‘Intelligence is not fixed; it is the aim of education’

Have you always felt there’s more to education and learning than the marks sheets and grades? Explore the very meaning of education in this Exclusive conversation with noted author Dr Kamala Mukunda

By Aruna Raghuram  • 16 min read

‘Intelligence is not fixed; it is the aim of education’

She suggests ‘descriptive’ report cards and thinks you can be creative about physics and analytical about dance. Isn’t that exciting? Well, that’s Dr Kamala Mukunda, Bangalore-based educational psychologist. The author of Book I and II of ‘What Did You Ask at School Today? A Handbook of Child Learning’, Dr. Kamala pens down her experiences as a teacher and a parent. The books explore several ideas which are interesting and useful for both parents and educators. In this Exclusive conversation with ParentCircle, Dr Kamala covers a wide range of issues including how parents can choose a school for their child, ‘hyper’ reading, the role of technology in education, and more. Presenting the excerpts from an engaging chat.

Thank you, Dr. Kamala, for sparing time for this conversation. The way children learn is very different from the way adults learn. But you have often felt the system does not recognise the gap…
There are a few key differences. What we already know forms the basis to learn new things. Adults have a larger body of knowledge at their disposal than children. The speed of learning (processing knowledge) too increases throughout childhood and into adulthood. Moreover, adults have the ability to focus attention more sharply and narrowly. A child’s attention is more diffused and includes things we may view as distractions. Teachers and parents need to realise that these ‘distractions’ actually help children connect the dots. The two clear advantages children have over adults as far as learning goes, are a high degree of confidence and less anxiety about making mistakes and facing failure. That’s why children are not as inhibited about trying new things as adults are.

As you just said, children love to explore, but we are keen on measuring intelligence…Unfortunately, intelligence is seen as something more or less fixed. Or worse, it is often linked to performance in science and mathematics. The intelligence-is-fixed view is deeply held, and the only way I know of to successfully challenge it is for a school to look at intelligence as the aim of its education. If teachers define intelligence in terms of a wide spread of adaptive and elegant behaviours, then the curriculum will reflect their attempts to nurture these in students. But if it is defined as something you’ve either got or not, you will see intelligence being measured and used as a tool for categorising students.

You have said in your book What Did You Ask at School Today? A Handbook of Child Learning that children are not mastering ‘higher order thinking’. How can this be rectified?
Children need to be allowed to speak and discuss a lot more – most of their day is currently spent in passive listening, or reading, or if they are producing work, they are not expected to do much more than copy or repeat.
Secondly, children need exposure to a variety of resources, instead of a reliance on one textbook and one teacher. By this I do not mean only the Internet. They could read good quality books, periodicals, newspapers, and talk to different people about topics they are learning.
Thirdly, they need to be taught by teachers who themselves are learning and growing cognitively all the time, and who therefore have a strong grasp of their subject area. Paradoxically, this gives adults the confidence to admit ignorance and mistakes when needed, and to explore areas of learning that are challenging for them too.

Very interesting thoughts indeed. You’ve also talked about ‘close reading’ and ‘hyper reading’ in your book. Would be great for our readers to know more about them.
I think that close reading (deep engagement with the text) is wonderful for absorbing at a slow pace a good piece of writing, especially if the writing is ‘dense’ in terms of language and ideas. Something with beautiful language and expression, descriptive parts, complex ideas, deserves close reading. Hyper reading (skimming the text) is good for absorbing the main points or general gist of a great deal of varied textual material – where quality of presentation and language is not central to the pieces – and where one needs to get a basic sense of many writing pieces.

In one article you have questioned the ‘polarisation of learning’ into academic and non-academic, curricular and extracurricular. That’s a fairly tough phrase. Your thoughts?
I meant here that rigour, creativity, critical and analytical thinking, and other such qualities are not the sole property of certain kinds of activity. One can be highly creative in physics (in fact one should strive for it!), and one has to be very rigorous and analytical about dance as well. We tend to think that creativity belongs only in an art class, and that analytical thought belongs only in say a math or history class.
In schools we therefore ‘look down upon’ certain activities, and don’t give them enough seriousness and respect. For instance, we may tell our child that learning art is just a hobby and not a serious pursuit. However, he may have the talent to take it up as a viable career.

Creative in physics and analytical in dance. Fantastic. Is that why you also worry about the assessment system in today’s times?
I will address this from a school’s point of view. You don’t have to have any exams. Schools can have a different form of assessment depending on the number of children in the school. An ongoing assessment system is better. One that is qualitative is preferable – a descriptive report card, for instance. Comparing children on a numerical scale can destroy the confidence of those who do not ‘score’ well. Rewarding a few for outstanding achievement is also avoidable.
Competitive evaluation emphasises outcomes and performance over the act of learning itself. It creates the motivation to ‘do better than others’, rather than the motivation to push the limits of one’s own learning.
CFL does not have any internal exams for its 70 children from ages 8 to 18. As certification is important for higher studies, our children are coached for exams set by the Cambridge Assessment International Education which they give at the end of standards 10 and 12.

Many parents still tend to adopt a linear path for their children by literally forcing them to choose from among arts, science or commerce subjects as early as class 11…
We should not ask children to choose a stream of subjects such as science, arts or commerce. These narrow choices straightjacket the young student whose brain is still capable of growing and learning in many dimensions. Scientific methods and thinking are important for all citizens, and the kind of critical, evaluative thinking that a humanities course offers is invaluable for all young people. Worse, streaming ensures that the student doesn’t even get to make friends with students who study very different subjects!

What do you think of the role of technology in education?
I personally feel that if we were not doing a good job teaching without using technology, we’re not going to do a good job teaching with it. Good teachers of the past were not fundamentally limited by the lack of technology. But this in itself is not a reason to shun it. If technology can be used creatively, why not use it? Deliberate use of any educational tool, by a teacher who understands the tool well, can’t go far wrong. As for using a digital tool (a smart board or a tablet for students) instead of a traditional tool (pen and notebook), I am neither terribly excited nor terribly anxious about this happening.
I think the idea that technology can replace a teacher, is a little more difficult for me to swallow, for obvious reasons! I am biased in favour of human interaction in the process of teaching and learning. Having said that, if there is no teacher, then online learning seems to be a wonderful thing, for older learners perhaps.

How has the role of the teacher evolved from the time you were a student?
In some schools, the role of a teacher has not changed at all! Which is scary and depressing – that teachers are seen and behave in the same ways two generations later. But there are many more ‘child-friendly’ schools around nowadays, and thus the idea of a teacher as someone who loves children and cares for them is much more mainstream than it used to be.

What about the relationship between parents and teachers? Are parents today supporting their child’s learning at home better?
The relationship between parent and teacher should not be adversarial. Both parties need to realise that they are on the same side, and work for the good of the child. Regular contact, and meeting and talking about issues, without either party getting defensive, is the key.
Parents can support their children’s learning by giving them a lot of attention and not being tied up with their devices when the children are home. Spending time doing things together, especially outdoor activities, is another good practice. Supporting learning need not be about only about tutoring children, showing them educational videos, or urging them to look up encyclopaedias.

Parents should avoid bombarding their child with questions as soon as they are back from school. For a child, it feels like an interrogation. Apart from being tired, the child would not have had the time to process what happened in school. Moreover, if parents are asking out of a sense of anxiety, this anxiety will get transmitted to the child. It is better to give them an opportunity to open up on their own and simply being available to listen. If adults were asked “How was your day?’ when they got back from work, they would probably just say: “Fine.” How do you expect a child to come up with a more detailed answer?

‘Intelligence is not fixed; it is the aim of education’

What should parents look for while choosing a school for their child?

You can infer from a school’s practices and policies, some of the beliefs that drive it. Beliefs about how children learn, the role of memory, the nature of motivation and intelligence, the significance of emotion in learning, and the challenges of adolescence – these make up the framework on which a school builds itself. Timetables, syllabi, and curricula are all the result of our ideas about children and learning.
I would seek the answers to the following questions before I select a school for my child:

  1. Does the school expect uniformity in response, or does it encourage students’ own expressions of understanding?
  2. When do the teachers consider ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
  3. Does the school curriculum sacrifice depth for breadth in learning?
  4. How does the school motivate students – by using competition or by assigning them work designed to meet their goals and interests?
  5. Does the school recognise that there are individual differences and profiles of abilities among students?
  6. Is emotion acknowledged as relevant to the learning process, or does the school generally ignore students’ emotions?
  7. Does the school encourage initiative and autonomy among adolescents?

Wonderful checklist indeed. Is that something that also defines the very idea of CFL?
We are interested in education as a way to transform society. The teachers have a keen interest in the writings of J Krishnamurti. For us, education is not a means to personal fulfilment, or personal accomplishment, as much as an opportunity for both children and adults to explore questions about life and living, and to loosen the strong grip that self-centred action has on each of us. We are a teacher-run institution, which is quite unusual. And we’re neither teacher-centred nor student-centred, I’d say we’re learning-centred!
I don’t want to make any claims about the future, but children in progressive schools have a happier childhood. Most of us see schooling as a preparation for the future. ‘Let the present be’ is our belief. I would hope our students have gratitude for the different kind of education they have received and would be giving more to the society. I would also hope they would grow up with a sense of community and a concern for the environment around them.

In a nutshell

  • Children learn differently from adults for a variety of reasons. A child’s attention span is shorter, which may not necessarily be a bad thing
  • Competitive evaluation emphasises outcomes and performance over the act of learning itself
  • The relationship between parent and teacher should not be adversarial
  • If we were not doing a good job teaching without using technology, we’re not going to do a good job teaching with it.

What you could do right away

  • Stop thinking of intelligence as a ‘fixed’ measure that children are categorised by
  • Get to know a school’s beliefs that are behind its practices and policies before selecting it for your child
  • Don’t bombard your child with questions when he gets home from school
  • Have interactive discussions with your child at home

About Dr Kamala Mukunda

  • Completed her Ph.D. from Syracuse University in the US. Her thesis was on cognitive processes underlying math word problem solving in middle school
  • Currently teaches at the school Centre for Learning (CFL), which is inspired by J. Krishnamurti’s thoughts and teachings. At CFL, learning, rather than being just about academics and life skills, involves a deeper exploration of emotions and thought processes. Dr Kamala teaches psychology and statistics and is also involved in a range of activities with the juniors and middle schoolers

About the author:
Interviewed by Aruna Raghuram on 3 December 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

Join our Circles to share, discuss, and learn from fellow parents and experts!

Looking for expert tips and interesting articles on parenting? Subscribe now to our magazine. Connect with us on FacebookTwitter Instagram | YouTube