Have you asked a question today?

Learning Curve


Consider the questions that most adults ask children: What is your name? Which class are you studying in? What do you want to be when you grow up?

The answers are usually not important, because we ask these questions more to build a rapport with the child than to learn about her. What should one do if the answers are important? If our questions are stereotyped, can our answers be interesting? If children do not ask questions, can they find answers to the myriad things that demand answers?

As parents and teachers, we expect children to know the answers. Shouldn’t we then help them to ask the right questions?

“The skill of being able to ask the ‘right questions’ is far more important than giving the right answers,” says Kamala Mukunda, veteran teacher and author of the recently launched book What Did You Ask at School Today?  The book was launched at Reliance Timeout by Dr Shekar Sheshadri, Professor, at the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department, NIMHANS.

How the book was born

What Did You Ask at School Today? is a thought-provoking book on child learning published by Harper Collins Publishers India. After completing her Ph.D. in educational psychology from Syracuse University, Kamala Mukunda taught undergraduates for four years before returning to India. Ever since, she has been teaching at Centre For Learning, a non-formal school in the outskirts of Bangalore. As she pored over research papers on child psychology, and the psychology of learning, she started summarising each research document in short articles, sans the jargon. The book has its genesis in these well-written and well-received articles.

Is there any country that has a perfect educational system? “I don’t think so,” says Kamala. “The Chinese and Japanese teach concepts very well, but I’m not sure if they address emotional growth. India does well to set the rigours of studying, but the teaching of concepts may not be too effective,” explains the ever-questioning teacher.

How do children learn?

In layman’s terms, different stimuli activate different parts of the brain, and together, learning happens. Teachers often wonder how to teach children, and how effective they are in helping the student learn. “One student finds a topic particularly difficult, another is unmotivated, a third is unable to perform to her potential, and a fourth is distracted,” says Kamala. “From our own experiences and reading, we draw conclusions and hold beliefs about learning, child development, motivation, intelligence, morality, emotional health and other crucial aspects of teaching,” she adds.

The brain is a fascinating machine. The one hundred billion neurons in the brain give rise to attention, perception, memory, reasoning, intelligence and creativity. A tremendous amount of learning happens in the child’s brain. And when a child gets one part of an answer wrong, an exasperated teacher may ask, “But how can you not remember the formula? Didn’t I make you do 100 sums with that formula?”

As Kamala points out in her book, the brain was not programmed to learn non-innate things like calculus and computer programming but every baby has a brain that is programmed to learn languages and social communication. That explains why a child learns to speak and understand a language well, but cannot learn non-innate factors like spellings as easily! Even when two children are perceived as having the same level of intelligence, why does one student seem to understand a concept well, while the other does not? The answer lies in the fact that even when two people have seen or heard the same thing, each interprets it differently, and stores it in the brain in a different way.

Experiences keep getting added to our brain, and the assimilated facts keep getting altered as new information comes in. But formal education fails our students on the way learning happens:

“We give our students knowledge in disconnected chunks, and we expect our students to reproduce knowledge in more or less the same way it was received,” writes Kamala.

Effective teaching

So how should a teacher teach so that a student learns? Kamala gives an example: “Ask students the right question. A mathematics teacher usually asks ‘What is the answer to so-and-so?’ But some teachers may ask ‘How would you do so-and-so?’ and ‘Why is this the right answer?’ Answers to ‘how’ and ‘why’ aid conceptual understanding.”

In language teaching, Kamala suggests teachers show their students rough drafts and finished pieces of writing by other writers. By seeing what has been changed or modified, students learn why they have been edited. She also suggests teachers use analogies and models to explain concepts. To understand the relative distance between heavenly bodies, Kamala suggests this analogy: If the sun is a pumpkin, the earth is roughly as small as a mustard seed, and they are roughly 50m apart. If the sun is a mustard seed then the earth is roughly 50 cm away and the nearest star is 60 km away!

Values in school

An important topic covered in the book is morality. How do we teach morality to students? When a teacher scolds a child as harshly for wearing an unwashed shirt as when he copies in class, what is the message that gets into his brain? When a 13-year old is caught cheating during a class test, is it moral for a classmate to ‘betray’ the classmate, or is it moral for her to ‘help’ the classmate by not reporting the cheating? The morality of the students depends a lot on the kind of values that the school practises. If the school gives students a sense of belonging and safety, and a chance to explore the environment on their own, then students grow up with a better sense of self.

What Did You Ask at School Today? is a treasure trove for teachers who are passionate about their role in facilitating learning. The title is inspired by the quote attributed to the mother of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman: ‘What did you ask at school today?’ Unlike textbooks on pedagogy and psychology, this book is based on the experiences of the author, or the experiences of teachers, parents, children and researchers she has encountered. While the topics are neatly divided into chapters on child development, nature and nurture, moral development, intelligence, motivation, measuring learning, emotions and emotional health and so on, the thoughts and concepts do overlap, and comfortingly so for the reader.

Each chapter comes with a complete list of references. But do teachers have time to read? “Making time to read about education and wider issues can make the difference between teaching as a job and teaching as a meaningful and exciting vocation”, writes Kamala Mukunda in the introduction.  Are teachers ready to read and apply thought in schools?

Q & A time

Answers to some questions, excerpted from What Did You Ask at School Today?

How is there a mismatch between what the brain is good at what a typical school expects from it?

The brain is good at learning from real world contexts. School emphasises abstract or textbook learning.

How important are emotions to learning?

Emotions are inseparable from learning and memory. School ignores the emotional side of learning.

Will children pick up reading and writing just from being surrounded by books, in the way they learn speaking and comprehension just from being in language-rich surroundings?
There are limits to this unguided, innately-driven learning. Human beings have not evolved brain modules programmed to pick up high school algebra or the periodic table ‘naturally’. Some kind of imaginative, explicit instruction is required to foster the higher order thinking. And so we have to teach.

As educators, what should we measure in a student?

While we mostly measure performance, what we want to measure is competence. The only way to get better measures of competence is to sample performance of different skills, over time, in different contexts. India’s National Curriculum Framework of 2005 recommends the elimination of board exams except in the 10th and 12th. This is based on sound psychological principles, and will really change the face of assessment in India.

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