Curiosity Kindled the Child

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Curiosity Kindled the Child

An education system that sails into the wind of a child’s curiosity rather than building a wall against it.

Reflecting back to the yonder of my childhood (not that I feel any older) I smile thinking about one of my many nicknames — BE. No, it wasn’t because I was conferred a de facto Bachelor of Engineering. It was a short form for the lesser elegant Brain Eater — a tribute to my barrage of the whys, the hows and the whats! These constant companions didn’t desert me anywhere, not in school, not at home, not in the temple, not at my grandma’s house, not at the ice cream shop — I should stop because you probably already got the picture. I reflect about how these arrows of curiosity were often darted and considered borderline sacrilege. It didn’t stop me from asking questions, but most of my expectations moved from people to books and libraries. I often wondered if this hesitation to interrogative pronouns and interrogative adverbs was a consequence of not comprehending their value in a child’s learning or was perceived as a threat to the traditional view of what constituted learning. There is no choosing here, it’s a happy marriage of both.

I hope you also noticed the use of some archaic words, namely, books and library. Yes, when I was a kid, there was no google searching, no Siri, no Alexa. I remember having to note my questions down and make a much awaited trip to the library and search for rationality quenchers. I know, unthinkable, especially as I time travel in my head back to now, typing on my laptop with tabs open from my previous google searches. Over the past decade, when technology and access to information have seen numerous revolutions, why are the learning paradigms essentially unchanged? How does that make any sense! How does it matter that we memorize some historically relevant phrases, theories and principles in school with a gaping chasm to where the world stands today, and, even more importantly to where the world would be when those kids grow up. Why are we not questioning this?

Before we are up in arms about how I-Pads are replacing books, zoom conferences are replacing brick-and-mortar class rooms and how technology has revolutionised learning, I want to step back and shift your focus to where the problem lies. Technology is transforming the interfaces that our younger generations use to learn untransformed curriculum and are benchmarked by antique evaluation frameworks. These education systems, curriculums and evaluation frameworks are all designed by adults and practically imposed on the students. In this setup, a student is not welcome to question why they are reading about a certain concept and how it could relate to practical real-world scenarios. An innocent “Why should I study this” is often responded with a “Because it is a part of your curriculum”. This doesn’t stop at the four walls of a school! Children grow up to parent-dictates like “don’t cut nails after dark”, “eat curd before heading out” or that eclipses are a bad omen while parents turn a deaf ear to their why-pleas! Remember those conversations from your childhood that ended with “Because that’s how it works”? This non-engaging, irrational response reinforces the child’s psyche to not question the status quo. This signal is contagious — any student who sees another’s question being darted in the classroom internalises that they should also accept the world for what it is- don’t question. And somewhere between asking all those questions and growing up, this no question reinforcement catches up — our curiosity diminishes!

Question is- why are we not leveraging the earnesty of children in comprehending the world as their greatest teachers. Why not harness what comes naturally to every child and channel their curiosity to take them towards value creation. Don’t get me wrong- I am not saying the child completely decides what to study and how to study just based on their curiosity. Just that the concepts that need to be taught to children are not imposed by adults, rather facilitated by them. We, as adults, bring up relevant practical scenarios that kindle child’s curiosity thereby naturally motivating the need of studying fundamental concepts. For example, mathematical operators are waiting to be learnt in their supermarket transaction of buying their birthday pastry when they give a 100 rupee note and have to think through how much to expect back. Fractions and areas are peeking at them as they think through which pizza slice to ask for when they are constrained to only one piece amongst many options.

I will walk through one possible mental-model where this can be represented holistically. Imagine deciphering a child’s learning pathways into a series of connected foundational concepts. Imagine a learning graph that connects all these learning pathways into a tree structure, where we understand how foundational concepts spin the next layer of understanding and the next and the next and so on. Each of these learning pathways originate from a practical scenario that acts as a motivator depending on the level of the child. Now imagine creating a complete knowledge graph by integrating millions of these learning pathways using machine learning and more specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Computer Vision methods on millions of textbooks and video lectures respectively. Here is an example-

Let us traverse some learning pathways in the example knowledge graph above. During a long drive, a child can be asked how long would a car go on a full tank, establishing the learning pathway to speed distance formulas which assumes fundamental mathematical concepts like multiplication & division. On a school trip to an ice rink the slipping of a child can motivate learning friction which ties to learning Newton’s laws. Once the child understands Newton’s laws, she can also comprehend how a see-saw works, potentially just armed with her curiosity and a chance encounter with a see-saw in the park. Imagine the delight her life is when she is equipped in this way to unleash her curiosity on everything she encounters and comprehend the magic of life in her own terms! Who knows with this method of learning where lessons are often motivated by a child’s curiosity- we realize that newer, more relevant concepts should be part of the curriculum. Or may be old archaic concepts that are not motivated by any practical scenarios of the modern world can actually be removed from the curriculum. This is where a child gets an opportunity to play a role in deciding their own curriculum.

This method of learning is also very effective in targeting the gaps of understanding for children. When a student faces difficulty understanding a certain concept, we can leverage this graph to track what are the blocking foundational concepts, find other contexts to invigorate their curiosity and help them gain clarity on these blocking concepts. For example, if a child is unable to figure out how to choose a pizza slice, we can leverage this knowledge graph and test her on other circle comprehending situations and pinpoint the misunderstanding of area estimation for circles. Then, we re-establish the knowledge block of the area of a circle accurately and voila, she can figure out her pizza splitting game! Imagine a world where every child’s learning is customised to how their own unique brain works, where their curiosity is fuelled and learning is motivated!

In a world where technology is revolutionising industries by the day and jobs are being replaced by automated solutions, humans and Artificial Intelligence enabled solutions need to work in tandem to produce best results. More and more mundane tasks are being taken over by Artificial Intelligence and critical and imaginative thinking will become the human prerogative in the value creation story. How can we expect humans who are taught like robots to suddenly become masters of curiosity? This needs a fundamental shift in the learning paradigms of students and we need to create avenues to kindle and nurture their curiosity. We truly need an education system that sails into the wind of a child’s curiosity rather than building a wall against it.