X-Ray Vision


A post on a slightly different topic, something which I have been thinking about again, as I’m back in academia…

When I was in 10th, my physics teacher asked in a test, “What would happen if our sun gave off only X-rays instead of visible light? What would we see?”  I wrote, “Humans would probably have evolved to see in x-rays. We would see everything around us in shorter wavelengths, and people as skeletons with shadowy muscles.”  He marked my answer wrong.  What he wanted us to reply was that we won’t be able to see anything since our eyes only see visible light.

Over time I have come to see this small exchange as emblematic of some of the problems of how school subjects are taught.  My response to the x-ray question combined my knowledge of evolution and physics, but was treated as an unacceptable answer in a physics class.

When teachers define learning in narrow ways and require students to see the world through the lens of only one school subject, they fail to help students interpret, understand and explore the world around them.  They fail to inspire.

Another example, which is more embarrassing: When I was around 17-18, one day I looked up in the sky and was shocked to see the moon in daylight.  Throughout my school years I had been taught that the moon comes out at night.  I never questioned the textbooks:  I simply believed what was written in clear black print in the textbooks.

So imagine my shock one day suddenly seeing this anomaly hanging brightly in the sky, defying everything I thought I knew.  Luckily I was studying physics as my undergraduate major and later that day I did various calculations, looked up sunrise and moonrise times in the newspaper (this was pre-internet) and calculated the outcomes of some gedanken (thought) experiments and figured out that, indeed, moon can and is often above the horizon simultaneously with the sun.  Recently, my mother-in-law asked me the same question. She had gone through decades of life with the same belief.  I had to explain the phenomenon to her and convince her that this is completely natural.

This is not a problem just with science teaching. I still distinctly remember another incident:  I was sitting in my high school history class. We were going through a passage on the American civil war.  After having us all read a short paragraph in the textbook the teacher asked us, “What would you have done if you were General Lee?”  I had shifted to a new school and this was one of the first few history classes there. I was so completely surprised by this question, that even now, so many decades later, that scene is crystal clear in my mind.  In my school, history classes were the process of memorizing important dates and lifetimes of emperors and empires.  Memorizing entire passages about the Russian and French revolutions from cyclostyled sheets and regurgitating them whole in exams.  Even though I was good at regurgitating, I never really saw the point of it.  But as I sat through this class on American civil war, I had a life-changing epiphany about the purpose of learning history.  This experience changed my relationship with history:  As I grew into adulthood, I acquired a taste for reading history, so much so, that some of the most enjoyable books I have read have been about history of people, of places and of ideas.

Such encounters with the school education system made me realize the importance of having good teachers who encourage students to think beyond the “text” of the curriculum, to engage with subjects and ideas and not just focus on completing the curriculum in the time available.  It led me to get deeply involved in school education issues in India from a fairly young age. And it led to a lifelong interest in teaching and exploring classroom pedagogy.

Like most people, I’ve had some exceptional teachers and many mediocre ones.  But the strength of the exceptional ones was not necessarily the depth of knowledge of their subject areas, but to inspire students to really think about what we were reading, to reflect upon subjects and topics deeply and to internalize their meanings in our own ways.

My physics mentor used to say that you should be able to explain any physics concept, no matter how complex, to your grandmother.  I took that to heart.  I worked hard at developing an intuitive understanding of physics, something I could articulate in words.  As I was completing my Ph.D. and giving “job talks”, the most common comments I received were about how well I had explained my area of research to people not from my field.  To me, these compliments mattered as much as, perhaps even more than, comments about the importance or quality of my research.

Years later, when I started teaching, my approach was to avoid jargon and focus on the underlying concepts and ideas.  To excite students about the topics I was teaching, whether it was physics, or later in life, business management or, more recently, agricultural livelihoods.  Some students, who view learning a subject as familiarization with disciplinary jargon, find this approach disconcerting.  But I persist because I still agree with my mentor, that if you cannot explain your ideas to your grandmother, perhaps you yourself haven’t really understood them well.

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