Monday, February 13, 2012

Perspectives on teaching, learning and education (Part 2: Practicals)

To transform a (0% interest + 100% fear) 12th standard chemistry student to (100% interest + 0% fear) in a weeks time

A. 1 hard working and intelligent 12th standard student who is going to take his board exams in a months time
B. 2 hard working and intelligent homeschooling parents of 3 homeschooled children
C. 1 ability to download (without paying even one naya paisa) content from the Internet
D. 1 Internet ready computer to do the above
E. 1 week of time to do the experiment

There are of course 1 million ways of doing this right. Apparatus B (the experimenters) modestly claim to have accidentally stumbled upon only one of these ways. (Detailed out in Annexure 1 but don't jump there right away because the few lines in between are carefully chosen to instruct and entertain)

There are of course also 1 million ways of doing this wrong. And apparatus B are happy to suppose that the more than 1 million schools in the world are probably doing diligent research on these ways.

1. It was observed that apparatus A (the student) was excited not just by the chemistry resources he used but also by the very process of learning.
2. It was also observed that apparatus B who had thought that nothing from their homeschooling experience was valid for the 'conventional' school system were very pleasantly surprised to have been proven wrong.

100% interest, 0% fear and 90% of the entire 12th standard chemistry syllabus 'learned' in 1 week.

Doing this experiment with sub-standard apparatus can possibly cause dangerous local explosions.

Ideas for further research:
The readers are urged to do their own research on the other 999999 right ways of doing this experiment.

Apparatus B would like to thank Shashi, apparatus A's father and, even more, Anita apparatus A's mother, for allowing this experiment to be conducted on their precious son by the often wild-eyed and admittedly volatile and unstable apparatus B.

Annexure 1: Some random notes from the experiment

Looking back and analysing what went on, it seems like the experiment had three fuzzily-demarcated and parallel processes:
- Interest generation
- Learning how to learn
- Confidence building

Some points from the above processes are listed out below in no particular order:
(Pranav is a very hardworking and very intelligent young man and every point that follows should be seen with this context in mind)

Pranav came the first day expecting to be taught! I told him that I didn't remember enough chemistry to teach a 2 year old baby (that shook him a bit :-)) but also told him that there was no question that he could ask that I could not find the answer to. Also told him that he obviously knew more chemistry than me and getting him equally confident was what the experiment was really about.
During the course of the week Pranav discovered on two or three occassions that indeed I (or Kanti) could answer his questions. I think our availability and capability that had got proven was enough to boost his confidence. He didn't seem to need us after that.
All five of us at home + Pranav sat together and watched and marveled at a three part BBC serial- Chemistry, a volatile history. Pranav as you can well imagine had no clue that this kind of stuff is what chemistry was really about. He was hooked! He also then on his own steam went through some random Russian books on popular chemistry and science that were lying around here at home.
He had heard about but after he eagerly went through 50 or so Salman Khan videos on organic chemistry and learned the difference between 1,2-dimethylcyclohexane and 1,3-dimethylcyclohexane he was very excited that for the first time in his life he knew all this without having had to mug anything up.
The new way of learning we tried had no lectures, no hand holding and also no scope for rote learning (Pranav believed that many parts of his syllabus like organic chemistry required mugging up and he did not want to do this. The first time I opened the 12th standard text book, written in the Preface I discovered- 'The approach of presentation of the subject matter discourages students from rote memorisation.' Pranav's well thumbed book did not have the outer cover and the preface pages :-))
Pranav spent 1.5 to 2 hour intense alone periods where he shut himself into a room with no interruptions, no doubt-clearing and no distractions (his cell phone :-)). He would come out for a half hour or 1 hour in between the sessions for rest, questions, discussions and any other diversions like lunch or playing with the kids.
When we started, I read through the first 3 chapters just to make sure that I could hold my side of the bargain. This engagement with the subject really helped when Pranav had his few doubts. For example I discovered that I needed the 11th standard book to see the continuity of the subject. Pranav, of course,  did not have his 11th standard text book because he had already 'finished' with it last year.

Towards the end of the week Pranav was trying to get a full chapter on to a single large sheet of paper as a visual, interlinked, non-linear mind map.

Annexure 2: The last word 
(This is inspired by the ending of part 1 or the theory part of this post which, if you get interested, is available here)

Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!
After such arrogance, after so much strange
Idleness- strange, yet full of potency-
I am all open to these shining spaces;

(A fragment from 'The graveyard by the sea' by Paul Valery
Translated by C. Day Lewis)


  1. Awesome! I wish I was there during the experiment. I think this can be turned into a really nice short story.

  2. Apparatus A's parents are really grateful to the Apparatus B's diligent hard work put into this whole experiment as well as their full faith and confidence in Apparatus A. Thank you once again for everything.

  3. Pranav did all the diligent hard work. We just made lunch for 6 people instead of 5 and in the bargain got to enjoy his company. I think that teachers who can admit their ignorance and learn from their students are the way of the future. It was eye-opening being part of this accidental experiment.

  4. Arun I came to your blog after reading abt you in Tehelka .
    Are you Delhi based ?I just shifted to DElhi and am seriously contemplating homeschooling.