Everyone must read this book

Venkatesh Onkar

The great 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, in an interview, pointed out how some of us are wary of looking too deeply into the structure of a discipline or a process, as we fear this might diminish the beauty inherent in it:
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty…I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes… (Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out)

It may seem odd to be discussing beauty in the context of a book on educational psychology. This latest book by Kamala Mukunda, What Did You Ask At School Today?: Book 2, explores many complex questions in the realm of learning and education. It peels aside several layers in this very vast question – layers to do with brain development, with social biases, with the goals of a good education – with a voice of both reason and compassion. In the process, the fundamental complexity of the big question, how do children learn, reveals itself. The book has a flavour of deep tentativeness in addressing this question, without bias or prejudice. It looks carefully at the studies and the science as well as the actual day-to-day processes that happen in schools (and homes) across the world, in order to find some real answers. This patient and subtle exploration conveys to us the beauty behind the study of how learning might take place.

The introduction presents some definitive statements that we (as educators, parents and just ordinary folk) habitually make regarding learning. The author points out our human tendency to try to definitively “answer” the really big questions by these short-cut statements, instead of acknowledging the complexity involved! She suggests that, for example, instead of saying as a proposition, “Every child learns in a different way,” (I have heard this countless times from teachers and we also read it in newspaper articles so often!) we could ask, “Are there actually different styles of learning? Is it really possible to classify each child according to a learning style?” In listing eight “definite answers” and in then looking to explore them as questions rather than as statements, the author lays out the structure of the book itself.

The book begins with a chapter on how the human brain develops and learns from infancy. It “peers into the brain,” using insights from great scientific studies of the past as well as from modern technology, to explain neurogenesis and learning. Next, the author focuses on the learning of reading and arithmetic. How does this happen, exactly, from the perspective of neuroscience? Then we move on to the all-important problem of attention and behaviour, and this chapter explores what impacts children’s capacities for attention and self-regulation. A later chapter takes up the concerns of the last two by examining reading, arithmetic and attentional difficulties. This fascinating section takes us through, for example, an analysis of how difficulties in breaking down streams of sound into their phonic components could be at the heart of reading difficulties.

A very important question that receives detailed treatment is the question of whether there are different “learning styles,” and how the claims that individuals and companies make in this context (that they have “discovered” how to help children learn) can be evaluated. A chapter of particular practical interest to teachers is on how we can teach for understanding rather than for certification and examinations. And finally, there are two chapters of tremendous topical interest. One addresses the large gap between men and women in the STEM subjects and explores possible reasons for the gap as well as what we can do to address it. The other concerns the impact that the increased presence of digital software and technology has in the classroom.

I would like to go into one chapter in some detail in order to give you a flavour of the book as a whole. Chapter 3 is devoted to attention and behaviour. Every parent and teacher will instantly be intrigued by this theme, as so much of our collective energy goes into trying to manage children along the lines of both attention and behaviour! The core concept here is that of executive function: the capacity of the brain to stay on track on a task, to inhibit distraction and impulsive behaviour and to self-regulate risk taking. Full executive function (both in a “hot” and “cool flavour”) takes about two decades to develop in a human being, but are schools, in their expectations of children, in tune with this developmental path? Or do we merely label children as noisy and disruptive? Can educators change some of these attitudes and view students more constructively? Some children may have a good capacity to regulate their behaviour and others may not be very good. There is a moderate correlation between executive function and school performance and indeed life beyond school, such as health and financial status at 30 (this is accounting for class and economic background as hidden variables). Can we improve executive function? It would be magical if we can improve a child’s capacity for attention and self-regulation. The author addresses, at the end of the chapter, two possible interventions in depth: computer-based and curricular interventions. I will not spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the conclusions! Rest assured that it will require great subtlety and insight on the part of schools and parents for there to be any positive outcome in this realm; there are no easy magic pills.

Woven into this central theme of this chapter are several other threads: for example, an exploration into mind-wandering. Since this is such a prevalent feature of human consciousness, might mind-wandering serve some evolutionary purpose such as problem solving? Or should we be concerned when our students daydream, as it might be a failure of executive function? Might mind wandering be a reflection of negative mood? All these avenues are considered, patiently, and in a skeptical, non-judgmental and frequently humourous tone.

Who should read this book? Everyone, really; but What Did You Ask At School Today? is particularly addictive reading for teachers, administrators in education and parents. Each chapter is a serious consideration of the way we bring up our young. Can there be a more crucial question? We need to think about students and learning outside the box of our own assumptions, opinions and myths. This is the great strength of the book. It shows us what exactly we can understand from a rational standpoint, what is currently unknown, and how we can move forward in gaining insight at many levels. This moving forward, the author shows us, can happen in the smallest ways, in practices and shifting perceptions in our classrooms and homes, as well as in larger structural shifts.

As a society of parents, educators and interested lay-people, we need to be completely involved, intellectually and emotionally, in understanding our children much better in various contexts. This is the only way in which positive changes in the ways our children learn can take place. This work has the potential to spark a deep conversation, a conversation that can happen not only in the context of education but also in the widest spheres of our social lives.

The author teaches history and sociology at Centre For Learning, a non-formal school outside Bengaluru. He can be reached at [email protected].

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