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Cooks vs Chefs, Hangout with GenWise mentors, Why everything needn't be "fun" for you

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.

This week’s main post make a case for students to learn with conceptual understanding, something that the ‘exam economy’ doesn’t demand typically.

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. You can register here if interested. More about the club in section 2.

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


Main Post- Cooks vs Chefs: A Case for Conceptual Understanding

Last Week at the GenWise Club

Upcoming Events (Free & Paid; both external and GenWise events)

Parenting Tips- Everything need not be ‘fun’

Cooks vs Chefs: A Case for Conceptual Understanding

This post is a short version of a longer and more detailed piece that you can read here. You can also watch a 1 hour discussion on this topic here, from a panel discussion we held last year.

Can we see an object in a completely dark room after some time? Where does the mass of a large tree weighing several tonnes come from…given that it started off as a seed that weighed just a few grams? Such questions can puzzle even the best among us. This is because developing conceptual understanding requires ‘connecting the dots’ between different things we learn, that are seemingly unrelated.

While the ‘exam economy’ places little value on conceptual understanding, for someone looking at long-term learning, it is clear that factual knowledge and procedural skills must be accompanied with conceptual understanding. Conceptual understanding is important, even if it takes more time initially, because-

Disconnected learning makes things more difficult than they need to be. e.g. a child not seeing the connection between ratios, percentages, fractions and decimals may resort to arbitrary procedures

Learning is fragile when disconnected. Without an understanding of foundational concepts, further learning is built on a weak edifice. Unlearning wrong ideas later can be quite painful. 

Aiming for conceptual understanding, requires active engagement with connecting different ideas  and builds the capability to ‘think from first principles’.

There is a striking example of the value of conceptual learning from a researcher, Liping Ma, who studied the different methods in teaching subtraction employed by US teachers vis-a-vis Chinese teachers. Take the sum


In the US, students are expected to ‘borrow’ 1 from 5, subtract 9 from 12 to get 3 in the units place, subtract 1 from 4 to get 3 in the tens place to arrive at the answer of 33. In contrast in China, students would perform the same subtraction by ‘regrouping’ the numbers in question. Thus a student may perform the subtraction by doing (40 + 12)- (10 + 9)= (40-10) + (12-9)= 30 + 3= 33. 

Liping Ma found that Chinese students significantly outperformed American students on such questions on international tests like TIMSS. Her research shows that lacking an understanding of the procedure they were employing, American students tended to slip up; some students even felt anxious about the procedure because of ‘borrowing 1 from 5 and not returning it’.

Elon Musk has spoken about the importance of thinking from first principles, which is closely related to conceptual understanding in my opinion. He explains how thinking from first principles is needed to innovate and uses the analogy of a chef vs a cook to make his point. 

“The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d not know how to cook the dish. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.”

To sum up, there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘cook’; in fact we all need to be ‘cooks’ in many areas of life, following certain recipes. But there may be areas in life where we want to be chefs…. we want to be trailblazers, and for that we need to work towards conceptual understanding and developing the capability to think from first principles.

If you would like to get a feel for the conceptual approach we take in our courses, we recommend taking the ‘Concepts Quiz’ at for children or for grownups. If you would like to discuss the quiz questions after taking it, you can write to The quiz has questions across Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

This summer, we are offering several online courses that take up topics learned in school and explore these in depth conceptually. Look for courses prefixed ‘Math Unmuddled’ or ‘Connecting the Dots’ on our upcoming courses page.

Last Week at the GenWise Club

The question-of-the-day last Wednesday asked people to speculate as to how is it possible that scientists can change the focal length of a lens without any mechanical movement.

In questions like these we encourage club members to take guesses at the possible answers without worrying about being wrong. This is a process of exploration after all.

The responses were quite interesting.

Vishnu wondered whether there was any osmosis/diffusion of liquids across a membrane. But that would also qualify as “mechanical movement” so was not the right answer. But applying some basic first-principles thinking Vishnu and Murali both decided that the only way the focal length can be changed is if the curvature of the lens changes or the optical density of the lens material (i.e. the refractive index) changes. Now, obviously any change in the curvature of the lens would involve mechanical movement, so that can’t the the answer. That leaves change in refractive index.

Thus, through a process of elimination, Vishnu reached the conclusion that heat was being used to change the temperature of the material, which results in changes in the refractive index, which ultimately results in change in the focal length.

This is indeed what MIT scientists did recently. See this article with the details of what they did.

But, the story did not end there. The good thing about having curious people in the club is that the curiosity continues. Venkat gave a completely different possibility: it is (theoretically) possible to have a lens where the focal length is changed without changing the refractive index of the material or the curvature. Can you think of what this might be? (Hint: this lens is not based on the principle of refraction at all.)

The answer involves some fairly advanced physics, so don’t feel bad: None of us other than Venkat even thought about this, so we give you permission to give up after a few minutes and check out the answer at the GenWise Club.

Upcoming Events


2 events (free for members) @the GenWise Club (currently in beta). Register here for free if you aren’t a member already.

“Nuggets with Navin” – Apr 24, 11am Navin Kabra has designed and delivered several courses at GenWise – including some very popular ones on Cryptography, Exponential Growth, Economy of the Modern Internet, etc. – with several more in the pipeline for the 2021 Summer, including Understanding AI. This is a chance for students who have attended his courses (and those that haven’t), to come by and hangout with Navin. All students and parents welcome!

“Explorations with Radha” – May 1, 11am Many of you will also know Radha through her participation in several GenWise Addas, the Auroville experiential learning programs, and the design and delivery of courses in the Environmental and Life Sciences at GenWise. If you enjoy residential programs/ field trips/ nature, you will want to drop in on this informal conversation around the emerging importance of Natural History (what is it, really?) for the 21st century student. All students and parents welcome.

At least 3 GenWise courses coming up soon (out of 40+ courses listed here):

External Events

Why Mathematics? – Prof. Ramanujam (IMSc & rockstar of Math education), Prof. KP Mohanan (MIT, Stanford, NUS) and Madhav Kaushish (PhD student, ASU)) discuss questions like What really is Mathematics? Why do we need to learn Mathematics? How can we become, and help others too become, better Mathematicians? On Saturday, April 17 at 11 AM. Links to participate in the event on Youtube and on Facebook.

Scientists discuss how they study orchids, why it is important to study them and their therapeutic potential! The event by ‘Talk to a Scientist’ is for 6-16 year olds on Saturday, April 17 at 5 PM. Click here to register. (Free)

Fun with Magnets (Chai and Why series targeted at children) on Sunday, April 18 at 11 AM by the cool TIFR outreach team. The link to the event is here. (Free)

The Story of Water | पानी की कहानी | 3030 STEM Season 02 Episode 12, by the brilliant team at Centre for Creative Learning (CCL) at IIT Gandhinagar, on Sunday, April 18 at 4 PM. The link to the event is here. (Free)

Effects of the Pandemic on the Developing Child on April 19 at 930 PM. Two leading child development experts will discuss the ongoing fallout and their visions for what’s ahead. How can parents understand if their kids’ behavior is “normal” when little is normal right now? Who’s most at risk, and how can they be protected? How can parents support their children — and themselves? If kids fall behind on developmental milestones or school, will they be able to catch up? Click here to register. (Free)

A family quiz on ‘Science relevant to India’ on Sunday, April 25 at 4 PM. Your family can register as a team- how exciting is that! The event is by ‘Talk to a Scientist’ and you can register here. The top-scoring family wins an Amazon voucher too! (Free)

Parenting Tips: Everything need not be ‘fun’

As a parent, it is really not necessary to make everything “fun” or “interesting” for your child. Lot of parents get exhausted in parenting due to this constant burden of trying to engage children in a fun way.

This actually makes you a pathetic clown or ‘desperate-to-please’ person. This is not a role you want for the rest of your life.

Many chores need to be done with habit, regularity and quality. There is no glory in these. These chores just need to be done. Approaching these tasks in a matter of fact way right from an early age helps a lot.

In fact, kids need to be started on routines, chores and housework as soon as they start sitting up and holding their own spoon. Excessive indulgence and romanticism about being a parent is usually driven by mushy blogposts, narcissistic parents and unreal expectations from everyone around.

It is perfectly okay, even desirable to treat children as equal partners in household work. It is gratifying to have children who contribute to home-work and they are happy to receive the occasional praise and smile from their parents for their participation and discipline.

Dr. Bhooshan Shukla, MD, DNB, MRCPsych (London), Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Twitter – @docbhooshan


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