On Wednesday, August 5, 2020, the Indian Union Cabinet cleared a new National Education Policy (NEP) proposing sweeping changes in school and higher education. An NEP is a comprehensive framework to guide the development of education in the country. This policy envisions a complete overhaul and re-energising of the higher education system. NEP should encourage students to think outside the box and not just rote the subject. Here is an interesting allegory on thinking outside the box found on the internet:

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

“Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”

One student replied:

You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

At this point the examiner asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think, using the “scientific method,” and to explore the deep inner logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often done in the new mathematics, rather than teaching him the structure of the subject.

In 1959 was published in the journal Pride of the American College Public Relations Association an essay entitled “Angels on a Pin”, by Alexander Calandra, professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The story is about a physics student who surprises his professor on a simple question of physics. The student is generally said to be Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885 – 1962), Nobel prize of Physics in 1922 and the referee is supposed to be the chemist Sir Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), Nobel prize of Chemistry in 1908.

Thinking outside the box simply means that you’re willing to consider different solutions and methods for reaching your desired outcome. The most creative solutions often come first when you have already came up with the more conventional ones. It’s only when you have a range of options that you should sit down and choose the best.​ The time will only answer whether the NEP will encourage thinking outside the box.

1. Nilanjana Moitra says:

The story is well-known and it’s like a viral anecdote on the internet attributed to Bohr. But the question you asked is quite relevant as the new education policy is decided. There should be less stress on just rote while encouraging the kids to think independently too. It will not be just a systematic change but a change in the mindset of the teachers, examiners, educators as well as the parents. Nice post.

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1. Thanks, Nilanjana. You’re right.

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2. An interesting discussion is value comment. I feel that you must write more on this matter, it won’t be a taboo subject but typically individuals are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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3. The NEP should work towards skill development rather than degree holder…
On the face of it, I am very optimistic about it… I am fascinated by carpentry or for that matter psychology but we never had the opportunity to go on different tangent from what we chose as our regular course.
To that extent my son was lucky that his univ offered additional subjects and he could take up Economics along with his main Engineering Degree.

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1. Yes, the system of cross-stream subjects is a good initiative. I was lucky as Hans Raj College had a fantastic library — one of the largest in Delhi University. I read more books on Ethics and Logic than Mathematics from the library. 😉

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4. I feel that most of the studying happens at home in the form of self study. Its also helpful if you can find a knowledgeable and willing to help private tutor. And ofcourse with internet around, not much external help is needed nowadays.
Whatever school it is and whatever the syllabus is, with so many children sitting together in a classroom, no good or bad comes out of it. The influence a school has on a kid is probably quite small in terms of knowledge. Its quite helpful to develop personality and communication skills though. Ultimately people end up developing their own skills and speciality and get placed in the field that they can sustain for a long term.
Nice post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Hope you’re doing well, stay safe.

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1. Thanks, Mithai. It’s more of learning than studying that will help you in life. Take care and stay safe,

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