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Friday, February 11, 2011

Discovery, touchstone of all education

Research underlies mankind's march to ever-changing frontiers. It is, hence, only natural that education should necessarily encompass an inquisitive spirit to make new discoveries.

The new field glasses:An important tool of today's research is the computer, which itself is a product of a ‘positive nexus' of inquisitive minds. 

Gone are the days when studies, even in higher classes, were confined to learning lessons from textbooks and performing routine laboratory experiments, the results of which were already known to the students. The dull custom used to take pupils through the beaten track. 

They never had to break new ground.
In recent times, the perception of higher learning has undergone a radical revolution. No education at higher levels has any value today unless pupils apply their resources in traversing fresh paths.
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.
So wrote Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) in his renowned poem The Road Not Taken. Students should perhaps go a step further; they should take roads that were never touched by anyone's feet.
Knowledge explosion

A significant attribute of our times is the exponential growth of knowledge. People used to say that knowledge doubles every seven years, meaning that if you place the accumulated knowledge from the time man emerged on this planet on one pan of a common balance and the knowledge man will acquire during the coming seven years on the other, the beam will more or less be horizontal.

The seven-year period has come down sharply, even to three years or two years in certain disciplines. Remember the famed Moore's law — the observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles roughly every 18 months. The prediction proved to be fairly true in the world of computing hardware.
Clinical knowledge is also estimated to double every 18 months, making it impossible for any physician to keep abreast of all new developments. The period for doubling varies with the discipline. But there is indeed accelerated growth in every domain of human knowledge. Every piece of new knowledge emerges from research in one form or another. We live in a knowledge-driven society. The amount of new information that crops up each day is staggering. There are immense possibilities for careers in research and development. New avenues are always available in plenty for experimenters in research.

The theories of Karl Marx (1818-1883) clearly brought out the division of people into haves and have-nots. The essence of that theory holds good even today. But a more significant division has surfaced in recent times — the digital divide. Consequent on the emergence of the cyber world, those who are not familiar with it are pushed back in almost every field. Any piece of today's research banks on the gifts of the digital world to a very large extent.

How well we utilise the products of research is another matter. This philosophical aspect is reflected in the famous lines of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in his Choruses from the Rock:

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
We may add a corollary: “Where is the information we have lost in data?”

‘Research and development' is a popular phrase. Any development involves research, the two being the two sides of the same coin. Pupils have to develop strong links between learning and research, whereas teachers have to cultivate links between teaching and research. There should be no conflict; only a happy merger or positive nexus. They are complementary. There is hardly any academia without research.
There has to be a measurable output from higher studies, much more than replicating the skills and knowledge of the teacher in the pupil.

Modern market forces control practically all activities in society. They demand research-minded professionals from universities and other institutions of higher learning. These professionals have to be endowed with skills in analysis and application.

Several universities use research as a supplementary source of income. Research in academic institutions intended to meet industrial needs will make its base stronger through practical application. Further, such research will offer pupils a sense of fulfilment, since they do not just stop with purely academic exercises.

In a recent trend, students prefer, even for undergraduate studies, universities that provide good facilities for research. The quality of undergraduate learning is usually high in research environments. Research-based teaching is far superior to teachers' parroting textbook material.

An expert in science education stresses the need for a “research-led, research-oriented, research-based, and research-tutored teaching in undergraduate science curricula.” The capacity for research-led thinking and cognitive calibre is, perhaps, more important than skills in equipment handling for a scientist of quality and promise. The role of designing projects in science-teaching emphasises this aspect.

This analysis should not lead to a misunderstanding that research is confined to learning in science or technology. Research has its tentacles spread into all realms of human knowledge, including social sciences and humanities.
Any teaching-learning endeavour at higher levels has necessarily to be linked with research. The goals of higher education in humanities stand redefined.
Breaking free

The target of teaching restricted to syllabus leaves much room for refinement. The time available for teachers can be apportioned between teaching and active research with pupil involvement. Such a participatory approach will indirectly develop a research orientation in pupils.
Graduates with a research-ready mind endowed with intellectual curiosity will perform well in other walks of life. Assignment of teaching to research scholars is another dimension that will augment the quality of research and enhance the quality of the learning experience.

The synergistic effects will be substantial in top-notch institutions striving for excellence.



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