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November 01, 2017 Wednesday 10:14:09 AM IST

Lest Education Should Kill Curiosity

Cover Story

An engineer, a scientist and a musician. Dr. Achuthsankar S. Nair is all these and much more. As Director, Quality Assurance, and Professor in the Dept. of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala, he carries with him a body of experience and knowledge in the domain of science and technology. In an informal chat with Pallikkutam, he comes out with his views on the emerging trends in technology. A musician in his right, he talks about that right side of his brain which brings in the best balance to his life.


What are the skills, technical and otherwise, needed for excellence in one’s field?

Aren’t technical skills pretty obvious? They are what keep you abreast in your field, make your relevant and help you solve current problems in the field. But the skills required for success are not technical alone. You need a collection of skills which are typically not taught in schools, or even articulated in life, but are very obvious at the same time.


You could call them life skills, some of which are specifically required in the industries. These are soft skills. Life skills touch almost every aspect of life and enable one to be successful in that aspect. It could be managing a friendship, managing your money, emotions, time, and even jealousy.


Fortunately, or unfortunately, no school teaches these. There’s no universal knowledge about them. Every person has to tune himself or herself to be successful in this area.


Why are people skills an integral part of professional success?


Only rarely do people get a job which they can confine themselves to, by talking to themselves, or doing something of their own, perhaps like a spiritual student or may be a scholar who is doing a critical study of an ancient document. Except for such people, today, all professions progress through team work. A number of people work together, share tasks, coordinate and manage each other. Therefore, people skills are very important.


We constantly need to manage the excitement, the frictions, the rewards of team work and this definitely determines professional success.


Why is it that youngsters need to motivate themselves?


Different people motivate youngsters in different ways. There are spiritual masters, politicians, psychologists, teachers, friends and parents. They all come to help when youngsters face adversities or failures. Youngsters must realize that ultimately, they need to help themselves to persevere in the face of adversity and failure. All the others are players outside the field. You can be inspired by others or seek their advice, but finally, you have to package it in your own way and use it in your life.


The Indian cricket team used to fail a lot. Currently, they seem to be faring very well. When the going was bad for them, I remember a couple of occasions, when they met South Africa in the semi-finals and finals of some world cup matches and India won. Earlier, when there were routine matches, India was constantly losing to South Africa and South Africans were called chokers. When the big games came, they failed and won the small ones. Why? I found that India had the advantage of experiencing failure much more than South Africa. South Africa had the advantage of experiencing success. So, in a match when there’s a turnaround, a twist and a chance of failure, South Africa chokes. They are not used to losing. Whereas, for India, it was usual to lose. So, they never choked on failures. They still played without much issue.


Youngsters need to know that even losing is an experience and a lesson.


There were times when Abraham Lincoln never won any minor elections, but he directly won the presidential election.


How do we liberate ourselves from the bondage of mediocrity?


There’s mediocrity in none. An average human being has hidden in him/her, the potential for excellence. If they exhibit mediocrity, it’s merely because of their improper education, the absence of an ecosystem in which excellence could come out.


To liberate anyone from the bondage of mediocrity the education system should transform. Mediocrity creeps in when the education system is led by people who have not realized their excellence and therefore exhibit mediocrity in managing the system itself.


But even when the education system is not doing its job properly, there are excellent people who go through the education system, come out undamaged and bring out more of their excellence. Therefore, excellence is not something that can be kept under bondage.


Do we need to revamp our system of learning to help students imbibe a practical culture of learning?


My answer is, very much. The teaching and learning process by and large remain unaffected by the body of Knowledge that has been generated by educational thinkers, philosophers and psychologists. Our school education system is far ahead in adapting changes, but the higher education system remains stagnant in this aspect.


A couple of days ago, I visited a 200-year-old technical institution in Chennai. As I walked along the veranda photographing the beautiful architecture of the building, I happened to see a class in progress. The professor was dictating notes and the students were quietly taking them down. It looked like a typical scenario in many education institutions.


We have degraded higher education to transfer information and knowledge, both of which are increasingly irrelevant in the times of the Internet and social media.


If we look at it from the angle of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, we are at the lower levels of taxonomy. Many of our education institutions have not articulated the objectives of various courses. And the question papers have practically become a statement of objectives.


Unfortunately, the question papers are also tied to the lower levels of educational taxonomy that of remembering and understanding. I frankly do not know how our education system can be revamped. There seems to be no solution in sight.


How do you instil in young children a love and curiosity for science?


We don’t need to do anything. Children naturally would love and have curiosity for science. We need to ensure that education does not demolish it. Teachers must be nonintrusive in letting children explore, ask questions. Their job is to ensure that the materials and the environment in which a child can do this are arranged.


If at all a teacher has a role in encouraging the love and curiosity of the child for science, it has to come through the teacher’s own love and curiosity for science.


In an institution where teachers see themselves as a workforce and see daily issues as getting their demands and democratic rights in place, then these maters would take second place.


 Are science teachers well equipped to take kids through practical lessons outdoors and give them projects to do?


Science teachers in schools are given in-service training continuously. A lot of school teachers are very creative and outgoing. But nothing like that happens in the field of higher education.


If you take geology, archaeology or social work, there’s a lot of field work involved. Take engineering, for example. Projects are part of their curriculum even though not all that the students do touch on reality. Some might be academic projects, still there is a culture. So, to a great extent, school teachers and science teachers are well equipped, but there’s more to be done in the higher education sector.


How do students qualify for university? Should they get an entry based on marks, grades or general performance?


Admission to a university is not for all, but for the best from the higher secondary. When I say this, I assume that all students in our country should have the right to study up to higher secondary, even if their performance and caliber are not up to the mark. But university education is not something that’s essential for everyone and certainly not a uniform one. If people can excel in life and contribute to society in ways other than through university education

they should turn to that. University entry should be based on both the assessment done at the higher secondary and performance in the entrance examination. As for marks or grades, I stand with grades.


Is technology the only answer to next generation success?


In a very coarse way you could say “yes”, everybody’s success now depends on technology. Think of a world not only without computers and mobile phones, but one without electricity or automobiles. Unimaginable! Technology is essential, but not for everything. Technology is one of the realities of modern life. But I don’t see how success can be related to technology.

The world has possibilities and opportunities for everyone to succeed, especially for those who bring out their innate ability to innovate. Technology itself is the result of innovation. So, innovation and nurturing the ability to innovate and be creative are the paths for success.


Has music helped you as a person and a professional as well?


That’s a personal question. My personality is complete only with the aspect of music. As a person trained in electrical engineering and who works in the field of applied science, only one part of the brain works in those areas, arguably the left side. So, music keeps the right side of my brain alive.


Music helps me to balance my brain activity. Singing gives you a sense of satisfaction, a sense of attainment that science does not give me. Of course, there’s a sense of achievement when you attain success in science. There’s a sense of intellectual achievement, but with music, it’s pleasure you derive. There’s a kind of contentment that you experience. And as different from science, music can be a personal activity. On the contrary, if you are engaged in scientific work, it ultimately has to be recognized by the scientific community for you to reap benefits or get your due recognition.


But a musician can sing and derive the joy of singing without anybody else evaluating and marking it. There are many people who enjoy singing in the bathroom, unmindful of the world. When you sing you are a very nice person or the niceness in you comes to the fore.