During the height of the Covid pandemic, I had the occasion to address a large group of high school teachers who had been engaged in teaching the use of data and statistics to high school seniors. I began by asking them if their students, who were being taught in an online mode at that point in time, were curious or concerned about simple data-related information about the virus. I received very discouraging responses and hence I asked them if they had any idea how they would teach or motivate their students to estimate the probability of a Delhi citizen being infected with the virus. I was deeply disappointed when I received no worthwhile answers from this rather large group of senior teachers. It must also be borne in mind that each one of this very large group had been teaching statistics to their students.
The answer to my very simple, application-oriented and clear question (as stated above) is so trivial that any individual who understands the straightforward definition of probability can answer this in no time. Then why did the school teachers fail to answer my query? Most of the mathematics that is taught at the school and college level is done so through rote learning. There is hardly ever any discussion or demonstration of the practical value through simple real-world applications. It is the use and application of the topic being taught that excites the creative thinking of the student. I say this because I had, subsequent to my interaction with the school teachers, asked a group of students this very same question that had been posed to the teachers. Initially, they too seemed stumped.
However, they evolved a method to reach a conclusion through a series of discussions and practical illustrations. I was almost a fellow journeyman trying to find with the students a way to arrive at the destination. School teaching is largely a victim of a pedagogy that is highly counterproductive to real learning and creativity. This group of teachers was no exception to the way they were teaching their students.
The problem of the inability of our teachers to excite and motivate students stems from several sources. For one, the teachers are used to a pedagogy that has been passed on through generation after generation of teachers and they cannot—on their own—strike an original path. Another reason for such a counterproductive approach to learning is that our school examinations at every stage dictate an aversion to creative thinking. There is also this pressure that is exerted upon teachers to adhere to a pedagogy that shall help students clear entrance examinations to institutions like the IIT. Such entrance examinations are a sure-fire method of killing any creativity that the student may have.
Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US