Finding Math in a Slice of Citrus Fruit

Such exciting mysteries were the topic of intense debate at the Teaching the Learning Brain 2021 workshop for primary school teachers held earlier this month.  Researchers at IIITH’s Neuro-cognitive Science Research laboratory have been working on getting educators to take the quantum leap, from teaching from a script, to moulding innovators and thinkers.

The idea was to jumpstart a dialogue on learning concepts in language acquisition, comprehension, basic math, music and the concept of intelligence in the 21st century. “We had targeted primary and middle school teachers, researchers and students of B.Ed. and M.Ed. from government and private schools across the country, said Kavita Vemuri, faculty at the Cognitive Sciences Research Centre and organizer of the six-day workshop.

National and international speakers from diverse fields shared a wide gamut of insights on various aspects of cognitive neuroscience, psychology and education. “A simple slice of a lemon can teach us practical ways of studying geometry, trigonometry, logic, number, design, organisation and mathematics”, said Prof. Gupta who focused on the importance of nurturing curiosity along with Prof. Jayashree Ramadas. Prof. Narayanan Srinivasan focused on attention and problem solving while noted AI pioneer, Prof. Raj Reddy looked at remote learning and skills for survival in the 21st century.

Dr Prajakt Pande and Dr. Deborah Dutta put a different spin on teaching scientific concepts with out of the box techniques like virtual reality and an urban farming project. Dr. Indrajit Bairagya and Prof. Kavita Vemuri looked at socio-economic effects on cognitive abilities and intelligence. International speakers Dr. Meir Meshulam and Dr. Ido Davidesco sought to measure brain synchrony in the classroom using cutting edge technology. Dr. Samar Hussain and Dr. Vinoo Alluri looked at language and music and its implications on the learning curve. ‘Thinking beyond the syllabus’ was the ideological lodestone of the workshop.

Curiosity caught Sawali Ram 2.0
In children between the ages of 5 to 11, curiosity and conscientiousness were found to be the two major predictors that drove performance. “School is predictable since we try to allow things to go according to a plan. But inadvertently we are throwing out curiosity”, said Prof. Jayashree Ramadas, retired professor from TIFR. “Create spaces for questions in every classroom, in collaborative communities of teachers across schools, colleges and universities. Keep a question box and a bulletin board where kids can place anonymous questions”. Sawaliram 2.0 is an online national repository, a character that was created in the Hoshangabad science teaching program (1972-2002) where one can view the analytics, read articles and research papers, locate resources or submit questions to experts on its digital platform.

“Curiosity is a collective enterprise and it is the responsibility of the teacher to fuel it”, pointed out Prof. Anil Kumar Gupta. The retired professor from IIM-A has done prodigious amount of research work documenting creativity and innovation in rural India, through his Shoda Yatra visits to villages. He spoke about Adarsh Banwal, a 10th class student from Katihar, Bihar who came up with an imaginative solution for a traffic jam by just adding a blue signal to warn commuters.

“Today the whole world is moving towards paradoxical thinking but we seem to be veering towards unified consensual thinking”, rues Prof. Gupta who instituted the Honeybee network creativity and inclusive innovation awards, that celebrates so-called ‘silly ideas’.

Sit up and pay Attention!
Social cognition and how we handle emotions are important for learning, in life and in a classroom. “Attention is the idea of selection, based on several aspects like visual perception, location and objects,” said Prof. Narayanan Srinivasan (IITK/CBCS, Univ of Allahabad) who has researched extensively on attention, memory, problem solving and meta-cognition.

Cognitive control is the ability to filter irrelevant information and practising meditation has been found to aid the process. Chunking information efficiently helps in easier storage and later recall. He advised teachers to use pre-questions to introduce a new topic and quizzes to re-expose students to key content.

Disruption in education is the way ahead
“When we talk about education, it is always the beaten track of secondary, high school, intermediate education and then engineering. Many of us don’t understand what the rural child has to go through, to secure an education” observed Kavita Vemuri. “Prof Raj Reddy, the first academic of Asian origin to win the Turing award for his work on AI, hit the problem statement very well.” He identified a critical problem for rural students and solved it through the Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technology.

His advice to policy makers is to reduce curriculum by half. “Teach new skills that are needed to survive in 21st century. 1-5 graders need to learn basic skills like hygiene, roti, kapda and makaan. Teach 6 – 8 graders the basics of doing business, legal and agricultural practises and give employable skills development for 9 and 10 graders”.

Prof. Reddy cited the works of Benjamin Bloom and his two sigma approach. Technology assisted remote instruction has the advantage of learning at your own time and pace. He quoted American psychologist Angela Duckworth on the importance of grit, passion and resilience as the secrets to success. In the long run, grit may matter more than talent.

Through a series of activities, Dr Prajakt Pande from TIFR, currently a post-doctoral researcher at Roskilde University, Denmark introduced concepts using VR and 3D spatial navigation and demonstrated how a molecule could be understood, with a sensory representation of concepts.

Learning by Doing – Digging Deep
Can we make learning empowering and joyful? Dr. Deborah Dutta illustrated how teachers could teach an entire biology text book by experiential learning on the terrace of a CBSE school in Bombay.

Dr Indrajit Bairagya highlighted the effect of non-cognitive skills on cognitive abilities in children from the socio-economic angle. A quasi-experimental study in 40 urban and rural schools of two districts in Karnataka attempted to measure its impact on 4th graders on key concepts in mathematics.

In synch with brain waves
Speakers Dr Meir Meshulam and Dr Ido Davidesco brought in the brain level dynamics and the evidence for it. Said Kavita, “They worked on how the teacher is teaching and how the teaching and learning are synchronised. One examined EEG and eye tracking technologies and the other used the Functional MRI and both tried to detect whether there was a teacher-student interface and whether a collaborative effort impacted learning outcomes”.

Kavita Vemuri’s presentation covered multiple research studies and IQ tests on different socio economic backgrounds and an analysis of the scores. Results from one controlled experiment on children showed that C-graders have the same IQ as A-graders. “The difference was that the two groups had a different type of interest and intelligence, with the former probably preferring more hands-on practical knowledge”.

Language is one way of acquiring knowledge. Dr Samar Hussain, faculty at IIT Delhi in psycholinguistics spoke about understanding syntactic complexity that helps students make informed decisions about various concepts. Thus, it becomes critical to understand how concepts get encoded, when we teach, especially to young children.
Dr. Vinoo Alluri postulated that music is a fundamental aspect of learning. A sing-along can influence bonding and aid learning in a classroom. A Kodaly method of music education introduced in a UK School on a marginalized population found an improvement in reading, writing and math skills.  From STEM to STEAM! It is important to incorporate the Arts into STEM”, said Dr. Alluri.

“In India, we need more studies on developmental psychology and neuroscience at the primary level, from 5 yrs up to 12. There has to be a commitment from government, industry and stakeholders.  It should be made as interesting as AI is, for researchers. Teachers should use simple non-cognitive cues to ignite cognitive abilities through grassroot innovation, analytical reasoning, a healthy sense of curiosity, empirical thinking and observational skills. That was the crux of the workshop. In the next workshop, we wish to focus on language and Math which we started off as an extension of intelligence studies”, shared Kavita Vemuri.

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.


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