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January 04, 2018 Thursday 01:13:15 PM IST


Cover Story

Physics works and I am still alive…” Those weren’t, however, someone’s famous last words. Eighty-one-year-old Walter Hendrik Gustav Lewin, a Dutch astrophysicist, was a former Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for over four decades before retiring in 2011. Lewin, a highly decorated physicist of international acclaim, is credited with the discovery of a rotating neutron star and some of his stellar commendations include the NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement (1978); the Alexander von Humboldt Award (1984 and 1991); the Guggenheim Fellowship (1984); the MIT Science Council Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1984); the W. Buechner Teaching Prize (1988); and the Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2003).

Lewin was also an online rock star of Physics, running a MOOCs for MIT and Harvard. In a 2009 lecture titled ‘Trust in Physics’, Lewin demonstrates his unquestioned ‘trust’ in the fundamental principles of conservation of mechanical energy and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. “I am such a strong believer of the conservation of mechanical energy that I am prepared to put my life on the line,” he said, while opening his lecture to a packed hall before going on to demonstrate an experiment on stage that could have gone wrong horribly but for physics.

On stage Lewin had rigged a heavy metal bob hung from the ceiling of the stage which when released would swing like a pendulum in a wide, deadly arc of ludicrous force. “If I release that bob from a certain height then that bob cannot come back to a point where the height is any larger. There is a conversion from gravitational energy to kinetic energy to potential energy and back to potential energy. It comes to a stop here,” indicating an area a shade under his chin from where he would release the bob.

Lewin explains how when the bob swings back, “it should not be able to reach any higher, provided I do not give this object any additional speed when I stand here. I trust the conservation of mechanical energy 100 percent. I may not trust myself.”

Then to the consternation of the class, Lewin positions the bob on his chin and releases it while taking care not to give it even the slightest momentum. “I hope I will be able to do it at zero speed, so that when it comes back it may touch my chin but it may not crush my chin.”

The whole class holds its breath. “If I don’t succeed in giving it zero speed then this will be my last lecture,” he says to general laughter a few seconds earlier.

As explained theoretically, the bob swings back to a position centimetres below his chin and swings back to the other end, without inflicting mortal damage. “Physics works and I am still alive…,” says Lewin with a flourish as he walks off stage.

This was literally theory and practice in action. It was seamless action — theory merging with practice in broad daylight under openly verifiable conditions. On the wall facing the stage was a black board and Lewin had briefly a few minutes earlier wielded the chalk to enunciate with nonchalance some essential principles.

The lessons that Lewin taught that day will, in all probability, stay with those present in the audience until their respective graves. Such was the power of ‘teaching’ where learning became a visual, tactile, visceral, experiential, and, most of all, a verifiable non-abstract act.


How much of what we teach and learn, mediated largely by Chalk & Talk, in our classrooms, do we internalise? How much of it becomes learning that is embedded in our daily lives? How much of it transcends the classroom and helps us explore in it all its vividity the abundance and complexity of life?

Given the debates in the field of education and mounting global concerns surrounding schooling and pedagogy, there is, so to say, a high degree of uncertainty about the very definition of the teaching profession and, indeed, the material of the knowledge that a teacher requires to teach.

Increasingly, in the light of the deepening student attrition, boredom, dissociation, unemployability, and disenchantment among the young the world over, the question regarding the essence of human knowledge, its ethical or moral legitimacy, and practical consequences have come into question.

Does it call for a re-schooling of teachers themselves?

The starting point for most Teacher Education programmes is the assumption that this ‘knowledge’ can be squarely fitted into two categories: First, theoretical knowledge of the subject the teacher teaches in school; and secondly, of ‘educational’ itself, that is, the applied knowledge of the expertise or techniques that an experienced practitioner (teacher) possesses.

The theoretical knowledge in the subject matter at hand comes from the science that studies that particular field while the theoretical knowledge in ‘education’ comes from an array of fields, such as psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, in combination with a more than sound understanding of statistics and research methods. This underscores the importance of correlations and integrated models of learning in teacher training, so essential for a modern-day student to navigate the times that s/he inhabits.

Shlomo Back is President of Kaye College of Education, Beer-Sheva Israel, and is a globally recognised figure in Teacher Education. “This situation demands a rethinking of the connection between theory and practice in education in general, and in teacher education in particular. It may be that the problem is not one of method but one of substance. Perhaps the divorce between theory and practice is caused by our view that teaching is an ‘applied’ rather than a ‘practical’ science,” where “the applied knowledge unique to teaching focuses on didactics (general and disciplinary), class management, pedagogy, evaluation, and so on,” says Dr. Shlomo Back.


In recent times a methodology advanced by Prof. Michael Fullan, University of Toronto, and Dr. Maria Langworthy, Worldwide Research Director of Educational Solutions at Microsoft, in an influential White Paper titled ‘Towards a New End:  New Pedagogies for Deep Learning’ addresses some of these mounting global concerns. The writers, who have had considerable experience globally in education, have put together “real-life anecdotes and vignettes from schools serving as early adopters of the new pedagogies model, thereby providing a refreshingly reimagined vision for education”, says Sir Michael Barber, who was then as Chief Education Adviser of Pearson sponsor of the report. Sir Barber is the first Chair of Office for Students, which is the regulator of higher education in England.

“The push factor is that students find schooling increasingly boring as they proceed across the grades. Studies from many countries show that among high school students less than 40 percent of upper secondary students are intellectually engaged. And, not unrelated, signs of teacher frustration are growing. For example, in the U.S the percentage of teachers who are satisfied with teaching has plummeted from 65 percent to 38 percent from 2008 to 2012. Teachers and students are psychologically if not literally being pushed out of school,” says the Report.

It applies just as well to the developing world, where for want of resources, will, or vision the situation gets a little more complex. Interestingly, the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) enacted by the Government of India in 2005 “clearly emphasises the need for adopting classroom strategies within the Social Constructivist theoretical framework. Instead of being passive recipients of ‘knowledge’ contained in textbooks and guidebooks, children are expected to actively construct knowledge in a collaborative environment”, says Suresh Kumar, a former Civil Servant and now founder of Ananthamurthy Foundation, an alternative school in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

So what should we do to make education more meaningful, relevant, collaborative, creative, and one with a strong sense of social connectedness and commitment?

Fullan and Langworthy elaborate what they call the 6 Cs in rethinking pedagogy: Character Education, Citizenship, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. These aren’t entirely new formulations, but the administration of education in most parts of the world is so caught up with examinations and management of academic milestones that these integral aims tend to fall by the wayside.

The deepening intersection of technology and pedagogy is another area that perhaps calls for careful calibration. The radically newer modes of learning fostered by the ‘marriage’ of pedagogy and technology may yet need to be reimagined because technology hasn’t brought into sight the ‘Holy Grail’ that it was miraculously expected to fetch. In fact, there cannot be a Holy Grail in education.

What is the way forward then?

For education to become more meaningful, no amount of emphasis on integrating what is taught in class to what is out there in the world outside will be enough. The Learning Futures programme, an initiative which focused on a few innovative schools in the UK, reported: “Students were most engaged when what they were learning was meaningful in their lives beyond the classroom. They could see its relevance and application or it was something that people in the real world do. Their learning was integrated inside and outside of the classroom and school. In contrast, when learning was apparently meaningless — apart from preparing for tests — it was not engaging...”

Learning is of the essence. But, more importantly, a learning that helps connect the small world in our classrooms to the large world outside is in order.

That is it.  

K G Sreenivas

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Pallikkutam. He can be reached at

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