When you struggle to find parking in my neighborhood shopping lot, which is otherwise seldom busy, you know it must be Monday or Thursday afternoons, the time when Indian kids stream into the tiny Kumon center wedged between a taco shop and a used-clothes store.

What attracts so many of our parents to the Kumon philosophy? Is it because the learning-by-rote method reminds us of our own schooling in India, which we perceive as “more academic” than the self-learning process encouraged in American schools, which we disdain as not academically rigorous enough?

Whatever the reason, adding to this reasoning is the constant barrage of media reports decrying that the American public school system has failed our kids. We are told that our kids perform dismally on international tests and consistently rank well below kids in other countries.

Suddenly, everyone is talking abut “Singapore Math” and “Korean methodology.” It seems strange then that all those graduates in Singapore have contributed very little to the knowledge base of the world, but some of our graduates and even school drop-outs have gone on to start companies that have changed the world!

Recently, a friend’s son, a level-headed smart young kid, who had barely turned 19 announced that he was dropping out of school to start his own company. The interesting aspect about this conversation was that the announcement was actually received with admiration and respect, instead of a brusque admonition to be practical and stop pipe-dreaming.

We in the valley know the value of creativity and risk-taking. In a world which is becoming more competitive by the day, standing out by doing something different is a valued attribute. The ability to constantly reinvent ourselves is almost a job requirement these days. As an educator, I’ve witnessed the gradual shift in pedagogical focus from merely acquiring knowledge to learning how to apply it successfully. Now our kids are not so much required to know how many wives the apparently insatiable King Henry had, as in theorizing how that could have set the stage for the women’s rights movement later.

Recent research has shown that original thinking is not just something that happens out of the blue to a select few, but is actually a trait that can be acquired.

According to this research, knowledge has two components, rational thinking and intuition. The first can be compared to textbook knowledge, with sequential, logical thinking resulting in a flowchart of the thought process. The other component, intuition (or what we call instinct), is a cognitive capability, a sudden burst of understanding that offers an immediate solution, which is actually our subconscious instantly weighing things we aren’t even aware of.

Taking an example close to home, the power of intuition has been amply borne out by Steve Jobs’ stupendous success. Apple’s innovative products have been attributed to his intuitive ability to instantly perceive the value of an idea and help bring it to fruition. In his opinion, the snap decisions subconsciously made were better than a conclusion reached after hours of analysis. After a trip to India, Steve Jobs observed, “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world … Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” Perhaps we should just go back to our roots!

While these two components of knowledge actually complement each other, it is believed that too much of the former actually inhibits the latter. This is where Kumon and other rote-based learning methods come in. While memorization and practice undoubtedly have their place in the learning pyramid, treating them as a major learning component
on a long-term basis can actually stifle intuition and hinder the acquisition of knowledge.

To give a mathematical example, memorizing the quadratic formula gives kids a fail-safe method to solve the quadratic equation, but total understanding can only result when kids solve it graphically as well, giving rise to innumerable real-life applications and literally making the equation come alive before their eyes, and the realization of why some equations don’t have real solutions slowly dawns upon them. That is self-learning at its best.

As a teacher, I’ve concluded that rote-learning leads parents to think that it is more valuable merely because it is more time-intensive, but it actually makes you lazy because you’ve been presented with ready facts, with no extended thinking for your brain to grapple with.
This idea may strike a chord with parents of high school kids who sign up for another Indian favorite, the AP (Advanced Placement)/Honors courses.

One parent I know lamented that her kid had done very well in middle school, and had therefore signed up for several advanced courses, but now felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. One reason could be that these college-level courses typically taken during the sophomore or junior years at high school, focus not on memorizing facts and figures, but on conceptual thinking. Original thinking may be hard for the student who has rarely had the opportunity to do so.

Students in honors classes engage in intense discussions, solve problems collaboratively, and learn to write clearly and persuasively. Clearly, the student who possesses high degrees of both knowledge components will exhibit better problem-solving abilities, a core requirement in successfully completing these courses.

So parents, do answer your child’s whats, wheres, and whens, but encourage them to ask the whys and hows as well!

Gayathri Chakravarthy lives in Cupertino, CA and has been teaching Math for over 12 years in public schools in California, Australia, and India.

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