“Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”

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I recently came across this long article titled “Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”, sent to me by a colleague. It is an attempt to interpret some of the recent (last 10-15 years’) findings in cognitive science, neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, and “provide a theoretical basis for a complete transformation of formal educational structures”, in the authors’ words.

I was someone who, during my adolescent years, was desperate to grow up so that I can be in charge of my own life. Now I find myself in a role where I control the lives of adolescents, and I find that it creates an inner conflict, sometimes.

There’s enough that is interesting about being a teacher to go on like this, but I really want to understand the issues of adolescence better, just because it’s something that’s close to my heart and I’ve been thinking about it since my adolescent years, how young people who are growing up do not have a proper place in modern society. Also, to explore the possibility of creating saner spaces for young people growing up.

Here are some excerpts from the article that suggest the critical evolutionary role of adolescence and its very features like exuberance and risk taking tendency that modern society find difficult to handle.

“Of the greatest importance to early people was the progression of their dependent
child to that of autonomous adult. This was a process that had to be completed sufficiently early to ensure that the young adult would be able to take on whatever were the responsibilities of the earlier generation before they died. While there is much evidence about the care and attention given by such people to the very young (as can easily be noted to this day in remote areas of Africa or elsewhere) there was absolutely nothing soft or sentimental about this.

Amongst the nomads of the Zagros mountains of southern Iran, until very recently, adults spent much time and energy equipping every four-year-old to look after the chickens, the six-year-olds the goats, the eight and nine-year-olds the sheep, the ten-year-olds the asses and twelve-year-olds the donkeys – leaving only the bad tempered camels as needing actual adult attention! When the tribe moved everyone had a task to complete. As the child grew older so the tasks they were allocated became harder. Everyone was engaged, even if work frequently felt like play they all shared in the sense of achievement.

Such small-scale, self-contained communities depend upon the good will of their members to ensure cohesion, but such cohesion would have come at too high a cost if youthfulness lasted too long , and there was any undue delay in reaching adulthood. The adaptation that had earlier enabled the young to learn easily in their earliest years through intense emotional connection with older people, had to be balanced by an internal mechanism that prevented the children from becoming mere clones of their parents. In other words unless those close bonds which had characterized the earliest years were ruptured (forcibly if necessary) the young would not grow to be adaptable to new situations.

Adolescence, it is now becoming clearer, is that deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words to prove themselves – so as to start a life of their own. As such the biology of adolescence aims to stop children being merely clones of their parents. It is probably a time-limited predisposition, in other words if the adolescent is prevented (by over careful parents or a too rigid system of formal schooling) from experimenting and working things out for itself, it will lose the motivation to be innovative or to take responsibility for itself when it becomes adult.”

I don’t believe that adolescents should be left completely on their own to do whatever they want to do. Even in these early pre-industrialization and pre-civilization societies, the adolescents had tasks to do, but those were more concrete and real unlike the abstract subjects children learn in school today, and they had a role in society unlike the “youngsters of today who are too old to be treated as children but not yet in meaningful employment.”

It seems like our brains are wired so that adolescents of every generation will question their parent generation and try to find their own way in life. Given that, and given the likelihood that schools are here to stay for at least my lifetime, there are two questions that come to my mind about schools.

Is there something of value which the older generation can give the younger generation in such a set up? If so, what? And how is that valuable to the younger generation? I’d like to examine this question from scratch, not taking for granted anything that we think is of value in education.

Is there something of value which the younger generation has to give the society here and now(not some abstract notion of future citizens and blah-blah)? If so, what is it? And what are the conditions/environment that will bring forth those contributions?

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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.

 

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.

The Difficulty with Science

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One of the first things that struck me when I started teaching is that science comes across as a difficult subject to a majority of the students. There are some to whom it seems to come naturally, and we label them “science-persons” while the others who seem to struggle, as “arts-persons” or “humanities-persons”.

While there is no denying that there are variations in children’s ability, aptitude and interests, I’m gripped by the question whether everyone can be given a meaningful and enriching, and not painful science education. And if so, what would that be like.

One of the approaches that could be taken, perhaps, is to study how science is normally taught and what are the sources of the difficulties which children face. How is scientific knowledge organised in our brains and what are the factors which make this process so difficult for so many? It might require some thought about the very nature of science and scientific knowledge.

While I’m not an expert in any of these areas, some of the problems which I myself have faced as a student provides some hints. The problem may not be such a big mystery if you look a bit closer.

Much of science is abstract, counter intuitive, and removed from real life experience. Take, for example, the kinetic theory of matter, which says that the particles which make up matter are in continuous motion and that the temperature of a body is a measure of the average kinetic energy of its particles. Most text books don’t explain why people came to believe that the particles are in motion, or why a body is hotter if the particles are moving faster. There is a lot that ends up having to be taken for granted.

This is not an isolated example- far from it. Every theory or topic that children have to learn has some gap like this, and after a while instead of the concepts building up nicely into a jigsaw puzzle- an understanding of the way the world works, they end up being isolated and unrelated fragments that have to be “mugged up”.

Related to this is the fact that scientific knowledge is often presented as absolute truth. Very little, if any importance is given to the process of discovery and the evolution of scientific knowledge. Text books do mention some history, but it is often lost within the vast sea of facts which children have to memorise. And in the process, only the end product, and not the evolution of the idea or the real life phenomenon that led to it, is given importance.

Another difficulty which students often face is in forming mental pictures or representations of concepts or processes. If you are unable to visualise it, it quickly becomes abstract, meaningless information.

For example, consider the case of common salt dissolving in water. I, the teacher, have a vivid picture of differently sized Na+ and Cl- ions packed tightly in the solid crystal, and water molecules floating (or flowing!) around with their partially positive H and partially negative O ends. And the moment you put NaCl in water, the partial charges of water molecules arranging themselves around the ions in the salt and pulling them apart. It is a complex mental representation, built up over time, with connections to many other concepts like kinetic theory, chemical bonding etc. How can a teacher help a student build her own mental picture? Some students do this effortlessly, but can the others do it with some help and more importantly, can having such coherent mental pictures help them learn science more easily and connect with it better?

Most text books would introduce this concept with a sentence like “Sodium chloride dissolves well in water because it is a polar solvent.” And then go on to beat around the bush with all kinds of irrelevant information. How does the student visualise the term “polar solvent”? Does she think about it at all, or switch off completely? Or does she memorise the term without any clue as to what it means and move on and write the correct answer during the exam?

It’s important to note that the problems I have mentioned are not solved by just doing “more practical work than theory”. The same problems arise in lab sessions also, because doing an experiment is one thing, and understanding what happens behind it is another. Of course, being usually more engaging than theory classes, there is a greater chance that the student will apply herself better and get the concept. But one cannot assume that the student has understood it just by carrying out the experiment.

Again, let’s take an example, say precipitation reactions where solutions of two soluble salts are mixed together to form an insoluble salt.

Na_2CO_3 + CaCl_2 \longrightarrow 2NaCl + CaCO_3 \downarrow

Some children are immediately able to connect the above equation to their understanding of ionic compounds and solutions. They will immediately conclude that calcium and carbonate ions can’t stay together in the solution and that’s why they precipitate, and if they had come across calcium carbonate in earlier experiments, they would already know that it is an insoluble salt, which all fits in nicely into a perfect mosaic of knowledge. They would already be predicting which other pairs of solutions would give precipitates.

But for most, the equation wouldn’t mean anything deeper than what it literally states, and it needs to be made explicit to them what all information it represents and a visualisation of the process that is taking place. Otherwise, it is not unlikely that many would do this particular reaction, learn the equation by heart, do the next one, again learn the equation by heart and so on.

It’s fortunate that I have had these problems myself as a student, especially during engineering days, so that I can connect with the difficulties which students face. It’s not as if only “non-science-persons” face these difficulties, and “science-persons” don’t face them at all. I, whom many would classify as a “science-person”, have had experiences of having gone through entire courses without being able to make out head or tail of what was taught, and having to mug up to pass the exams. The moment you are unable to form coherent mental pictures of a concept, it is going to become more and more meaningless.

Rediscovering Science

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I’ve been away from blogging for quite a while now. In fact, I’m logging in to my account after months! I have been recording my thoughts in the meantime, in a journal(the paper and ink kind), which is why I haven’t felt the need to blog. Also the kind of things I have been recording are mostly personal experiences with kids- inside the classroom and outside- and thoughts related to teaching specific to my daily experiences here, so I felt that a blog was not the right place to put it. But I just thought I’ll keep the blog going, for those who may be wondering whether I’m still alive, or whether I’ve disappeared somewhere!

I’ve been having a great time of late, teaching Chemistry. I’ve been learning a lot while preparing to teach, especially the history of Chemistry. Well, I did know that the atomic theory was proposed by Dalton, or that oxygen was discovered by Lavoisier(well, Priestly discovered it earlier, but Lavoisier recognized it as an element), but these were just dry facts back in school. I’ve been learning about the fascinating stories around these discoveries, and the thought processes of the scientists in those days.

One resource I came across on the internet, which turned out to be very useful, is the BBC documentary series, “Chemistry: A Volatile History”. The whole documentary is available on Youtube. It’s extremely well made, and I have been using it in my classes also.

Another resource, is a book by the famous neuropsychologist(I think that’s what he is!) Oliver Sacks, called “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”. The book is about his childhood, when he was deeply into amateur Chemistry, due to the inspirational influence of his uncle who owned a bulb factory, and used to talk to him always about the qualities of tungsten. The book is in a way, his personal account of the history of Chemistry and his own journey in understanding Chemistry. It also gives you a glimpse into the life of a Jewish family in England during the second world war. The book was extremely helpful in broadening my knowledge of Chemistry and its history, and forming a perspective on most of the things dealt with in the syllabus.

Next of Kin

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I’ve been quite busy over the last few days, and haven’t got around to writing anything, though there is a lot that I’d like to write about. Just thought I’d keep the blog going by writing about a book called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts, which I read last month. It’s about a series of experiments about the language learning ability of chimpanzees, by teaching them sign language. Of course we know that chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, but the book reveals just how “intelligent” they are, and how amazingly similar their cognition and social behaviour are, to our own. The author takes us on an intriguing journey that tells us a lot about the nature of our own learning and behaviour, and tackles the question of how language could have evolved, from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

It’s interesting that for decades, the Western scientific world looked at the chimpanzee as little more than a “monkey”, but the native African cultures look upon chimpanzees with a lot of respect. In fact, the word “chimpanzee” comes from an African dialect, and it originally meant “different man”. Some tribes even supplement their knowledge of medicinal plants by following and observing chimpanzees medicating themselves with herbs.

We often call ourselves “social animals”, which somehow seems to put ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom. After reading this book, any line of division between humans and the other animals looks really thin. In fact, it makes you even redefine what is meant by “human”.

“The Incredible Human Journey”

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New scientific discoveries have often lead to paradigm shifts, wholesale changes in how we look at ourselves and the world. The discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that it went around the sun, was one which had such an impact. Another was Darwin’s theory of evolution.“The Incredible Human Journey”, is about one such discovery.

According to the “Recently Out of Africa” theory, which has been proved through fossil and genetic evidence, modern human beings evolved in Africa alone and spread to all the continents from there. Not only that, but only a single tribe successfully left Africa around 70,000 years ago and the lineage of all non-Africans today can be traced back to that single tribe. This has been verified through genetic tests. Africans actually belong to a more varied family tree, which branched off much earlier.

Daniel Quinn says that historians often relegate what happened before the advent of agriculture and civilization, into something lesser called “pre-history”. We believe that we were made to be civilization builders and what had preceded it was something of the past, a relic, of no use to us now.

But recent research in evolutionary biology and anthropology reveals astonishing stories about our ancestors, the challenges they faced and how they adapted themselves to overcome them. Each episode of the documentary describes how humans could have reached and colonized each continent.

To briefly sum up, a small group of modern humans, people like you and me, left East Africa roughly 70,000 years ago, by crossing the Red Sea, which was much narrower then owing to the Ice Age and sea levels 110 metres lower than today. Their population gradually grew and spread to Persia and from there branched- One to Central Asia and Siberia, India – and another to Europe.

By 40,000 years ago, people were living in Siberia, Europe, Australia. We are usually told that the invention of agriculture and civilization was the greatest event in our history, and that civilization led to progress and improvement in technology. And here we are, 30,000 years before civilization- people crossing a hundred miles of open ocean to Australia. Not only that people survived in the Ice Age Siberia, much colder than today, 40,000 years ago. They made coats from reindeer skin to protect themselves from the cold, which meant that they had invented the needle and sewing, back then.

At the time when the first humans reached Europe, 40,000 years ago, it was not virgin country. There were another human-like species, the Neanderthals- whom you might not even notice if you passed by on the street- which was already settled there for a quarter of a million years. To think that our ancestors and the Neanderthals co-existed for nearly 20,000 years until they finally became extinct around 24,000 years ago, is intriguing to say the least! What would they have thought of each other?! What would we have thought if there were Neanderthals living with us today?!

These are amazing stories, which reveal so many amazing things about the places we inhabit and how we came to occupy them. They are definitely fascinating and have the potential to turn entire world views upside down, make us stop and think about what we really are, and how stupid and short-sighted some of the things we do are, and what it means to be human. And, we are all Africans!

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