The Third Way: Scenes from Three Classrooms

•September 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A few weeks back, I discussed the need for a makeover in our education system. It would be baseless and a repetition of what most armchair educators do (impractical talking) if I do not support my statements with some realistic solutions. However, before we consider solutions to the existing problems, we need to look at what really are the various methods that teachers follow in order to make our students learn.

Here are some scenes from three different classrooms.

Example 1: The teacher wants students to learn some basics of shadows.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher walks in with the textbook and starts giving long explanations regarding shadows. There is no interaction with the students and no activity done by the students. She draws a few diagrams on the blackboard and gives further explanations. Students are not encouraged to ask questions and are only expected to listen carefully to whatever the teacher says. Later, questions at the back of the lesson are read out and answers given by the teacher on the blackboard. The students neatly copy down the answers and learn them word for word.

Scene 2: The modern school which believes in activity-based, learner-centered education: The teacher explains how shadows are formed, the meaning of the umbra and the penumbra, how the shadow becomes more and more indistinct as the object moves farther from the screen, how it becomes larger and smaller as we move the object, and so on. She has many teaching aids on her table, which she uses to demonstrate her points. Students try their hand at forming shadows and playing with the teaching aids. The class is lively and students look forward to the class. As soon as the teacher enters the classroom, the students look eagerly at what she is carrying.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher poses a series of problems for the students to solve. For example, she switches on the light and asks students to create monster shadows of their own. She hands over a common object (e.g., a pen) to the students and asks them to study the shadows formed by it. Students form small groups and solve the problems; at the end, they present their findings to the teacher, who writes the main findings on the board and summarizes them properly, using scientifically correct terms to describe what the students have discovered. The class is noisy, with students eager to tell the teacher what they have discovered, but the noise is due to exuberance, not due to mischievousness.

Example 2: The teacher wants students to learn the theorem that states, “The two sides of a triangle together measure more than the third side”.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher comes to the class, writes the statement of the theorem on the board and gives the proof of the theorem. Students learn the proof by rote and reproduce it when asked.

Scene 2: The modern school: The teacher states and proves the theorem. She then asks students to draw various triangles on paper and measure the lengths of the sides. Students verify that the theorem is valid. For the activity part, the teacher asks the students to cut a triangle out from the paper (each student makes a different triangle), measure its sides and verify the theorem.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher has a box of strips which can be joined together to form triangles. The strips are of different lengths. Each group of students is asked to pick out some strips and proceed to make triangles out of them. Soon, there is a cry from one group, “Ma’am, the triangle is not happening!” More students come to the same conclusion but others show that triangles can be formed in some cases. The teacher encourages them to see why this happens: sooner or later, the students respond that some strips are simply not long enough to make triangles. The teacher then restates their finding in mathematically precise language and proves the theorem.

Example 3: The teacher wants to teach children the rules for formation of plurals.

Scene 1: The conventional school: The teacher tells the students the rules and asks them to learn them by rote.

Scene 2: The modern school: Essentially the same as above, but with more examples and an interesting quiz, done more leisurely and in such a way that the students enjoy the class.

Scene 3: The school that believes in The Third Way: The teacher lists a number of words along with their plurals. Students look for patterns and realize that plurals add ‘s’ to the singular. The teacher then gives examples that are more complex: students come up with another rule: add ‘es’. Yet other examples are given and on each occasion, students come up with rules. The teacher lists the rules on the board; she then poses the next problem: how do we decide which rule to apply? Students come up with various rules, and finally arrive at a systematic procedure for forming plurals. If possible, they use Logo (a programming language for children) to write a procedure for forming plurals of words.

On a first reading, it would appear that Scene 2 and Scene 3 are not very different. In both cases, the students are active and enjoying the class. The difference is that in Scene 2, they are verifying what they have been taught, while in scene 3, they are discovering new facts, which are then summarized by the teacher. In one case, the teacher teaches and the students test; in the other, the students discover and the teacher summarizes. In the first case, we produce clerks who are capable of doing what we want them to; in the second, we produce innovators who will tell others what to do.

What type of citizens do we want for our country?

Sandhya Sitaram

25th Sept 09


•September 15, 2009 • 2 Comments

Perhaps the most commonly discussed topic during a meeting of educated parents is EDUCATION. Do we not hear statements like these – “Oh, we need better schools for our children; our education system needs to change!” almost everyday? Is discussing education a recent phenomenon? No way, I remember that as a teenager I quite often overheard my grandfather, my parents, and their friends discussing problems in education. Therefore, it seems probable that people have been concerned about this very issue for generations! We have been demanding CHANGE in education. And indeed, changes have been taking place constantly. The way children are being made to learn today in schools is very different from the way we learnt during our childhood.

However, recent successes of young Indians all over the world have led to complacency among educators from conventional schools all over the country and they have a different opinion – “Why do we need to change the way we learn and teach? We have been teaching our children for so many years. These armchair educators have nothing better to do than to play with our children’s futures. Many of our students clear the IIT entrance exam every year, so we know what we are doing. Our students have done very well in their career as well. One of them is a top ranking army officer, another is a CEO, and some of them are software engineers, bank managers …”. Very true, but times are changing! It is a fast-changing world!

The number of technological changes that have taken place in the last 1 year are perhaps more than the number of similar changes in the last 5 years. The number of changes in technology that have occurred in the last 5 years are perhaps more than those in the last 25 years. Further, we can extend this argument of comparison to the period between the last 25 years and the last 125 years! According to Alvin Toffler in his book, Future Shock, this rapid exponential change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked.

Today, we are in a situation where we cannot even predict the problems that our children are going to face, let alone the solutions. We are faced with new problems, new challenges everyday. Ten years back, a teacher could not have dreamt about the problem of a mobile phone ringing in her class! Alternatively, the problem of an MMS being circulated! She has had to learn the hard way on her own to tackle such problems. A software engineer on the very first day of his first job is given the task of implementing a software in a language that he has never programmed in and therefore he has to deal with the associated challenges there. An MBA in marketing is asked to find strategies to market a product he has never seen.  How do these people deal with these unexpected situations?

The only answer is a big change in the way we enable learning by our children. There is constant need for unlearning and relearning. We need to create lifelong self-learners. In addition, there is worldwide competition today. We need to create students who not only know how to gather information but also how to handle it. We need to develop soft skills in addition to hard skills. We need to distinguish between algorithmic learning and heuristic learning.

Does this imply that we dump the Indian teaching methodology and simply adopt the American system? Recently, Barack Obama was discussing bringing about changes in the American education system that would enable it to compete with the Indian and the Chinese systems. So what does this mean? Today, a typical American student knows what to do and why to do it in a given situation, but does not know how to do it! A typical Indian student on the other hand knows how to do something (provided he has been taught how to do it!), but not what to do and why to do it. The Indian and the American education systems are like the two extremes of a swinging pendulum. Our goal must be to strike a happy medium between the two where a student ends up learning not only what to do, why to do it and how to do it, but also does it on his own.

In the next series of articles, I would like to address specific problems and approaches, case studies and experiences while trying to change the way we deal with teaching and learning.

Sandhya Sitaram

A great day indeed!

•September 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The other day, during the weekly Language Club meeting with the students of 7th grade, I asked the children to narrate the events of their day. Each one went on to describe all the events at home, at school and at play. After that, they were asked to summarize in one sentence about how they felt about their day. One of them quickly answered, “Ma’am, I had a great day today.” I was a little surprised because from what the boy had narrated to us, I could not find anything that was ‘great’ about the day! There was no mention of any rewards, praises, a fun movie, winning a game……. at all during his narration. I got curious and asked him why he felt that his day was great. To that he replied, “Ma’am, because I did not get a single punishment today”.

Well, on the surface it seems amusing, but the reality is far from it! This is  the state of affairs among our children. It seems as though the main goal during a weekday for a normal school going kid is to avoid as many punishments as possible, let alone enjoying the process of learning! We as teachers and parents have a long way to go still!

Life after 70!

•July 7, 2008 • 6 Comments

Mom is 73 years old and visited me a few days ago. As usual we had a great time discussing each other’s lives and the lessons we learn in life. I can never stop wondering about how she manages to be so calm, full of enthusiasm about everything in life and always ready to help. Every time I think of how life is going to be after I turn 60, it is Mom that I think of. For all those who wonder about similar stuff, take a look at these pictures I am sure you’ll be inspired like i am!!

Mom teaching the Bhagwat Gita to Dad

Mom teaching the Bhagwat Gita to Dad

Mom attending sessions on philosophy
Mom attending sessions on philosophy
She just doen\'t listen! Still does such things to reach out for her kitchen stuff!
She just doesn’t listen! Still wants to do such things to reach out for her kitchen stuff!!
Mom preparing for para gliding
Mom preparing for para gliding

She has the guts!
She has the guts!

Mom simply enjoys solving puzzles on the computer. She is firecely competetive too!!!
Mom simply enjoys solving puzzles on the computer. She is firecely competetive too!!!

Mom beats me hollow in yogasans!!
Mom beats me hollow in Yogasana!!
Mom and I
Mom and I
Mom, my niece and me
Mom, my niece and me
Mom and Sunayana, my daughter
Mom and Sunayana, my daughter

Workshop on Communication Skills?!! Help please!

•June 20, 2008 • 4 Comments

Many parents of the children in my computer club are after me to start a workshop on communication skills for their little ones. I’m not too sure if we should make them conscious of how they speak and what they speak. These children are between 7 and 9 years of age. Is it possible that they might develop inhibitions while expressing themselves if they know that are attending a workshop for this? How do I disguise it? How do I make sure that they never come to know that they are learning to speak better? As many suggestions as possible would be most welcome!

Great Holiday!

•June 17, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Wow! For the first time in 4 months, I forgot all about my work for an entire day! Ever since i decided to manage Zeal (my institute) in Ahmedabad on my own, there hasn’t been a single hour when I have not thought about work. Both of us (Sitaram and I) needed a break badly and finally we made it to this beautiful island resort – Jaisamand.

See this:

Just returned last night after a 2-day holiday and now need to get back to work! Refreshed and Rejuvenated 😀 !


•June 11, 2008 • 2 Comments

Had an amazing time in British Library yesterday (Fun with Maths) and today (Fun with Science) – had fun with children! As usual, I found that when I put them at ease and respect them for whatever answers or reasoning they give (right or wrong), they shed their inhibitions and fears of giving a wrong answer and then they are at their best. When they are treated well and when learning is made attractive and fun, the learning is maximized. Yesterday, as expected they behaved like true mathematicians by solving the milkman’s puzzle ( to get 1 liter from 3 liters and 5 liters can) through trial and error to begin with, then they tried various other combinations ( 3 and 7, 5 and 9 and so on). They found that they had to find multiples of the pair which had a difference of 1. They even figured out that there is no solution if the pairs are not co-primes. Most of them were in the 5th and 6th standard. All these on their own!

I found that they had no hesitation in coming up to the stage and trying out the solution for the Tower of Hanoi. It was a mess to begin with but they had already understood that it was perfectly alright to be wrong when they encountered a new problem! And so there was no embarrassment at all. And indeed very soon two 3rd standard kids solved it! The older children noted the moves that their younger counterparts were making, reduced the number of moves and then recognized the recursive pattern very soon. Amazing kids!

I am very sure that if I probe and find these children’s academic assessment reports in their schools, they would not be toppers in their class!

Another thing caught my attention – some of them were thinkers, some were good communicators, some were good at making the paper gliders and helicopters, some were good at making the glider and helicopter glide and turn well respectively. Some enjoyed singing the number pattern song.






Some others helped those who could not manage to make the paper glider and the helicopter! Of course there was quite a bit of overlapping too! So Multiple Intelligences were in full play!!!

But when ARE our schools going to implement systems that respect, recognize and reward all types of intelligences and not just logical, numerical and linguistic intelligences??? How long are we to wait???

Also, when are we going to stop our children from saying, “We love experiments, we like to play with numbers, we like to listen to stories, we like to discuss various topics in class but we hate anything that has to do with STUDIES!!!”?

In their opinion they go to school to do BORING STUDIES! Studies is punishment! That is a different painful part in their lives altogether!