Saturday, November 26, 2005

CULTURES THAT TAUGHT ME

Basuvan was a short man, according to his own ‘Kattunayakar’ brethren. He was about four-and-a-half-feet in height, thin, wiry and would have never exceeded about 45 kilo grams on any day. His ancestors were experts in the art of tapping honey from those massive combs that dangled on the near sky-high trees of the beautiful undulating Malabar hills in the Western Ghats. Basuvan was according to his own people, closest to their ancestors when it came to cajoling honey out of the combs. Because most of these honey comb-bearing trees were in the midst of prime elephant and tiger forests, the people of this community were also experts in camouflage and stealth. And so was Basuvan too.When I met Basuvan for the first time, he was planting yam in his backyard (he lived in the forest). I was aimlessly wandering in Basuvan’s home ground searching for the ever-elusive Malabar grey hornbill. Basuvan was busy digging pits to plant the yam, when I casually asked him if he could join me in my search of the hornbills. He did not reply though he nodded in positive. In the five years that I spent with Basuvan, he had never spoken many a words.We began our search together. While I was straining my ears and eyes to locate the hornbill, Basuvan had a very simple technique. He was looking for the fig trees in the forest. For he knew - and his ancestors had definitely passed on the knowledge - that the hornbills will flock around any fig tree that has ripe fruits in it. And I did see hornbills in hundreds on the fig tree. I had a lot of pride in myself that I was ‘the expert’ in the forest armed with all the requisite background knowledge on the hornbills and their habitats. But without uttering a word, Basuvan showed me my place by using his indigenous knowledge of the habitat. Basuvan’s abilities for observation were enormous. By viewing a pugmark, he would comment about the age of the tiger, its gender, the mood of the animal, whether it was hungry or was just having a casual stroll. Every day we would be charged by elephants, and I cannot think of a day, when it was but Basuvan who plucked me out of danger.I did learn to survive and enjoy my prolonged stay in the forests. I learnt to move through endless herds of elephant by plastering myself with elephant dung. I learnt to mimic the calls of the leopard and the hornbills, the barbets, the jungle fowls and so on. I learnt to walk with minimal disturbance to other co-habitors of the forests. I learnt to sleep on the forest floor and yet be always ready to spring up and ascend the nearest tree to save myself from some of the charismatic animals of the forest. I actually realised that over a period of time, I actually had began to train the powers of my senses to better use in this beautiful journey with Basuvan. I realised that for the first time in life I actually was looking at plants beyond their mere ‘scientific names’. I was very happy and satisfied, for there was a new vigour within. I was more observant. I was seeing entities that ignored my attention, I was hearing sounds that were unheard before, I was smelling fragrance that missed my nostrils till then.I and Basuvan went on to work together for the next five years. I do feel that I owe my life and its learnings to Basuvan. Though, my work got internationally published, commended, and the Bharathiar University awarded a doctorate for my work, it actually belonged to the puny kattunayakan whom his people called Basuvan.The cultures that taught me in the city and far off in the forest communicated a common thread. These cultures demanded one’s total attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days. These cultures demanded the senses to delve deep beneath the periphery. These cultures demanded silent expression and were predominantly silent. These cultures demanded my time in fullness. These cultures were about subtlety. I am in the midst of another culture. And my leaning continues……

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Text or Context

TEXT or CONTEXT
As a student, I was very fortunate to learn and work with a highly versatile teacher at the Madras Christian College, Chennai. My teacher Dr. P. Dayanandan, for most of his professional life worked in the Michigan University, Ann Arbor. His prime interest was and still continues to be plant physiology. But his larger interest has been to find and provide a space where innumerable rural as well as urban students with less than enough economic means are able to empower themselves by opportunities of school and college education. There were a few more fortunate ones like who could actually see him work, work with him and so learn the different ways of learning science. Most students who walk into his lab, stay on to do research for five-six years. In the five-six years that they spend with him as research fellows, they seldom have been spoken to by their teacher about the science of movement of food materials from the leaves of rice to the grains – the reason for which they are with him. In a 12 hour working schedule the teacher ‘spoke’ about science for time period ranging from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Rest of the time was spent on ‘doing’.

The lab is equipped with one of the best microscopes in the country, which is worth about 40 lakh rupees. The research fellows’ job is rather simple. Students to take transverse sections of rice grains and grains of other grasses (rice grain is usually about 4-6 mm in length) at different stages of fruiting and stain the section with dyes that were specific for proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and other macromolecules. The macromolecule-specific dyes would help them analyse the movement of macromolecules into the grains. The pathways of the movement of food particles into the grain actually allowed us to examine the efficiency of the conducting systems in rice plants and thus ultimately make important correlation on nature’s choice of such conducting system.

The teacher never provides the students’ any protocols for research. The students just see him taking section. They would follow him, and slowly begin to taking good sections. Sitting in his rotating chair, While he would continue taking those thin, straight, sections, he would also talk to them about a variety of issues that were not directly related to the topic of research or for that matter sometimes even within the realms of science. He would talk about the issues of Dalits in India, he talked about issues of terrorism, he would take them on a virtual tour of a National Park he had visited bring forth every bit of his observations during the visit – though butterflies and birds were his favourites - he would talk about tree architecture, he would talk about the temples of Tanjore explaining the different kinds of ‘Vimanas”, he would talk about some ancient and beautiful churches within Chennai city, suddenly one weekend he would walk into the lab and announce that all students would be taking off for the weekend to South Tamil Nadu and do photography of the “Nayakar” paintings. But remember, he seldom talked about science. But every moment, every day of those five odd years was a great exposure and learning on science for the students. They learnt science by seeing their teacher do science. They learnt science by doing what their teacher did. He never asked the students to do anything. Freshers learnt a lot of science by interacting with the senior research fellows of the lab. Whenever the teacher spoke, he would pop up one or two question once in a while that set each of the students in their own exploratory paths. After each one of them found themselves a few steps forward on the question, they would all come together for dinner and voice out our own mini-learnings on the question. The teacher never said if the students’ were right or wrong. He would only once in a while indicate that there might be other effective answers for the question. That was good enough a signal relook the methods and strategies. But the key was that the students were never rushed for an answer. We had enough time to mull over the question and the methods we used to find the answers.

The learning space was characterized by a space where the students could formulate their own questions. This space was about exploring and finding answers for their questions. This space was about voicing their findings in their own way and provide scientific interpretation. Most of the times the students were far off the likelihood answers. But sometimes the students did come close to the answers. For the students such small moments of triumph was enough to push themselves forward, while the teacher moves on with a smile that only the most observant could actually see. More than the time and space for expression, this space was beyond any parameters of motivation. The students who come here, come with a willingness to learn. That is all. The spirit to learn defines this space.

The above method that I have described is probably one of the many cultures of learning and teaching that is highly endangered, for the modern portals of education are slowly but steadily wiping of such beautiful, harmonious and organic learning/teaching initiatives. Most of our problems are rooted to the systems of which we are a part. Unfortunately most of our systems lack such a exploratory and expressional space. We are bound by too many deadlines that are actually the lifelines of the system of which we are part. We are bound by a curricular framework, we are bound by a time limit set by a central authority, we are bound by the parent community who reach out learning only with exam-induced fears. More than all these bindings that seldom allows us to create a effective learning space, there is also a lack of motivation for the learning. ‘Student’ who ‘Learning for the purpose of learning’ are a highly endangered species. So is the learning spaces that provide rich and healthy experience.

Like the biology of environment management, the realm of education also has its own conservationist who are desperately trying to bring back this endangered species back to a healthy numbers. But for this scenario to change our evaluation methods will have to change. The methods of evaluation and assessment from ‘top’ at this point of time is actually governing our curriculum. The curriculum unfortunately is not tuned to actual needs of the life. The day the needs determines the curriculum, learning will be a more purposeful endeavour.