The curious child

Fred Hoyle, arguably the most original astrophysicist of the last century, narrates a story from his childhood: When in primary school, his class teacher asked the class to go and collect flowers of various kinds, mentioning certain characteristics to be observed in them. As it happened the flower that Fred brought had six petals in it whereas the teacher had described it as having five petals. Had his specimen contained four petals Fred could have explained it as the result of one petal dropping off. But six petals? How do you account for the extra petal? He brought the discrepancy to the attention of his teacher. She was, however, mad at being questioned by a pupil and boxed his ears. Young Fred was shocked at this illogical response. He had asked a fair question: did it not deserve a fair answer? He promptly left the school and back home complained to his mother at the unfairness of the teacher. Unless she admitted her error, he would not go back to that school, he added. His mother saw his point and backed him up in the controversy that inevitably followed.
Fred’s experience in a small-town Yorkshire school of nearly a century ago can raise echoes of the present-day schools in India. Although corporal punishment is officially frowned upon, how many schools indulge in satisfying children’s questions born out of curiosity? Even if the teacher would like to try, the classroom numbers (60 upwards in government-supported schools) are too daunting to permit such an interaction. That there are a lot of questions going around in children’s minds comes out on the rare occasions whenever they are invited to come forward and question a speaker.
There are occasions when I am invited to deliver public lectures on scientific or science-related topics. Inevitably there are children, school students, in the audience. Many of them rush to the stage after the talk in order to get my autograph. To them I have the following reply: I will not give you my autograph here; however, if you write to me a postcard with a question on it, I will try to reply and my signature will be underneath it. This method works in the sense that only those students who are really serious about the business take the trouble to write. Others who had rushed to the stage only under a transient urge do not bother.
It is interesting how a range of interesting questions emerge out of those sent by the serious kids. At the suggestion of a non-governmental organisation I published a collection of them with my answers as a booklet titled Science through Postcards, both in Marathi and English. The same experience I have whenever I schedule question-answer sessions with schoolchildren. They ask interesting and sometimes unexpected questions. Consider the following as an example of the unexpected: If you dig a frictionless tunnel through the centre of the Earth, running all the way to the other side, and drop a ball into it, will it emerge at the other end? If it does, how long will it have taken to do the journey? The answer requires knowledge of undergraduate level of dynamics. If you skip the details, the answer turns out to be around 42 minutes if the Earth is homogeneous, that is, of uniform density. Even more surprising is the result that the time taken is the same even if the (straight) tunnel does not pass through the centre of the Earth. Indeed, one learns new things when answering questions raised by students.
My gesture to encourage spontaneous questions from students has received occasional setbacks from causes very typical of our nation. On one occasion I received no less than 50 postcards, each containing the same question worded in identical language! And all carried the same address, that of a school in a village. Evidently they arose from one teacher dictating the question to the class with the injunction that they all send it to this scientist from Pune. Evidently my intention to encourage spontaneous questions amongst the students was not appreciated. On another occasion I received questions of a routine nature arising from the school textbook. Surely the teacher could have solved these problems? Not so! For, one of the questioners wrote that the teacher asked him to send the questions to Mr Narlikar since he had the time to answer them, which he had not!
I feel that if we are to produce bright scientists in the future we have to encourage the questioning habit amongst school students. Not only that, we also should encourage them to discover the answers themselves. Today, with the availability of Internet, the answers to many of the questions asked by children can be found on the Web. There is a special joy in store for you if you manage to find the answer to a question bothering you, all by yourself. Just as finding a suitable train from a railway time table or a specific book on a particular subject from the library shelves requires some initial training, similarly the do’s and don’ts of the search on the Internet can be taught to the school student.
I sometimes wonder if in the weekly timetable of a school, just one period cannot be set aside for questions only. Let the students bring questions and they and the teacher together find answers. These questions are not those from the school text but those which arise from the curiosity of the children.
Unfortunately, our school teachings are heavily inclined towards rote learning, with excess of “information” and minimal emphasis on comprehension. So the child mugs up the information in order to reproduce it in the examination and then forgets it as soon as possible. Reducing the rote part and showing that the search for understanding can lead to an exciting adventure, will certainly turn our schoolchildren towards rather than away from science.

Jayant V. Narlikar is professor emiritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus, and a renowned astrophysicist

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