Monday, 13 October 2014

Any questions?

Any questions?

SHUBASHREE DESIKAN, October 12, 2014 15:45 IST  

Learning is not just listening. Fuel your curiosity and engage with your mentor to enrich the classroom experience.

Speed is the operative word in any activity today, and this applies more than ever to reading, writing and studies in general. What often gets sacrificed in this speed-driven process of education is the ability to absorb what you study, analyse it and come up with creative questions. How can this be avoided? Is ability to question things an essential skill? Great scholars seem to think so. Einstein said about scientific thinking, “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”
Scientific education must induce scientific behaviour, and this is all about asking questions and inquiring into truth. However, for various reasons, science students often hesitate to ask questions. They are keener to find the answers than to ask questions. If students did not rely on rote learning, studies tell us, they would turn out to be more suitable to what employers want in the workplace.
Learning is not passive
Dr. S.V.M. Satyanarayana, assistant professor at the Department of Physics in Pondicherry University, has been conducting physics classes every Sunday, in Chennai, for the last 18 years. The motive of these classes is to invoke thought. The classes aim at creating thinking individuals who will go on to pursue research. There is no fee and no compulsion to attend classes. Nearly a hundred students who have attended these classes have gone on to do their Ph.D. in physics.
Having observed students from various places and backgrounds come to his classes and pick up the scientific attitude, Dr. Satyanarayana says, “One of the practical problems in science education at the postgraduate level is that the students do not ask questions. Typically, learning is passive — involving accumulation of information…”
As an example he talks about the students’ views on the heliocentric theory. We all know that the Earth and all the planets move around the Sun because we have studied that it is so, but do we ever question why the geocentric theory is wrong? What is a scientific attitude in this contest? He says, “Being scientific is in contradiction to unquestioned acceptance of what is currently true. In the words of Aristotle, ‘the mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’…”
Active learning
To move from passive learning to active learning, it is important to be totally engaged when you are in class. Going over the topic before a lecture will help in formulating questions. Dr. Satyanarayana says, “At the beginning of the course, as well as the lecture, students can be encouraged to think about the topic and the course itself and write down their questions in a notebook.”
This is a very effective method because it allows you, as a student, to approach the subject from a fresh perspective. Also, your questions flow from an uninhibited stock that exists in your mind. At the end of the course, you can tick off the questions that have been answered and ruminate on the philosophical angles and perspectives you have gained in the process.
From a teacher’s point of view, the nature of the questions a student asks can give a perspective on the progress they have made in learning the subject. In fact, this paves the way to a gradual change from ‘learning science’ to ‘doing science’.
Breaking it down
Often, the first questions you come up with can be really complex and perhaps even somewhat vague. As you interact with the teacher at this level, you learn to refine your questioning skills and ask sharper questions. You also learn to break down the questions into simpler ones. It is an illuminating experience to move from vague questions, which, moreover, cannot be answered, to sharp questions, which are deeper and better formed.
The last query is — how do I find the time to do this? This is easy to answer but requires commitment to pursue. Allot time before lectures and before courses to go over the contents of your chapters. Anything from ten minutes to half an hour a day should be enough. Not only would this push you into active learning, it would also enhance your own interest in the subject.
Experience the fact that questions lead the way to conversations, and conversations to discovery and innovation. This then is the route to learning, doing and excelling.

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