In Part 1 of this article, we saw how the ‘science of medicine’ transformed health care in less than 80 years to the sophisticated discipline it is today. Today no one would dispute that medicine is complex. But society does not view teaching kids as something complex – after all, while doctors are expected to spend 5 years to gain just a basic degree, teachers are certified to influence impressionable minds based on a 10 month B. Ed. course during which they need to teach just 30 lessons. But understanding learning is not that simple.
In Part 2 of the article, we were trying to understand why children of classes 4-6 say that a pencil spanning from the 2 cm to 7 cm mark of a scale is 6 cm long – when most experts including teachers predicted they would answer 5 cm or 7 cm. The answer turns out to be that children count the points (for example, the points when the pencil goes from 2 cm to 7 cm are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 – 6 points, making the children report the length as 6 cm). This is illustrated in this video.
What is the length of the pencil? What would class 4 students answer? After answering that, try it with some children. Why do they answer what they answer? Teaching kids seems easy, but even understanding how they think is complex.
This depicts the complexity in a simple act of measuring. Concepts related to ordinal and cardinal numbers, the mechanism of counting (which itself is surprisingly complex), understanding the difference between a span and a point, etc. This is not an isolated example. Student misconceptions – of which our company has a detailed database from its extensive assessment work – are widespread, counter-intuitive and often difficult to correct! This study of how students learn is what requires a new ‘Science of Learning’.
Science of Learning – an esoteric idea? Some of the reader responses to the earlier parts of this article mentioned that while these ideas and examples are good, but the challenges to Indian education are more basic. For example, teachers do not reach classes and the poor do not have access to quality education. In the face of these, some respondents said, notions like the Science of Learning are esoteric.
I believe that this is not true and will address this point briefly through an analogy. Sir Ronald Ross, a British surgeon, discovered in the late 1800s that malaria was transmitted through mosquitoes. Before this, people were not sure of the cause of malaria (the name implies that malaria is caused by ‘bad air’) and various efforts to treat it, proved futile. Ross’s ‘esoteric’ work in his laboratory – studying mosquitoes and researching – seemed far away from the problem of malaria in the field – but that research was the key piece in finding the cause, and thus the cure for malaria. Think where malaria treatment would be without this discovery by a researcher!
Science of Learning will be an interdisciplinary field focussed on helping children (and adults) learn – figure adapted from Miller, George A (2003),TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences.
In the same way, work on how children understand concepts like measurement will help students learn better and hence teachers to be more effective. When teachers see the impact of their work, maybe it would have a greater impact on solving problems like absentee teachers than we realise!
What is the Science of Learning? It is (or will be) a research, experiment and evidence-based discipline in which hypotheses will be rigorously tested through work on the ground with learners. The field will be interdisciplinary drawing not just on educational disciplines like Maths and language, but also fields like Cognitive Sciences, Neurosciences, Artificial Intelligence, Educational Psychology, Linguistics, etc. It will be strongly based on research, with an even stronger focus on practice.
By Sridhar Rajagopalan – Directors Desk