The Case of the Disappearing Question Mark

Image courtesy Lisha Menon

WHY are we all sitting here? What is it that we are doing?

These are questions I ask myself every time I sit in a class that I don’t enjoy, or I am in some social event where I have to personally talk to more than 5 people I don’t know or…

You know what, a lot of places.

 My friends, parents, and teachers would tell you that I enjoy asking questions and am constantly questioning things, sometimes to their annoyance. If you ask me, why I question or what I question, I may not be able to give a concrete answer.  But, I can tell you this – questioning is a very important part of me; and when I find answers or when I begin to search for answers,  I feel like I know one thing more about myself and the world around me.

For example, just a few months back, I was at home, on the couch, a place I am often found in; my mother came in and asked me what are the subjects I want to opt for in the 11th and 12th grade. I barely know what subjects I am learning now in the tenth grade! What subjects I want to opt for in the 11thgrade? But her asking me this question propelled me on a journey of self-discovery/ enquiry.

That question led me to learn so much about myself, and so much about the world around me. To understand what I want to do, I had to first understand, or may I say attempt to understand, who I am, my likes and dislikes, as of now. That meant that I had to ask myself A LOT of questions. Every discovery I made about myself started with a question: for example, I would ask myself what do I like or not-like about a subject, say History. Then another question will pop: is all that is there in my textbook, the truth or one representation of the truth? Yet another question – which Board is better suited for me – the ISC, the CBSE, the IGCSE or the State board? This journey of questioning has now enabled me to narrow down my search, I have some clarity regarding the subjects I want to take, and the Board also.

I ask myself what if I don’t ask questions. What then? I think the answer is fairly simple. I wouldn’t find an answer, or for that matter, there is no search. There is no ‘me’.

Throughout our journey as learners in the Indian schooling system, we are taught to answer questions. I believe that nothing is more hypocritical than learning by giving prescribed questions and answers. What is the point of asking questions to which the answer is readily available? What is the point of asking questions for which only the right keywords need to be used? What is the point of asking question that are not stretching the limits of the information available and pushing the boundaries of our mind? Content is important, information is important. But is schooling only about that?

The usage of questions as a means to understand oneself is rooted in our History and culture. The Upanishads is written in the form of student asking his guru questions pertaining to so many aspects of life – spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual. This ability to question – the young, the so-called novice questioning the more experienced gurus is something we can learn from. There is a story in Upanishads when Nachiketa questions Yama, the god of Death himself. Contrast that to today’s times. Imagine Nachiketa has to take the Board exam of today, where he has to use the exact keywords. I am sure he will flunk the exam! 

One of the most dangerous things for a society is the inability to question. Questioning forms the basis of education. So what kind of schooling system have we created, where the culture of questioning is systematically outlawed?

We, students, educators, and parents are a part of the schooling system, and cannot see ourselves as different from it. And as a part of the schooling system, I realise that there are many aspects of me as a person that are not addressed at all in the schooling system that we have today. Nor do I have the liberty of time or space to explore or even approach a subject in the way I want to, with or without the guidance of an adult!

I am a person who is not great at learning by rote; however I immensely enjoy questioning what the textbook says is ‘the truth’ or ‘a fact’. I enjoy not just questioning, but also researching, searching, consolidating, analysing, reflecting and thinking through. But the schooling of today doesn’t give me the opportunity to do just that. The answer I provide may not be the one given in the textbook, but it is my perspective. And that perspective will not take me very far in the schooling system of today.

If a math problem is given, we, as students are taught the approach which SHOULD be taken; curiosity is not fostered by enabling us to get to the answer by seeking or searching for available methods or tools. The approach/method is already determined to solve a problem, an example is already given in the textbook. What is the challenge here? Where is the curiosity here? This is not just for math, it is similar across board for almost all subjects. 

It is almost as if the adults have consciously decided to take out creativity and thinking out of naturally curious children by putting them through the schooling system. Take a curious child, put her through 15 years of schooling, out comes a robotic young adult who only knows how to conform, beautifully!

To conclude, as students, it is both our right and duty to take charge of our education. How do we do that? By asking adults, both teachers and parents, questions. Tough questions. My request to all the adults here, please enable us, by giving us the freedom to ask questions from a young age. This means we will ask you “Why this? Why not that?”,we will defy you; we may question your decision; and we may want a say in the decision-making process.

I understand your constraints. However, please don’t use these constraints to silence us. Don’t use them to shackle us. 

In the words of Thomas Berger-

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

Let us learn this art and science in our homes and schools.

Arundati Menon – Class 10


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