Most of us, when we look back at what our school years were like, have a twinge of regret. We wish we had better mentors, more parental support, a system which allowed us to grow our wings and relearn our definitions. We know the faults – we lived through them, remember? But when the time comes and kids we know are thrown back into the same system we despised all our lives, we do nothing about it. Unless you are someone like Rahul Adhikari – a fiercely vocal twenty-something, whose easy-going personality and calmness belies his passion to make a change in the lives he touches, and teaches. If you have been smote by the education system in the country and wondered what you could do to change it, take pointers from his wonderful story.
Saturday Mornings and The Curse of Arithmetic
Every Saturday morning Rahul teaches a class of 12th standard students at Bangalore’s Army Public School, which incidentally is also his alma mater. Why Math of all subjects, one wants to know. He puts it simply – Kids are scared of this, and the funny thing is they shouldn’t be. It’s, as he likes to stress, all in the fundamentals. In Rahul’s dictionary though, ‘fundas’ do not translate into memorizing the various theorems and equations, but rather knowing how and why they came about and where they can be used. If he was teaching you trigonometry for instance, he would start with what Pythagoras was probably thinking when he put down his famous formula. How did he dream it up, and why do we in the 21st century still have to remember what a bearded Greek once epiphanized? Knowing the reason of existence, need and scope of topics, he fervently believes, make the difference between a student relating to a concept and mere rote learning.
The feeling is purely innate and comes from the tennis and squash aficionado’s own experiences. In school, he reminisces, he was always good at studies and an excellent tennis player as well. He was chosen for the Mission Olympics program when just 9 years old. From Bangalore’s leafy streets, Rahul then made his way to Chandigarh’s vales, where his tennis prospered.
However, his studies began to suffer because the school all the possible future Olympians were sent to, was anything but good. Looking back, he knows it was inevitable; in the either-or cauldron that is Indian education the notion that a sports lover can also be an intelligent, hard-working student is wont to burn. Being forced to leave the Olympics program, he was back in Bangalore where, it was rote learning all over again. Though he was counted among the good students in his class, he knew he wasn’t really gaining much.
Until he hit his Eureka moment. It was after he had learned about the concept of density in class, and decided to do a home experiment to verify things for himself by freezing water into ice. It sounds extremely simple right now, but the idea that book theorems and concepts have real life validity was an atomic realization for a kid who before this was one of the typical ‘muggus’ we all know. From then on, there was questioning and probing and a conscious effort to go beyond the books. And it is this attitude that he loves to impart to his students today. “No subject is hard, including Math. Every subject is pure logic and reasoning – abilities that we use every day in our lives. And if you look at the subject in this light, with real life examples to fall back on, there is no fear anymore.” His deep rooted conviction is enough to make anyone want to go back to school and be an arithmetic genius.
The curse, one sees, has begun to be lifted.
Should Messi learn about Quantum Mechanics? Well, I think so.
Rahul is a zealot when it comes to defending education. The books aren’t the problem, he says. It’s not what we are being taught but how we are taught it. Teaching, in his opinion, is akin to a performance art. “One does not simply walk into a classroom and start preaching. Firstly, it’s important to show students value in what they are learning; Secondly, you have to make it interesting and fun for students, using examples they can relate to from their own lives. And thirdly, you have to make it easy by focusing on the fundamentals.” Teaching Matrices and Determinants through Instagram filters, showing the importance of understanding graphs through Usain Bolt and his lightning-fast races, how to use concept of Center of Mass and Angular Momentum to be able to lift more weights in the gym are some of the examples he uses while teaching – it’s a special meta-thinking approach that Rahul brings to the table. It’s also one that seems to work irrevocably.
And he studies. For every three-hour weekend class, he researches and practices for ten himself. He is not just about knowledge delivery; his efforts are dedicated towards showing students the importance of what they are learning, igniting interest for any topic, making students comfortable with the subject, removing their fears, and opening up the conversation in the classroom. Ask him about the teacher’s role in a student’s life and he eloquently says that kids need to know the teacher is “on their side”. That is why he makes time for his wards even after class, and does not adopt a holier-than-thou approach in his classroom. “Toppers”, he opines, “have no further challenge in our system. Then there’s the second section of students who are classified as average, but for them too there is rarely any belief or inspiration to try harder and better themselves. And then the bottom section – the ones who are considered to be losers and whom even the teachers don’t pay heed to – have lost faith in the system and more sadly, in themselves, and to bring it back we need a complete attitude change first.” In his own way, Rahul is trying to be that change.
He thinks education for education’s sake and to be job-ready is passé. The real objective should be to prepare someone for life, and promote various fields of career and give ample opportunity for kids to develop their potentials. The hierarchy of education ‘streams’, the narrow focus on job readiness (which he is quick to tell you is shoddy in itself) needs to give way to innovation, problem solving, and a right environment for students to flourish. “Imagine if you could move up the entire ‘average’ population of students, it’d be a revolution”. It’s hard to miss the gleam in his eyes as he speaks. He is always learning he says, and so should everyone else.
“We cannot force students into studying, a common practice adopted by parents and teachers. If you can show real value of learning a subject to students and make it interesting at the same time, students would want to study on their own. And that’s how true learning really happens. But how do you do that?”
“The key to answering this question lies in understanding this – something almost nobody does. ‘Any’ subject you study or ‘any’ experience you have offers a unique way to nurture your ‘fundamental skills’ – like logical ability, reasoning, comprehension, ability to make cases, planning and so on – which help you in all other activities of everyday life including the career you finally pursue. During preparation and delivery of motivational talks I give in schools, I rely on my ‘fundamental skills’ like planning, reasoning, confidence etc. A part of these skills come from the tennis that I played, the physics that I studied, the articles that I wrote in the past and every other experience I had. And so, every subject is important for you to develop your fundamental skills to help you in whatever you pursue in future, even if it is unrelated directly to the subject. Why do you think so many IIT-ians are successful in the startup world without having any prior knowledge of business? It all lies in their strong fundamental skills of logic and reasoning. That’s why if Messi today studies Quantum Mechanics the right way, it’ll definitely help him to be even better at football than he is right now. If you can seed in students this idea of every subject being important, half of your problem is already solved.”
This is Rahul’s philosophy of education. Verbatim.
The People’s Champion
On his blog, Rahul calls himself a people’s champion – someone who supports you and believes in you no matter what. Sounds a tad vainglorious you think? He is quick to counter that idea – there is no self-promotion involved here. He believes that if any of his life experiences and learnings can help someone to better themselves, then putting it down in a blog can be that source of belief that people desire for.
He rues not having had any mentors in school – he does admit to looking up to his close friend Sandeep and his sister Geeta, who is a captain in the Army – and his wish to be a mentor for all the youngsters out there stems from a desire to help and motivate. Don’t trust us? Check out this story of him training for the Squash Nationals and then wipe the cynicism off your face. Rahul Adhikari knows what it means to have a motivator in one’s life, and he’s happy to be that for you.
He’s also happy to pen down his beliefs about the Indian education system and what we can do to change it. He hopes to crowdfund his upcoming book and have teachers across the world read it to improve their classroom delivery. Till then, he is content to teach his classes and fulfill responsibilities at Simplilearn – an online education and certification company based in Bangalore. He has plans to dominate the squash field, improve the education system worldwide, to affect a change in people’s lives, and in short, to be everything he can.
Because that is what life is about – to create as much impact in the world you can to make the society a better place to live in. And that’s what a good education lets you achieve.
This article is part of an on-going series on this blog, where we feature real life heroes and their amazing work. If you know anyone whom we should be writing about, tell us on firstname.lastname@example.org pronto!