On teaching

All through my life, I have always felt that I have been playing catch up with the rest of the world’s learning curve, in terms of depth in understanding or mastery of subjects that matter the most. Comparison is not a good thing to do in many cases. But even if I do not compare with the education systems of other well-developed countries, I have seen the horrible state of understanding about basic physics and mathematics among students from all corners of our country. Though it may very well be the same case in other subjects, I have chosen the above subjects only because I am familiar with them.

It is very easy to point out that many things are wrong with our education system. The syllabus, examinations, just to name a few. Is there something wrong with our teachers? Is there something wrong with the students? Are we just dumb? Can’t be. I claim that the problem entirely lies with the teachers and their approach towards teaching. Of course, there are external factors which pressurize a teacher to take such an approach. I have found to my dismay that thats the only approach known to the teacher.

How do we learn anything really? As someone wisely said, only from known things we go to unknown things. Students know some stuff at any point of time. The teacher then elaborates the known things clearly in front of the students and points to him/her that there exists a hitherto unknown connection/derivable conclusion from the known things themselves. By doing this process repeatedly, the faculty of logic and reasoning is developed along the way as well. The problematic part about teaching comes primarily when introducing that connection/derivable conclusion. It is here that a person can go wrong if she learns on her own. This is where the guiding hand of the teacher comes to help. A great teacher may create a feeling of wonder in students when they see the connection in front of their eyes. On the other hand, a dull one can completely make the connection just another boring fact. But this is something we should be prepared to live with, since not everyone can be a great teacher. The issue is what a teacher does when the student makes a wrong connection/prediction. How does the teacher react to it? Let’s take the following example.

A teacher is trying to solve an example physics problem in the class. A steel ball and a bunch of cotton are dropped from a certain height. And the question is to find out how much time it takes for each of them to hit the ground. Teacher writes down some basic things on the board and says,
“Okay. Solve this problem and give me the answer..”
Student 1  : Steel ball takes 8 seconds and the cotton takes 10 seconds, Sir.
Teacher     : That’s wrong. What about you? (pointing to another student)
Student 2  : Sir, I have not done yet.
Teacher     : This is an easy problem. What is taking you so long?
Student 3  : Both of them take 8 seconds to hit the ground sir.
Teacher     : That’s correct. You apply the formula S = ut + (1/2)*a*t^2 and solve for t.

I want to point out two ideas from the above example. Student 1 has got the answer wrong. But he also loses a great opportunity to know what is wrong with his way of thinking. The mistake of the student is never even considered as something of any importance for a discussion. The teacher wants the right answer. There is only one way to get the right answer and there are infinitely many ways to go wrong. There are many things to learn from the mistakes at least as much as that can be learned from the right answer. When a student makes a mistake or approaches the problem in the wrong way, he is just asked to shut up and go for the right answer/method. When this is done repeatedly, the student loses the ability to think for himself just because of the fear that he may go wrong. He tries to remember the right and only way he has been taught to approach the problem and becomes another brick in the wall. Thus grows our inability to commit mistakes. Thus we score 100% in all the exams and enter colleges, without ever realizing that only by committing mistakes we can learn to think for ourselves.
Second point concerns Student 2. She has not done the problem yet. She seems to be struggling with the problem. And the teacher never appreciates the struggle of the student. Teacher has this notion that all she has to do is to apply the formula and get the result. This should not take much time and would not demand any struggle from her part. This is the biggest mistake. It is in our culture not to appreciate struggling with a problem/puzzle for a few days. A student who is putting in effort to figure out things by herself is considered a not-so bright student. If this kind of reinforcement is done repeatedly, the student looks for short cut answers to her problems. She is forced to follow the well-trodden road laid down by the book and blindly applies it to save time and face.

A society which does not appreciate the value of making mistakes and learning from them will never create thinkers, let alone original thinkers. And a society which does not encourage students to struggle with a problem and spend time thinking about them will never ever discover anything worthwhile.

1 thought on “On teaching”

  1. A very strong argument. We should actually have a day or a week to celebrate our mistakes! Or make mistakes. The process of making a mistake itself is so looked down that the subsequent reflection happens in a moment of guilt. We need a space (in our head) where we can chew our mistakes and suck the marrow out of them 🙂 Good post!


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