Laying the foundation : Sowing the seeds of future
Indian dream to become a knowledge society depends upon India’s ability to make knowledge assets more valuable and precious than physical assets. The lack of possession of physical or financial assets would then determine to much lesser extent the destiny of an individual or group than the possession of ideas, innovations and other knowledge assets. Asymmetry in knowledge market is just like in any other resource market. However, this asymmetry can be overcome more easily through initiatives and efforts of individuals or groups than any other asymmetry. Imagination backed up by institutional support for knowledge resources can transform India. But the problem is that old habits die hard. Unless we sow the seeds of imagination and innovation early in life, it is not easy to inculcate or nurture the creative spirit at a later stage in life. That is the reason that SRISTI started looking at the creativity of children a long time ago.
In the first biodiversity contest held in Madurai with the help of Seva in 1992, a student of grade 5 who came first listed as many as 116 different species of plant along with their uses. The adult who was considered the best could identify 240 species. Two other contests were organized then in Gangagarh village in District Bulandshahar in 1994. Subsequently, thousands of children participated in the biodiversity competitions and revealed tremendous knowledge about their environment. There were always only a few kids who were far ahead of the rest.. We also learnt that girls outperformed boys in the primary classes and so did scheduled caste and OBC children outperformed the rest, understandable in view of the larger dependence of such communities on nature. But once the girls started taking care of their younger siblings and their going out alone became less frequent, in higher classes they started losing out in their knowledge advantage of biodiversity compared to boys.
In subsequent years when we started ShodhYatras, we started organizing idea competitions. Even in the traditional food festival (SATVIK) such competitions were organized. Amazing creativity and knowledge richness was found particularly among rural children in different parts of the country. But these kids did not always go very far. Their relative lack of excellence in English language or other subjects stifled their onward hopes. Their creativity did not come to their rescue. Nobody bothered whether a child was innovative, had the ability to independently think or could come out with an unusual way of looking at the world.
And we still wanted to change the world. In the last decade, after NIF (National Innovation Foundation) came into existence, it started giving awards to children innovators in its Presidential Award Functions. However, the number of entries from children was much smaller. At this stage the Honeybee Network decided to intensify the search for creative children and IGNITE 07 became the starting point. Over the years many interesting questions have been posed by the children which have impressed upon us the need to pay special attention to nurturing creativity and innovation among children. Let me illustrate the point by first sharing a few cases of the kids we met in shodhyatras.
When a class tenth student brought a list of 75 plants names and their uses in Alwar Shodhyatra in Rajasthan, we asked , why so few? He took the challenge and asked for two days so that he could make a bigger list. Two days later, he came with a list of 501 plants with their uses. Another eight year old,girl in Arku valley, Andhra Pradesh Shodhyatra had lost her mother and was being brought up by her grandparents. Unlike all other children who brought mostly similar plants, she brought 25 different plants, all. Her curiosity took her to different landscapes and the diversity was etched in her mind and eyes.
Similarly, some children asked us queer questions which showed, how perceptive they were. “If I have a limited quantity of farm yard manure, where should I apply it in the field”, asked a young class fifth student, son of a very small farmer, during a meeting in a school visited while pursuing 22nd shodhyatra in Champaran, Bihar. Through this question he had raised an issue on the edge of precision farming. Unless we know the nutrient profile of the whole field in grids of say ten by ten meters, how could one decide where will the little manure have the maximum effect in a small farm. As the manure becomes scarce, and cow dung for manure competes with its use as a fuel, this question will become even more important.
Another sharp question was faced more than decade ago, while I was addressing the students of a mahila gram Vidyapeeth (women’s Gandhian institution, Nardipur), Gujarat. I asked the students to ask a question, answer to which they thought I might not know. Idea was to demonstrate in real life that teachers could be ignorant, or fallible and that asking question is fun, it should not be considered a burden or risk by any one. A naughty girl asked, “ why does sugar grains attract small red ant where as jaggery attract bigger black ants?” I was nonplussed. She had a question on the edge of the ant behaviour. Given the differences in their scents, different sugars perhaps attracted different kind of ants.
Similarly, when asked, what should be the best design of a television which can be seen by people sitting around it, pat came the reply in several meetings, square TV or four sided TV. Children did not have difficulty in imagining how product should be designed to facilitate culture of sitting in circular manner rather all of them facing a single screen, as is the practice in most houses or meetings.
There are tens of thousands of such kids who have submitted ideas and innovations to Honey Bee Network signifying their ability to ask different questions and seek creative answers in many cases. What is special about these kids? Why do they see the world differently? Can we nurture their creativity and curiosity systematically?
What will take it to transform the curriculum of school education in India so that majority of children begin to ask crazy questions, make queer models of future needs ( e.g. an umbrella which rains, or cell phone which uses unique gait of a person as a password) or solutions of contemporary problems? Will parental pressure reduce so that children are not forced to pursue only single track intelligence? Will schools be able to deal with the question of Farid, asked in Jammu and Kashmir ShodhYatra in Anantnag district,” why should one try to excel in all subjects, if I want to study only mathematics and science, why am I not allowed to do so?
I hope we can ask ourselves these questions and create pressure on educational policy makers to let the children be, just be!
Anil K Gupta