Anxious parents are often running a flashlight to locate the answer to their question. I became that answer to my neighbours whose daughter I was asked to ‘speed-coach’ shortly before her exams. She is a smart, caring, responsible ‘older-sister’. I know this because it shows up in her social interaction patterns – the way she babysits her younger sister or in the way she helps her grandparents in their gardening projects. She was having some trouble with the subject we all love to hate -Math.
I gave her an English sum (yeah that is possible!) where she has to solve or rather guess the right word based on clues given by the quizzer. The easiest way to guess the right word is through the process of elimination and having deep understanding of English language. Sounds complicated, well it was! But it was FUN too.When one’s mind is engaged in making connections eliminating impossible letters and using deductive reasoning to substitute alphabets one can arrive at the right word!
The idea behind the test was to gauge the child’s ‘meta-cognitive skills’- to understand if the problem lies in the comprehension of sums, the basic knowledge of formulae or cognitive dissonance(in terms of incongruent thought patterns or irrational thinking). As suspectedthe problem lay in none of the above! She really is a bright one. Her problem was the application of the formulae in the right sum and situation. Further tests showed that she was scared to go beyond what she understood of the concepts. Given different, new conditions, her confidence fizzled out. I introduced new conditions by deeper questioning of the concepts she used to solve a problem – the how-s and the why-s. The same sum packaged in a different wrapping and she was unable to even hazard a guess that the same question was being asked. She seemed to fear risking trying out a hand-made process to a slightly different question.
This incident raises the question if children are afraid to tweak their method to suit the purposes of the new changed scenario. Studies show that there are age-related, cultural and gender based differences in risk taking behaviour. In fact, the level of risk taken in different situations by the same individual is different. The same child who is so hesitant to seek out new ways to solve an algebraic problem will not be scared to try out a new cuisine or even a drastic haircut!
The ‘risk’ aspect depends on how the people around us will interpret the outcome. People are more forgiving of a bad haircut or a questionable fashion tastes than faring poorly in the final exams, or trying out a new move in the last football match that leads to defeat. We gauge the possible future reactions to our actions through our prior experiences and knowledge. The all important question then becomes that — are we as a society pushing our children to take normative decisions only and discouraging them from digressing into the unknown?
One way to overcome this lop-sided, safely mapped pedagogy is to encourage children to study all subjects as different aspect of the same concepts for a better and deeper understanding. It is also very important that they generate creative ideas to find new solutions to the same problem through different methods and to inculcate real life scenarios in education to breathe life into textbook questions.
As a teacher, I am learning too. This incident has been an eye-opener for me. It teaches me that not all my students are at the same level of risk-taking and idea-generating despite being on the same platform of knowing a formula. And that can go a long way in their final performance!