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Updated: March 11, 2013 12:57 IST

Does cramming stifle creativity?

HEMA VIJAY
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No books or classroom: Discovering the world in her own way
No books or classroom: Discovering the world in her own way

How can youngsters develop intuitive and contemplative skills, when the education system lays so much emphasis on rote learning

Class tests, cycle tests, mid-term tests, revision exams, board exams, coaching classes and tests, and the toughest test of all, college entrance… students today live under the perpetual shadow of exams. It is a scenario of too much coaching and too little contemplation.

There was a time when learning was an exciting intellectual odyssey and exams were just a post script. Then came a time when education became entwined with exams, with a delicate balance in place. Now, this balance has got destroyed with education and learning getting smothered by exam-oriented study. Is there any room amid so much mechanical learning for the blossoming of creative thinking, imagination and intuition, without which the greatest scientific discoveries would never have been made?

Learning as a dialogue

“The unnecessary importance given to the so-called standardised tests threatens to reduce teaching to a mere formula, learning to rote memorisation and mastery of cognitive operations. The gift of intuition has been forgotten in education, especially in mathematics,” rues Sadagopan Rajesh, director of the Aryabhatta Institute of Mathematical Sciences, an active member of the Association of Mathematics Teachers of India (AMTI), and someone who conducts classes like ‘Beautiful math’, besides basic, Olympiad and IIT math classes for primary and high school students. “Of course, intuition and imagination can never be taught; these powers have to be tapped by the students themselves, but a teacher should provide the ambience for students to improve their intuitive ability,” he says.

Rajesh does this by giving his students interesting math problems and allowing them to explore and work out their own paths to solutions, which, in turn, propels them to paths of discovery. He also peppers his classes liberally with math games which make math fun, and real-life math problems which bring math closer to reality, rather than keeping the subject on an abstract plane.

The rote-learning trend can be bucked even without doing away with exams. For instance, Dr. Balaji Sampath in his AhaGuru IIT classes introduces concepts to students through experiments, inviting questions and predictions. “Teaching and learning happen like a dialogue. Even simple activities work well. For instance, if I am discussing Newton’s third law of inertia and the role of external force, I stand for a moment and then start walking. Then I ask my students, ‘How did I start walking when there was no external force?’ I ask the students to push and pull and analyse what causes the motion, I ask them to push walls and then this opens a dialogue that force does not necessarily mean movement…. While science is about quantification, ultimately students have to acquire an intuitive feel for concepts and be able to relate them,” says Dr. Sampath, who also happens to be the founder-director of AID India, an organisation involved in education and rural development, and who has authored several books that explain difficult science concepts in simple and fun ways.

Of course, some students do manage to emerge with their creative-contemplative ability unscathed by an exam-oriented system, like Bhargav Narayanan, who is currently a member of Trinity College and working towards a PhD at the University of Cambridge on Combinatorics, a branch of math. But then, as he shares, he had always done a fair amount of reading, apart from the work prescribed, during his school days. He says, “To me exams were, at worst, an annoyance I could not avoid. But they were never a major concern. Some of the few creative outlets that I had were preparing for Olympiads and to an extent, the IIT JEE. Olympiad-style problems hone analytical and creative skills simultaneously.” But for most others, our education system threatens to stamp out this spark.

Books for thought

Authors whose books inspire scientific thinking as a way of life — Carl Sagan,

Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton and Robin Cook

CONTEMPLATE THIS

Learning facts is, no doubt, important. But more crucial is contemplating them. Great scientific discoveries were made during moments of contemplation, even though hard work preceded them and hard work done to prove or disprove them. In a flash of intuition, Frederick Kekule discovered the ring structure of the organic molecule benzene after he saw in his dream, a coiled snake biting its own tail. Sir Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree, and a burst of intuition made him think of a universal gravitational force. Unfortunately, because of the omnipotence accorded to exams, not many children these days are allowed to sit back and ponder about ideas or concepts.

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