Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lessons in Learning

English classes for me always meant a worn out copy of some ancient book, with pencil marks underlining boring quotes that the author had conjured up. Our essays most often had to be stories, or hypothetical experiences and tall tales spun intelligently to make them sound astoundingly like real life experiences. It was those students who got all the good marks, the ones who talked about extraordinary encounters with wild animals, and imaginative descriptions of wonderful things which had come to powerfully alter the course of their lives. Research had never been a requirement and our opinions were unaccounted for in school essays. After all, who really cared to listen to the opinions of teenage pipsqueaks who knew nothing about the state of affairs to talk about them in the first place?
I was hence very much surprised when I took English classes in college here, which turned out to be a very different experience. Essay writing was different here, and I had to do painful research to support my claims, and had to have a clearly established thesis in support of some well-defined idea. In other words, I was to have an opinion on something, and it had me scratching my head. My opinion? Who really cared for my opinion? Did it matter? Firstly, I was not the sort of person who ventured far enough to have strong opinions on anything. Occasionally, a singular point would either irritate or interest me, and I would try to drive my point home, upon which the other person would often exclaim the exact opposite of my assertions. I would then stutter, back out of the dangerous conversations and let my moderate nature show itself. A simple “Whatever,” or “I know,” or “You’re right,” would dissolve the talk, and I would be all too happy to get on with my life without much ado. Taking sides was never my cup of tea, as I usually found myself unable to debate. I have learnt, through years of patience exercise, that peace is often achieved when I simply keep my mouth shut. Debate never stuck me as a mild and peaceful activity, and I found meek compliance to another person’s claims as the best alternative to shouting myself hoarse in order to justify myself.

What happens when you are forced to justifying your claims? And when your GPA counts on it? What happens when it becomes a requirement for you to look into matters, establish opinions on them, and dwell on matters that interest you? I say, it makes you a more perceptive individual. Although I complained a fair number of times when I was stuck with an incomplete essay one day before it was due, I must say I learnt a lot in the process. I learnt to think deeper, and widen my perspective. I developed opinions, and someone was even willing to listen to them, which astonished me. I now think that it would be better if this approach was introduced in our country as well. A simple “What do you think?” or “Why do you think this is correct or incorrect?” would work very well in teaching instead of forcing certain thoughts on us. A mere mention of the facts and simply by-hearting them should not become the requirement, but rather, a natural extension of concepts to challenge our thought process should be incorporated. I guess it would wake up the droopy eyed boys in the back benches too! Instead of saying reservation is necessary for government posts, one should ask why? How is it correct or incorrect? I remember that in our tests, especially civics tests, we were forced to by-heart whole sections of our constitution, and spew it out on paper. Wouldn’t you think it would be better if we were allowed to express our genuine understanding of what we learnt in our own words? Or maybe even our own interpretation of the constitution? Sadly, I don’t even remember the Preamble I by-hearted back in eight standard when I am supposed to have known what it was saying. All I can recall is that a bunch of backbenches had been giggling that day, on a joke about the teacher’s hairdo. When the whispers had spread to our bench, we had laughed too, forgetting the desperate voice which had been screeching, “We the people of India…” somewhere up front because we could not grasp the meaning of these words anyway.


praneshachar said...

what you have written about english lessons is very true and is also same with other subjects may be to some extent less. indian teaching system needs a total revamping. other day I was very happy to hear some one was informing me her 2nd std student is given what to do exercises and he has to do on his own under supervision of parents and parents remarks also to form part for ex exercise hear the news of todya and write down what u heard by recoolecting without any help from parents. after childs comments parents have to write their views so thast it and assessment is on daily basis. child is observed daily and feed back is given. wonderful way of teaching yes u have to pay for it too and board exams only at certain levels. leaving that at that essay writng which can be made so creative is a dull exercise in our curriculam mug up or remember and write something and score some marks
you have got great flair for writing and alayising the things. keep going and sure you will be an accomplished writer one day in the near future ( you are already on right path)
thanks for giving us an insight into system of education in US

Anup said...

"Bi-hearting" or mugging up as we called it was precisely why I lost interest in books and educating myself to the alleged pinnacles of glory which according to almost everyone around me was the most important thing for a kid of my age to do. Listening to opinions will never be absorbed by the current fatherhood in the Indian culture. I'm hoping that we'd evolve and our generation would move on to more interactive mediums of education. Mere degrees and score cards wouldn't be the only parameter to judge a person. Sadly, I live in a country where education is over-rated and however good you be, you're nothing without adding letters to your name.
Good one!


What an excellent, perceptive post. And your ideas, so well expressed, should definitely be taken up by all educational institutions, and followed. Learning by heart never widens our perspective or depth of knowledge. Questioning and finding the answers does.

Swarna said...

Though my son's (std V) teacher is very encouraging otherwise (marks on copies - can do better, well done, etc), I always wish she'd encourage the students to alo rewrite answers in their own words, instead of marking out the answer in the text. Thanks for sharing your deep thoughts, that provoke even deeper thought!

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Mr. Pranesh: Wonderful to know about the new technique that is being employed in kindergarden. I think it is the right method to make kids more perceptive. Thanks for sharing ur views with us!
Anup: Precisely my problem in the earlier days, sir!!Same problems with by-hearting!! Stuffing things into our head when we don't even want to remember them....unfortunately, my 10th std history too has almost been erased from my memory now since i by-hearted everything!
Raji mam: Thank you! You know, u are absolutely right...questioning always make an induvidual more peceptive, not mindlessly memorizing everything! Thanks for the comment.
Mrs. Swarna: Oh, i remember, they do that a lot to kids!! I agree completely with you...they must definitely change "underlining" passages, or marking themm in the book n then making bright young minds by-heart them! The only thing it will do is that it tests their memory perhaps, but nothing much more! Thanks for the comment.

Maddy said...

You are right - look at the scriptures of India that others talk highly about. very few understand the Vedas and mantras they learn (by heart) from childhood. Or for that matter even the B Gita. Everybody can reel off 'dharmakshethre kurukshethre...but not even a few% understand what it is.

But then i have also got this to say - I have worked with many of these 'bright' products of the American school who have worked hard & diligently on essays and things. The final output seems to create a standard person with standard thoughts & ideas where everybody is 'awesome' and does no wrong.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lakshmi
If you are interested in children's books read Magic Pot published from kottayam kerala, by the malayala manorama group. It is meant for children in 5-9 age group. uncle pai is a wonderful person. we exchange letters once in a while. send your stories to:, meera nair is the associate editor of Dimdima which is published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I also write and publish children's stories. my grand daughter Puja Harikumar also writes poems and short stories. she is 10 years old. I will be going to Boston, where they stay next month. Keep writing.