October 1, 2023

How can we encourage students’ expressive energy?

Instead of transmitting information, we should encourage, shape, and nurture students’ own expressive energy

A student’s brain is not a blank slate on which we inscribe knowledge. It is not a flash drive onto which we download information. And it is not a processor that executes Python instructions to be obeyed. Learning occurs when the brain’s intricate neural networks adapt to the world, driven by an interaction between genes and the environment. Whether during early childhood or adolescence, traditional curricula and pedagogies do scant justice to the extraordinary dynamism and complexity of the developing brain.

As a professor and a parent, I am just as guilty as most adults in believing we can mould children in our image, on our schedule, our methods. If only they would listen instead of doing their own thing, making mistakes we told them to avoid, they would grow up to fulfil our dreams.

Whose dreams? For whom should the curriculum be designed? The time has come to shift the balance from elders’ dreams to students’ dreams. I am led to this conclusion not by a Utopian fantasy that children should be free, but by the science of learning. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I know that this is not how the child’s brain works.

Evolution of learning agenda

The brain evolved to have a learning agenda more relentless, adaptive, and meaningful than any curriculum imposed by adults. From birth, children observe, probe, manipulate. The bustling world captivates their senses and rivets their attention. They vocalise, gesticulate, emote and register how people react. They question incessantly, ideate extravagantly, and process feedback on their own terms. They prod, perturb, and play with everything to see how the world responds — first the toys at home and then the apps on their devices. As the child grows, the specifics of the learning equation change, but the biological basic holds sway: the brain is wired to explore its physical, social and information environments and it learns from the feedback it receives.

Physical and social feedback to behaviour that originates with the child is more effective than recitations of do’s and don’ts. Treating the child’s spontaneous utterances and behaviour with respect for its natural learning mechanisms works better than talking down to a child. The key is not to fight what motivates students but to harness it.

Motivation is the most precious and least understood aspect of schooling. Without the motivation to learn and excel, formal education is futile. It cannot be commanded. Forcing a student to study something — when every fibre in his or her body resists it — is counterproductive. Professional success, personal fulfilment, and societal advancement arise when the full power of what drives students is understood and unleashed.

Does this mean that students should be entirely free to design their curriculum, without any role for the educator? No. It means that the educator’s role should shift from didact to coach, from instructor to mentor, from commander to catalyst. Instead of transmitting information, we should encourage, shape, and nurture the students’ own expressive energy. Focus on creating a stimulating and responsive learning environment. Expose students to a rich spectrum of experiences and activities. Instead of trying to manufacture graduates according to a top-down blueprint, listen to students, note what inspires them and what they resonate to, then focus on enriching, sharpening, refining, and fine tuning their natural tendencies.

We must stop trying to force the brain to be what it is not. We must stop venting our frustration when the child’s brain doesn’t do what we want done. Instead, we must expose the young brain to as many paths as possible, understand where it wants to go of its own accord, and help it along its way.

Shift the balance

Another urgent reform is to shift the curricular balance away from rote subject knowledge and toward fundamental cognitive skills — most important among them being critical thinking and lucid communication. Instead of teaching subject knowledge and fundamental cognitive skills as separate courses, they should be integrated as far as possible. This can be done by having the students learn subject knowledge by engaging with it critically and then communicating their understanding. Critical thinking is a basket of sub-skills, including analysis, logic, synthesis, objectivity, evaluation of evidence, constructive critique, intellectual risk-taking, being aware of confirmation bias, pondering alternative hypotheses, doing justice to contrary views, questioning one’s own preconceptions, evaluating the credibility of sources, challenging orthodoxy, vigorous but civil debate, and seeing mistakes as learning opportunities. Focus more on cultivating fundamental cognitive skills that can be applied across subjects and less on accumulation of subject information — most of which is forgotten.

Let the student influence the destination of the ship of learning and let the educator coach the student on seamanship. A captain who has mastered the art and science of leading a crew and navigating the roughest oceans can travel to any destination. So it is with education. Having acquired critical thinking and communication skills, a student can succeed if these skills are pointed in the direction of his or her interests. Talent, in all its magnificent but chaotic diversity, should not be squeezed into boxes. Let talent speak, and let us find ways to develop that talent so that each child can become the best version of his or her innate self.

The writer is Founding Vice Chancellor, Sai University