To learn or not to learn.

This is an idea I stopped grappling with very early on. I remember finding the idea of following instructions very easy right from the beginning. They weren’t very difficult to understand especially when we were little. This proved to be extremely favorable to me over the following years as that is what the Indian education system had boiled down to: following a set of instructions till the next one is given.

I remember wanting to ask questions several times, but it just wasn’t the norm to do it, so I never did. Maybe if we were instructed to ask questions, I would have tried that too. I realized around grade 6 that my basics were very weak. I had made my way till there as a very good student; I dealt with all my lessons one test at a time. I crammed for exams and forgot whatever I had studied as soon as I handed in those sheets. I am positive that there was nothing original, nothing that I had written in my classwork that was a result of a thought process in my head. It was all copied from the chalkboard because I was asked to do it. Yes, there was homework. But that was in the format of questions that were given to us in class, so we just had to re-apply algorithms or copy down answers from the text book. Some group activities or worksheets may have attempted to fuel some original thought, but placed in the directive environment that it was, our approach to it made sure that no original learning took place.

What is ironic is that as I write this article, I notice the overuse of the word ‘instruction’ and in an attempt to make this article less boring to read, I just googled for synonyms for instruction and ‘teaching’ and ‘education’ are some of them. This makes me wonder if education is really just a set of instructions and if so, then where does learning fit into this whole picture? Because one of the main reasons I am interested in education and its associated fields is because I felt that the system and institution of education had failed me in several ways: it convinced me that I was somebody I actually wasn’t, it harbored and nurtured various different prejudices and biases and most importantly, it made me follow its ways despite the realization that I wasn’t learning.

The entire problem need not lie within the system. My older brother was a rebel in school and was intent on ensuring he learnt; he decided whether homework was redundant and whether he wanted to do it or not and did not mind any punishment that came as a result of his decisions. I, on the other hand, had engraved in my mind that obedience to authority received awards like no other and decided to stick with it. Had I rebelled, I probably would have seen the beauty in learning and blurred the divide between work and play ages ago. I have succeeded in accomplishing that to an extent today, in my fourth semester at college.

I think its safe to say that I consider my entire school life an unsuccessful learning experience. This is because all I learnt was algorithms and not the logic behind it. I studied because I was told to, not because I was curious. Education was never about whether I had learnt or not, it was just about proving to people that I had.

I would encounter a successful learning experience in a math course that I am taking at my college right now. The course is titled Appreciation of Mathematics, and takes us social sciences students back to the basics of math. It deals with concepts that we grappled with in elementary school but puts them across in a way that we understand them and the logic behind them better. For instance, in one of the classes, we understood the place value system and the role of a base in a place value system. This was just prior to studying ancient numeration systems, concepts that synced perfectly. In order to challenge our mental fixation of a numeration system of base 10, we were asked to write numbers in different bases: some of us tried writing numbers in a system with base 2, 5, 7 and 12. This was definitely an eye-opener lesson for me in the sense that it definitely clarified the idea of place value to me in addition to emphasizing on the importance of a base in a numeration system and how our present numeration system is so arbitrary. What made this activity successful is that it was a group activity. Mutual encouragement among group members egged us on into exploring operations in these systems.

Writing this has only sparked more curiosity in me about what future we can imagine for education. I hope that this course on Coursera helps me develop a better understanding of my own thoughts on the same.

Here’s a link to the course:

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