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The danger in learning definitions; 21st century parenting challenges++..#5

++Upcoming Events; Last Week at the GenWise Club

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 talks about the danger of learning terms and definitions without exploring what these mean critically. An activity for families is also suggested.

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 section 2 for how to join the club.

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


The Danger in Learning Definitions

Last Week at the GenWise Club: Understanding Natural History

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

Parenting Tips- 21st Century Parenting Challenges

The Danger in Learning Definitions

This post is a condensed version of an old blog post by our co-founder, Vishnu Agnihotri.

Why do we teach students definitions and terms? Perhaps we do this because the textbooks emphasize this or it may be that the examinations will ask for many definitions, or we may believe that the best way of learning the subject is to learn what important terms mean. Sometimes I think there is another reason- that we ourselves do not understand what we’re trying to teach, deeply enough.

This is not just about one subject- say like science; this holds true across disciplines. I’m not saying that definitions and terms are not important, indeed they can be very important; what is dangerous though is to teach definitions too early, before our minds have explored what the thing is. The biggest danger is that we may believe we have understood something simply by learning its name, and in our blissful ignorance, cease the explorations so necessary to deepen our understanding and wonder about the thing we are trying to learn.

Just learning definitions or learning them too early, or just in one way is something like walking into a garden, looking at a flower, saying ‘rose’ and moving on…what we have recognized is far less than what we have not recognized..

Feynman and ‘Inertia’

A good illustration about the difference between knowing a term, and understanding the thing is brought out by the famous physicist, Richard Feynman. Feynman says about a discussion he had as a small child with his father, while playing with a ball and a cart-

When I was still pretty young–I don’t know how old exactly–I had a ball in a wagon I was pulling, and I noticed something, so I ran up to my father to say that “When I pull the wagon, the ball runs to the back, and when I am running with the wagon and stop, the ball runs to the front. Why?

How would you answer?

I suspect many of us would have answered at this point of time, that this happens because of inertia- we may even talk of Newton’s first law, maybe we would give some other examples too. Look at what Feynman’s father said though..

He said, “That, nobody knows…..It’s very general, though, it happens all the time to anything; anything that is moving tends to keep moving; anything standing still tries to maintain that condition. If you look close you will see the ball does not run to the back of the wagon where you start from standing still. It moves forward a bit too, but not as fast as the wagon. The back of the wagon catches up with the ball, which has trouble getting started moving. It’s called inertia, that principle.” I did run back to check, and sure enough, the ball didn’t go backwards. He put the difference between what we know and what we call it very distinctly.

So imagine the difference in understanding between a student who is guided to make careful observations, and answer questions, vis-a-vis a student who is told the definition of inertia (it is the tendency of a body to blah blah..) and explained various examples of inertia which are there in his textbook.

The issue of being content with learning ‘terms/ definitions’ is dangerous for learning across disciplines- fractions are not just x/y, nor do terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ have universally agreed definitions.

The issue goes even beyond students and schools- if we want to lead intelligent lives and improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, this has to be a lifelong process- exploring what a thing is, giving it a name (or names) when we understand it a little, and being willing to drop the name again as we understand it better and better…doing anything else would be laziness on our part.

A family activity on defining pollution

We recommend having a discussion in the family along with your children on the definition of pollution. You could ask your child to bring her/ his textbook if it contains a definition of pollution, or use the definitions below as a starting point. Be critical and try to gain clarity! Share your experience with us in the comments. if you are not sure where all this is going, you can refer to this document by GenWise mentor, Radha Gopalan.

Definition 1 – Wikipedia

Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances or energy, such as noise, heat or light. Pollution is often classed as point source or non-point source pollution.

Definition 2 – NCERT Class XI Biology Text Book

Pollution is any undesirable change in physical, chemical or biological characteristics of air, land, water or soil. Agents that bring about such an undesirable change are called as pollutants.

Definition 3 – ICSE Class IX Geography Textbook

Environmental pollution refers to any unfavourable alteration of our surroundings, wholly or largely as a by-product of man’s actions. These changes may affect man and other organisms.

Last Week at The GenWise Club: Understanding Natural History

Last Saturday, the GenWise Club “Lounge” session was by Radha Gopalan. (The club lounge is an audio channel where club members, instructors, and guests just have a loosely structured chat on a topic of interest). 

Radha wanted to know what students thought about the fact that the Cambridge board recently introduced a new course in Natural History for schools. 

Sinan (a student member of The GenWise club) had this to say:

In the session, we came up with, and tried to, answer questions that arose when we discussed about Natural History. “What is natural history?” “Why is it important?” “Why do we need it if we already have biology and geography?”. We also discussed and shared opinions of Natural History being offered as a side-course in the GCSE board. By doing this, we realized that a brief period of time ago, 20-30 years in fact, natural history was part of everyone’s childhood, and due to the modernization of today’s world, we feel a need to reconnect with nature again, through observations and sheer curiosity.

The discussion was eye-opening for many of us who think of science only in terms of physics, chemistry, and biology. Here’s Omkaar (another student member) on what he learnt:

I had never thought about Natural History and its importance in Science. I attended an engaging discussion, last Saturday, with one of the GenWise mentors – Radha Ma’am. I realized that Science was not all about experiments. It also involves prolonged observation of things in your environment. Scientists studied the natural history of cholera-causing bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) and discovered that they were found in water bodies with lots of zooplankton and phytoplankton. There was an association between the bacteria and plankton. When such plankton-containing water was passed through a saree, the plankton, and along with them, the bacteria got left behind. This filtered water was safe for bathing, cooking etc. This is a good example where studying natural history helped find a pragmatic solution to reduce the spread of cholera and also predict potential cholera epidemics. This interactive discussion stimulated my curiosity – Can we use patterns in natural history to predict the future? Can understanding the natural history of the coronaviruses help predict the course of the COVID pandemic?

Be sure to tune in to this week’s Lounge session in which Vishnu Agnihotri and Sukanya Sinha will talk to the members about “How do Scientists figure out things” on Saturday, May 8, at 11am. (To join, just log into the GenWise Discord server and click on the “Lounge” on the left-hand-side.). Details of the next 2 Club Lounge sessions are available in the Upcoming Events section.

How do I become a member of The GenWise Club

In the beta phase, the Club is open to all. All it takes to join are these steps:

Get an account for you and/ or your child on Discord

Use this invite (valid till May 13, 2021) to join the GenWise server. If the link has expired or doesn’t work, please write to, requesting a new link.

Direct Message (DM) Vishnu with your full name and details once you slide in to The GenWise Club!

Upcoming Events

External Events

How to study secret plant messages? Join ‘Talk to a Scientist’ in their next episode where Dr. Jaishree Subrahmaniam talks about her work. Date: 8th May 2021, 5-6 pm IST. For ages 6-16. Register here. (Free)

CONTAGION Exhibition from Science Gallery, Bengaluru. CONTAGION explores the phenomenon of the transmission of emotions, behaviours, and diseases. CONTAGION is a 45-day exhibition season, from 30 April to 13 June. There are also several interactive workshops for 15-28 year olds beginning May 9 and ending June 6. For more details visit their website here. (Events are free)

The neutrino story: from impossible dreams to unreachable stars is a talk by Dr. Srubabati Goswami as part of the series ‘Kaapi with Curiosity’ by ICTS. The talk is on Sunday, 23 May 2021 from 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm. For more details and to register, click here.

Events @GenWise

“How do Scientists figure out things”Sat, May 8, 11 AM @The GenWise Club Lounge

Sukanya, a physicist, will be in conversation with GenWise co-founder, Vishnu on this topic. The focus will be on how scientists discover things and create new knowledge. For example, most of us know Newton’s first law, but how did Galileo or Newton figure this out?

Sukanya writes (in English and Bengali) to share her passion for science with her readers. She was awarded the prestigious Rabindra Smriti Puraskar in 2010 for science writing in Bengali. All students and parents welcome!

“A naturalist, scientific thinking and personal responsibility”- Sat, May 15, 11 AM @The GenWise Club Lounge

Radha Gopalan, an environmental scientist, will be in conversation with GenWise mentor, Sowmya. The session will draw inspiration from this talk of primatologist, Jane Goodall and explore what is involved in doing science, especially in natural environments and what is the nature of responsibility we have towards the environment. All students and parents welcome!

At least 3 GenWise courses coming up soon (out of 30+ courses listed here):

Parenting Tips: 21st Century parenting Challenges

In this interview with the Hindustan Times, Dr. Bhooshan identifies the following key challenges for modern parents-

Communication– Parent-child communication is restricted to functional communication that is almost office-like. It is task focussed and aimed at “getting things done”. There is very little or almost no time for long, lazy, but intimate conversations that are required.

Involvement in housework– A sense of self sufficiency and confidence is instilled as we become masters of our basic needs. Children should participate in this work as soon as they start walking around in the house and can carry something in their hand. Most parents actively discourage children from housework and even demean it.

Discipline– Good discipline is necessary to improve frustration tolerance. Indian parents are reluctant to give negative feedback in a straightforward, but helpful way. Ability to be clinical and leaving out drama from discipline is need of the day.

Freedom to explore– Ability to explore, choose and learn by oneself is a crucial creative skill. We cannot afford to kill it with our overanxious attitude towards grades and exams.

Digital Hygiene– Harmful effects of excessive use of gadgets (with or without Internet connection) are now well documented. Every day I see kids brought to clinic who harmed themselves due to excess gadget use.

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

Dr. Bhooshan conducts various courses about parenting for GenWise. Register below to learn more about working with your teenager.


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