Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chhotu and Storytelling

I agreed with George -- our 'public speaking' trainer -- even before I had even seen him, leave alone hearing him say: 'If you want to practise voice modulation, try telling stories to kids.' Chhotu, better known as Vidyut Chakrabarti, is my 5 year old nephew. And he loves listening to stories. He listens open-mouthed (the fact which is nefariously made use of by his mom for feeding him when he's unwilling) while you practise every conceivable voice modulation exercise pretending to tell him a story. What you tell him has a simple precondition to satisfy: It should be anything with liberal sprinkling of interesting characters (like kings, queens, demons and dinosaurs). The events don't matter. Event sequences, of course, don't matter too. Lots of figures of speech, and lots of voice modulation.

This time when I went to my native place, he engaged me in some story-telling exercises. And I had my share of funny moments. I enjoyed telling him 'Beauty and the Beast'-like stories. Possibly, I had less than 5 different stories in my kitty. His hunger for stories was inexhaustible though. He kept asking for more stories. To which I answered truthfully that I didn't have anymore stories to tell him. He had an easy solution. He said, no problem tell me one of the old ones. But I had just told him that was not a problem at all. So, I started telling him the whole thing all over again; he started gobbling it with open-mouth with every possible expression of mytery and intrigue on his face. Looking at him no one could've told that he knew the story to the last detail, except when I would, for the sake of novelty, or may out of sheer forgetfulness, miss out on or alter some of the details. He would quickly correct me on those and return back to his perfectly hungrily receptive mode of listening. It was very funny and cute beyond what words can tell!

Another time, when he was behind me to tell him some stories, I tried to avoid accepting that I didn't have any more stories to tell him, by saying, 'I know many stories. But they are for bigger people. You won't understand them.' This was not a problem for him. He said, 'I anyway don't understand much of the stories. I still enjoy them. You tell. No problem.' I found this limitless innocence on the one hand and self-awareness on the other a very uncanny mixture. Not to say, it was very cute again!

Once, I succeeded turning the table on Chhotu. I insisted that at least some time it had to be his turn to tell a story. So, this particular time, he unwillingly agreed. The story he tried telling was that Tenalirama/Birbal/Gopal Bhaad story wherein Tenali finds out that a burglar is hiding in his house waiting for them to go to bed before he would clean up. So, instead of panicking he makes the best out of it. Being aware that his garden needed watering, he tells his wife, making sure that the burglar is within earshot, that he has hidden all their jewels in the garden well. When they go to bed, the burglar goes out and starts pulling out water from the well and throwing them into the garden. He keeps doing it the whole night hoping that eventually the hidden jewels would come up with the water. The garden gets its water. The burglar gets caught in the morning.

Chhotu's version 1: A burglar comes to Tenali's house and starts taking out water from the well and pouring them into the garden. And the garden gets irrigated.

My question: "But why does the burglar come to Tenali's house?"
Chhotu: "Because he wants to steal."
My question: "Then why does he start taking out water from the well."
Chhotu: "!!!!???!!!!"

Chhotu, like a worthy prospective Windows user, tries pressing the restart button, and starts all over again.

Chhotu's version 2: Tenali tells his wife that he has hidden his jewels in the well. The burglar comes and starts pouring water into the garden...
My question: "But why does the burglar pour water into the garden?"
Chhotu: "???!!!! Because he wants to water the garden."
My question: "But why does the burglar want to water Tenali's garden?"
Chhotu: "!!!!????!!!!"

At this point, Chhotu found it all not worth it to explain such petty stuff to me, and went ahead with some other game. What can I say. The story holds its magic in Chhotu's mind sans its logical sequencing of events. I have been wondering eversince, what, if not the logical sequence of events, holds its appeal for a story in the eyes of a child! :)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Flexibility in Education -- A Thought for Future

As I see my child growing day by day, it's a vivid experience tracking his progress. There are things he is quick to learn -- babbling, meditating on something, relishing food .... There are things in which he seems to be falling back when compared with his peers (other kids born within a span of a few weeks) -- grabbing things, turning on his tummy, sitting up etc. Comparisons are always being made. Wherever there seems to be a backlog, it tends to trigger negative thoughts. Elder and experienced people are quick to settle that matter by saying, "Hey! All children are different. He'll learn. Eventually. Let him go at his own pace."

For some months now, I have been turning the pages of books on probability models. Fortunately, my job affords me chances to go back to textbooks and learn things I never tried, or had tried but had given up or was made to give up. Probability used to occupy a part of our mathematics curriculum every year after 9th standard for all the years that had a mathematics paper. I think I was fairly good in probability then, but wasn't exceptional. I learned it to a certain extent that was possible for me during those math courses. After those courses, I hardly ever got a chance to study probability until recently. There were other friends of mine who didn't show an initial aptitude towards probability. They got a few years to demonstrate a growth in their aptitude. Most of them ended at the same level where they had started. They never studied probability after that. Unlike me, they will never study it again.

Perhaps, to a large extent, that's a thankful thing. We ought to be spared of having to struggle with the same set of subjects forever even though we show no inclination or necessity to learn them. There should definitely be a quick and efficient method in place to identify the natural gifts of a child, and propel him in that direction with all resources possible. But there is another side to it. We don't develop our aptitude for certain subjects at the same time. Each child develops his own way of learning. Certain subjects which appeared like Greek in my adolescence now appear easier to grasp when I pick them up after a while. I can upfront think of a few reasons: one is experience which prepares us to look at the subject from another angle. Another is the fact that over years, we develop techniques of thinking and reasoning. Arguments which might have appeared exotic to me when I was 18 now appear quite mundane to me.

Children pick up life-skills at various paces, in different order. Most of them finally arrive. It's not more probable that a child learning to walk early is not more probable to become more athletic than his peer who learns to walk later. An early talker isn't more likely to become an orator than the one who learns to speak a little later. Nature doesn't put us in rigid curricula where we learn our subject along with our peers at a predesignated period of our life; in which we don't get another chance to learn once we miss the first few.

It would be good to learn our subjects in a slightly more flexible way too. If I don't understand probability in my 9th grade, can I take it in my 11th? If, during my 5th grade, I show a strong propensity towards literary skills, can my curriculum be enriched with language and literature subjects, scheduling my other subjects for a later coverage? If before that I show a prodigal aptitude for literature, I may simply be spared of doing my science courses and allowed to grow in my natural order at a much accelerated pace. If I flunk math due to bad performance in some of the modules, can I be allowed to move on, keeping those modules for a repeat visit at a later point in my student-life?

In short, I am talking about flexibility. The tyranny of perpetual comparison with peers will be broken. The growth of the child will be with the direct intent of making him an employable citizen depending on his aptitude. The child will get an almost unlimited opportunity to learn subjects in a customised order. Moreover, there will be possible to maintain a much finer grained profile of the student's strengths. For example, currently it's impossible to know if a student of commerce had, at one point in time, shown exceptional calibre in problems of graph theory. Then, such profiling will be possible. Straight-jackets of science, commerce and art streams are outdated and rotten. This system will allow each student for designing his own stream. Students will seek absolute excellence. Competence (being good in something) will not confused with competiveness (winning games and wars).

Looking closely, it's hardly a revolutionary idea. I see subdued forms of it in the current system of education, particularly in higher education. To implement this idea in all its glory, we need a much more developed way of assessing a child's progress. It may be expensive to implement as it will obviously call for more attention to be given to the individual growth of each student.

May be, something of this sort will work out for a future society. Your inputs please! Particularly, as to how this proposed system could be broken.