Reinvent the wheel

This post has gone through three different names. At first, it was called "Why study the theory", and was juggling between the words "theory" and "history". Then I mentally named it "Start from scratch". Until, finally as you see above, it has been renamed to "Reinvent the wheel".

Quite simply, I believe there is knowledge to be gained from re-inventing the wheel. If nothing else, there is knowledge in being aware of the background of wheel-making. To know what can go wrong, and how to fix it if something has gone wrong in the process. You will know what purpose it serves, and what other substitutes might exist and why certain design decisions were made. I know this sounds contradictory to what a lot of common wisdom says. But I will try to argue my point nonetheless. And by the wheel, I am speaking metaphorically of course.

When there are easy steps outlined that tell you exactly what you need to do, life will always be easy. Think back to some of the algebra classes you have taken in your school. Like I recently re-visited in a TED video, most of us quickly learned that we must memorize a formula, spot the data units which we feed into the formula, and get the number coming out at the other end. What did you learn? Did you bother to think why it worked the way it worked? Did you ever wonder about the philosophy behind physics, behind equations? I have been extremely fortunate, and I stress this, extremely fortunate to have had physics teachers who would actually pause for 5 minutes after deriving an equation and encourage us to explore the philosophy behind the equation. Seriously, pause for a moment and think about the equation for the force of gravity: f = G(mA * mB)/d2. Does it even occur to you that there may be some philosophy in that simple equation? Stop reading this post and think... why are the masses of two bodies being multiplied and not added? What does this mean... how should so many massive planets be governed by something as simple as this?
[Edited: had mistakenly written G(mA + mB)/d2 instead of the correct version up there now. Thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed it out]

I believe we need to rethink the way we explain things to children. We need to make them think, and make them curious. All of us have at some point of time in life wondered aloud why we need to learn the causes for the decline of the Magadha empire. Do you know the answer even now? And did you know any other way of remembering this than through rote? What about asking a child, "So if you were the emperor of the Magadha empire, what should you be worried about?". Much more interesting when there is an empire at stake, isn't it? If you have learned your lesson from Magadha history properly, you wouldn't get complacent in your day-to-day life so easily. And you know what, it still applies to all of us!

If you are trying to understand someone else's effort or design, try to put yourself in their shoes and try solving the problem yourself. Before you criticize the design of a software, a building, a syllabus, try and think what you would have done to solve the original problem. I promise you will learn a lot more. And perhaps appreciate the design you have in front of you more as well. You do not need to actually sit down and implement it; just think about it. When you go back to the textbooks next, you will suddenly understand things in new light. Do see that TED video link I gave on top. When you aren't given all the numbers and you have to selectively ask for information in order to solve a problem, you will learn a lot more. Children who are handed everything without asking right from childhood never learn to appreciate the value of what they get. Look at the struggles of Dr. Mani Lal Bhaumik: what he had to yearn for in order to get admitted to the universities. And how much he could utilize the provisions at those universities simply because he knew what he was getting. Teachers and school principals all over say this: "To find one student who is actually interested in learning this, someone who appreciates this chemistry lab we have... that is fulfilment enough for all the work I have done". Of course it is, because that is the one student who really IS learning!

The basic message is to discover! Encourage your kids, your nephews to discover. Don't tell them all they need to know to solve a problem: let them ask you for the information. It is only when they ask you for the right bit of missing information will they be really solving the problem: otherwise they are just pattern-matching answers. Yes it is a long way, but I sincerely believe that it is the right way. You cannot stand around lamenting that the education system is screwed up. You must do something about it... you can start by discovering what.


  1. Very well put. I feel it is necessary for teachers to encourage thinking. Unfortunately, I lacked really good physics teachers ( or may be I was the one lacking :)) , but our principal always encouraged us to think constantly. Those were the days of gujrat riots , so we were always asked to think for ourselves rather than inculcating some propaganda from the media. That helped. It is necessary to make kids think , question and be generally curious about whatever comes their way.

  2. Very good content... I think that thinking twice before you do is not only applicable in solving probs...!,but thinking before u do your work (what ever it may be)is the wise character of good human being..Thats what said by SWAMI VIVEKANANDA.

  3. There's a lot of sense behind learning by first principles rather than by formula and rote.

    Problem is that education today is tailored to the job market where the emphasis is not on learning the basics and taking time to do so but fixing an issue in the least possible time and applying a particular standard whether it is suitable or not.

    People have become robotic in their approach. The Britishers wanted Indians to be clerks and nothing more in their governing machine and the historical consequences of the machine-like approach to education are there for all to see.

  4. Very well written ... on a side note, if I am not mistaken, force is calculated by multiplying the masses, not adding them. At least that's what I remember. Nevertheless, as an educator, I really liked this post.

  5. Mayukh, thank you. And I am glad you had at least your principal encouraging you to question things.

    Anonymous, I am not sure which section of Swami Vivekananda's writings you are quoting from (Karma Yoga, perhaps?). In any case, I agree with the concept of putting some thought into it before taking an action step.

    Hari, oh yes, but sooner or later the demand for dumb humans is going to run out, and then the education system itself will have to adapt. But I agree... still a long way to go.

    Anonymous, shame on me, for missing this! Thanks for pointing it out... have corrected it up there. And also, I am really honored that you liked the post being an educator yourself!


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