Why are our kids not learning meaningfully? (Part4 of series on education)

In Part3 we learnt as to why it’s critical to structure an education system around curiosity that emanates from the minds of kids. Let’s continue the journey forward.

In Part3 I also said that curiosity is learning in itself, without delving too much on this observation of mine. I am sure most of you will think that the presence of curiosity can only lead to germination of a question in a kid’s mind. It’s the answer to this question, and not the question perse, that constitutes the learning. Given that, how can the presence of question, by itself, complete the learning?

To answer this question let me share with you another experience of mine and the important lesson it taught me. There used to be a 9-year-old kid whom I used to teach Science. During one of the classes when I went, this kid asked me a question – How does a fan work? Now I was intrigued, for this is a question that can be answered by anyone and possibly everyone. You don’t require to be a science graduate to answer this question. Also, this kid’s father, I knew, was interested in Science and used to take efforts to nurture curiosity of his son w.r.t Science. Given that I asked the kid as to why he has not asked this question to others instead of waiting for me. The kid told me that he had already done so and has got the answer. So naturally I asked him as to what answer he got. The kid replied, “When we switch on, electricity goes through wires to fan. Electricity is a form of energy and thus it drives the fan to move”. Now I was confused. The kid already knew the answer and yet he is asking this question again to me. I was not sure as to what was expected out of me. So, I told the kid that the answer he got from others is correct and if he didn’t understand something specific w.r.t this answer he can ask me that or I can re-explain the entire answer once again. The kid simply told me, “Uncle can you show me electricity. I am not able to imagine it”.

I was stuck. I had no idea as to how to create the imagination of electricity. In fact, I could not understand as to what the actual challenge is, that this kid is facing when he says that he can’t imagine electricity. After all, in his other classes at school, where lots of other things are taught, there is nothing given to make him imagine those concepts. Imagination is not a part of our formal education system at all. So, what does this word “imagination” that this kid is using actually mean? Where is this kid coming from?

I had no idea what to do about this problem. So, for the time being I kept it aside and continued with my journey with this kid with respect to his question by doing the simplest thing that I could do at that point i.e. start explaining the same answer again to the kid using hopefully better and simpler words. As I started explaining the functioning of a fan to this kid, questions started pouring out and since, as a rule, I never stop any question in my class, the questions literally launched a tornado so as to say. By the time I finished I had spent six sessions, each of approximately two hours duration, with this kid and all this just to explain to him how does a fan work. At the end of these sessions the kid clearly said, “Now, uncle I can understand what electricity is and how does a fan work”. As much as I was thrilled with my achievement, I was equally confused. I could not understand as to what happened in those six sessions that made the kid accept the answer which I gave, for the answer I gave was nothing but the same answer that this kid already had before the six sessions happened. We just had some more freewheeling conversations. What happened in those sessions that suddenly he could “imagine” what he was not able to do earlier? After all I didn’t do any painting to create an imagination that he so desired. In those initial days I used to audio record my classes and I used to come back and listen and re-listen to these recordings multiple times just to make sense of what’s happening. As I did that something started taking shape in my mind.

Around the same time coincidentally I came across an interview in Harvard Business Review of Robert McKee, one of the respected screenwriting lecturers. Robert says in the interview,

 

“Human beings naturally want to work through stories. Cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.”

 

Now this comment of Robert struck a chord with me. Recall your own schooling days – when we wanted to remember something, what did we do? We simply created acronyms – so when we wanted to remember the 7 colors of spectrum or rainbow for our physics test we learnt VIBGYOR – when we wanted to remember all the kings of Mughal dynasty in order, for our history exams, we created another acronym. I am sure each one of you will have your own acronyms made to remember something or other. In the light of what Robert says now this acronym making makes sense – our brain remembers connections – it can’t easily remember list of names or items with no connections.

As I reflected more, I recalled the fact that I saw the movie Sholay first time in 1992 and I still vividly remember almost all its iconic scenes – but I don’t remember in 1992 which all chapters were covered in my Science classes. Why is it so? It’s not that I was very curious about Sholay when I first saw it, so curiosity for sure didn’t create the memory. A simple answer can be that I enjoyed Sholay more and I didn’t enjoy my Science subjects – maybe that’s correct but then the question is what has enjoyment got to do with memory? There are many things which I would have enjoyed in my life but I have forgotten them now. So why is that I remember some things and forget others? For sure there is something happening in our brains that help us to remember somethings and forget others.

Now as I reflected on these thoughts in the light of what McKee said, clarity started emerging. Stories are a list of connected events – this is probably why my mind can still remember Sholay but I don’t remember my Science chapters. Sholay had a connected set of events that create the story, the chapters in my Science classes were individual chapters with no connections. Yes interest, fascination, curiosity etc. all are starting points, but if knowledge or data is delivered as disconnected blocks it makes no sense to our minds and thus doesn’t get into memory.

In the light of this understanding when I reflected on my experience of six sessions with that kid, to explain him the functioning of fan, everything suddenly started making sense. In those six sessions, the questions pouring out from that kid, made me cover some of the scientific concepts like energy, law of conservation of energy, functioning of human heart, concept of chemical reaction, and geological processes, besides lots of other small topics that were touched upon. However, these concepts were not thrown around like they are in different classes/different standards as in a schooling environment. They took birth through questions that the kid had, and all these questions were not randomly asked by him, but they had a connection to the base question that the kid was trying to understand. This was the most interesting part for me. When I look at all of these scientific concepts, without them being a part of the kind of conversation I had that time, it’s difficult to imagine a connection between them whereby they can be taught as one continuous block. It is this sequence of interconnected concepts that helped the kid to put his hands and legs around the question completely. The initial answer that he got w.r.t. working of fan was what I call as a “hanging” answer – not only it had no connection to various other concepts, but it also included terms and concepts to which kid had no proper understanding about. In other words, it was like giving one hand to a kid and then asking him to see life in it. Obviously, he could not see it no matter how well and accurately the answer was presented to him. But the moment the same answer coming with a lot of interconnected concepts that helped him understand the answer completely, he suddenly felt that not only a hand, but he has also been provided with all other parts that completed the body. It is this sense of completeness or totality that created the imagination which that kid was missing when he first got the answer to his question. In simple words, when the kid said “I can’t imagine” – what he was simple saying is “I am not able to make sense meaningfully”.

This is probably my biggest learning in life till date w.r.t education.

 

“When education is imparted through a sequence of interconnected concepts, it becomes like a story and thus goes directly into the memory of kids. Not only it goes to memory, it also enables them to get a sense of complete understanding thereby making it something that can be used.”

 

In Part2 we stated: Learning is all about conceptual clarity and not data remembrance. This is the challenge with our education system – it thinks learning is equivalent to knowing the definition of a concept, related formulas and some examples to explain that particular concept. It doesn’t understand that learning is manifested in being able to put our hands and legs around a concept in reasonable totality because only when we can do so we make learning useful and valuable.” Now it all makes sense – the only way to ensure that kids understand the concepts completely is by teaching through a sequence of interconnected concepts. We cannot teach “hanging” subjects/chapters/concepts.

Now I now know how to make kids learn and remember – start from a curiosity that emanates from the kids and then tell them a story. Story doesn’t mean you have to have characters and drama – the word story simply refers a chain of interconnected events or data points. When concepts are interconnected, a story takes birth, an imagination takes birth and thus a learning and memory takes birth.

 

“Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.”

– Henry Adams

That’s the second and probably the biggest problem with our education system. We tell our kids unconnected facts or inert facts. This is exactly what happened in those sessions – when multiple concepts, spread across subjects, came together, they gave birth to an imagination/a story/an answer that made sense to that kid. In the absence of these interconnections the answer, despite being correct, became an inert fact. This is the challenge with our education system. A kid learns Physics in one class and History in another class and Geology in another class – even in these subjects he learns different different concepts spread across the years – who will tell them the connection between them? No wonder then our kids don’t remember or learn anything for they see no use of retaining this knowledge.

 

” With the kind of education system we have, it’s no surprise that our kids leave the portals of their schools/colleges like a mason who has bricks and cement and other equipments with them but has no idea that all that they have can be used to make a wall.”

 

Not let me come back to the question that I started with – how is curiosity a learning in itself? To understand this let’s relook at the experience I had with that kid. As I tried answering the base question i.e. how does a fan work, the kid asked question/s related to what I said and this way the entire journey of six sessions went through a series of interconnected questions each trying to take us a step closer to the answer. This is the crux of independent thinking. When we are posed with a question, if we keep asking the second, and third and fourth and fifth and so on level of more and more probing questions we will ultimately come to a list of most fundamental questions which will within themselves contain the answer. In other words, the starting question/curiosity just starts the journey. However, if pursued further it leads through a series of questions which will make us stand right at the portals of the answer. This is why curiosity is learning in itself, provided it has been developed in a way that we not only ask one question and come to the start of path of learning but also keep asking more questions such that we can walk on that path of learning without any external help (almost).

We need to get this fact absolutely correct. “Curiosity is not the ability to ask a question. Just asking a question is meaningless. Curiosity is the ability to not only ask a question but also ask follow on questions that lead to an answer”. It is this kind of curiosity that creates an independent thinking which must be the goal of any education system. Teaching kids through an interconnected sequence of concepts, as opposed to hanging concepts, nurtures this kind of curiosity thereby making them independent thinkers. It’s only this kind of independent thinkers who can possibly pass the test of being educated by teaching someone else (test of being educated that we discussed in Part2).

 

“It’s pleasing to watch stars in a night sky. But it’s far more pleasing to see constellations in them. Connecting those points of light in sky creates beautiful imaginations. Mankind has been doing since ages. But somehow they didn’t keep this interconnectedness in mind while creating an education system”

– DreamNobel

This is the challenge with our education system – it equates curiosity to asking a question and promotes that only. Not only that, it also forces a kid to restrict his or her curiosity to the subject/topic under discussion. Given that, neither the kid is interested, nor learns the art of converting his initial curiosity into a tool that leads to independent thinking. This lead me to another realization – A teacher is not supposed to provide answers, a teacher is supposed to make a kid walk the path of creating answers by being a fellow traveller. This is one more reason why education has to be conversation and not a monologue the way it is today (In Part3 we stated this fact with a reason).

An interesting thing that I came to know around the same time cemented this learning of mine. Maybe you know about it but nonetheless let me share it. The story of Mahabharata was written by Ved Vyasa because he wanted to explain the abstract concepts enshrined in Vedas to common man through a story. His idea was liked by Gods and so they sent Ganesha to do the writing work. So, you see the power of a good story, in explaining concepts (of life in this case) was even appreciated by Gods. Clearly, storytelling or interconnection has to be an integral part of education – without it education is dead – or as Henry Adams said, it’s nothing but a collection of inert facts.

But this conclusion posed a second challenge – telling stories of kings, queens, demons, gods, etc. to teach some values to kids is fine – but how do you teach large number of seemingly unconnected topics like atoms, friction, mountains, electricity, magnetism, nervous system, etc. etc. using interconnected sequence of concepts? I had no answer initially. As they say, “The one who brought you this far will also take you further down the road if you just have faith”. Thankfully I retained by faith and very soon my Mahabharata took shape right in front of my own eyes with the help of the kids I taught. Today I have a course called “Eklavya” where kids are taught Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Geology through an interconnected sequence of concepts. There are no hanging concepts, there is no inert data. The classes in this course belong to kind of curiosity we talk about – the kids don’t say that today we learnt biology or today we learnt chemistry – they only explore concepts and try to “imagine” them through a sequence of interconnected concepts. And I yes, I don’t give answers – I work with them to reach answers. To my utmost satisfaction they get it brilliantly like I never imagined.

To summarize, if kids have to learn meaningfully we have to tap into their curiosity. An acceptance of this allows a teacher to access a mind willing to learn. Post that the journey has to be a journey that goes through a series of interconnected topics that allows kids to “imagine” the answer. If you have to sum up all this in one simple line then it will be – Education is in the journey, not in the end answer. This is the singular biggest fundamental flaw in our education system – they believe education is reflected in end results i.e. exams/grades/marks/ranks/etc. It is because of this we see the kid of system we see around today – a system designed with an end objective in mind. To top it we have chosen an end objective that has no relation to learning. Till we don’t understand the importance of the journey, education will remain a collection of inert facts.

 

“Journey create stories. Destinations only have milestones.”

– DreamNobel

By the end of Part3 we had the question – How should the journey of a curiosity be so that conceptual clarity emerges properly by the time the journey is completed? The answer in one single word is “interconnections”. But is this sufficient to get educated? We will come back with one more missing element in the next article in this series.

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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