Sunday, January 16, 2011

Learning like Bruce

‘A King had been defeated six times at war. Forces scattered, facing death, he fled and hid in a rude shed. He was tired and shattered. As he lay in despair he saw a small spider attempting to weave a web. She tried and failed - six times in a row. The King thought, “She too shall taste bitter failure.” But the spider tried for a seventh time and emerged successful. Inspired, the King too endeavored into the thick forests, for a seventh time, gathered his forces and won himself a commendable victory.’

It’s a time when the self-declared godfather of world nations has allowed itself to be eclipsed by the emerging super powers, and paradoxically, uncomfortable ‘truths’ of the gaping holes in our political, economic and corporate fabric have made their hostile appearance. Nandan Nilekani ‘imagined’ the Indian picture perfectly when he said there is a worrying “dissonance in opportunities that India has and political chaos.” What is most apparent in the word ‘opportunities’ is the undefined horizons of education. But that which is always apparent may also be taken for granted. This brings us to the story – a very famous one at that – I have mentioned above.

Let me ask you two questions.

  1. Who is the King mentioned in the fable?
  2. Who/What is the most important character of the story?

If you answered King Bruce of Scotland, for the first question, I’ll give you 5 marks (just so you know you are being evaluated!)

For the second question we have 3 possible answers.

  1. The Spider
  2. The number seven
  3. King Bruce

If you said ‘Spider’, I’ll give you 2 marks.

If you said ‘Seven’, I’ll give you 3 marks, for thinking outside the box

If you said ‘Bruce’, I’ll give you full 5 marks.

Why Bruce and not the spider? In any given situation, even in no-man’s land, we can identify 2 players – a lesson and a learner. The spider is the lesson and Bruce is the learner. And argue all you may, I shall still say that the learner is always more important than the lesson itself. Lessons by themselves are dry, lifeless and often unappealing. Just look at that gross spider on your wall! But the learner’s attitude and his applicative skills can make a lesson out of even a mosaic chip.

Moulding the learner to find a lesson in everything he does and applying that lesson to earn more opportunities – that’s education. But in India we are still shackled to many archaic ‘lessons’ that are stifled between the hard covers of unquestionable authority – the reason why you forgot the name of the King.

We need to urgently shift focus to the questions such as ‘Who is learning?’, ‘How is he learning?’ and ‘How can he learn better?’ and not merely ‘What is (anyone) learning?’ For that’s the most practical approach to educating.

While on the subject of learning, allow me to say this too: 40% of the people in the world are kinesthetic learners – those who learn from experiencing, doing or being part of something. Of the remaining, only about 20% are auditory learners and the rest are visual learners, or some combination of the above three. But what part of our education focuses on either the kinesthetic or visual learners?

But then again, is it practicable to develop and maintain such focal learning points in the system? Today, the answer is a veritable yes. The internet is flooded with free and paid personality tests prepared or accredited by psychologists. How difficult is it for the government to procure them and, with the help of a team of psychologists, develop customized tests that can be made available to the schools? Such customized tests – in English or vernacular languages – conducted at the beginning of say 5th grade (when the child begins to warm up to learning on his own) will go a long way in assisting the teachers and students in the process of learning. This may even go a long way in reducing the rate of drop outs. And say, he still drops out for reasons of survival; he shall never forget how he learnt his lessons best.

Now the question is, in a class of 70 and 80 students attended to by an understaffed and often disgruntled group of teachers, how does one divide learners and maintain these profitable divisions? There needs to be no division per se. Instead let’s try our hand at fusion. Fusion can bring surprising results.

I am an auditory-kinesthetic learner. Since 9th grade I have been attempting to memorize the monuments of India. Some disconnected buildings, builders, places; they all freaked me out. Two weeks back, I saw an audio-visual documentary on a history infotainment channel about the Bara Imambara of Lucknow. I close my eyes now and I can see myself walking through the famous Bhul-Bhulaiya fighting the hidden soldiers even as the sweet voice of a lady resonates in my mind, telling me about its builder Asif Ud-Daula and how it was built under the Food for Work programme and its many architectural peculiarities.

Is providing such learning aid impossible? A yes to this question will be equivalent to blatantly disregarding our achievements in developing, indigenously, some of the best and least-cost technologies in the world.

Remember that old gentleman who developed a tricycle that could travel on water, with just the rudiments found in his run down garage?

Knowledge is the only renewable resource. Face it. Rivers stop flowing. Winds stop blowing. And they say, in a billion odd years the Sun will stop burning too. And if what they say is right, we’ll soon be living in space, where we’ll have nothing but knowledge to kick-start our lives. And what’s special about this resource is that renewing it is child’s play, literally. But must we rely only on certified professionals – who still go by the name ‘teacher’ – to spread this one, this only key to our futures? (I do not intend to denigrate the role of teachers in education. They are doing it themselves.)

In the past 18 years of being taught, I have had my share of favourite teachers. But only 3 teachers stand out as definite sources of influence and encouragement. They are unparalleled in their contentment with life and undying faith in and ambitions for their students. How do we make better teachers and students a part of our burgeoning population? Practice. The CBSE and State Educational Agencies must endeavour to make it a part of their syllabus for all students from the 8th – 12th grades (along with their teachers) to spend certain specified hours with uneducated children and adults in the nearest rural/semi-urban localities. Learning by teaching- it’s an ancient, tried and tested method. If the 20-25 marks that are awarded to children for copying assignments and gobbling up lengthy seminars be awarded for serving the community we would have a socially aware, sensible, vibrant and connected future India (not to forget an immensely educated India as well). Because, as it turns out, even spiders can teach!

In India we have a bad habit. Finding limits. And the first victim is always knowledge; the second being the learner. Recently, while in the virtual world, I strayed into the land of the National Knowledge Commission. I was happy, because the commission (long overdue) has done a commendable job of dissecting the scenario of education in India. But why keep two equally relevant fields out of their purview: Sports and Culture? Indians marvel (and Chinese democrats cringe) over two things in China: their sporting culture, and the profound reach of the State’s technological arm. Out here, we have 321 sports training centers functioning under the SAI with an over all trainee strength of 14,900 (as of 2009-10). Given that most of these centers are attached to schools, we can say that roughly 0.004% of our under-15 population is covered under these centers. The success in CWG and Asian Games came primarily from private training centres and personal effort. A similar situation exists in the world of art and culture. The Sanskriti Yatra 2010, a sham. The dilapidated Shanti Niketan; an insult to Tagore. And all this: 321 centres, 5 air conditioned coaches filled with chart papers and disorderly history, numerous half-baked culture funds and missions and sporting extravaganzas – a leak in the taxpayer’s hard-earned dreams.

The clichéd argument would be: what of sports and culture in a land of rotting grains and over 300 million poor? The rebuttal: Sports and culture are routes to alternate livelihood and a positive safety valve for the aggressive unemployed. As Thomas master has observed in his free sports school, "Ninety per cent of the students are poor. Sports is their route to get good jobs. They see sports as their life's goal." (There are more examples: Rajpal Singh’s rifle academy in UP, Mrityunjay Tiwari’s football-cum-education programme in Bihar, and Kerala’s very own P.T.Usha Academy.) Sports is also a pre-condition for wholesome education. Hence the prestigious Rhodes scholarship criterion: “Energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports.” Moral: had Bruce not been of the energetic and sporting kind, he may well have missed the spider’s lesson! As far as art’s bearing on education goes, I need go no further than Albert Einstein – the violin sessions he immersed himself in to unclog his Gedankenexperiment ridden brain are quite famous.

I shall not stretch my argument. For there is no argument beyond Einstein!

In quick summary, compiling what I learned from Bruce and my education:

The idea is to think strategically. The idea is to think positively. The idea is to become a stakeholder in the prosperity of civil society. And to practice an education that delinks itself from any one of the four strands of modern civil society – Scientific thought, Social consciousness, Sporting action, Artistic Creation – that define the human evolution is in itself the propagation of a limiting, discriminatory system; against the tenets of a free society. No education should make you. It should only aid you make your choice. It should help you seek your lesson and fight your war…

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