Life, the Universe and Nearly Everything

Here I am, at the end of my second year in Sahyadri, left again in a pensive mood. I get lost when I try to express my experiences here in a way so as to communicate with the world. Looking back at my previous blog posts about life in Sahyadri, I realise I have written about various aspects of my experiences at different times, but all disjointed. I have written about the interesting things that happen here from day to day. I have written about my experience teaching in the classroom. I have written about my discontent and frustrations. I have written about my evolving outlook of life.

This year has been one of interesting experiences and insights and questions and confusions. It’s very personal, and I wonder if I should write about it on the blog. I keep writing my thoughts in a notebook these days, since I think they are very specific in space and time. But then I think there is value in trying to distil those experiences and get its essence in a form that’s relevant for a wider audience.

Articulating one’s thoughts in a form meant to communicate something to someone else helps me get clearer about my own thoughts. There are very few people to whom I talk about my thoughts at a level where I feel- “Ah, we are communicating!”. There are many people who know me, whom I know, with whom I just pass by. And I suspect the reason for that is that I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell myself. And I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell others.

They say an adolescent matures psychologically at a rate determined by the society. The fact is, coming to Sahyadri was the first thing that I had wanted to do, decided to do, on my own in life. Granted that I had doubts whether I would be suited to be a teacher (and I still do!), but once I had come here for the interview and seen the place and met some of the people, I knew that I wanted to be here. And it’s only after coming here that I have been able to feel like  an individual, with legitimate desires and frustrations and abilities and shortcomings.

***

The first year went mostly in getting used to life in the classroom. This year I feel I have got a better grip on that. Of course, teaching is such a complex activity that you can probably never say you have done a good job, but I know that I’ve done at least a baseline job part of the time. And I’ve been aware at some other times, that I was doing a less than baseline job, but just couldn’t gather the motivation and energy to put in that extra effort.

In this second year, I’ve been able to peel off some deep rooted ideas about myself and see myself differently. Of course, it’s still only a set of thoughts- an idea of what I am- but it’s been liberating.

At the beginning of this year I was very motivated, being the second year of teaching, and I was eager to build on things that I had learnt in the first year, to do some things better that I had made a mess of at my first attempt. I was also entrusted with additional duties like being a class teacher, and made myself available to listen closely to students’ issues and experiences in school. I had some additional classes too, since I was teaching computer applications also. So most of my waking moments went into my school work, for the first half of the term.

I’m not sure what happened after that- perhaps it was just fatigue, but I think it was something deeper too- I felt a disconnect with the work in school. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew that I felt an immense resistance to sit down and prepare for the next day’s class, I just didn’t enjoy being in the classroom, I felt that my work was completely meaningless.

Not that I had been thinking that this work is meaningful in any deep sense. Being an atheist, I don’t attribute any cosmic meaning or purpose to anything. But meaningless in the sense that I seemed to be labouring within the same constructs of society which I had found meaningless as a student. It seemed like I was stuck somewhere. All I could realise was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. But then I had no answer to the next question- what do you want to do then? I liked being in this place, with these people, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, because I seemed to be stuck within the same meaningless constructs.

That’s when I realised that I had no coherent story of myself. That I was more of an overgrown adolescent of 22, rather than an adult of 22, pretty much still figuring out his place in society. It was a very difficult time, dragging myself through the weeks in the second half of the term. You can’t hide from people your disconnect and disinterest, when you are a teacher. And once it came embarrassingly to the fore on teacher’s day, when some class 10 students were interviewing some of the teachers in the morning assembly, about why they chose to teach. When my turn came, I began with why I came to Sahyadri in the first place, but could only stammer my way to my present reality that I was confused about being a teacher.

It’s a blessing that I have people here with whom I can talk about my discontent and frustrations without their being illegitimised. I had long conversations with some of them, talking about my discontent and trying to uncover its source. It was very messy and we kept going back and forth for many days. In a way it seemed to me that whatever the discontent was, it was not directly related to the work, and if I jumped over to doing something else, it would just resurface. So I knew I had to keep at it and get to the bottom of it.

In the beginning of the second term, we had this workshop on re-envisioning education, during which we spent ten days just looking closely at our individual beliefs about teaching and learning, and why we teach. This again was a legitimate space for sharing frustrations and discontent, and some things crystallised for me at the end of it.

For one, I could see the messy and entangled nature of education, and that being a teacher meant having one foot in the muck all the time. And I could also see clearly that I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to teach. I realised that I came here seeking a place far away from the crowd of cities, where I could be in touch with nature and quietness, where I could be with people who had a similar outlook of life (and as I recently realised, with whom discontent and frustration were natural and legitimate). Teaching was something I thought I could do, to have access to these. If I could be here without having to teach, I would still be happy.

***

After the workshop, I felt I needed a fresh start in teaching. Fortunately, it was still the beginning of the second term, and 10th standard classes were almost over. So I decided to start afresh with class 9. I had been experimenting extensively with them even in the earlier term. Now I thought was a good time to start with their class 10 syllabus.

Before I started I had a heart to heart chat with them about my workshop experience and how I looked at teaching now and how what we did in class would depend a lot on what they wanted from it. Most of them were very clear that they were learning chemistry to pass the ICSE and get that qualification, and wouldn’t be learning it otherwise. I said- fair enough, we’ll make the classes focused on preparing you for that.

For the first time I could go into the classroom feeling that I was there to do something which the students wanted to do, for whatever limited purpose. I no longer had to go into a class thinking that this topic had to be made interesting for the children to remain engaged and so on. Of course, that didn’t mean that I would be teaching by rote. One of the things which the children said they wanted from the classes was to understand things properly so that they could learn more easily and better. But getting children interested in chemistry was no longer one of my concerns, helping them learn well for the exams was.

This worked well for my relationship with the subjects, and the domain of knowledge in general. I find them quite interesting at one level to think and talk about, but there’s nothing there that has touched me deeply that I have an urge to share with children. And I think I was labouring under the common myth that a teacher needs to be passionate about the subject. I found it quite interesting to engage with the children in the subject, but I could access that something within me only if there was an interest from outside. There’s no urge within to share, and definitely not to push anything down somebody’s throat.

***

In a way that took care of my relationship with classroom teaching. I still have many questions about the constructs of a school, especially a residential school, and what being a teacher means. But I feel a difference- there’s no frustration or impatience to get to any answer. In a way I see the complexity in the whole business of education, and I’m happy to keep the questions alive and wait for the living of it to reveal answers if any.

Another part of me became clearer to me during the course of this year, during the course of conversations. Something not really connected to school work, but about my motivations and what I am really seeking and yearning for in life.

I had been a good student in school and my parents encouraged me to excel at everything I did, and I tried to do so. It seems to me now, that I had done everything that was expected of me as a child. This was especially true of my mother, who had very clear ideas about how I should grow up, how I should never take things for granted, how I should excel in whatever I did and not be mediocre, and so on.

I might be wrong, but I think these expectations have been a burden on me. I don’t blame my parents, it just reflects a society that thinks it knows what is best for children, and is acting out of best intentions, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that but the devil is in the details of how you do it.

And in my case, I realised it because these external expectations and push virtually disappeared one day when my mother passed away in June 2006, when I had just finished my schooling and was getting ready to step into college. There was a huge emptiness, because my mother had almost completely filled the horizon of my consciousness throughout my childhood, with me being an only child and having very little close contact with any adults other than my parents.

For the first time, external expectations of doing well disappeared, and it was liberating. One thing that suffered was academics. I was no longer one of the toppers, but rank average. But I dare say I learnt a few things well, things that I found interesting. I was free to be myself in a way I had never been able to when I was a child. I might sound ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful to my parents for all that they did for me, and the love and care with which they brought me up. But I cannot deny that I experience a greater wholeness of being today, in the absence of those expectations.

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to feel guilty about feeling this way. But then, my mother had suffered so much from her long term illness, and death only saved her from the suffering. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had my mother lived. It would have been interesting. In the last few months of her life, when I was in the 12th standard, I had already begun to have questions about life and society and education, and I used to talk to her about my thoughts. It was interesting how she used to take me seriously sometimes, and how she used to just tell me to stop whining and get back to studying, at other times.

Anyway, I do feel happy to be free today. One of the interesting things I have learnt is that without the external expectations, there’s nowhere I really want to go and I’m already on “the other side of the hedge”, as in E. M. Forster’s story. I’m just a living organism seeking survival and play. What constitutes play for me is something I’m constantly discovering for myself.

I’ve become extremely wary of attachment, and traditional values of family and relationships. It’s often looked at as something pure and desirable, but it’s an iceberg of entangled human emotions of which one sees only a rosy tip. I like the people around me, and I savour human contact, but I do not want to get attached to anyone. I don’t miss anyone. That’s another thing I’ve realised- when I’m here, I’m in contact with the people around me. Everything and everyone else recede to somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness- almost just names and images. I could be accused of not caring, I guess. Perhaps I don’t. But then that is me.

***

That is my story for the time being. I’m sure parts of it will change and evolve, but I feel that for the first time, I’m on my way to becoming an adult. And I think that means some crystallisation of certain aspects of oneself, for life.

I feel immensely happy and contented to be here. One very important habit that I’ve formed this term is to just go off on my own for walks, during the term. Earlier I used to go on for months without stepping outside the campus, and then suddenly realise- Oh my goodness, I’m living in the middle of all this beauty and I’m stuck in these abstractions!

Lying on the python hill looking at the stars listening to the breeze, watching raindrops on leaves, watching birds and insects (and snakes sometimes!), watching the sun set in different places on the horizon as the seasons progress, watching the moon change its shape and rise at different times, it’s easy to get away from the abstractions in which one lives and works. And remind myself that I’m only a living organism on this planet.

And though I’ve had my difficult times and situations with students, I feel it’s a privilege to be in constant contact with young human beings who are growing up.

I’m on the other side of the hedge.

The Distorted Painting

I want to make a painting. A beautiful one. I have got this canvas that I have been given. I start painting. I make strokes. The painting doesn’t look alright as it develops. And I don’t have another canvas. I look closely at the canvas and see that it was not blank to begin with. I see irregular spots all over it. The spots are distorting my painting. And now there are the strokes I have made. All entangled together. What do I do? I want to paint. I want to paint a beautiful picture. I look at the spots. There are so many of them. And in such weird shapes. My beautiful painting will never come up on this canvas. I don’t want to give up. I want to see on canvas the beauty of the picture in my mind. I want to feel the beauty of painting. I make a stroke on the canvas. A line. I connect two spots. I look closely at them. I make another stroke. A curve this time. That looks decent. I like this. I enjoy making strokes on the messy canvas. I can’t help but keep thinking of the beautiful picture in my mind. It will never come up on this canvas. I want to do more than make meaningless strokes. It is fun. It will never come up on this canvas. I like the little stroke connecting the two spots.

Searching for the Heart of Education

I recently happened to read a book called “Killing Monsters: Why children need fantasy, superheroes and make-believe violence” by Gerard Jones. The book is about what goes on in children’s minds when they watch violent cartoons, or play violent games (live action and video games).

There has been a widespread public sentiment against violence in children’s media in the US since the 1960s, based on the fear that exposure to a lot of violence in the media during childhood could desensitize children, and potentially make them violent persons later in life. There have been many studies which have attempted to find a link between exposure to violence in the media during childhood and violent behaviour later in life, but they have all been inconclusive.

Most caring parents and adults find it abhorrent that their child is so engrossed with something that they find distasteful and fear that their children may get desensitized. Nevertheless, have we stopped to ask why our children are so glued to cartoons and games embodying so much violence? What are they taking away from it? How are they looking at it and making sense of it?

Gerard Jones says that most of the time the children are not passive consumers of the media, but are actively engaged in weaving their own fantasies around the content that they are engaging with. This, he says, is a way for the children to make sense of the world they live in, and a safe place for them to explore and understand what they find intriguing and disturbing in it. So the violence that they are being exposed to in the media may indeed be benefiting them. There are no studies which have conclusively shown it either way.

Jones says it is important that the adults, repelled by the literal meaning of the content in the games or books their children play or read, do not impose their anxieties onto the children. He says that most of the time, children know the difference between their fantasies and the reality, and imposing our anxieties on them would mean taking away this safe haven, and blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, making them doubtful of their own control over their emotions.

Why do children need to fantasize? Right from birth, a child has to struggle to learn about the world she finds herself in, to learn to stand, to walk, to run. And all these involve innumerable failures. Every day of her life, she has to come face to face with her own inability. What keeps her motivated to persevere in this extremely difficult and potentially demoralising process of learning? She needs a sense of triumph, a sense of being in control, of being powerful.

This struck a chord deep within me. I could feel this child within me, with the insecurity of feeling unequipped to face the world. Especially since middle-adolescence, probably because around this time the fantasy worlds of my previous years disappeared, due to my evolving outlook of the world and life. I still feel completely unequipped to face the world today.

I had always thought that the purpose of education should be to prepare a child for understanding the world she finds herself in and enable her to act in it. But can there really be such a state of being prepared to meet something as complex and unpredictable as life? Can we be educated enough to act coherently and intelligently always?

And this is where the book struck a chord within me. Perhaps it’s not just children, who need fantasies to live with their incapability. Even adults have to face the fact of their inadequacy every day of their lives. And even they need a fantasy world to help them feel as if they are in control, and get on with their lives.

Whereas children’s fantasy worlds seem to be dynamic and ever changing just like them, the fantasy world of adults seem to be static and stagnant- it is embodied in the notion of settling down in life, getting a job, marriage, building a family and so on. Most children lose the colourful worlds of their fantasy as they grow into adults, and it gets set into the world of security that helps them meet the challenge of life and feel in control.

But can education help them meet the challenge of life differently? Can it help children to grow to be able to live with their incapability and not be intimidated by the world in the wake of their incapability? Can it help children realize that it is alright to be incapable, and that there is no one in this world who is actually in control outside their fantasy worlds?

Governments and corporations and advertisements and the media will tell you that they are in control and if you want to be in control, all you have to do is to follow them. But doesn’t anyone who has looked at the world a little more closely know that that is just fantasy? Wouldn’t you say that the world is just tumbling through time and space somehow, if you look at the massive inequality and ecological destruction and violence in the world?

Why do I need to live in a fantasy world to be secure? Can I feel secure in my incapability and continue to learn and do what I can without needing to feel in control?

Can education help a child do that?

Teaching Chemistry

Chemistry is very intriguing in its incarnation as a subject in the senior school curriculum. Perhaps its notoriety for being a subject that forces the student to memorize a lot of factual information is surpassed only by that of biology. Names of dozens of compounds, their chemical formulae and structures, chemical reactions which they undergo, the equations for those reactions, the conditions required for those reactions… it is a huge mountain to swallow. At the same time, there are very complex concepts involved that are quite counter-intuitive, and without which even the conceptual parts of the subject degenerate into something which has to be “mugged up”.

I liked chemistry as a student. I first started learning chemistry as a subject when I reached the eighth standard. I studied in a CBSE school, and chemistry was not really a separate subject, but part of the science paper. We had separate classes for chemistry, nevertheless. I don’t remember much of what I learnt back then, but I have a vague remembrance that there wasn’t much that was taught. It was mostly the basic ideas of elements, compounds and mixtures, atoms and molecules, carbon compounds etc. I also remember quite clearly an experiment demonstration in which our teacher showed us the preparation of soap from oil and sodium hydroxide solution.

My real association with chemistry started in the eleventh standard, when I took up physics, chemistry and maths along with computer science as my subjects in higher secondary school. It was truly a time when the horizons of knowledge just broadened like anything, and I seemed to learn so many new things about the world we live in, that all seemed to fit into each other perfectly.

Chemistry, along with mathematics and physics, seemed to offer glimpses of an insight into what our world really is made of, and how it works. It made one pause and wonder and appreciate how intricate are the mechanisms that drive chemical reactions in plants which convert useless carbon dioxide into the invaluable carbohydrates which we eat, how the energy locked up in a particular arrangement of atoms and electrons in the carbohydrates is released when it is broken up again into carbon dioxide, how a similar reaction powers our cars and thermal power stations, how we are made up of atoms that were formed billions of years ago in stars and so on.

It was a truly revolutionary, worldview shaping body of knowledge. Perhaps because of the intense connection I felt with it, and the power that I felt it gave me in knowing the world better, I had a good relationship with the subject. I never struggled to find any motivation to learn the rules for writing electronic configuration, or memorize facts about the transition elements, or learn different reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. I had taken this group of subjects under the guise of preparing for engineering entrance exams. To be honest, right from the beginning I was not convinced that I really wanted to become an engineer, but the subjects were intrinsically interesting, so my reservations about taking up engineering didn’t stop me from engaging with them fully.

So I studied chemistry for two years, engaging with it as deeply as I could with the resources at my disposal. Then after twelfth standard, I joined the National Institute of Technology Calicut for BTech in electronics and communication engineering, and thus ended my relationship with chemistry as a student. We did have a laboratory chemistry course during the first year at NIT, but it was a set of highly specialized experiments which none of us really knew why we were doing them.

It is in this context that I happen to join Sahyadri School as a chemistry teacher. Many people ask me why I wanted to teach chemistry, of all subjects. The truth is, I never wanted to teach chemistry. In fact, I didn’t have any particular subject which I wished to teach. I just wanted to be a teacher in a school like Sahyadri. Given my education after tenth standard, physics, chemistry and maths are the three subjects I could have taught. They needed a chemistry teacher at the time and I thought, Why not?! I could give it a try!

In my first year of teaching, I was asked to handle chemistry for classes 8, 9 and 10. I was momentarily taken aback when I first saw that. I had said I could handle chemistry, but I had not realized that I was going to join as a “chemistry teacher”, that I would be the only teacher taking chemistry for the entire senior school. I remember walking into the chemistry lab for the first time, seriously wondering what I had gotten myself into! It brought back memories of working with salts, and pipettes and burettes back in eleventh and twelfth, but I realized that now it was different. I was going to have to handle the lab when there were twenty odd highly energetic adolescents moving about under my charge!

Before long I had started teaching chemistry to all the three classes. The ICSE curriculum, I learnt, was much vaster than its CBSE counterpart and as far as chemistry was concerned, this meant having to learn many more facts than a student in a CBSE school would learn at the same stage.

In tenth standard, I started with topics like the periodic table and chemical bonding, where there was at least some logic and conceptual understanding involved, where I could start conversations with what the children had learnt earlier. In eighth and ninth standards, I started with the study of matter, and ended up spending class after class on meandering discussions and conversations which practically led nowhere, and bored both the students and myself.

Having dived into teaching without any training in classroom teaching, I found myself just walking into the class with virtually no preparation other than the patchy and limited knowledge base that one gathers as a student in the process of studying for exams. The first thing I had to do was to read up more about the history of how ideas came to be, and what were the experiments and observations which led to different scientific concepts we take for granted today. That turned out to be an interesting and absorbing endeavour, and led me to several good resources for teaching chemistry, on the internet.

Even if one knows thoroughly the complex and interconnected web of concepts, it’s a challenge to present them in a coherent and engaging manner. Needless to say, I felt totally unequipped to teach chemistry. I wondered whether I had taken up the wrong subject, but then I felt it would have been the same whatever the subject I taught.

One really starts learning when one teaches, because when you are teaching, inconsistencies or gaps in concepts stare you in the face. You realize, for example, that you’ve taken it for granted that water contains some H+ and OH- ions and find it difficult to explain to a student why it should be so since I had never asked the question before myself. It forces you to look further to understand better since you need to put forth a coherent explanation. Not that one always finds the answers, but at least you know better what is it that you know, and what is it that is beyond your current scope of understanding. Which is everything, I feel.

Every now and then I come across some such gap in my conceptual understanding, as well as the conceptual gaps in the curriculum. Either through questions posed by students, or through questions which occur to me when I try to prepare for a class or through the “wrong answers” which students give. I scribble them down here and there, but need to find a systematic way of doing it.

Out of necessity I had flung myself full length into learning more about chemistry, but I decided to stick with chemistry in my second year of teaching, to carry forward all the work done in my first year. I had become quite fascinated with the conceptual domain of chemistry- especially how one looks at atoms, molecules, ions, chemical bonding, reactions, and where all this fits in the larger picture of how one looks at the world.

Despite this potential richness in the subject, chemistry remains a difficult subject to teach. The curriculum demands that the student learns so many facts- most of which wouldn’t make any difference to a student’s conceptual understanding if they didn’t learn it- for which there is no reason why anyone should learn them unless one would like to pursue higher studies in the subject.

You can only teach parts of chemistry, and tell the student to memorize the rest. Unless the teacher is so deeply immersed in the subject that she has enough stories about all the little details that the student has to learn. Even then I have my doubts about how effective one can be with so many facts to transmit.

I used to feel very confused about teaching chemistry. It was a subject that I liked, but still it felt strange and frustrating often. It was an important milestone for me to realize for myself which parts of chemistry I liked and which parts I didn’t really care about. More importantly that there was such a distinction, and a blanket statement like “I like chemistry” needs to be examined further.

It is true that a teacher has to be passionate about the subject she teaches, but when you don’t identify with the topic, I think it’s important to be honest and say, “I don’t know what more is there to this chapter than a set of facts and have no idea why the board wants you to learn it. Anyway, let’s see how we can effectively learn it.” Without accepting that, I’ve found myself teaching a topic, and in the middle of the class wondering what was the point of it all, and getting derailed.

It’s been an interesting experience. I’d never imagined I’d teach chemistry one day, but that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half! Along with the learning in the realm of academics, equally important (or perhaps more) has been the learning in the realm of how to look at the work you are doing, and how to establish a meaningful relationship with it.

Have you passed through a moment in life when you’re completely on your own? When there is only you, and the universe.

All your life compresses itself into an image and flashes across your eyes.

There are no desires left, nor are there any laments. Only the plain fact of life remains. And the smallness of me in it.

I look at the world for the first time with open eyes, and try to see everything in it… because I’m curious to know more about this world I happen to inhabit.

Nothing more to rebel against… no more dreams to pursue… I’m free. I can live now. I can learn now.

The Difficulty with Science

One of the first things that struck me when I started teaching is that science comes across as a difficult subject to a majority of the students. There are some to whom it seems to come naturally, and we label them “science-persons” while the others who seem to struggle, as “arts-persons” or “humanities-persons”.

While there is no denying that there are variations in children’s ability, aptitude and interests, I’m gripped by the question whether everyone can be given a meaningful and enriching, and not painful science education. And if so, what would that be like.

One of the approaches that could be taken, perhaps, is to study how science is normally taught and what are the sources of the difficulties which children face. How is scientific knowledge organised in our brains and what are the factors which make this process so difficult for so many? It might require some thought about the very nature of science and scientific knowledge.

While I’m not an expert in any of these areas, some of the problems which I myself have faced as a student provides some hints. The problem may not be such a big mystery if you look a bit closer.

Much of science is abstract, counter intuitive, and removed from real life experience. Take, for example, the kinetic theory of matter, which says that the particles which make up matter are in continuous motion and that the temperature of a body is a measure of the average kinetic energy of its particles. Most text books don’t explain why people came to believe that the particles are in motion, or why a body is hotter if the particles are moving faster. There is a lot that ends up having to be taken for granted.

This is not an isolated example- far from it. Every theory or topic that children have to learn has some gap like this, and after a while instead of the concepts building up nicely into a jigsaw puzzle- an understanding of the way the world works, they end up being isolated and unrelated fragments that have to be “mugged up”.

Related to this is the fact that scientific knowledge is often presented as absolute truth. Very little, if any importance is given to the process of discovery and the evolution of scientific knowledge. Text books do mention some history, but it is often lost within the vast sea of facts which children have to memorise. And in the process, only the end product, and not the evolution of the idea or the real life phenomenon that led to it, is given importance.

Another difficulty which students often face is in forming mental pictures or representations of concepts or processes. If you are unable to visualise it, it quickly becomes abstract, meaningless information.

For example, consider the case of common salt dissolving in water. I, the teacher, have a vivid picture of differently sized Na+ and Cl- ions packed tightly in the solid crystal, and water molecules floating (or flowing!) around with their partially positive H and partially negative O ends. And the moment you put NaCl in water, the partial charges of water molecules arranging themselves around the ions in the salt and pulling them apart. It is a complex mental representation, built up over time, with connections to many other concepts like kinetic theory, chemical bonding etc. How can a teacher help a student build her own mental picture? Some students do this effortlessly, but can the others do it with some help and more importantly, can having such coherent mental pictures help them learn science more easily and connect with it better?

Most text books would introduce this concept with a sentence like “Sodium chloride dissolves well in water because it is a polar solvent.” And then go on to beat around the bush with all kinds of irrelevant information. How does the student visualise the term “polar solvent”? Does she think about it at all, or switch off completely? Or does she memorise the term without any clue as to what it means and move on and write the correct answer during the exam?

It’s important to note that the problems I have mentioned are not solved by just doing “more practical work than theory”. The same problems arise in lab sessions also, because doing an experiment is one thing, and understanding what happens behind it is another. Of course, being usually more engaging than theory classes, there is a greater chance that the student will apply herself better and get the concept. But one cannot assume that the student has understood it just by carrying out the experiment.

Again, let’s take an example, say precipitation reactions where solutions of two soluble salts are mixed together to form an insoluble salt.

Na_2CO_3 + CaCl_2 longrightarrow 2NaCl + CaCO_3 downarrow

Some children are immediately able to connect the above equation to their understanding of ionic compounds and solutions. They will immediately conclude that calcium and carbonate ions can’t stay together in the solution and that’s why they precipitate, and if they had come across calcium carbonate in earlier experiments, they would already know that it is an insoluble salt, which all fits in nicely into a perfect mosaic of knowledge. They would already be predicting which other pairs of solutions would give precipitates.

But for most, the equation wouldn’t mean anything deeper than what it literally states, and it needs to be made explicit to them what all information it represents and a visualisation of the process that is taking place. Otherwise, it is not unlikely that many would do this particular reaction, learn the equation by heart, do the next one, again learn the equation by heart and so on.

It’s fortunate that I have had these problems myself as a student, especially during engineering days, so that I can connect with the difficulties which students face. It’s not as if only “non-science-persons” face these difficulties, and “science-persons” don’t face them at all. I, whom many would classify as a “science-person”, have had experiences of having gone through entire courses without being able to make out head or tail of what was taught, and having to mug up to pass the exams. The moment you are unable to form coherent mental pictures of a concept, it is going to become more and more meaningless.