Saturday, June 6, 2009

Schools Achieve 100% Results in Boredom

I came across the presentation by Sugata Mitra given in 2007 on the “Hole in the Wall” project (sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves ). It puzzles me that we are aware of the shortage of teachers, the lack of resources and yet we do not seem to apply the lessons being learned regarding informal education, at least, not on a substantial scale.

Mark Shuttleworth made his money from technology, became the first South African in space, funded the creation of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution, and the home page of the Shuttleworth foundation quotes him, “If we are to lift Africa from her current circumstances, we will need a generation of learners that are gifted about the world in which they live, and the tools to understand and shape the world.”

Technology now offers us options which did not exist till even a decade ago. It is time that we re-think about schools, their role and the best approaches for enabling our children to learn. I regard that as important because I do not have any fond memories of schools.

As I approach the age of 60, the most painful memories are all of schools. My wife feels that cultural conflicts triggered by studying in the US in my teens is the cause. However, the bad memories go back much farther.

My first memory is that I wanted to drop out of kindergarten because of the painting activities. Children are supposed to love painting but I just couldn't paint the Indian flag. I would paint the saffron and then the white and the colours would mix and the result was terrible. Trying to draw the Ashok Charkra invariably resulted in a disaster. Why was I in a state of panic at that age that I just couldn't think?

The next memory is of trying to drop out of primary school. Having to memorise and repeat a set of seemingly random numbers - the table of 7 was horrible. It became worse when I had to memorise the table of 13. It still amazes me that I went on to study physics and mathematics. It could be that my experiences with English were even worse. I don't know if I ever succeeded in memorising 10 lines or so of "If you don't succeed at first". I wanted to drop out.

About a year after my father had been transferred to the US, we had a substitute teacher for physics one day. The topic we had been studying was conservation of momentum. The substitute teacher asked me what makes the planes fly. The answer or the absence of one still embarrasses me. How could I have been the 'best' student in physics and never even thought about its connection to the objects and events around us.

For the life of me, I cannot find a single memory of schools which I recall fondly. I cannot recall any teacher who influenced me or had a positive impact on me though there were teachers whom I liked very much. I did well in schools in spite of the mind being absent half the time. It makes me wonder if I was brighter or the other children had even more Calvin-like fantasies.

There was a sudden change when I reached college.

I wonder what was so different that I suddenly liked learning after coming to college. The main reason probably was the absence of boredom. There was no catering to the lowest common denominator. The professors were teaching what they liked. The passion showed. We were dumped with lots of information and it was our responsibility to assimilate it. Day dreaming in class was far less. The average number of hours spent on lectures was about 3 per day - 5 days a week. Scolding was subtle. "You don't seem to have liked the assignment. There were many careless spelling errors." Even today my behaviour is influenced by what I learnt in the psychology classes in college, although those subjects had nothing to do with my major - physics. Learning American history in college and coming across the critical analysis of it, especially, the impact on the local populations was really enlightening and mind blowing.

The same model may not work in schools. In fact, the above model may be inappropriate for colleges as well in today's world.

I would like to see schools offer a smorgasbord of toys which help children learn. A child may spend as much or as little time on a toy. Teachers should actively encourage children to learn from each other, rather than “do not copy” syndrome. A teacher need spend a few minutes to help each child get started – after that the learners explore independently or collaboratively. It is imperative that certification needs and learning objectives do not get entangled and confused with each other.

On second thought, I would be thrilled if schools implement any solution that eliminates boredom and tediousness from the lives of the students and teachers.

My son sent me this link and I had better get back to wasting time on Newtonian mechanics!

1 comment:

  1. I found college even more boring. Whatever happened to all the good teachers? :-O