Monday, March 31, 2008

Learning ought to be exhilarating

The empty akshayapatra
Learning is the process of obtaining competence and proficiency, the development of skills, the growth of understanding, and the gradual acquisition of the ability to create ideas and new thought.
A teacher is one who pours generously from his akshayapatra (from Indian mythology: an inexhaustible source) into the empty vessels that - in his view - form the bulk of the student fraternity! This, in a nutshell, was what I had meant to say in my earlier post.
The present piece is for the children - the young people in their impressionable age, with eager faces, and eyes that indicate a craving for more when a small element of fun is mixed with the process of learning. Bubbling with curiosity to learn more, or asking for a greater, and then an even greater challenge, they fall upon these intellectual provocations to their tender brains with sprightly ardour.
Exhilaration comes from within!
While a Mentor can show an eager learner a new way to solve a problem, or offer a demanding student a higher challenge, it is the interest that is aroused in the student that ultimately brings out that feeling of exhilaration.
Imagine the ebullience that Pythagoras experienced when he discovered his famous theorem. The exhilaration must have been instantaneous when the geometrical property dawned on him, as a result of his own efforts through trials and errors.
Visualise Archimedes in the bathtub and his moment of enlightenment that was followed by an act we read of in the popular story of his 'Eureka!' run. He jumped out of his overflowing bath and ran on to the streets of Syracuse screaming 'Eureka!' which, in Greek, means 'I have found it!' He had briefly lost his senses, and he did something he wouldn't otherwise have done. Apocryphal? It might well have been true. True to the extent that the state of California today uses "EUREKA!" as its motto.
The rewards of self-learning
It is when a student seeks a learning opportunity from her own school text, or in a reference encyclopaedia, or on the vast ocean of knowledge called the Internet, or even from the recesses of her infinite cerebral abyss, that she discovers such scope for exhilaration.
Children who come from homes that will not invest in books are a handicapped lot. When schools deny them free access to reference works, and institutions become teaching shops that sell examination success, intellectual tragedy looms near.
As tiny 5- and 6-year olds, most of us have no choice of teacher or school but what our parents or guardians think of as in our best interests. In this lottery, some of us find a teacher, nay, a mentor, who would guide us, sit and read with us, talk to us, stimulate our curiosity, and help us on our course to a process of self-learning. That is when we discover those eureka moments, a flash of ecstasy -- when we find a new way of calculating something in arithmetic, a manner of expressing a thought that is off the beaten path, or a principle in science that mankind hadn't thought of in 10,000 years.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The raison d'être

One more ‘coaching class’?
It is 18 years since I floated this simple outfit, and called it THE GENIUS. Those who do not know about us – students, parents and well-wishers seek many answers from us.
Why one more ‘coaching class’?
‘Don’t we have too many already?’
‘Do you have some unheard-of USP?’

This is my answer. This is an institution that hopes to fill a sore blank in the system that calls itself “educational” but is a far cry from what it ought to be. Sorry, teachers and trainers, pedagogues and patriarchs, guides and gurus, – my basic intention is to merely make up for what you ought to do, but plead lack of opportunity and dearth of time beyond your "syllabus" and your "curriculum". You therefore concentrate on training your tenderfoot novices for no more beyond their examinations. Most Indians believe in those pieces of paper that the world calls ‘certificates’ in the pursuit of which parents drive the children they love up the wall, round the bend, and down the primrose path seeking something elusive that they never get out of the system.
The system
When the flaws in the system are pointed out, we very conveniently blame our erstwhile masters the Brits – for Macaulay’s Minutes, for the English language that probably lowered the importance of local languages, and the organization of the curricula. The Brits left our shores a full 60 years ago, and wisely the White Man changed the academic structure in his own country soon after 1947. We Indians consolidated it, bolstered learning by rote, annihilated originality, institutionalized plagiarism, and promoted the provision of vast amounts of information to be crammed by hapless children, assimilated, and ingested by them, and, in our notorious examinations we lauded bilious regurgitation of it all. In the process, we created a vast horde of counterfeiters of knowledge, infringers of information, bootleggers of stale nausea, while we prided ourselves on a small handful of institutions like the IITs that thrived on originality, research, and genuine knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We could sink our heads in the sand and pretend that the IITs were showcases for the success of our education system.
I would call my institution “The Genius”. I decided way back in 1990 that this would train a generation of children in thinking skills. Skills that had no place in the scheme of things. Skills for which neither parents nor schools seemed equipped in a part of the country where culture and intellectual strength abounded some centuries earlier, but had been given the cool go-by in preference to a cram-and-reproduce culture. After high school, students entered college and expected teachers to provide notes, day to day guidance and close attention.

Those who knew a balance sheet when they saw one stepped in with alacrity, became publishers, and provided ‘made-easies’, ‘10 years questions answered’, and opened up opportunities for a multitude of ‘coaching’ institutes. In fact, for a B.Com. degree in English language medium, you can buy notes in Hindi with simple grammatically atrocious English translations in the margin to cram and pass with honours!
We are not a ‘coaching class’
‘The Genius’ would not be a coaching class! Children who attended schools under the ‘system’ would come for an hour every day to have fun with facts, with thoughts, and with ideas. The name has now become a household word in Central India for ‘intelligence development class’. I dislike the word ‘class’ – it smacks of division, it reeks of caste, there is a stench of culturelessness. For years we conducted our sessions without even chalkboards. The students sat around the room like they would for a party, or they lounged on a carpet on the floor. The theme was always ‘fun’. It meant laughter, music, serious thought, punctuated by humour. Today we have regular hobby sessions for 600 children from twenty different Indore schools - confining our activities to stuff that is intellectual. I have repeatedly spurned the lucre that would be mine if I franchised business people around the country to run their carbon copies of my classes. Where would I find mentors with strong language skills, wide reading, deep understanding, high intelligence, and the devotion needed to honestly guide a generation of youngsters? My well-wishers and I must fight this dearth as long as the system prospers.
Success stories
An old student appears for a competition on a TV channel, wins all the way, and finally triumphs with laurels - a plum scholarship for a 5-year Engineering programme in a leading British University, all expenses (including travel, living, and accommodation) paid for the entire period. Another old student, presently in the London School of Economics completing her post-grad degree finds my email address somewhere and sends me generous kudos: "I felt alive (when I was at THE GENIUS) - because every day was another notch that I had pulled myself up by. Because it gave me a reference point in life about what kind of a person I wanted to project myself as, to the world. It became important for me to know about art, literature, theatre, sports, politics, music... I learnt that there was a power in knowledge, and I learnt that clichés are clichés for a reason. All through my life, and now, when I am in London, I have seen the world come alive around me - because I have those reference points. This frame of mind, this conditioning, this was the greatest gift I got from you and aunty. I guess I can never thank you enough for it."
I think existence "outside the system" is the way THE GENIUS ought to be... I would urge the world to ponder over the lacunae in the systems in their countries. The future generations of many oriental peoples are victims of such systems, - the world has to be a better place for the sake of the future.