travel

Measuring Curiosity & Creativity in India

Many educational organizations want to know their impact in terms of test scores and quantitative metrics. I’m more more interested in the qualitative. Are children learning? Are they curious? Are they creative? Are they solving problems that matter to them?

In January I spent three weeks at the Agastya International Foundation, near Bangalore, India, observing educational programs designed to increase children’s curiosity and creativity via STEM. The government (public) schools in India are eager for supplemental science and math curriculum, which is how Agastya gets in. They send tens of thousands of teachers around the country in vans filled with science experiments with the aim of “sparking curiosity” through hands-on learning during science and math lessons.  

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Hamsa Latha, who leads the Impact Assessment team at Agastya, is seeking to assess the change in students’ curiosity after being exposed to Agastya’s hands-on science learning. Hamsa and her team have designed questionnaires for students before and after engaging in an Agastya program to see if they become more curious, more creative, more interested in the natural world. Last year they assessed 66,515 middle school students in 1,697 schools.  They found that on the whole, after completing an Agastya program, students believed that they learn best through hands-on experiments and model-making. Overall students showed 10-15% increases in awareness (of science in the world), curiosity, confidence and science knowledge. This impressive study is one of few being done in the education sector focused on traits and habits of learning rather than solely on content.

The Innovation Hub, one of many programs on the Agastya campus, focuses on how students learn, not just what. The aim is on solving community problems using technology, teamwork and innovation. Groups of students are led through a series of workshops that help them identify and rectify community problems, using a project-based learning approach. One of the brilliant innovations the children came up with is to  add pictorial symbols to village names to help illiterate family members know when to get off the bus. Another innovation deals with walking home from school in the dark and needing your hands to hold siblings hands, groceries, and books. Instead of also trying to hold a flashlight to be able to light the way, students created LED strips for backpack straps so that you’d have a hands free way of seeing if you’re about to step on a snake. It is projects like these that not only impact communities, but also teach children a way of learning. Children who complete a program at the Innovation Hub move through the world with the tools to change their world.

The Art Lab, another innovative program at Agastya, is designed as a journey of observation and imagination using nature at the medium. Students begin by drawing their idea of a tree and then spend days outside talking about the tree and what they see and notice. Who lives there? How does it change? What textures are evident? What shades and tints of colors are present? How does it move? What can and can’t you see? Students then make another drawing and compare the image in their mind with the one they’ve observed. The unit finishes with students designing their own trees, using creativity and imagination. Other units repeat this process with leaves, the sky, and animals. Through this process students really learn to see and observe. They begin to understand nature. They are learning how to learn.

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Sometimes in education we spend so much time focusing on content and forget to think about the process of learning and providing experiences for students to figure out how they learn best. By trying different methods like hands-on science experiments, solving community problems, and closely observing nature, Agastya has achieved their mission. Curiosity has been sparked.

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

What if we raised 'global children'?


Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, author of Raising Global Children, says:

"According to the National Research Council, one of the numerous research reports on this growing topic of discussion, Americans' 'pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.' As Americans, we must see to it that our children develop the flexible qualities of character and mind necessary to handle the challenges that globalization poses. To become global citizens, they must learn how to communicate and interact with people around the world. We must raise global children.

Traits such as curiosity, empathy, compassion and flexibility cannot be bought, they must be taught. To be sure, travel, ethnic restaurants and cross-cultural museum exhibits can enhance a child's global mindedness. But so, too, can the treasure trove of books, music, movies, magazines and maps available at the local public library."

Her book suggests:

  • Encouraging curiosity, empathy, flexibility and independence
  • Supporting learning a second language as early as possible
  • Exploring culture through books, food, music and friends
  • Expanding a child’s world through travel at home and abroad
  • Helping teens to spread their own global wings
  • Advocating for teaching global education in schools