What I taught students of class 5 was exactly what IIM professors tried to teach me

February 27, 2012 § 13 Comments

But who really learns?

Yesterday, I was discussing a math problem with my nephew who is in class 4 in a school in Ahmedabad. He is about 9 years old. I noted in him the same tendencies which I noted in a class of mine at Digantar, an NGO, where I taught kids for a few months.

Kids at Digantar, outside their library

Let me begin with our conversation.

The problem: A train leaves a station at 6pm. It takes 5 hours to reach at the destination. At what time does it reach the destination?

Nephew (very confused): I can’t do it.

Me: Try, read the problem again.

(Reads again, in sort of a hurry)

Nephew: We have to do minus in this.

Me: Now, explain the problem to me.

Nephew: We have to do subtraction in this. That’s what our mam told us.

Me: I am not asking you about what is to be done to solve the problem. Just tell me what is given, and what is asked. Remember, every problem will have 2 parts. What is given to us, and what is asked from us. Just tell me these two parts.

Nephew tries to read problem again.

Me: Read it once, and tell me.

Nephew: He has given that train leaves at 6pm. And… it reaches after 5 hours.

Me: Hmm

Nephew: He has asked what is the time when it reaches destination.

Me: That’s right.

Nephew: We have to do minus in this.

Me: Why?

Nephew: Because mam told us that we have to do minus in questions about destination.

Because mam told us that we have to do minus in questions about destination.


The actual conversation was longer, but you get the point. This is exactly what I had noticed in my students. What they do is, see what mathematical operation can be used (plus, minus, multiply, divide) when they get words/indicators in the question. Like in this case, he observed that a ‘minus’ happened whenever the indicator ‘destination’ was present in the wording, and hence developed his own formula, which meant do a minus whenever you see the given indicator. Follow the formula. And in most cases, the formula is something told by the authority.

Is this not how we react to so many of life’s problems?

And he is still better off than many of the students in the school I taught, because many times they would come to me to verify an answer when they had not even read the problem! There was just this strong desire to gain approval of the teacher by getting the right answer.

Are we not all like that?

Those kids would pick up some indicators, pick up the numbers, and then apply the operation they saw fit as per the formula they had observed, or sometimes just randomly. In one case when I asked why did you do multiplication, a student answered that multiplication was what he knew.

And when I told them to read the problem, some of them got mighty irritated. They already had done so much hard work to multiply the 2 numbers in the problem, and now this teacher said – read the problem again. Some would throw their books; some would go outside to play. Others would bear the pain and read the problem again. In rare cases, they actually understood what was asked and did it right.

So I developed an exercise with them and we did a lot of hard work for a few days. Asked them to not calculate, not to give me the answer at all. I did not want answers. All they had to do was divide the problem into 2 parts – what was given, and what was asked. Then things became slightly better.

Playing "Kho-kho"

Cut to classes in IIM Indore. The professor said – read the business case first. Try to understand the problem, do not give the recommendations right away. Take your time. Read it at least 3 times.

Indian Institute of Management at Indore

And then they gave us 3 cases everyday which ran into 25 pages sometimes (apart from mind-boggling exhibits). How could meaningful learning happen with so little time? It did not.

Another Example which happened with with another set of students:

Math problem: If there are 2 Maths professors and 3 Science professors, in how many ways a professor can be chosen to take a class?

Class gives clueless stares.

Me: Okay, let me rephrase – if there are 2 Café coffee day outlets, and 3 Barista outlets, in how many ways can you spend a Saturday evening drinking coffee at these outlets?

Class (almost all): Five !

Laughter all around.

And this was a class made of students in their final year of graduation preparing for the CAT exam. Definitely all above 18 years of age.

The point is clear. People are able to solve problems when they are interested, and they are interested when the the problems were relevant, meaningful to them.

Back to IIM, we got a lot of these Harvard B-School cases in which we had to give recommendations to top management of companies we had never ever heard about, and these had no operations in India, and neither any plans for the same. Some of these were – Cirque du Soleil, Club Med, Nordstrom and Starbucks. We know about the last because they are about to enter India, and we can identify with a coffee outlet chain.

But what about something like Cirque Du Soleil? There is no comparable product/service I have ever seen.

But well, we followed those case studies because IIM Ahmedabad did that, which did that because Harvard Business School did that, which did that because Harvard Law School did that.

All used the formula.

What is the problem?

What is given to us?

What is asked from us?

PS: I strongly believe eveyone should teach at some point in their lives. Gives tremendous insight into human behaviour, and the process of learning itself. Do share your learning experiences – as a student or a teacher.


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§ 13 Responses to What I taught students of class 5 was exactly what IIM professors tried to teach me

  • nipun kakkar says:

    Hey Gaurav,

    That’s a great read. I totally agree with whatever you have written. All the more because i am teaching tennis to kinds and adults and see the same thing in sports too. Teaching definitely adds value to one’s learning process too.

  • Anonymous says:

    I strongly support your views about elite business schools following the age old trend of selecting the best cases for their students… but in this process they often forget to check the relevance of the case in indian context… I feel that its high time that a course on how to make case studies be made compulsory for students in B-school so that we can build up our own repository of cases for the future generation to come…. this way we can understand the harsh realities of Indian context (where most of them would be working!!!) ….
    Btw it was a really good read thank you….

    • Hi.. Glad you liked it..

      Ya they cite the reason that Indian companies are secretive about data, but I don’t buy that. Even if exact figures are not given, a lot of qualitative information about business issues could be shared.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Gordhan Meghwal says:

    Hi Gaurav.

    i have been in both the places teacher and of course student..liked your writing.


  • Hey Gordhan,

    Thanks 🙂
    Where did you teach?

  • Anonymous says:

    A very rare insight of human behavior and a very simple solution to human approach…liked it!

  • Anonymous says:

    Exactly Mathur saab!

    With close to 2 years of on-ground marketing and branding experience, I encountered a similar situation when my sis, who’s currently pursuing her management education, approached me for a solution to a case study.

    Apun B-school wale logon ki ek hi tarah ki thinking ho jaati hai after hearing lectures, peer viewpoints and business channels – especially when there is little or no prior experience involved.

    Dunno whether there is a dearth of teachers who understand the problems of this kind of linear thinking, or are we failing as curious students. Chicken and egg problem, I guess

  • Garima says:

    The situation is really bad for teachers who genuinely want the student to understand and not just score in the exams. I tried teaching a 5th grader…difficult, got exactly the same scenario that you described here.

    Really hope that I can keep curious in my kid intact and going.

  • Umashankar Dash says:

    Hi sir,
    Hope you are fine and doing good….saw ur blog…your content is really meaningful,though not from elite b school, but still the story is same every where….same principle applies to sales as well….middle management bhi short cut pe hi believe karti hai…and i feel the point you are trying to make is all people taking shortcuts to do things and being trained from childhood with out understanding the situation and consequences…..which is absolutely scrap…

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