Monday, April 30, 2012

Learning and Teaching

How does a student learn his lessons? When is his learning complete?  When can it be said that he has acquired full knowledge? Who is a good teacher?  These questions beg for an answer at times.  Old world wisdom and modern scientific studies throw up a lot of common issues and also conflicting view points.

This sloka from Mahabharata's Udyoga Parva summarizes learning and its components:

आचार्यात् पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया | कालेनपादमादत्ते पादं सब्र्म्हचारिभिः ||

Aachaaryat padamaadatte, paadam shishyah swamedhaya. Kaalena paadamaadatte paadam sabramhachaaribhihi.

"Learning is divided into four parts. A student derives a quarter of the total knowledge from his "Guru" or teacher. He acquires another quarter of knowledge by his own intelligence and self study. When he studies with his other classmates and friends, he learns and gets another quarter of the desired knowledge. The fourth  part of the knowledge is taught to him by time in due course!"

The above saying is very consistent with our own experiences in life. A teacher can at best be a guide to a student and he can never take the total responsibility of imparting the full knowledge to the student. Without the co-operation and whole hearted participation of the student, all his efforts are a waste. Similarly, all efforts at own study without a "Guru" or a teacher could also be incomplete. There may be very exceptional self-taught scholars and some may claim to have learnt everything without the support of any teacher. Even they should be indebted to some source or sources from which they derived the knowledge they posses. Full benefit of the learning process is available only when the efforts of the teacher and student complement each other. There is a need for a combined physical, mental and emotional involvement in the process of teaching and learning. The need is for mutual respect and affection rather than fear and tool of punishment. The tool of punishment, when used injudiciously, may even become counter-productive and develop a sense of revolt in the student. It also does not mean that there is no need for discipline.  All efforts at teaching and learning are futile unless there is a certain degree of discipline in both teaching and learning efforts. True success is achieved when a fine and practical blend of these ingredients of affection, trust, effort and discipline is reached in adequate proportions.

The teacher can at best show the direction in which the student should or could go. The actual path of journey should be traveled by the student himself and it cannot be shifted to someone else. Further efforts to learn, after the initial teaching or introduction to the subject is made by the teacher, are to be by student's own efforts at assimilating the part or whole of the subject by contemplating and concentrating on the issues identified for learning. Importance of self-study can never be over emphasized and forms the corner stone of learning efforts. As the student rehearses the subject or topic in his own mind, more and more vistas open and the deeper and hidden meanings unfold to his advantage.  He would thus now be the owner of one half of the full knowledge.

The value and advantage of combined study with the fellow students and friends has been highlighted in the third part of learning. While self-study is all important in its own place, exchange of perceptions and appreciation of various aspects of learning jointly with other students does have its own contribution to the process of learning. This type of atmosphere gives a sense of belonging to the student and he/she will also reap the benefits of the insight gained by the other students while learning from the teacher as well as during their own self-study.  Some parents quarantine young children in the guise of studies and preventing them from bad influence of other students. This mistaken notion of preventing them from unwanted interference also denies them the pleasure and benefits of exchanging thought and finer points of learning. While it is necessary to keep an eye on the activities of young learners and save them from bad impacts, providing for a healthy and complementary interaction with classmates and friends is equally important. This is a per-requisite of completing the learning process.

The final quadrant of learning is indeed a long drawn process and would never end! Mere bookish knowledge is no real knowledge and may even land the student into trouble unless it is coupled with worldly wisdom. Life teaches many lessons and often the hard way. Anyone who has acquired the other three quadrants of learning to a reasonably acceptable level and willing to learn the lessons from life to complete the learning process will succeed in life. He will also earn the capacity and eligibility to teach others and can display the potential to be a good teacher. There is no end to the lessons of life and the learning in the fourth quadrant will continue till the person's last journey. In that sense the process of learning will never be complete and the best anyone can achieve is near perfection and never perfection.

Maharshi Veda Vyasa has condensed all this wisdom in this small sloka. Not for nothing they say, "Vyasoochistam Jagat Sarvam". There is nothing that is not discussed or mentioned in Mahabharata and anything we see or learn is the leftover of Veda Vyasa!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Three Friends and Five Rotis

Those were the wonderful days when human beings had time for other human beings.  No Televisions and no computers.  Everyone had a lot of time to talk to others and listen to them.  Small towns and villages did not have  hotels and lodging houses. Though they were available in big cities, in much smaller numbers than today, an average man could not afford it.  There was the concept of "Last Bus" and no night buses plied on short routes after sunset.  Anyone traveling had to get home early.  If the last bus is missed for some reason or the other, to get back to own town or village  was not possible.  It was then a walk to the friendly relative or friend's house for a night's stay.  A carpet for a bed and a bundle of clothes for a pillow was always available to the guest after sharing the night's meal with the family.  Housewives knew that there could be a knock on the door on any evening and a guest would be welcome with a smile.  With a smile always though no one taught them in a B-School to serve with a smile.  Inclination to serve as well as the smile were both inborn qualities.  Something was always kept in the reserve for the unexpected guest though refrigerator was unheard of.  Whatever may be the financial position, families always had something to offer to the guest and make him as comfortable as possible. The guests too did not expect much and were happy with whatever was offered to them.  Children did not have their own rooms or play stations and they could not lock themselves in their own world.  They had be moving around and the guest was free to interact with them without taking an appointment.  Elders were more knowledgeable than children and there was no danger of the kids asking them questions about things they did not know.  Life was far more simple and enjoyable without the pressures of modern life.

The time between supper and going to sleep was generally used by the guests to test the children about their studies and general knowledge.  Jawaharlal Nehru's favorite flower or Mahatma's liking goat milk was a more common subject to start with than Aaishwarya Rai Bachan's daughter's name or Sachin Tendulakr's 99th hundred.  The most common question to start with was  "Which is heavier? One Kilogram of Cotton or one Kilogram of Iron?".  In the initial days boys or girls would answer "Iron".  After being interviewed by one or two guests they knew both were equal.  In case of girls, it was presenting their talent either by singing a song or a little dance without any music accompaniments. The questions used to be tricky for that age and everyone had fun and when the child answered correctly parents felt proud.  Good answers were often rewarded by a small coin though the elders would forbid accepting them.  Children fondly hoped that the guests would insist on giving the coin despite their protests.  A coin in hand would be very handy when the cut fruit or groundnut vendor appeared in the vicinity of school the next day.

One of the favorite questions of the guests used to be "How many horns does a horse have?".  The answer would naturally be "None".  The guest would insist that the correct answer was "Two".  In our mother tongue, Kannada, Horse is "Kudure".  The guest would explain the logic. "When you write the word Kudure, Ka kombu ku, da kombu du, raketva re, there are two kombus you see!"  (ಕ ಕೊಂಬು ಕು, ದ ಕೊಂಬು ದು, ರಕೆತ್ವ ರೆ - ಕುದುರೆ - ನೋಡು, ಎರಡು ಕೊಂಬು ಇದೆ!)  Oh, this is quite tricky, the boy would feel.  When the next guest arrives, we were ready with both answers. Just like saying, "I have both answers. Take whichever you want".

An elder friend reminded me of how mathematical problems and questions of fractions were taught by these guests to children.  One such problem was of "Three Friends and Five Rotis".  Three friends, Ramu, Bheemu and Somu decided to go on a picnic to Nandi Hills.  There cannot be any picnic without something to eat.  Ramu and Bheemu lived with parents whereas Somu was living alone.  Ramu and Bheemu agreed to bring rotis and pickles to eat while resting on the hill.  Somu said he cannot bring anything but would pay some money as his share and the money could be divided between the other two.  They reached the top of the hill and opened the packets brought by Ramu and Bheemu.  They found that Ramu had brought three rotis while Bheemu had brought two rotis.  Being good friends they divided the three rotis equally and enjoyed eating them.  Somu later gave five rupees as his share which was to be divided between Ramu and Bheemu.  How many rupees should each get?

The first answer would be three rupees to Ramu and two rupees to Bheemu.  But that is not the right answer.  It requires some more thinking.  There were five rotis which were divided between three friends.  Each got 5/3 rotis or 1 and 2/3 rotis.  Somu gave five rupees.  Therefore, cost of 1 and 2/3 roti is five rupees or each roti cost three rupees.  Bheemu contributed only 1/3 roti to Somu whereas Ramu contributed 1 and 1/3 roti.  Ramu's contribution was four times that of Bheemu.  The proper way to divide the money between Ramu and Bheemu is to give 4 rupees to Ramu and 1 ruppee to Bheemu.

Was it not a fine way of teaching fractions to school going kids?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

She will go as She was

It was one of the saddest days in our lives.  Our dear mother showered her love on us for a long time and had just left for her heavenly abode that day.  We were waiting for the arrival of her elder sister from Bangalore before the final step of consigning her mortal remains to eternity. All her sons and daughters and grandchildren were engulfed by sorrow and not many words were spoken around.  Our father had lost his wife of nearly six decades.  They had seen difficult days, good days and very happy days along these years.  He was sitting on a chair lost in deep thoughts.  The years they spent together was probably unfolding in his memory like a film.  He was not actually crying but one could feel the sadness by just looking at him.

The body was readied by my sisters for the final journey. The last offering called "Baagina" was kept ready for the husband to offer to the departed wife.  A well meaning neighbor asked for a piece of turmeric.  She wanted the piece of turmeric for tying around the neck of the body and removing the golden "Maangalya".  It is common practice to remove all the gold items from the body before consigning it to flames.  She was only reminding this trend.  All such gold items are material wealth and valuable for the living.  But it has no value for the dead.  Why destroy it?  Wiser people remove these items much before the end comes so that there is no embarrassment or delicate issues to be sorted out when the final moment arrives.

"She will go as She was", my father all but shouted in a clear voice and continued, "Nothing will be removed.  Whatever she was wearing will go with her. When I see her for the one last time, she should be the same as she was".  The neighbor was taken aback but she was not the one to give up an issue without some more argument.  "I have only suggested what is generally done. That is the common practice.", she replied mildly.  "What you suggested is right and fine. But that will not be done with my wife today", he replied her in a soothing tone.  "She will go with her ear studs, nose stud, Maangalya, bangles and the silver rings on the fingers of her feet. These five were the ornaments she wore as Muttaide, the five beautification aids or whatever you may call them.  When she is herself gone what to do with those things?", were his words of finality.  "Those people in the crematorium will take the gold pieces from the ashes", she said.  "What somebody does after she is consigned to flames does not bother me" he replied as the final verdict.  The issue ended there.

A week later things had calmed down a bit.  My father was telling all of us about the highlights of their long journey in life. I seized the opportunity and raised the issue.  "People take out all valuable items and the gold items are generally given to the daughters or daughters-in-law.  Is it a wrong practice?", I asked him.  "It is not at all a wrong practice and I did not suggest anything like that.  It is one's personal choice.  Many people remove these gold items and give it to the unmarried daughters. Those who are economically weak should better take the ornaments out and use them as it makes more sense for them.  All our daughters are married and even some grand daughters.  We do not need it. People also say that an unmarried daughter should be got married within a year so that the departed soul gets the punya, benefit of that action.  What punya you can you give to a departed soul?  Each soul has to carry its burden on its own shoulders.  This getting the unmarried daughter within a year also has a reason.  It is probably more for some fast action and ensure that the daughter is married that year itself rather than passing on the punya to the departed soul.  As the mother is no longer around to press for it, such a system may ensure the required action.  All this kriya or karma that is done is only for our satisfaction and peace of mind.  No one knows whether the soul will know of this or cares about it.  We all join together and remember the departed person and his or her contribution to our lives. That appears to be the basic purpose of these karmas. Rest of it is pure Tarka (Logic) or belief", he said.

"Then why should we do all this kriya karma? Why waste resources on these things?", I asked.  "Where is the wastage? You invite all relatives and friends and have a feast remembering the departed member of the family and society.  it is an occasion just like birthday. Only difference is that we do not respect the laws of nature when it comes to death.  During kriya karma you bring many items and distribute them among the needy in memory of the departed soul. Those items are used by the receivers in their daily lives. Nothing is a waste. When you give a set of footwear to someone walking barefoot it is not a waste.  But when you give it to a person having four pairs already, then it is a waste. So also with a bed.  It is to be given to a person sleeping on a floor and not to someone who has four cots in his house.  As far as performing kriya karma is concerned, it is one's choice. It is like two brothers going out of the house and arguing about whether it will rain that day.  One believes it rains and carries an umbrella with him.  The other brother does not believe it rains and goes without an umbrella.  If it rains, the one with umbrella is protected and the one without it will get drenched in the rain. If it does not rain the one who took it out  has only the problem of carrying the piece with him. I suggest you do the kriya karma as per the tradition of your family, just like keeping  the umbrella for no one knows for sure what happens after death or whether there is another world or not. Just like whether it will rain or not", he concluded.

Opinions may differ on arguments, logic and philosophy part.  But he was right about one thing.  When he saw his wife for the one last time in front of the electric furnace, she was as she was all her life, for him.  Just as I saw my mother for that one last time, as she was since my birth.