Hey, Teachers! Leave us kids alone

21 10 2006

Pink Floyd does have a song that could be associated with a thought. This time it was not his song which provocked me to write this. I was about to complete the book Genius (the biography of Richard P Feynman) and the central image of a natural genius that Feynman was, made me think a lot. Especially his comments about the Brazilian education system which according to him defines learning as mere memorizing than understanding. The best joke in this regard came from Prof. Balakrishanan of IIT Madras in his forward to the Indian edition of Lectures in Physics by Feynman, Sands and Leighton: “Give examples of Quantum Mechanics” and the answer from an Indian university student turns out to be, 1) Hydrogen Atom 2) Particle in a Box 3) Harmonic oscillator 3) Tunnelling Electron 5) Schrodingers Cat! And when asked why five, we have the stereotype answer- “because it is a five marks question!” 🙂

Much deeper beyond the jokes, have we ever thought whether our general education system has served any better than an institution to systematically kill the genius inside every child? Have we ever given emphasis to understand things than mere textbook swallow and vomit? And more importantly, this process of curbing the diverse streams of thoughts and creativity happens in our very social instiutions; the moment a child is made to follow a religion or practise without ever allowing questioning it. Do we give any choice to our children- the very fundamental choices to decide his/her religious, social and political outlook without indoctrinating them, the freedom to speak his/her convictions aloud, and lately towards the end of youth even the decision about choosing a partner? As far as the general Indian society goes it is a big no. We want our children to be our dumb photocopies and we are not ashamed but rather boasting it as a great cultural tradition.

It is high time remould education. But first we need to challenge the traditional parental outlook and pedagogy followed. I had an experience recently which has made me convinced about its need.
My uncle’s son Vaisakh, fondly called Appu (9th standard in Dubai Indian School), asked a question to me. “Kannan chettan (he calls me by this name), why don’t cars and bikes run on water?”. The question seemed too trivial until I thought more deeply about how to explain it. The issue is that if I try to introduce terms like ‘calorific value’ in whatever simple language all I will be doing is reframing the whole question; old wine in new bottle. That is it. If I want to make him understand, I need to refresh my understanding, than memories of jargons and explanations. I should not tell him pedagogic thermodynamics or thermal engineering. But we have been trained to do just that. Or worse, just like what my aunty (or even my mother) does: “don’t you have any other business than pestering me with questions”.

“Alright Appu”, I said, “as far as I know bikes and cars can’t run on water. But let us try to find out why. We can’t possibly fill your Unni Kunnjachan’s bike with water and try. We will be in trouble.”
I drew the diagram of the internal combustion engine. The cylinder, the piston, the valves etc. I explained him in the simplest language, the way we get mechanical energy out of it. He listened to it with great interest and occassionally asking doubts

“Now tell me”, I said, “if I fill this tank with water, spray it inside the cylinder and give a spark, what will possibly happen”. He thought and said, “But Kannan Chettan, water can’t burn. When we pour water over fire it extinguishes…. Now why is that first”. I asked him to try sand, milk, etc too. Even they will work that way! Then I tried to explain, why it was so.

“So”, I continued, “you got the point, young genius and I’ll now tell why water doesn’t burn with this temperature.” It went on and finally I explained the diseal engine mechanism and worked out the pressure to be applied to compress water to the volume required by the engine and what might happen once released. We proceeded our discussion to steam engines, turbines etc.

Once we completed the whole thing, he had a glow in his eyes and complimented me, “Kannan Chettan, you truly know a great deal. How could you do such great calculations. I dislike maths.” I replied, “come on Appu, there is nothing great in those or the greatness lies in people who found those methods. The important point is that, don’t you realize that you got some picture of why we did not have water engines so far and I am sure a lot of more doubts. But do not stop with this, pursue more and perhaps you could even develop one water engine. Also when you have a question search for answers and when people just avoid you, experiment with available resources whatever others have to say. Haven’t you heard about Edison? And do not hate maths, just believe me, if you find it boring it just because you were taught in a very bad manner. When we get time I will tell you the interesting mathematics.”

Then came the call from home. “Appu, come back. You naughty kid. You need to know everything on earth other than your textbooks”. As usual it was aunty. I replied, “that is how geniuses are, Priya aunty” and winked back to Appu.

I remember that even I was pretty much like Appu, except that I did not dislike maths. I used to ask the same question. But I was replied with a sentence- “you can’t run an engine with water because it is impossible”. Now I realize the cruelty people did to me by those stupid replies, the dicouraging attitude in our families and even colleges where free thinking is never a virtue.

Isn’t it high time to think about alternatives? Or I’ll be singing this song ever more vocally- “we don’t need your education ….”