S.N. Gananath, a scientist and educator in South India, is reducing "math phobia" among school children. He has developed teaching aids and a hands-on method that allow children not just to memorize math but to understand it and use it as a tool for life.
The New Idea
In a society like India's, where poverty and class limit social mobility and technical expertise is valued, math is a particularly empowering form of knowledge. S.N. Gananath's project exploits the potential of math to improve the quality of life. As he puts it, "We believe that Maths is a life skill, something like language. That is why we took Maths as a focus area." From his experience as a teacher, he knows that children often develop a fear of mathematics at a very early age. Gananath changes their experience of math by teaching it in a way that makes it understandable and relevant. His method is new in the context of Indian educational practice, in which students traditionally learn math through a regimented process.Gananath trains teachers to establish mathematics laboratories in schools around the country. In these labs, teachers enable children to "see" math in its simplest forms and relate it to events in their everyday lives. Gananath's methodology will be able to reach a very large number of children because he has designed the elements of the lab to be produced from simple, easily available items. Thus, even the remote rural schools that have little or no access to expensive, readymade teaching aids will be able to replicate Gananath's method easily.
Aside from reading, mathematics may be the single most important school subject that a child in India will study. It carries high prestige in the culture. Expertise in math opens up possibilities for career choices in the sciences and the civil service, but a student without it is perceived as dull. Math is universally valued, but whether it is taught effectively is another question. In India, the public schools (called government schools) are rigidly centralized. As in other areas of study, the central government establishes a curriculum for math and dictates standard textbooks which schools must use. (This is also true of the many private schools, which follow an English medium curriculum). Teachers have little freedom to tailor their materials or methods to the needs of individual students; nor does the system give them any incentive to do so. On the contrary, many earn extra income from tutoring students individually. Parents rarely take an active role in their children's government schooling, and schools regard any questions they raise about school policy and teaching methods as interfering. In most classrooms, there is little opportunity to comprehend math beyond the level of solving equations. Typically students memorize mathematical facts and processes by rote and in the abstract; a few private schools have tried alternative teaching methods, but the results have not been documented or widely publicized. The necessity to speed through the syllabus, in order to prime students for board exams, leaves little room for experimentation in teaching methods. Because the curriculum moves swiftly, an eleven-year-old might already be studying difficult algebra. If the child becomes stuck and unable to understand the symbols and new language of math–a common occurrence given the teaching methods–the experience can undermine his or her entire academic experience. This is particularly true for girls and rural students, according to Gananath: "Math phobia is particularly acute in rural schools, where it actually makes a large number of children drop out." The experience of such students often repeats that of their parents, especially their mothers, who are themselves poorly educated and intimidated by their own painful memories of school. While it is true that Indian schools have taught impressive levels of math to a great number of students, Gananath points out that in a country of nearly one billion people, the "successes" who go on to Western universities or become prominent scientists, doctors and engineers are merely a tiny fraction of the population. He argues that those few learn math the hard way, in spite of the antiquated education system, rather than because of it.
Gananath works in the rural Raichur District and in the nearby Bangalore urban District, both in Karnataka state. Bangalore is Karnataka's capital and one of the more modernized cities of South India; known as India's "silicon valley," it is an appropriate setting to demonstrate the practical value of math as an entry to participation in India's burgeoning technology sector. Gananath has designed more than 100 math models, puzzles, games and other low-cost, easily-reproduced math aids. With these in hand he has been able to persuade teachers and local education administrators of the benefits of activity-based math education. He does this through workshops and seminars that he has conducted with Suvidya, the organization he has formed (meaning "good education"). Suvidya is a project of Samuha, a large nongovernmental organization that has supported Gananath's work from its beginnings. Local nonprofits and citizen groups have helped Gananath to popularize his ideas, and requests for workshops now come to him from beyond his local base in Karnataka state. Teachers' associations, voluntary agencies, schools and government departments all ask him to hold national-level workshops. Gananath has so far trained hundreds of schoolteachers in his "math lab" methods.The labs introduce in middle schools and high schools novel but simple techniques to explain such fundamental principles as even and odd numbers, the Pythagorean theorem in Geometry and the factorization principle in Algebra. Gananath's use of experiential learning breaks with the conventional abstract teaching methods: for instance, a teacher could show geometry students what the triangle theorems mean through the use of models to manipulate, play with or physically explore, or verify the various angles and hypotheses involved in a theorem. Recently Gananath has become more aware of the math phobia so acute in girls, and is trying to address the issue by introducing models and activities that are "girl-friendly." Suvidya works with teachers or other clients step by step to develop their math labs. The labs are affordable; each costs around Rs. 5,000 (US$170), and the schools can either buy the kits or, with help from Suvidya, make them themselves from locally available raw materials such as wood, rubber or paper. In every case, the beneficiaries are involved from the initial stages of the project and ownership is transferred to them as soon as they attain the skills to sustain it. Gananath considers his work successful if his teaching aids and methods remain an integral part of the maths curriculum in the schools that adopt them. To ensure that this happens, he designs and tests models made from simple materials that fit into the prescribed curriculum and are easy for teachers to learn to use.Suvidya has recently linked with the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), a project that is being implemented with a World Bank loan across twelve states in India, including four districts in Karnataka where the immediate beneficiaries are an estimated 2 million children and 30,000 teachers in 9,000 schools. The project has the potential to influence the way all children learn math in the state by the year 1999. Suvidya will establish 380 local Math Labs in Karnataka's four districts and will train DPEP teachers who are field-testing the Math Labs. Gananath has helped DPEP to develop textbooks for class levels I through IV and train teachers to use them. Officials from the Indian government and the World Bank have met repeatedly with Suvidya to discuss the possibility of including Math Labs in other projects. Suvidya is also involved in a state science education program that is starting up 100 science centers in two remote districts of the state; Suvidya is setting up Math Labs in each of them. Because of the preeminent role mathematics and the sciences play in the Indian curriculum, Gananath's successful break from teaching math by rote could set a precedent for innovations in other subject areas.
After spending many years in research in geophysics at the Oil and Natural Gases Commission, Gananath grew increasingly unconvinced that his work was having a significant social impact. He moved out of the research field and into a profession, which had always interested him, teaching. He joined the Rishi Valley School, a highly acclaimed residential institution located in Karnataka. While this meant his income was less than half his research salary, Gananath found great satisfaction in teaching. At Rishi Valley and at Neel Bagh Rural School, which was run by Rishi Valley, he had the opportunity to interact with many practitioners of creative education, including the school's many visitors. In his words, "I developed good insight into the entire process of learning during my years there." Rishi Valley was an unusually progressive school, and there he had the freedom to use any teaching method he liked so long as it worked. Increasingly, his attention shifted beyond the students in his classroom to the underlying systematic problems that, even in an enlightened school like Rishi Valley, made math difficult for children to learn. He realized that, although they did well on tests, students relying on traditional teaching methods did not develop a love for math. He then began to make simple models to explain the basic mathematical principles, and the children's enthusiastic response encouraged him to create a whole new set of teaching aids. He left Rishi Valley to devote himself to popularizing his new approach through workshops and courses. Gananath also holds a master's degree in Psychology and has authored two books on students' fear of math; both are soon to be published. His wife, who supports him in this work, is also a teacher.