Monday, 20 September 2010

Life of Pi

One of the more interesting discussions I have had lately is to do with what makes a good teacher good. Carl Sagan, in his book Demon Haunted World, brought an example to make a point with which I agree: a teacher, handed with the duty of teaching his class the American declaration of independence, taught it to his kids by asking them to come up with a declaration of their own and by discussing with them what, in their opinion, such a declaration should contain.
I have had a similar experience myself, albeit a significantly lower key one. Back in fifth or sixth grade, our math teacher - Aliza, for those who might know her - gave us a more unique homework task than usual. Instead of answering questions from a book, we were asked to draw a circle and measure the ratio between its diameter and circumference using a piece of string. I remember I got annoyed with this exercise because I couldn't find a piece of string, but minor aggravations aside the noticeable fact is that I still remember this exercise some thirty years later. Obviously, actively measuring pi and feeling it for myself is a much more effective way of learning the concept than being told about it in a plain boring way, the way math is usually taught at school. The way that gives math the boring and uncool reputation it has with kids.
Interestingly enough, the other Aliza other educational experience I still remember has been an open question she asked but was unable to answer. During a biology lesson where we learned about the human body, Aliza asked if anyone knows why human males have nipples given that they're of no use. No one in the class knew the answer, and Aliza added that "they" are not aware of an answer either. Years later, armed with the Internet, I recalled that question and did my own investigations to find the answer: turns out males have nipples simply because nipples are an asexual organ. In females they develop into breasts due to the hormones in the female body, not because of some inherent structural element of the female body. The point is that by asking a question, and especially by not being able to answer it, my curiosity was triggered and I was pushed into doing some thinking on my own.
The sad thing is that those moments of educational brilliance have been so terribly rare in my career. I can only hope today's teachers have better facilities on their hands with which to stimulate their children into thinking, yet given the eternal budget cuts in education and the government's approach to education as a tool to indoctrinate kids with to mainstream agendas I cannot avoid severe pessimism here.

Photo by Prolineserver.

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