Sunday, January 6, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- I

I was told sometime back that some toppers of the matriculation Board may not know the difference between rotation and revolution. I don't know whether to believe this or not but it is a good metaphor for how learning takes place in many schools. The matriculation Board is no longer there but the teaching and learning methods are not going to change overnight. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins relates a similar tale:
It is with horrified fascination that I return,  as if scratching an itch or pressing a toothache, to the poll, documented in the Appendix, suggesting that 19% of British people don’t know what a year is, and think the Earth orbits the sun once per month. Even of those who understand what a year is, a larger percentage has no understanding of what causes seasons, presuming, with rampant Northern Hemisphere chauvinism, that we are closest to the sun in June and furthest away in December.
I wouldn't have been surprised if these figures (or even higher), were for India because of widespread illiteracy but in Britain? (According to this TED talk, the illiteracy may be much higher in India because of the way in which literacy is measured.)

Apparently, in the Matriculation Board, you had to write exactly as given in text book. If you write in your words, there is a good possibility that you may be marked wrong. Children are not encouraged to refer to other books and write things that are not in the the text books. And what about those text books? One cannot expect them to be as gripping as Robert Krulwich would like them to be but at least one expects them to be free of blunders like the following:
  1. Revolution of the earth causes seasons
  2. Fungi are plants.
  3. Some two land masses separated over thousands of years. (You could say that millions is made up of many thousands but it gives an erroneous idea of the  scales of time involved in these processes.)
  4. Aryabhatta knew about Pythagoras theorem before Pythagoras did.(The problem is that Pythagoras lived about a millennium  before Aryabhatta. But that is nothing compared to a textbook like this.)
  5. The atomic number of an element is 6 therefore its mass number is 14.
Another problem in many schools is that the students are required to learn only the answers to the questions given at the end of the chapter. They can get good marks in the subject even if they don't read the chapter because the questions will come from the back of the the chapter. It is quite possible that the difference between rotation  and revolution would have been discussed in the chapter but would not have been a question at the end of the the chapter so the students would never have learnt it.

I think all noise over academic pressure is a bit exaggerated or perhaps the correction has moved too far in the other direction. I  was surprised to learn  that Sujit had only one chapter each in physics and chemistry in Std. VIII in the final exam. In Maths, only the portion taught in the third term was included for the final exam. Since algebra  was taught in previous terms, it was not included. Algebra is a useful topic to know so this is not doing the students any favours. All this seems to be part of a dumbing down process that seems to be mistaken for simplification. A similar dumbing down process also seems to be taking place in the US.

PS: People  often ask children what they want to become when they grow up. Some know  that these keep changing but some people take them seriously and start advising them about what they have to do. In this commencement speech, Robert Krulwich describes how people typically stumble on to their final career. (This is the second awesome Krulwich speech in this post.)


  1. Did the five blunders you mentioned actually occur in some text books? Do you have a reference where I can read more about that?

    1. Oddthinking,

      I saw these errors some years ago and I don't have the textbooks now. I never thought I will blog about it. Watch this post. I will update it whenever I see an error that I can type easily.

    2. Ah, I understand better now. These are errors you have personally seen. Thank you for clarifying.

      p.s. I'm a long-time reader. I enjoy your posts. Thank you. If you ever wanted to post about your experiences with any accessibility devices you may have tried to allow you to operate a computer without hand-mobility, I would be interested to hear about them from your perspective.

    3. I had posted about this once:

  2. Loved Mr.Krulwich's speech, thanks for sharing the link.Great posts Suresh