Thursday, 18 July 2013

Teaching children to think critically

The key to getting children to think is to give them the freedom to question without fear, writes Veena Prasad.

Eight year old Ravi (name changed) was excited when his parents decided to relocate from San Antonio (their home of 10 years) to Bangalore. He had visited his grandparents in India every summer and loved his home country. He was a good student and was not afraid of switching to a new school. His teachers had always praised his work.

Two months into his new school in Bangalore, he was a mess. His teachers were good, but nothing he did seemed right. His parents visited the school and found that the teachers were kind, patient, never humiliated him when he made mistakes, instead gave gentle guidance, and were genuinely concerned about him. Why then, was their boy struggling? What kind of mistakes was he making?

It turned out that he had been asked to make a sentence using the word “mountaineer”. He wrote – “I would never want to be a mountaineer”. The teacher had corrected this sentence with her red pen. For some reason, she had struck out “would never want to be”, replaced it with “am not”, and added, “but I would love to be one.” She took a grammatically correct sentence and turned its meaning around. Why did she do this? What was she trying to convey to the child? That not wanting to be a mountaineer is not acceptable? Was she in essence teaching him what to think? Did she just sow the seed of hesitation in his mind that will sprout every time he has an original thought? 

To be fair, the teacher had probably never intended to curb his thoughts. She had just done so without realising it. She explained that she thought that Ravi’s sentence did not bring out the meaning of the word. His parents agreed, but suggested that getting him to complete it might have yielded better results.

He could have been asked why he did not want to be a mountaineer, and his answer, no matter how unexpected, taken seriously and used to help him complete the sentence. It could be a fear of heights, or simply a wish to do something else. This would serve multiple purposes – completing the sentence, helping the child to open up, lose his hesitation and quite simply, understand what was expected of him. The teacher agreed. She however, went on to explain that children need to be taught the “right” way of learning and writing in order to be successful in board exams. 

The results of last year’s board exams bear testimony to the fact that our education system is adept as churning out “rank students”. But is it enough to score 95%? In a constantly changing world, will your ability to “crack an exam” prepare you for life’s challenges? Because, let us be honest, a student who has scored 98% in a subject is not an expert in the subject, but an expert in passing an exam in that subject, set by the board s/he has been trained under. 

Will this be enough in an uncertain economy, in a changing world? Our children are equipped to excel in a world with predetermined possibilities, but can they adapt and create new opportunities in a rapidly evolving environment? Can they be leaders, carve out niches for themselves, or simply survive, if the occasion calls for it?

The question is the key. Not just the one above, but every question. The key to getting children to think is to give them the freedom to question without fear. Most children do not ask questions because of the fear of being ridiculed. But where will we be, if this ability is switched off? As Bertrand Russel said in a 1951 essay, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” This was the seventh of what he called “the Ten Commandments, that as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate.” The third commandment, no less relevant for us, states, “Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.” 

But to encourage questioning, teachers should know all the answers, right? Wrong. More useful than “knowing all the answers”, is the confidence to say that you do not know, but will find out, and then make sure you do so. This goes a long way in establishing the same yard stick to judge an adult’s and a child’s knowledge (or lack of it), and takes the shame out of not knowing the answer to something. After all, isn’t the ability to learn, and to find out, much more useful? And should not the ability to question and get answers be rewarded as much as the ability to regurgitate entire texts, down to the last comma? 

After a few months, Ravi started feeling better. He was an unusually mature child and had been thinking hard about his problem. Finally, he declared, “I know what the difference is between this school and my old one! Teachers in India don’t want you to write what you think; they want you to write what they think.” Such a deep insight, and it took a child to see the truth. But the question remains, will he retain his ability to reason like this? Or will the system relentlessly shape his brain to what is considered “proper”?

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