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Big Ideas & Motivation to Learn+ #40

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“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.” – Plutarch

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

In this week’s main post ‘Big Ideas & Motivation to Learn’, Vishnu Agnihotri shares how engaging students with the big ideas in a discipline can motivate students to engage with the subject and study it. Vishnu refers to the experience of GenWise mentor, Ashish Kulkarni’s recently concluded course on Economics to illustrate the motivational power of big ideas.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club (ages 13-90), a community of interested students, parents, and educators. Check out this link for more about the club and how to join it. It is open to all in the current beta phase. 

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.


Big Ideas & Motivation to Learn

Upcoming Events

Big Ideas & Motivation to Learn

Motivation to learn is a large and complex subject with many dimensions- we had discussed this topic in our first education adda, which can be viewed here. Sometimes motivation is needed to engage with a subject and sometimes it is needed to persist in ‘boring’ tasks or when one gets stuck. Different students get motivated by different things- one loves ideas and the other wants to do things and so on. Yet there are certain common principles that work for most students, and in this post I will argue that getting students to engage with the ‘big ideas’ of a discipline- ‘looking at the forest and not just at the trees’ is an important principle. I attended a few sessions of GenWise mentor, Ashish Kulkarni’s recently concluded course on Economics in which students were highly engaged, and I will use some examples from there to make my point. I will also refer to his blog post about the experience, and share some extracts from there.

Though many of the students who attended Ashish’s course were already learning economics in school they said that this course gave them a completely different perspective. As Ashish says, students were asking him questions in class, after class and even at the dinner table!

The students, if anything, seemed to enjoy the experience even more than I did. Our classes would begin at nine in the morning and get over by four in the afternoon, but the questions would continue beyond, and spill over onto dinner time. And as an econ-nerd who loves introducing new topics to people, I can’t tell you how it gladdened my heart so to be talking about the iron law of diminishing returns at eight in the evening, after a full day’s worth of classes. -Ashish Kulkarni

Ashish did many things well that made the course so engaging- the learning tasks were well designed- offering challenges that were at the right level of difficulty, games and role-plays were used to provide immersive experiences, there was good storytelling etc. His extensive knowledge of the subject and teaching experience equipped him to answer all kinds of questions and give many different examples. There were also no tests in the course and the focus was on learning for its own sake. But there was a somewhat less obvious but very important ingredient that went into creating engagement that I want to talk about.

Ashish started the course by talking about how a large number of convicts being sent to Australia from Britain, would die on the sea voyage (read more about this anecdote in the earlier edition Why everybody should study Economics?), and invited students to analyze why this was happening and how this issue could have been addressed. You can imagine how the students got hooked to the subject right away! In my view, the less obvious ingredient that allowed Ashish to make the course so engaging was his clarity about the big ideas he wanted to convey. In the specific example mentioned here, the big idea was ‘incentives matter’.

Before the start of the course, I had asked Ashish what his course would cover and he had rattled off 7 big ideas he was aiming to introduce to students-

incentives matter

trade matters

life is a non zero sum game

costs matter

prices are information

information matters

externalities matter

If an economics teacher does not have such clarity about what the big ideas (‘the forest’) in his/ her subject area, it would be easy to start with a specific topic like the supply-demand curve (‘a tree’). When I attended a course in college on economics, I certainly learnt a lot about the ‘trees’ and was ‘lost’ in my knowledge of them. I don’t think the situation has changed very much for most students today.

Some years ago, I wrote a post on a framework called ‘Understanding by Design (UbD)’ which teachers can consciously use to create powerful ‘unit plans’ to teach any topic. The first step in the UbD process is for the teacher to get clear about the goals of the unit, and this is done by considering 2 questions-

What are the enduring understandings I am aiming for? In other words, what are the big ideas that we would like to leave the student with.

What essential questions can drive the student’s inquiry into the topic? These questions are at the heart of the subject, are worth arguing about and often raise further questions. Importantly, such questions can provide an organizing purpose for connected and meaningful learning of the unit, and motivate learners to engage with the unit. An example of an essential question in economics could be ‘How much should we pay for a hamburger?’. While this looks like a simple question on the surface, when externalities like how beef is produced are considered, the topic becomes quite tricky.

Keeping an eye on the big ideas is akin to getting an aeroplane level view of the terrain before parachuting down to one part of the terrain and investigating it more closely. There is a caveat though- sometimes understanding the whole terrain requires close investigation of specific parts of the terrain (e.g. familiarity with multiplication tables may be necessary before exploring some larger patterns in natural numbers). Thus the recommendation is not always to focus on big ideas, but to keep them clearly in mind. This is particularly important when introducing new subjects to young students, when they haven’t yet developed an interest or the motivation to learn the subject.

Given the age of the students and their background in economics, it was Ashish’s conscious choice to ‘ignite the fire’ to learn economics, rather than make sure that everything was fully understood. As he says in his post-

Did the students “get” everything, one might quite reasonably ask. And I’ll be honest and say probably not. It was a lot to pack in to just five days, and not all will have been retained. And of what has been retained, not all will be fully understood. But they left class every day wanting to learn more about the topics that they had learnt. They remained curious and inquisitive, they were willing to push back on topics and concepts they didn’t understand or instinctively disagreed with.

If there is one thing a teacher wants to leave students with, it should the this- the wanting to learn more…

Upcoming Events

Traffic Jams in the Brain- this week’s edition of ‘Talk to a Scientist’ features

Dr. Sandhya Koushika, neuroscientist at TIFR talking about cellular neurobiology- how neurons deliver packages of information and what this mean for the way we function. On Sat, Jan 8 at 5 PM IST for children from ages 6-16. Register here.

Data Analytics in Public Policy– This talk is targeted at students in the age range 13-17 and is part of a series of talks in the ‘Agastya Junior Data Scientists Club’ (more about this club at the end of this note). The session will be on Sat, Jan 8, 6pm-7pm. Please register here to receive a zoom link by email.

The speaker is Sahil Deo. co-founder of CPC Analytics, a company that provides analytics services to the World Health Organization, the Swiss and German Development Cooperations, and companies like Siemens and Mitsubishi. Sahil has worked on analytics projects for the governments in Germany, Tanzania, Morocco, Egypt and of course, in India. Sahil has a Masters in Public Policy from the Hertie School, Berlin and a BE(CS) from Pune. Sahil also teaches courses on data in public policy at Azim Premji University, FLAME University, and Sai University. In this guest lecture, Sahil will talk about the use of analytics in public policy: that is, how analytics is useful for governments in making decisions and formulating laws and the impact it can have. The ‘Agastya Junior Data Scientists Club’ had about 100 students participating in a 6-week long course on data science from Jul to Sep 2021. Students continue to be part of a community for 1 year beyond the end of the course to learn more about the subject. The talks and interactions in this community are open to all students now and not restricted to just the students who were part of the course. GenWise developed and delivered the course on data science for Agastya’s highly able learners program. GenWise Mentor, Navin Kabra, developed and facilitated the course, supported by a team of teaching assistants. The Junior Data Scientists Club is supported by Mytrah Energy and Pravaha Foundation.

The Story of Climate Change is part of the Kaapi with Kuriosity series and is scheduled on Sun, Jan 9, from 4 to 530 PM IST. R. Shankar of The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai will be speaking on the subject. He is a theoretical physicist and a glaciologist.

The session blurb says- It is now broadly accepted that the current rate of climate change is a major concern for human society. How did this come about? It was a result of sustained scientific research over the past two centuries. This talk will attempt to tell the story of that research, its current conclusions and how these conclusions were/are being disseminated to the human society. You can register for the session here.


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