Teach a child to learn…

Over at Abi’s blog, the discussion on Indian science and higher education seems to be hotting up again. But how about primary education? We may need 1500 universities, but do we have the students (let alone the faculty) to fill them?

On the minus side, our education system, as many have observed, relies on rote learning, which is great for call centres but not so great for a career in science or technology. When I was an undergraduate student in Delhi, nearly all of us read physics books (like the Feynman Lectures) that were not prescribed but that our “community” (classmates and teachers) regarded as essential. The students I interview these days don’t seem to have looked a single book beyond their syllabus, and are unable to solve the simplest problems or even plot a function.

On the plus side, it is a big country, and there are lots of bright minds, many of whom are lucky to find good teachers in their schools to spur them.

This article by Tom Statler, an astronomer at Ohio University, talks of his experience in interacting with children from underprivileged public schools in Bangalore:

The students were bright, enthusiastic … and they knew their stuff! They knew why Pluto isn’t considered a planet anymore. They knew about the principles of energy and resource conservation. Their projects included astronomy, kidney disease and techniques for ‘rainwater harvesting.’

And [Tom’s wife] Mangala was surrounded by bright-eyed girls who were utterly thrilled to be able to meet somebody who was a scientist — and who looked like them!

‘Now I’m sure I’m going to be a scientist,’ one said.

(Thanks to Mangala for passing on the link.)

Though Tom’s examples may not go significantly beyond “rote learning”, it shows their encouraging eagerness to learn outside the classroom. There is a huge amount of potential and, as our country’s president likes to say, we should “ignite their minds”. In fact a lot of minds are already ignited and we only need to keep them burning.

What about smaller towns? Back in 1999, I attended a presentation at IISc by two students who had done well at the India round of Intel’s Science and Engineering Fair. One of them, 14-year-old Madhurima Benakareddy of Anantapur (who later won the third award in biochemistry at the international event) spoke with wonderful self-assurance on her project on bio-pesticides. Regrettably, I forget the other student’s name and Google can’t help me out (please remind me if you know): he too was from a small town and, though not quite such a confident speaker, gave an impressive talk nonetheless. One of the audience questions was “how did you find it, competing with the students from the elite schools in big cities?” and Madhurima answered (I quote from distant memory, apologies to her if I misquote) “There was hardly anyone from the big cities… they don’t seem interested.”

More recently, I heard that at my alma mater (an elite undergraduate college in Delhi University) a large number of students now come from small towns (many from Rajasthan), and are mainly female, bright and very motivated. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to visit the place for a few years now, but if true, this is very exciting.

At a recent conference on computational biology in Bhubaneswar, a large number of students were from local colleges, and again I was impressed with their enthusiasm and the sort of questions that they were asking.

As it happens, most of the elite science institutes are in the big cities (Mumbai, Bengalooru, Chennai, Kolkata), and it could well be that some of our cynicism about the future of science in India is a result of insufficient interaction with the “real India”. We may not have a great educational system, but we do have a respect for learning that is ingrained in most families and passed on to children, and today the less privileged communities are taking education very seriously, even as the city-bred rich kids are beginning to sneer at it. I’ve always believed that we need to teach kids very little — the only thing we need to teach them is how to think independently and learn on their own, and then we need to give them opportunities to do that.

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