One million children will be cultivated as neoteric innovators — this is the vision of the Atal Innovative Mission. In fact, the Niti Aayog is in the process of establishing 500 Atal Tinkering Laboratories in schools across India towards realising this vision. The objective is to foster in young minds curiosity, creativity and imagination and to inculcate skills like “design mindset”, computational thinking, adaptive learning and so on. The workspaces generated by the new laboratories, along with appropriate tools and equipment, will provide hands-on, DIY (do-it-yourself) experiences. The focus, as expected, will be STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths), which is the buzzword of the day. It’s true it’s been quite a while since India has produced any significant innovator or serious scientific thinker — that is, from and within India. I hasten to add this clause as it is quite pathetic to see how we all rush to claim some of the credit when “people of Indian origin” are in the limelight for pathbreaking work they have done overseas.
I am more than sure we have the potential, the raw material, the brains and ideas in our country but we simply don’t provide adequate support to research work or create an environment that is conducive to original work. In schools students who do well in examinations are lauded, but creativity or problem-solving is not appreciated, let alone encouraged. In this context, it’s vital to understand the importance of “tinkering”, and not only with tools, gadgets, equipment and gizmos but with ideas and theories that are presented to young minds regularly and mechanically. It’s required of students that they should not only imbibe knowledge and understand the content but that they should ultimately construct new knowledge and content. It has been pointed out ad nauseum that children should not keep reproducing matter from their textbooks but, sadly, while the most welcome step of establishing “tinkering laboratories” is being taken, nothing is being done to change the nature of examinations and the mode of assessment. Bright children with enquiring minds are “processed” to become run-of-the-mill “good students” who can be relied upon to come up with the “right answers” to stock questions.
It is quite horrifying to learn how exam papers are marked — wrong responses are often marked correct because they have the “keyword” in a marking scheme and an unconventional response is given no marks at all because it doesn’t tally with the officially “right” answer. Thus our children become successfully programmed and conditioned to “succeed” in the conventional way. So where will the innovative thinking come from? Our problem is that we make all the right noises but we don’t have the “design mindsets” ourselves, and that is why our projects and schemes come to grief. It is more important for us to have well-stocked libraries, “smart” classrooms, the latest tablets and computers and state-of-the-art labs than to see that they are being productively and meaningfully used by teachers and students. Children are often not permitted to browse in the library and I have also seen them being deprived of the enjoyable exercise of choosing a book — they are required to read the book that has been issued to them by the teacher or the librarian. In laboratories students are expected to go through certain set experiments of which they know the outcomes in advance. It’s the same with computers — they learn to programme in set ways within a set time period. In other words, there is no scope for tinkering.
Tinkering, which is defined as an attempt to repair or improve something, is the most natural way of learning. I quite like the meaning given by the Urban Dictionary: “Tinkering is to mess around with something and you don’t really have a clue what you are doing” (sic). All inventors, scientists and discoverers have tinkered through their learning process. No wonder the term is referred to as the most important operative word for effective learning. So no matter how many Atal Tinkering Laboratories are established, until and unless the teaching-learning environment undergoes a radical change and we deliberately encourage and give credit to children who experiment, take risks and are passionate about tinkering, our objectives will not be fulfilled. Children will continue to be urged by their teachers and parents to stop wasting time tinkering in labs and to get down to studying their textbooks. A brave new India will not be a reality as long as our formal education/exam system continues to kill curiosity and creativity.
Then there is this focus on STEM. STEM education has been declared the key to the future of the US economy but it has also been acknowledged as important for everyone. But this obsession with STEM has also been severely criticised. No doubt skills in these areas are important but not at the expense of a strong, broad-based education as well as soft skills that are required to work and get along with others. As Steve Jobs had declared when unveiling a new edition of the iPad, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” Let us also give due importance to HEAL (health, education, administration, literacy). An important point that must be kept in mind is that STEM fields have been traditionally male-dominated. While fewer women are found in engineering and science, men shy away from careers in school teaching and nursing.
While gender equity needs to be attended to, the more important factor is that irrespective of gender, age and subject, the teaching-learning environment must be such that young people are not afraid of experimenting, of taking things apart and putting them together again — sometimes in new interesting ways, and of making their own interpretations, of coining new words, of questioning age-old beliefs and challenging established theories. Tinkering must be encouraged in every discipline — not necessarily only in laboratories. It’s only then that we can hope for “Incredible India” to be a land of ideas and inventors as well as a land of amazing sights and magical experiences.