A Passing Thought

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Since time immemorial, man has been obsessed with the question of who (or what) we are, where we came from, how life should be lived and so on. And over the ages, and still today, spirituality and religion have been the path in the search for answers to these questions.

But over the last few decades, it seems like science has a better way to offer. Disciplines like evolutionary psychology, neurology and anthropology seem to tell us much much more about what we are, and why we are the way we are than spirituality ever could.

Spirituality seems to be obsessed with something that’s ideal and unattainable, probably because of man’s innocent desire for perfection, but often exploited by spiritual ‘gurus’ to keep the masses coming to them for answers. Science, on the other hand, looks only at what we actually are, thereby creating a possibility of using that knowledge to make our lives more sensible.

 

Searching for the Heart of Education

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I recently happened to read a book called “Killing Monsters: Why children need fantasy, superheroes and make-believe violence” by Gerard Jones. The book is about what goes on in children’s minds when they watch violent cartoons, or play violent games (live action and video games).

There has been a widespread public sentiment against violence in children’s media in the US since the 1960s, based on the fear that exposure to a lot of violence in the media during childhood could desensitize children, and potentially make them violent persons later in life. There have been many studies which have attempted to find a link between exposure to violence in the media during childhood and violent behaviour later in life, but they have all been inconclusive.

Most caring parents and adults find it abhorrent that their child is so engrossed with something that they find distasteful and fear that their children may get desensitized. Nevertheless, have we stopped to ask why our children are so glued to cartoons and games embodying so much violence? What are they taking away from it? How are they looking at it and making sense of it?

Gerard Jones says that most of the time the children are not passive consumers of the media, but are actively engaged in weaving their own fantasies around the content that they are engaging with. This, he says, is a way for the children to make sense of the world they live in, and a safe place for them to explore and understand what they find intriguing and disturbing in it. So the violence that they are being exposed to in the media may indeed be benefiting them. There are no studies which have conclusively shown it either way.

Jones says it is important that the adults, repelled by the literal meaning of the content in the games or books their children play or read, do not impose their anxieties onto the children. He says that most of the time, children know the difference between their fantasies and the reality, and imposing our anxieties on them would mean taking away this safe haven, and blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, making them doubtful of their own control over their emotions.

Why do children need to fantasize? Right from birth, a child has to struggle to learn about the world she finds herself in, to learn to stand, to walk, to run. And all these involve innumerable failures. Every day of her life, she has to come face to face with her own inability. What keeps her motivated to persevere in this extremely difficult and potentially demoralising process of learning? She needs a sense of triumph, a sense of being in control, of being powerful.

This struck a chord deep within me. I could feel this child within me, with the insecurity of feeling unequipped to face the world. Especially since middle-adolescence, probably because around this time the fantasy worlds of my previous years disappeared, due to my evolving outlook of the world and life. I still feel completely unequipped to face the world today.

I had always thought that the purpose of education should be to prepare a child for understanding the world she finds herself in and enable her to act in it. But can there really be such a state of being prepared to meet something as complex and unpredictable as life? Can we be educated enough to act coherently and intelligently always?

And this is where the book struck a chord within me. Perhaps it’s not just children, who need fantasies to live with their incapability. Even adults have to face the fact of their inadequacy every day of their lives. And even they need a fantasy world to help them feel as if they are in control, and get on with their lives.

Whereas children’s fantasy worlds seem to be dynamic and ever changing just like them, the fantasy world of adults seem to be static and stagnant- it is embodied in the notion of settling down in life, getting a job, marriage, building a family and so on. Most children lose the colourful worlds of their fantasy as they grow into adults, and it gets set into the world of security that helps them meet the challenge of life and feel in control.

But can education help them meet the challenge of life differently? Can it help children to grow to be able to live with their incapability and not be intimidated by the world in the wake of their incapability? Can it help children realize that it is alright to be incapable, and that there is no one in this world who is actually in control outside their fantasy worlds?

Governments and corporations and advertisements and the media will tell you that they are in control and if you want to be in control, all you have to do is to follow them. But doesn’t anyone who has looked at the world a little more closely know that that is just fantasy? Wouldn’t you say that the world is just tumbling through time and space somehow, if you look at the massive inequality and ecological destruction and violence in the world?

Why do I need to live in a fantasy world to be secure? Can I feel secure in my incapability and continue to learn and do what I can without needing to feel in control?

Can education help a child do that?

Be(com)ing a Teacher

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In the monsoon of 2009, I had just begun my final year of BTech at NIT Calicut. After countless hours and days and weeks of idling about without any purpose in life, the reality slowly dawned on me that I needed to find something to do after that year. The four years that I had bought myself was about to end and with it my sojourn in the attic of comfort that I had inherited with it. I would be thrown into the world out there, whether I liked it or not. I needed to decide what was it that I was going to do, or whether I was going to do anything. I had almost a year left, but I had to start looking.

I had to look because I had obstinately decided within that I would not follow the two common paths that engineering graduates normally choose- get a job or go for further studies. That much was clear to me. The world was on a head on collision course with catastrophe. We humans had become hopelessly dependent on a crude oil that was past its peak production, pollution and disease were increasing while today’s children had hardly any idea where the food on their plates came from, the world’s poor were getting more helpless by the day, and worst of all no one around me seemed to care, or even to know.

There was no way I was going to be a passive cog in the wheel and put my shoulder also to the wheels of the machinery that was speeding the world on the path to destruction. That had been the result of almost four years of an obsession with reading about the dire state of our world through articles and books written by environmentalists, activists, philosophers, “alternative living” pioneers etc. I had no idea what I would do if I didn’t take up a job or go for higher studies, but then my philosophy was, “if you are not sure what to do, do nothing.”

Though I describe two obvious options available to me, they actually comprised a wide range of options which can be categorized into two umbrellas. There are several kinds of jobs which electronics and communication engineering graduates normally opt for. The most highly coveted and difficult to get is in chip design/signal processing which is described as a “core job” in engineering college lingo (‘core’ because the job is supposed to be related to the core courses you undergo in college). The next kind is a software job in the countess companies that now operate a variety of services. The third is a job in public sector companies like ISRO, BARC, DRDO etc.

These distinctions were irrelevant because I wasn’t motivated to take up work that any of these organisations did. Besides, I had decided as far back as twelfth standard that I will not live in a city. One smart way to be living in a place away from cities seemed to be to become a professor. Most institutions of higher education seemed to be located in beautiful places. Which brings me to the second umbrella of options.

To do a masters. But in what? The easy option would be to do an MTech, for which one had to clear the entrance exam called GATE. But my interest in my BTech courses had been sporadic at best. The other option would be to do an MS abroad. Which would be more glamorous and flexible. You needn’t stick to what you did in BTech. But what else could I do? I hadn’t developed any serious interest in any particular field by then.

I didn’t want to do any of these. I wanted to do something different. Not for the sake of doing something different, but because it seemed like doing any of these would essentially mean saying to myself, “Well, the world is what it is, and there’s nothing much you can do about it, so stop cribbing and move on”. I did masquerade under the guise of preparing for GATE, but deep within I knew I was going to do something different.

And my reading slowly shifted from reading about the problems of the world, to people and organisations who were actually doing something in real life to explore a different way of living. Thanks to the internet, stories of dozens of such people are only a click away. Without this wealth of information I would never have gathered the courage, without knowing that there are so many people who are living a saner life.

There were so many fascinating stories of people who had set out on their own paths in life. I was often bursting to talk about them with someone. I used to do that with a few of my friends who were sympathetic to my concerns, but were intensely sceptical about my intentions to do something in real life, given my extreme passivity and reputation as a sleep maniac. At every opportunity they took a jab at me, calling me a future greenpeace activist or even a Himalayan monk!

Though they were just friendly jabs, they brought home to me the fact that I had taken virtually no concrete steps to fulfill my ambition of finding a different path for myself. It was all empty thought and talk. And the months were passing by.

Meanwhile I had taken an initiative to search out people nearby, who had done something different in life. I visited a man named Roy Jacob, who had left his job in the US to do farming in Wayanad. I visited another man named KB Jinan, who had revived the traditional pottery in Nilambur. I had read about both of them on the internet. It was great to meet them in person, and talk to them about my urge to find my own path in life, and hear from them about their own journeys in life. At the end of it I was inspired but still without any concrete idea of what to do.

That was when I came across the Krishnamurti Foundation schools and other alternative schools in India. I had been concerned with the problems with education along with everything else, and had been reading and thinking about it quite a bit. Also it was one thing which I had a lot of first hand experience, having been on its receiving end as a student for much of my life so far.

Though I had been a “good student” and had done well in school, during the last few years I had become quite fed up with it and had begun to realize that it had done little more than prepare me for taking exams. It all seemed to be pretty pointless. I also felt that the numbing of the mind due to the education we get is one of the reasons why we fail to look beyond our own narrow lives and respond intelligently to the situation our world is in. In short, it makes us incapable to do anything but follow the rat race.

So here at last I had something that I felt some connection to, something that could be a serious option to consider after college. I had several questions in mind, of course. Most of these schools, even though they had an unconventional outlook and philosophy and offered a different environment for children to grow in, they still had structured classes and subjects and their students did take exams conducted by some board or the other. Was this option a path that was fundamentally different? Wouldn’t I be serving the same machinery, only a different part of it?

Being a teacher in one of these schools seemed like an attractive option nevertheless, because these schools were all located in rural settings, “close to nature”. Anyway, I would need a job to support myself and what more could I hope for than the opportunity to work with people with a similar outlook of life and education.

My biggest doubts were over my own ability to assume the role of a teacher, young as I was, with virtually no experience of working with children or handling a classroom or planning a lesson. It was definitely going to be a challenge, especially given my virtual isolation from everything around me for the last four years or so. I would be putting myself in a situation in which I would be forced to connect with the people and activities around me. But I believed that was the way to go.

Thus I set out looking for a job as a teacher in a residential school run by the KFI, 70 km from Pune, on the top of a hill on the Bhima river. I eventually joined the school and am half way into my second year as a teacher there.

If I’m asked to name one significant challenge I’ve faced so far, I would say it’s been how to relate with the role of being a teacher and all that it entails, in the context of the questions and the discontent that brought me here in the first place. Without that connection, it’s a floating, aimless existence. It’s been a struggle, and I’m still in the midst of the struggle. That’s as far as I can say at this point in time.

One can only look back later and say in retrospect, “Ah, this is what this experience did to me!”

Teaching Chemistry

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Chemistry is very intriguing in its incarnation as a subject in the senior school curriculum. Perhaps its notoriety for being a subject that forces the student to memorize a lot of factual information is surpassed only by that of biology. Names of dozens of compounds, their chemical formulae and structures, chemical reactions which they undergo, the equations for those reactions, the conditions required for those reactions… it is a huge mountain to swallow. At the same time, there are very complex concepts involved that are quite counter-intuitive, and without which even the conceptual parts of the subject degenerate into something which has to be “mugged up”.

I liked chemistry as a student. I first started learning chemistry as a subject when I reached the eighth standard. I studied in a CBSE school, and chemistry was not really a separate subject, but part of the science paper. We had separate classes for chemistry, nevertheless. I don’t remember much of what I learnt back then, but I have a vague remembrance that there wasn’t much that was taught. It was mostly the basic ideas of elements, compounds and mixtures, atoms and molecules, carbon compounds etc. I also remember quite clearly an experiment demonstration in which our teacher showed us the preparation of soap from oil and sodium hydroxide solution.

My real association with chemistry started in the eleventh standard, when I took up physics, chemistry and maths along with computer science as my subjects in higher secondary school. It was truly a time when the horizons of knowledge just broadened like anything, and I seemed to learn so many new things about the world we live in, that all seemed to fit into each other perfectly.

Chemistry, along with mathematics and physics, seemed to offer glimpses of an insight into what our world really is made of, and how it works. It made one pause and wonder and appreciate how intricate are the mechanisms that drive chemical reactions in plants which convert useless carbon dioxide into the invaluable carbohydrates which we eat, how the energy locked up in a particular arrangement of atoms and electrons in the carbohydrates is released when it is broken up again into carbon dioxide, how a similar reaction powers our cars and thermal power stations, how we are made up of atoms that were formed billions of years ago in stars and so on.

It was a truly revolutionary, worldview shaping body of knowledge. Perhaps because of the intense connection I felt with it, and the power that I felt it gave me in knowing the world better, I had a good relationship with the subject. I never struggled to find any motivation to learn the rules for writing electronic configuration, or memorize facts about the transition elements, or learn different reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. I had taken this group of subjects under the guise of preparing for engineering entrance exams. To be honest, right from the beginning I was not convinced that I really wanted to become an engineer, but the subjects were intrinsically interesting, so my reservations about taking up engineering didn’t stop me from engaging with them fully.

So I studied chemistry for two years, engaging with it as deeply as I could with the resources at my disposal. Then after twelfth standard, I joined the National Institute of Technology Calicut for BTech in electronics and communication engineering, and thus ended my relationship with chemistry as a student. We did have a laboratory chemistry course during the first year at NIT, but it was a set of highly specialized experiments which none of us really knew why we were doing them.

It is in this context that I happen to join Sahyadri School as a chemistry teacher. Many people ask me why I wanted to teach chemistry, of all subjects. The truth is, I never wanted to teach chemistry. In fact, I didn’t have any particular subject which I wished to teach. I just wanted to be a teacher in a school like Sahyadri. Given my education after tenth standard, physics, chemistry and maths are the three subjects I could have taught. They needed a chemistry teacher at the time and I thought, Why not?! I could give it a try!

In my first year of teaching, I was asked to handle chemistry for classes 8, 9 and 10. I was momentarily taken aback when I first saw that. I had said I could handle chemistry, but I had not realized that I was going to join as a “chemistry teacher”, that I would be the only teacher taking chemistry for the entire senior school. I remember walking into the chemistry lab for the first time, seriously wondering what I had gotten myself into! It brought back memories of working with salts, and pipettes and burettes back in eleventh and twelfth, but I realized that now it was different. I was going to have to handle the lab when there were twenty odd highly energetic adolescents moving about under my charge!

Before long I had started teaching chemistry to all the three classes. The ICSE curriculum, I learnt, was much vaster than its CBSE counterpart and as far as chemistry was concerned, this meant having to learn many more facts than a student in a CBSE school would learn at the same stage.

In tenth standard, I started with topics like the periodic table and chemical bonding, where there was at least some logic and conceptual understanding involved, where I could start conversations with what the children had learnt earlier. In eighth and ninth standards, I started with the study of matter, and ended up spending class after class on meandering discussions and conversations which practically led nowhere, and bored both the students and myself.

Having dived into teaching without any training in classroom teaching, I found myself just walking into the class with virtually no preparation other than the patchy and limited knowledge base that one gathers as a student in the process of studying for exams. The first thing I had to do was to read up more about the history of how ideas came to be, and what were the experiments and observations which led to different scientific concepts we take for granted today. That turned out to be an interesting and absorbing endeavour, and led me to several good resources for teaching chemistry, on the internet.

Even if one knows thoroughly the complex and interconnected web of concepts, it’s a challenge to present them in a coherent and engaging manner. Needless to say, I felt totally unequipped to teach chemistry. I wondered whether I had taken up the wrong subject, but then I felt it would have been the same whatever the subject I taught.

One really starts learning when one teaches, because when you are teaching, inconsistencies or gaps in concepts stare you in the face. You realize, for example, that you’ve taken it for granted that water contains some H+ and OH- ions and find it difficult to explain to a student why it should be so since I had never asked the question before myself. It forces you to look further to understand better since you need to put forth a coherent explanation. Not that one always finds the answers, but at least you know better what is it that you know, and what is it that is beyond your current scope of understanding. Which is everything, I feel.

Every now and then I come across some such gap in my conceptual understanding, as well as the conceptual gaps in the curriculum. Either through questions posed by students, or through questions which occur to me when I try to prepare for a class or through the “wrong answers” which students give. I scribble them down here and there, but need to find a systematic way of doing it.

Out of necessity I had flung myself full length into learning more about chemistry, but I decided to stick with chemistry in my second year of teaching, to carry forward all the work done in my first year. I had become quite fascinated with the conceptual domain of chemistry- especially how one looks at atoms, molecules, ions, chemical bonding, reactions, and where all this fits in the larger picture of how one looks at the world.

Despite this potential richness in the subject, chemistry remains a difficult subject to teach. The curriculum demands that the student learns so many facts- most of which wouldn’t make any difference to a student’s conceptual understanding if they didn’t learn it- for which there is no reason why anyone should learn them unless one would like to pursue higher studies in the subject.

You can only teach parts of chemistry, and tell the student to memorize the rest. Unless the teacher is so deeply immersed in the subject that she has enough stories about all the little details that the student has to learn. Even then I have my doubts about how effective one can be with so many facts to transmit.

I used to feel very confused about teaching chemistry. It was a subject that I liked, but still it felt strange and frustrating often. It was an important milestone for me to realize for myself which parts of chemistry I liked and which parts I didn’t really care about. More importantly that there was such a distinction, and a blanket statement like “I like chemistry” needs to be examined further.

It is true that a teacher has to be passionate about the subject she teaches, but when you don’t identify with the topic, I think it’s important to be honest and say, “I don’t know what more is there to this chapter than a set of facts and have no idea why the board wants you to learn it. Anyway, let’s see how we can effectively learn it.” Without accepting that, I’ve found myself teaching a topic, and in the middle of the class wondering what was the point of it all, and getting derailed.

It’s been an interesting experience. I’d never imagined I’d teach chemistry one day, but that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half! Along with the learning in the realm of academics, equally important (or perhaps more) has been the learning in the realm of how to look at the work you are doing, and how to establish a meaningful relationship with it.