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‘Teaching Kids isn’t Rocket Science’…Or is it? Need for a New Science of Learning – Part 2


In Part 1 of this article, I shared how medicine advanced from a fairly crude stage to an advanced one today in just about 8 decades. Just as the science of medicine made these advances possible, there is a need for a new Science of Learning to focus on advancing education over the coming decades.

We find it easier to accept that medicine is complex and needs a science to advance it. When it comes to education we say ‘‘Teaching Kids ain’t Rocket Science, after all”. Doctors have always been held in high esteem in society; teachers, only in a mythical, glorious past. The details of the functioning of the human body and treating diseases – these seems inherently complex. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case for getting children to learn in school.

Reinforcing this notion is the feeling that generations have studied and turned out quite okay as adults. And that great schools – where children learn very well –exist, without this new proposed Science

Let me use an example to illustrate that teaching kids is not a very simple process. Though we have a large number of questions that we can use to demonstrate this fact, I will use the EI ‘pencil question’, which we have used for many years, because it extremely simple to understand, and yet striking and conveys the key ideas powerfully.



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.

We have used this question or variations of it in many assessments and have data for well over 100,000 children. The first response of adults is that this is an easy question; something that is covered in schools; and uses familiar objects like pencils and rulers – so most children will correctly answer 5cm. If this question is asked to teachers who have taught class 4 children for over 5 years each, will their answer be different?


The answer turns out to be ‘no’ – teachers are equally confident that children will answer correctly.


So far, so good, except that children have different ideas. Close to 75% of them say that the pencil is 6cm long with less than 15% opting for 5cm.

Which brings us to the next, tougher question – why do students answer the way they do? Theory 1 is that they are probably reading off the right end.Theory 2 is that ‘students’ do not ‘notice’ that the pencil is starting at 1, rather than 0, so though they know the correct answer, they choose 6cm in the original question. Once the left end is moved further away from 0, it becomes clearer to them and they correctly answer 5cm. What actually happens?

Well, children answer 6cm! Neither theory is right. What is happening here? I’ll respond to this in the next part of this blog to leave you enough time to think about this!

I hope this little example has got you thinking that even understanding how children think – teaching would be the next step – is complex. The fact that the doctors of the 1930’s could treat only 5 diseases did not make medical science less complex – similarly our notions that teaching is simple does not mean a Science of Learning is not waiting to be discovered. And maybe even our well-performing schools will do much better once we understand this science better!


By Sridhar Rajagopalan – MD, Educational Initiatives