As educators and parents, we often watch with dismay as our excited, curious, elementary schoolers grow into querulous young adults: easily bored and losing interest in classroom learning. We perceive a challenge in keeping that sense of wonder and newness alive in children. Maria Montessori likened the young mind to a sponge, absorbing everything from their environment, and called this growing up a shift from the ‘Absorbent Mind’ to the ‘Reasoning Mind’. But perhaps, this is a stereotype we have come to accept. Let’s ask ourselves, do adolescents really lose curiosity and their sense of wonder? If they did, then how could any learning happen in adolescence?

More recent studies point out that research related to curiosity and learning has usually involved children, resulting in an inadequate understanding of curiosity in adolescents and its influence on learning. A deeper inquiry into adolescence indicates that “adolescents are certainly curious, but about a wider variety of things, both inside and outside of school”.1

Adolescence is also the period when our mainstream education system begins to complicate the learning process. The number of subjects they have to study increases, there are performance related expectations around exams and later around career choices. As educators we also seem to get drawn into this time-bound “deliverable” style of functioning: moving from one assessment to the next and focussing on ticking the boxes or rather topics to be covered in the curriculum. The question then is: can we create learning environments that arouse the adolescent's curiosity and nurture their sense of wonder? From experience with “cool” and seemingly jaded 16-18 year olds I can say that it is possible to ignite the spark of learning and to generate that “aha” moment by challenging them with real-life situations. Integrating appropriate real-life experiences in the learning process seems to be one way, to not just keep the curiosity, joy and wonder of learning alive but, also to equip young people with skills that will make life-long learning meaningful. Here I share one such attempt at bringing 'life' to a seemingly 'boring' topic.

Planning for a big class

I was teaching a core course on Environmental Education for a class of around 40 Class XII students. The challenge with a larger group of students is to keep most of the class (if not all) engaged with the topic. During one session we were trying to understand Indian Environmental Legislation (an abstract and unappealing topic for most of us). The syllabus required the students to know the main provisions of five or six cardinal regulations and the salient features of the process by which environmental clearance was accorded for development projects in the country. I reserved a 120 minute slot and, anticipating a noisy session, I guided the students to a large open hall, well away from the main school area! The plan was to use role-playing as a way to understand the environmental clearance process as well as the landscape of Indian environmental legislation. It took me a few days to plan and structure the session, and including some form of assessment of their comprehension of the whole clearance process.

Stepping outside the classroom

To begin, merely being out of the classroom brought a different kind of energy to the group. There was much laughter peppered with comments like: “2 hours of no class” “I don't care what we do as long as we are outside the class” “curious about what we are going to do” “whatever we do Environmental Law cannot be fun!” As we settled down in a large group on the floor in the open hall, I handed out a case study (2 pages) which we read together. The case study was built around a fictional project which involved setting up a neem-based pesticide manufacturing facility on fallow agricultural land in a village near the school. The project proponent had submitted their proposal to the State Pollution Control Board for permission to prepare the land for construction of the facility. Questions / doubts (a few are listed below) were answered and clarified.

“Why is the Pollution Control Board involved in this? Shouldn’t they come in only after manufacturing begins?”

“Were the farmers consulted before planning the project?” “What about during the preparation of the project proposal?”

In response to these two questions, the various stages of the environmental clearance process was explained including the various players involved in the process.

“Why is a manufacturing facility being proposed in a farming community?” “Why not help the farmers to revive the fallow agricultural land to grow food?” This question was marked for discussion during the role play.

Based on the questions, the various players (or stakeholders) in the case study were listed. Students were then grouped into five equal groups with each group taking on a different role: members of the Pollution Control Board, representatives of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Industry representatives, citizens likely to be displaced by the project in the case study and representatives from the World Bank. Each group then picked a spot of their choice where they could sit and discuss for 10 minutes. During this time they had to construct their respective roles based on the information provided in the case study. One group sat on the branch of a tree, a couple of groups sat on the grass outside and two groups were inside the hall. After a little over 10 minutes of animated exchanges, the groups had to face each other, question, challenge and play their parts. At various points in the (often contentious) process, I had to intervene with technical inputs about the legal process.