Celebrating the “Spirit of Agastya”03 Mar 2011
Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Obviously, we need both, but in many educational systems, emphasis on rote learning – mere assimilation of facts – is crowding out essential lessons on critical thinking and creative problem solving. In this country, educators fret that the drive for quantifiable results, in the form of annual test scores, is dumbing-down our children, forcing teachers to spend most of their time “teaching to the test” – the exams mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act – leaving little time for more experimental and experiential learning.
The United States is not alone. Indian schools face similar problems, relying heavily on “chalk and talk” in the classroom, favoring rote learning that prepares students to pass their exams, with less emphasis on instilling creative habits of mind.
This is starting to change, in India at least, thanks to the path-breaking initiatives of the Agastya International Foundation, chronicled in a new documentary film, Spirit of Agastya. Funded by the MurthyNAYAK Foundation and created by Site2Sight Productions, this short film vividly illustrates Agastya’s efforts to spark curiosity in India’s rural children. Over 50 of Agastya’s mobile labs travel more to more than 10,000 schools, covering 600,000 k.m. per year, taking low-cost experiments and lessons in science, math, ecology, and art to children in remote rural areas. Agastya’s programs emphasize creativity and imagination – learning to manipulate the knowledge we have, to connect thoughts and facts with in a way that generates meaning, understanding, and, ultimately, fresh ideas.
Agastya’s work caught the attention of Jim Vanides, a Hewlett-Packard executive who leads HP’s worldwide higher education initiatives. Under Vanides’s leadership, HP and Agastya are working together on a “New Learner” consortium, which he describes as “an international team exploring how informal and formal learning systems can collaborate to enhance STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education.” (See Powerful Science Experiences for Rural Students, by Jim Vanides, HP Digital Learning Environment Blog.) As Vanides describes Agastya on his blog:
“Imagine the most exciting, hands-on, inquiry-based science museum experiences you’ve ever had (my favorite is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, an advisor to Agastya and the Catalyst Initiative). Then, extend the reach even farther by packing mobile vans with exciting (and simple) sciences experiences that are then brought to remote, rural schools. Over 50 mobile labs travel 10,000 miles [Correction: this should have said 600,000 k.m. to 10,000 schools to] reach thousands of students per year.
What is the secret of their success?
- The dedication of the Agastya team, and a vision that includes educating the WHOLE child (art and creativity are viewed as central skills for scientific thinking and observation)
- Technologies and materials that range from sophisticated to remarkably simple and inexpensive
- The students themselves! Student-led instruction is a hallmark of Agastya, generating student leaders and a pipeline of scientists and science teachers from communities where students are sometimes referred to as ‘first generation learners.'”
Not only that, Vanides is quick to point out: we could do this here! The Agastya model, he notes, “is scalable and replicable in other countries. But don’t just take my word for it – watch this short (25 minute) film, “Spirit of Agastya, and you will see what I mean…”
Agastya’s potential has not been lost on Hewlett-Packard, nor on the hundreds of educators, scientists, and government officials from around the world – the U.S., Britain, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore – who have seen Agastya’s programs in action, and are probably wondering how to duplicate its success in their home countries. We agree with Jim Vanides. If you watch Spirit of Agastya, you will see the potential of the Agastya’s extraordinarily innovative thinking! Please follow the link above to see the film. If you would like further information, visit www.agastya.org. For information on the MurthyNAYAK Foundation or Site2Sight Productions, visit us online. You also can check out our blog post following our recent visit to Agastya, Update: MurthyNAYAK Foundation in India, Part II.