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The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Quote of the Week

“Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless.” Eleanor Duckworth, Teacher Educator & Psychologist (Harvard University)

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.

In this week’s main post we highlight the importance of students finding things out on their own, through a post by GenWise Mentor, Sukanya Sinha. In this post, Sukanya reminisces about her own experiences as a school student in the science lab and how she adopted a very different approach many years later as a teacher. Apologies to the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman for appropriating the name of his book for this post- we couldn’t think of a better title that conveys the message!

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.


The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

Upcoming External Events

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

When we figure out something after an extended period of working on it- by thinking about it, trying different things out etc. – we feel a great joy! There is the pure pleasure of gaining insight and also a boost to our confidence. We start believing in our capability to figure things out. Unfortunately many of these experiences may not have been in school. In school, many of us were given the answers to start with and had to ‘learn them’- even when we were supposed to be performing experiments!

GenWise Mentor, Sukanya Sinha, reminisces about her experience as a science student and as a science teacher, illustrating how there can be a great deal of joy in learning science. While it may not be practical or desirable to learn everything by ‘finding things out’, a good teacher (and parents too) can give enough opportunities to students to find things out on their own. Learning opportunities like this build our intrinsic motivation to learn and develop our confidence. Read on…

I never enjoyed my physics practicals in school or college. Apart from the fact that I was bad at handling instruments, the experiments seemed unmotivating. We were asked to find the value of “g: the acceleration due to gravity” by measuring the time period (T) of a pendulum and its length (L). By the time we did the experiment, we knew that its value is 9.8 m/sec^2 ( and that marks will be deducted if we didn’t get the correct value ), so we knew the answer we were “supposed” to get. There was no element of surprise.

We had also learnt the formula connecting g and T and L. So most students did their brilliant “ back calculation” by plugging in values of time period and lengths and produced an impressive array of fake data to produce the correct value of g, with small errors built in to hoodwink the professor. In fact, once in our class , a student did not even bother to attach the bob to the string of the pendulum and was working out fake data with great concentration, when the professor came from behind and asked “ Where is the bob?” The student absentmindedly took the bob out his pocket and handed it to the teacher!

In contrast, I did love my chemistry practical classes where we were required to identify a salt by testing its chemical properties. It seemed like detective work and a small discovery. In fact, I was sorely disappointed when in my higher secondary exam, the salt I was assigned to identify was copper sulphate, and I could guess what it was without testing because of its tell tale bright blue colour.

Many ,many years later I got a chance to work with middle school students in a setting outside their school. They were at a stage where they had never heard of “g” and did not know the formula for the time period of a pendulum, and hence had no idea of the “ right answer” they were supposed to get.

We gave them a length of string which could be fixed to a stand. They were given a measuring tape. The string had a toothpick attached to the end and they could attach various objects to it by sticking them to the toothpick. They had potatoes, onions and tomatoes of various shapes and sizes. They were first told to keep the length of the string fixed and measure the swing time/time period of the pendulum by attaching various objects of their choice. They did the experiment with animation and came running to us after a while. “ Aunty, there is something wrong. We keep getting the same time period with everything we put at the end. Big potato, small tomato, medium onion – NO DIFFERENCE! How can that be ? “ It was a non intuitive result and hard to believe. But it was their discovery. They discovered that the period of a pendulum is independent of the mass of the bob. They did not know this from a formula ahead of time. There was no motivation to “ back calculate” . Once they realized that this was indeed true, they went on trying with bizarre objects – empty mayonnaise bottle, mayonnaise bottle filled with sand, mayonnaise bottle filled with water and tomato … the list went on! And the time periods were the same EVERY TIME! I recently found a copy of their table while rummaging through old papers and it brought a smile to my lips. I am sharing a picture of their table.

In school we were often given a theoretical problem of finding the length of a “ seconds pendulum” , i.e, to find out for what length of string will the time period of a pendulum be exactly 1 second. We worked it out by using the formula.

Here we told the kids to try and adjust the length by trial and error and see whether they can make a “seconds pendulum” . They worked hard on it, shortening and lengthening the string back and forth and in a while ran back to us triumphantly having constructed a seconds pendulum. Their joy is reflected in the note next to the table where they recorded data.

“ We are so HAPPY because we took 10 swings and got 10 seconds !

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

Details of upcoming GenWise courses are available here. The next course coming up is by GenWise mentor, Dr. Bhooshan Shukla on addressing screen time and device addiction among children.

Upcoming External Events

The below events are free to attend, though registration may be required.

Waiting for Turtles (Nature Writing for Children)Azim Premji University hosts a conversation between author Pankaj Sekhsaria and academician Subir Dey on the nuances of the nature writing genre and the amazing sea turtles that land up on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The session is on Saturday, Sep 4, 2021 at 5 PM, and you can attend it here.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands provide an ideal nesting habitat for primarily four species of marine turtles: the Leatherback turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Green Sea turtle and Olive Ridley turtle. All of these have been declared endangered by the IUCN. The book ‘Waiting for Turtles‘ brings to fore the unique relationship shared between the islands and the turtles through the eyes of a young boy named Samrat who spends a night at Tarmugli Island.

Science Vs Common Sense ( special edition of the Chai and Why series on Teacher’s Day) on Sunday, Sep 5, 2021 at 11 AM from the cool TIFR outreach team. Zoom, YouTube & FBLive links available here. Here’s what the session blurb says-

Much, if not all, of modern science is based on ideas that go against our ordinary intuition and deal with scales in length, time and energy that are outside the realm of common sense. And yet as everyone knows, modern science, with all its limitations, is so amazingly successful in describing and negotiating with nature. What modes of reasoning and inquiry does this enterprise adopt that are not quite our spontaneous modes of thinking? The question is important to address, we believe, for understanding the hurdles to effective learning and teaching of science. In this talk, we discuss and illustrate some tentative answers to this question.

About the speaker: Prof. Arvind Kumar, a distinguished physicist and educationist, was the director of the HBCSE from 1994-2008. He played a key role in launching the Science Olympiad programme in India in 1997 and in formulating the National Curriculum Framework-2005 and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010 for his services to the nation in the field of education.


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