that this life contains within itself. An ability to have confidence with humility is the simple hallmark of educated individual. This is all that a teacher is supposed to do. He is not there to teach in the way world understands teaching — he is there to undertake the journey of exploration with a curious mind by being a learner — the so-called education happens by itself.

“A class in not 1 teacher and ’n’ students, a class is ‘n+1’ teachers and ‘n+1’ students.”

– DreamNobel

Now I understand what it means to say that Education is in the journey and not in the end result. An educated individual is not a storehouse of data points but an individual who has independent thinking and empathy to analyze data points thrown at him and derive meaningful inferences. An educated individual doesn’t look at Google as a place to get answers — he looks at Google just as a provider of data. It’s a tool, not God. To round off — it all boils down to three simple things — Questions (Curiosity) — Stories (Interconnections) — Theories (Approximations) or what I call as my QuEST model of education.

To be continued…

About DreamNobel

DreamNobel is an education initiative to teach in a way that independent thinking and empathy becomes an integral part of student’s personality. Currently we offer the following two courses for children:

  • Science course (Eklavya): Click here for more details.
  • Rational thinking course (ART): Click here for more details

DreamNobel (www.DreamNobel.com) is an education initiative to make “independent thinking” and “empathy” an integral part of a child’s personality.