Why are our kids not learning meaningfully? (Part3 of series on education)

 

In Part 1 we concluded that there is something wrong with our education system because of which our kids are not able to learn meaningfully. In Part 2 we defined what good education is and then asked ourselves as to how to impart good education to kids. Let continue the journey.

As we discussed in Part 2, the first quality of good education is that it makes a concept stick to memory without getting lost. This brings us to the next question – what makes a concept or a learning stick in our minds?

Now there are various theories on memory and we have lots of terms like short term memory, long term memory etc. etc. I will not try to support or reject them. However, I will completely delve into my own experience to reach an answer to the question i.e. how to make a concept or learning stick as opposed to trying to explain how memory works?

To explain this let me take an example out of my own experience. I used to teach a 7-year-old kid via Skype. This kid was completely into dinosaurs. Even at this young age he literally knew hundreds of dinosaurs by their names, the geological periods in which they lived, their eating behavior and what not. He was so much fascinated by dinosaurs that even when he looked at a stone in a playground he could pick some of them and classify them as looking like tooth of some specie of dinosaurs. His interest was clearly quite unlike fascination that lots of kids have for dinosaurs. Now, two things happened when I was trying to teach science to this kid:

  • Firstly, my son, who was 3-year-old then, used to come and sit next to me for the entire 1.5-2.0 hours of the sessions and with rapt attention kept of watching all the dinosaurs this kid on the other side was showing to me or talking about.
  • Secondly, I was struggling to teach this 7-year-old kid scientific concepts that I wanted to teach, but every now and then he will divert the discussion and ask a question related to some dinosaur. Now till that point in time, I knew only couple of dinosaurs thanks to the Jurassic Park movies and here this kid was not only rattling off names of dinosaurs that I didn’t know about, but was also asking me questions about them – and almost all these questions were doing nothing but derailing the teaching process, to my utter dislike at that point in time.

To say that I was completely lost and frustrated will be a very simple description of my state of mind at that point in time. I just didn’t know how to teach Science to this kid for nothing I was saying was going into his ears no matter what I did. At the same time, I didn’t want to stop those sessions for it was almost a question of my ego – after all, I had made great claims to his parents about my abilities as a teacher. In any case my sessions continued and my desperation to get things into place kept increasing with every passing session.

Paul Coelho says in Alchemist, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. I was desperate to find a way to manage this kid in such a way that he willingly listens to me so that I can teach what I intended to teach. A large part of my waking and sleeping hours were continuously spent consciously or subconsciously in trying to get a fix to this problem. And then one day lady luck smiled – I was teaching a scientific concept to this kid and as usual the kid diverted the discussion by asking about some dinosaur. The good thing this time, from my perspective at least, was that the dinosaur related question asked by the kid was in some way related to the same scientific concept that I intended to teach. So, without realizing, I answered the query of the kid and in doing so I had to explain the scientific concept that I wanted. In other words, that was the first day in my life when I felt what it means to scores two birds with same stone. That was the first class which went of peacefully from my perspective and taught me an important lesson w.r.t engaging curious minds.

From them on I made a simple rule – every concept that I wanted to teach to this kid was tied directly or indirectly to a dinosaur. In every class then I did one simple thing, before the kid could rattle the name of some dinosaur, I rattled off the name of a dinosaur, that I chose for a reason, and asked this kid if he knows about them. Now since I have already done research about this dinosaur before the class I could peacefully listen to this kid’s response to my question without much unease of not knowing anything. Then during these conversations at the opportune point, I surreptitiously used to push through a question which was linked to that same dinosaur which the kid was talking about and this pre-decided question was designed in such a way that it can only be answered by learning the scientific concept that I wanted to teach. Life from then on became happy for me. No more derailments. Science continued in the Jurassic park so as to say for me from that day onwards as far as this kid was concerned.

This incident taught me one very important thing that all of us know but forget it every now and them. There is no way a teacher can get a willing student if the concept that the teacher wants to teach doesn’t start from what excites the imagination of the child or from the curiosity of the child. That day I could see an adult in that kid – all of us only do what we are excited about at that point in time until and unless we don’t have a choice. If we are excited about pubs, we can’t enjoy nature as much as we enjoy in a pub and vice versa. This is the big problem with our schooling system. A teacher comes to the class with a defined topic or a defined question irrespective of what the kid is excited about or what the kid is curious about. The end result is no matter how well the teacher teaches or what tools the teacher uses the kids don’t absorb anything.

This was the first big lesson I learnt with this 7-year-old kid – it’s not only that curiosity is important – most of us understand this but what most of us don’t understand is that curiosity is far far more important when it comes to learning. Curiosity is the start of learning. As I interacted with more kids I further realized, curiosity is not only the start of learning – curiosity is learning in itself. If education is structured in such a way that curiosity of kids is given it’s due, we will have willing learners. Otherwise, we can do whatever we want but learning will never occur – at best only marks will occur.

 

“A question that starts from a kid and goes to a teacher is far more important for learning than a question that starts from a teacher and goes to a kid, even if both the questions are exactly same.”

 

Now as my classes with this 7-year-old kid progressed with my 3-year-old son by my side, I realized an interesting thing happening. My son started asking us about dinosaurs and demanding dinosaur toys and we happily obliged like most parents will do. Let me tell you something about my son – he was always interested in animals but by most standards he is quite a slow learner. Even at almost 5-years of age today he can’t tell you properly the name of the building he lives, he can’t recite simple kid poems properly, he doesn’t know alphabets or numbers in any meaningful way and he can’t tell you more than 3-4 names of friends in his class. He just doesn’t remember anything no matter how hard we try to make him remember. But this kid for the last more than a year is hooked onto dinosaurs – he has collected tons of dinosaurs – and he can tell you complicated scientific names of a number of dinosaurs as if they are his everyday friends. Names like Patagotitan Mayoram, Micropachycephalosaurus, etc. are a common part of his dictionary nowadays. How do you explain that? I had no answer to this question till I came across this article:

Curiosity improves memory by tapping into the brain’s reward system

This article sounded very logical to me in the light of what I have seen with my kid earlier and now with many more kids. A good way to tap into the memory of a kid is by tapping into his or her curiosity. A lesson that is structured around the curiosity of a kid goes directly into his or her memory for long term.

 

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

– Albert Einstein

Now I am not saying that curiosity is the only determinant of memory. Obviously, all of us have cleared academic exams in our life by memorising those lessons without any curiosity being involved. So, I don’t claim to have any detailed knowledge about memory or what determines in. But what I know for sure, after dealing with kids is that for sure curiosity creates relevant foundation for memory. There may be other ways of achieving the same results but I am not aware of them.

To summarize – The first big flaw with current education system is that it is not structured around curiosity in the way it should be. It is important to understand that letting kids ask questions is one thing but structuring an education system around questions or curiosity of kids is altogether a different thing. The only way we can structure a system around curiosity is only if we give due respect to curiosity in the first place. We need to internalize that it’s not just that curiosity is important for learning – curiosity is learning in itself. Curiosity is the holy grail. Till we don’t give complete respect to curiosity, education will remain meaningless.

 

“It’s not just that curiosity is important for learning – curiosity is learning in itself”

 

This bring us to another question – how we structure education around curiosity. I will share few tips from my own experience:

  • Structuring an education system around curiosity doesn’t mean that we can teach only those subjects that kids are excited about. It only means is that before a teacher starts teaching a topic that she intends to teach, she has to spend enough time to bring the kids to a point where they are intrigued enough and thus ready to absorb the intended lesson. This primarily needs two things – the teacher has to not only know a lot about the kids and what excites them, but she also has to either learn to develop the art of connecting the curiosity of the kids to topic that she wants to introduce or the build up to the topic has to be such that kids get excited. In other words, an education system structured around curiosity has to have teachers who develops close emotional bonds with the kids. Educations, unfortunately cannot be just treated as another profession.
  • An education system that is structured around curiosity has to be subject less education. Kids cannot enter a class which is pre-designated as Physics class or Geography class or History class, etc. etc. I am sure it sounds difficult to execute to most of you. The only thing I can tell you at this point is that it’s far far easier than what you can even dream. Moreover, this is not my experience only. If you do some more search on education system of countries like Finland you will very soon realize, it’s a far better alternative to the kind of education system we follow. And to top it – a subject less education works beautifully.
  • Another important thing that I have learnt over time is that if education is structured around curiosity, education will become conversations as opposed to being a monologue or at best a dialogue that it currently is. If curiosity of kids is the fulcrum around which education system is designed, then obviously they have to participate actively by voicing their excitements. This automatically means that teacher has no right to ignore questions of any kid. Again, I am sure a lot of you will feel that if kids are allowed to speak without any adult control the class will become a fish market. I can say this confidently now that a class becomes a fish market only because of inability of a teacher in handling that curiosity rather than the behavior of kids perse. Most of our inability to meaningfully engage with kids stems from the fact that we have lost the ability to get excited by so called small small things of life. This loss of curiosity gets magnified when our own superficial understanding of Sciences makes us react to the fundamental questions that kids throw at us from a point of ego than from a point of amazement as to how this small kid can think of such a probing question. We can never structure a system around curiosity till we don’t accept one simple fact that the most profound questions are always the simplest of the questions and it is because of this reality of life that kids are best positioned to ask the most profound questions. Albert Einstein once said, “I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about the problem of space and time. These are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up”. Einstein simply said through this quote the he remained a child even when he grew up.
  •  Finally, if a system has to be structured around curiosity then all the tools to assess the kids used in that system also has to be structured around curiosity or more precisely exploration. We have to move away from out habit to value answers – we have to learn to value questions. This can only happen when we realize that education is in the process and not in the end result. In other words, exams focused on checking the ability of kids to remember answers and then using that to rank kids relatively are faulty endeavors if we desire to have an education system designed to impart learning.

Now that we have accepted the important of curiosity in learning and memory, it automatically leads us to next level of fundamental question. Curiosity takes a kid to the starting point of a journey – what about the journey after that? What should be the qualities of this journey such that conceptual journey, which is what we are aspiring for, emerges in all its shining glory? Thus, our refined question now is:

 

How should the journey of a curiosity be so that conceptual clarity emerges properly by the time the journey is completed?

 

To be continued…

 

About DreamNobel

DreamNobel is an education initiative to teach Science subjects to kids in a way that original & independent thinking and empathy becomes an integral part of their personality. We have developed a unique and revolutionary course (Eklavya) whereby a kid can be taught broadly all the Science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Geology) in an integrated manner, through a unique story and rationalization led pedagogy.

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