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PRABUDDHA BHARATAEducation: Cognitive Objects and Vedanta  

 

 

 

 

 

            Education: Cognitive Objectives and Vedanta

 

 

 

               Swami Tadananda

 

 

 

 

     The Challenges Before Us in Education

 

 

 

     In this age of information explosion, accommodating the humongous amounts of information and knowledge in every field is putting severe strain on all involved with education - students, teachers and parents. A look at the syllabus at any level of education in India reveals that students nowadays are exposed to far more information than their fathers or grandfathers were. This is resulting in parents investing in the education of their children right from the nursery level. To secure a place in a good college, students have to take additional coaching and outperform others in competitive examinations. Even while in college, a student must learn other subjects such as computing or an additional language. Gone are the days when a single educational qualification could secure you a lifetime of comfortable employment. There is continuous pressure to specialize and constantly stay updated and upgraded in ones specialized field. With greater connectivity at all levels of our society and increasing complexity in our lifestyle, the situation has only worsened.

 

     The simplistic idea of education characteristic of our system, primarily based on feeding in chunks of information, does not sufficiently prepare our younger generations to brace themselves for the challenges that lie ahead of them. Firstly, we must admit that there is very little we can do to reduce or even control the quantity of information and knowledge that our students have to handle. Furthermore, we must realize that an education system restricting itself to imparting only factual knowledge is outdated. Man is distinguished from animals by virtue of his rationality. It is this thinking domain of his personality that calls for careful formation. The intellect is to be trained to distinguish truth from error, facts from opinions, and reality from appearance. The common idea of education and its methodology need to be reviewed.

 

 

 

     A Paradigm Shift

 

 

 

     A paradigm shift is necessary in the objectives and methodology of our current education - a major shift from quantity of information to quality of training of the mind and intellect, which will make them efficient instruments for not only processing and assimilating vast amounts of information but also facing situations of increasing complexity in everyday life.

 

     True education encompasses many areas related to the harmonious development of the three Hs - head, heart and hands. This article is restricted to the development of the cognitive or thinking domain of learners.

 

     About a century ago, Swami Vivekananda had predicted this crisis in education and had categorically pointed out that real education is not the amount of information that is put into ones brain and runs riot there, undigested, all ones life. The human mind is not a bottomless dry well which has to be filled in with buckets of information by the teacher. A critical evaluation of the objectives of our current educational system shows that in reality they are exactly what Swami Vivekananda did not want. He had also said that education has more to do with assimilation of ideas and developing a mind of the same material as that of which the thunderbolt is made. He had envisioned an education that increased the strength of the mind, expanded the intellect and enabled one to stand on ones own feet; and this, he suggested, was to be done with the help of Western science coupled with Vedanta and faith in ones own Self.

 

     Taking this as the starting point, we shall first explore how the scientific approach to education adopted in the West can help us achieve the goal of upgrading the cognitive faculty of learners. Then we will see how the application of the wonderful Vedantic idea of real education being the manifestation of the perfection already in man can enhance education by bringing out a novel transformation in our faith in ourselves and in our approach to teaching and learning.

 

 

 

     What Is Assimilation of Ideas?

 

 

 

     The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines the verb assimilate as to fully understand an idea or some information so that you are able to use it yourself. Since ideas may be likened to food for the mind, let us understand this intellectual process of assimilation of ideas by drawing a parallel with the physiological process of assimilating food.

 

     Food is processed in the digestive tract in a very organized manner. The mouth is responsible for moistening and initial physical breakdown of the food. Then in the stomach and duodenum strong acids and enzymes break down the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids. The process of assimilation or absorption takes place in the small intestine. Here the essential digested nutrients in the form of sugars, amino acids, fatty acids and some re-synthesized fats are absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to various organs of the body. The nutrients are then burnt through the complex process of cellular respiration to release energy, or used for the synthesis of various tissues such as muscle, skin, hair and the like, or stored as fat for future use. The whole process involves the successive stages of ingestion, digestion, and assimilation, culminating in cellular respiration and growth of cells and tissues. Undigested waste travels to the large intestine on its way out to make space for newer, more effective nutrients.

 

     A strong and healthy digestive system is necessary to fully process the food we eat. Likewise, a well-developed cognitive system is necessary to efficiently process information, ideas and concepts. Irrelevant ideas and information have to be discarded.

 

     Our education system can benefit greatly from the well established and applied Western concept known as Blooms Taxonomy of Educational Objectives for the cognitive domain which was formulated by Dr Benjamin Bloom in 1956. It is the most renowned description of the levels of cognitive performance or intellectual growth and development. This taxonomy, or scientific process of classifying the stages of learning, can be thought of as goals of the training process or educational objectives. That is, after having imbibed some education or at the end of a training session, the learner should have acquired certain new cognitive skills.

 

     According to this classification, the cognitive domain involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. This includes the recognition of facts and concepts that contribute to the development of intellectual abilities. There are six major categories in Blooms taxonomy outlined in the following order: knowledge, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, starting from the simplest to the most complex. These categories or levels are considered to be hierarchical, characterized by progressive degrees of difficulty. That is, learners must master lower-level objectives first before they can build on them to reach higher-level goals.

 

     Let us now examine the taxonomy in more detail. The reader may well compare this with the type of education he or she has received right from the primary school days up to the university level or with the objectives of our current educational system.

 

 

 

     Educational Objectives for the Cognitive Domain

 

 

 

     Blooms taxonomy provides an excellent structure for planning, designing, assessing and evaluating training and learning effectiveness.

 

     The first level is knowledge. It involves recalling information or data. The learner is asked to define, describe, identify, list, name, outline, recall, recognize, reproduce, select, state, etc. Examples include recitation of a Sanskrit verse from the Gita or recalling the phone number or name of a person. Knowledge represents the lowest level in Blooms taxonomy. It is low only in the sense that it comes first - it provides the basis for all higher cognitive activity.

 

     Only after a learner is able to recall information is it possible to move on to the second level of comprehension, which is giving meaning to information. It involves understanding the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems or stating a problem in ones own words. The teacher prompts a response from the students using words like distinguish, estimate, explain, generalize, give examples, interpret, predict, rewrite, summarize, translate, and so on. Explaining the meaning of the Sanskrit verse in ones own words in English would be a typical example.

 

     The third level is application, which refers to using knowledge or principles in new or real-life situations. The learner at this level solves practical problems by applying information comprehended at the previous levels. The learning leader, as the teacher or instructor is preferably called, stimulates and guides the learners with words such as apply, compute, construct, demonstrate, operate, predict, prepare, relate, show, solve, etc. For example, applying Newtons law of gravitation to compute the distance a cricket ball will go when hit with a particular amount of force.

 

     The fourth level is analysis - breaking down complex information into simpler parts. The simpler parts, of course, were learned at earlier levels of the taxonomy. The process of analysis separates concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. It distinguishes between facts and inferences. The teacher asks the learner to analyse, break down, compare, contrast, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, identify, illustrate, outline, relate, select, separate and so on. For example, separately identifying different political viewpoints.

 

     The fifth level, synthesis, consists in creating something that did not exist before by integrating information that had been learned at lower levels of the hierarchy. It builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. It puts together parts to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. In the process of synthesis the learner categorizes, combines, compiles, composes, creates, devises, designs, explains, generates, modifies, organizes, plans, rearranges, revises, reconstructs, relates, reorganizes, rewrites or summarizes. For instance, the learner may design a machine or write a software application to perform a specific task.

 

     Evaluation is the highest level in the hierarchy. It consists in making judgements about the value of ideas or materials based on previous levels of learning to compare a product of some kind against a designated standard. Here the learner appraises, concludes, contrasts, criticizes, defends, describes, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies, relates, summarizes, supports, etc. Examples would include selecting the most effective solution, hiring the most qualified candidate, or explaining and justifying a new budget.

 

     If any concept is to be interiorized in depth through the experience of learning it, it must pass systematically through every stage identified by Dr Bloom. Now we see that real training of the mind and intellect involves much more than merely mugging up information for competitive examinations or superficially touching upon concepts, or solving equations by plugging in variables into them. The real task of the teacher is to systematically stimulate and develop the higher-level skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. A thorough intellectual formation can only be the result of a persistent step-by-step climbing to attain greater heights.

 

     The mere imparting of knowledge leaves the student at the first stage and first stage alone. Most teachers are satisfied with the achievement of this step and proceed no further. Others - and these are in the minority - take the students to the application level and leave them fixated there, offering no incentive to proceed further. The primary reason for this is that the majority of our teachers are not trained in the art and science of teaching. They lack awareness, thorough knowledge and practical training in the application of the vast discoveries made in the fields of educational psychology, philosophy and sociology. One needs more than the knowledge of the subject matter to discharge the sacred responsibility of a teacher.

 

 

 

     Teaching in the Light of Blooms Taxonomy

 

 

 

     While developing the instructional objectives of a course, providing instructions, and evaluating student performance, it is important to keep in mind that there are different levels or outcomes of learning. Distinguishing among these is very critical. Skills at different levels must be taught and tested in different ways.

 

     If teachers are unaware of the different levels of learning, they are likely to focus on one level to the detriment of others. For example, a teacher may teach higher-level thinking skills without realizing that these skills require the prior learning of basic skills that must be integrated into these higher-order skills. Or a teacher may teach a vast amount of factual information but never get around to teaching students to apply and synthesize this information.

 

     In addition, it is not unusual to see a teacher who wants her students to learn higher-order thinking skills conduct examinations that test only lower-level skills. Under such circumstances, the students are likely to put their efforts in the wrong direction.

 

     Teachers often use the term application inaccurately. They assume that using the information in any way whatsoever represents the application level of Blooms taxonomy. This, however, is not correct. For example, a child who uses his memorization of the multiplication tables to write down 30 next to 5 times 6 equals is working at the knowledge level, not the application level. A child who studies Spanish and then converses with a native Mexican is almost certainly at the synthesis level, and not at the application level. If the child made a deliberate attempt to get his past tense right, this would be an example of application. However, in conversing he would certainly be creating something new that did not exist before by integrating knowledge that had been learned at lower levels of the hierarchy, and that would be synthesis.

 

 

 

     The Value of Blooms Taxonomy

 

 

 

     Bloom proposed that the main value of the taxonomy is twofold: (1) it can stimulate teachers to scientifically, consciously and systematically help students acquire skills at all of these various levels, laying the proper foundation for higher levels by first assuring mastery of lower-level objectives; and (2) it provides a basis for developing measurement strategies to assess student performance at all these levels of learning.

 

     However, we contend that an even more important third goal, which is the focus of this article, is achieved by the application of the taxonomy. It is a powerful and scientific mechanism for training the mind and intellect. Just as a well-qualified and experienced instructor in a gymnasium systematically takes the athletes through a series of well-chosen exercises and drills to develop their muscles and stamina, similarly, a well-trained teacher stimulates, exercises, develops, sharpens, strengthens and trains the higher analytical and critical thinking faculties of the learners through whatever subject matter is at hand. The exercises that we come across at the end of chapters in textbooks are meant to exercise the mind. To fully benefit from them, students must do the exercises themselves with no or minimum help from the teacher. They must not run to a tutor each time they find something difficult, but must continue to struggle and wrestle with the exercises until knowledge comes from within the mind. No teacher must fully solve the problems for the student. The approach of the teacher should be to clear the obstacles and guide the students through the process. The student must himself discover the value of the struggle which leads to the joy of knowledge. It is in this way that the teacher helps in the development of the intellectual strength and stamina of learners, thus equipping them with powerful tools capable of analytical, critical and discriminative thinking which can be used for digesting and assimilating ideas as envisioned by Swami Vivekananda.

 

     The last three stages, consisting of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, lead to the peaks of intellectual formation and stimulate the student to rationalize, judge and make choices in a logical manner. A very small minority ever scales these peaks. Unfortunately, few teachers help the students reach the finale. When the discriminatory and critical abilities are not well exercised, persons lack depth of thought and clarity of understanding. It becomes evident from the attitudes and sweeping judgements passed on major issues, that thinking is superficial and lacks equilibrium, clarity and conviction.

 

     Students must be brought to understand the workings of the mind and intellect to enable them to travel on the higher paths of their reasoning, judgements, and deductions. Such skills would help them reform false judgements! The history of the world has repeatedly corroborated the fact that the mob mentality has led people, including the youth, to accept false and fanatical doctrines and ideologies, which they would have rejected had they been given proper training and made capable of considered reflection.

 

 

 

     The Teacher and the Learner in the Light of Vedanta

 

 

 

     One of the foundations of Vedanta philosophy is the wonderful truth of the divinity of the soul. This divinity means that the soul in everyone is of the nature of infinite Existence, infinite Knowledge and infinite Bliss. The infinite library of knowledge is inherent in man. This perfect knowledge is covered by ignorance and education is the gradual process of manifestation of this perfection within by removing the coverings. If knowledge is like fire inherent in a piece of wood, then the process of education is like the friction that brings the flames out of the wood, and the teacher is the facilitator of that process. Just as nature itself provides the necessary water, air and soil needed for the growth and development of a seed into a strong and sturdy fruit-bearing tree - the function of an experienced gardener amounting to helping in this natural process by purveying water and manure - likewise, the teacher too helps in the growth and development of the intellect of the learner. Books, lectures and laboratories are only secondary aids in the process of discovery of knowledge.

 

     What is the significance and implication of this Vedantic principle in education? In the light of the Vedantic outlook, both the teacher and the learner are active participants in the teaching-learning process, and education is the evolving of the intellect by bringing the infinite power of the soul to act upon thought. The teacher looks upon the learner not as a mere physical being but as a living and dynamic mind struggling to manifest the light of the infinite soul, the repository of all knowledge. He recognizes that just as the same electricity flowing through bulbs of different wattage gives out different amounts of light, likewise the same soul present in all beings manifests itself in varying degrees depending on the difference in purity of the mind. He does not try to fill the mind with information and knowledge. Instead he attempts to unfold the creativity within by stimulating and strengthening the mind. The trainer carefully nurtures the conviction and faith in the mind of the learners that knowledge is within them by repeatedly demonstrating to the students that they are indeed bringing out knowledge aided by books, experiments, and the teacher herself. The tutor thus facilitates this process of self-discovery. Needless to say, she requires faith, patience, perseverance and firm conviction in this Vedantic principle of the innate divinity of humans and should try to arouse and awaken the same in the learner. This ideal of faith in oneself, or atmashraddha, is the greatest gift of a teacher to the student.

 

     Similarly, if the learner possesses this firm conviction of having all knowledge within and the understanding that education is the manifestation of this perfection, then there is less dependence on external aids in the form of books, tutors, classes and the like, and a greater struggle to manifest knowledge from within. No more does the student run to the teacher with a problem as soon as he encounters a small difficulty. He struggles with the problem himself, seeking the teachers guidance only as a last resort. The teacher also does not spoonfeed the student and only facilitates his learning.

 

     In this age of globalization, the future is sure to confront us with innumerable and unforeseeable opportunities and challenges. If any society or nation can combine the best of what the East and the West have to offer and successfully implement them in its education system, in whatever degree, it will be better prepared for those challenges and opportunities.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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