The times are changing. Unconventional-ism is prevailing. There are a lot of things around us that should be changed. Rahul Khandelwal from Unlearn Formulae is doing his bit. An IITian turned mathematician is not a routine thing. So, sit back and read his story.
Unlearn Formulae. Why Unlearn?
I wish we were told not to learn formulae but to understand them. Using formulae is good but using them without knowing what are they doing and how they work is quite dangerous. It’s like riding a motorcycle alone to the mountains without knowing anything other than how to start and stop. So now if any contingency happens you are stuck for long, sometimes forever. Similarly good exams and life always put you into a new situation and we are the difference between cramming a formula and understanding the mechanics of a formula. Unlearn Formulae is about understanding a formula and not just mugging it up. It is about loving the subject and not running away from it. Fear is a product of not knowing. Unlearn Formulae enables students to experience the joy of understanding MATH on their own and, therefore, become free of the fear of MATH.
How come you are not a business analyst or a software developer or an investment banker but a teacher?
I am from Nainpur, a small town in M.P. My childhood was like that of any other child with no idea about the word competition. Life was quite relaxed. So when I completed 12th I started asking people what to do. Somebody told me that IIT’s are the best engineering colleges of the country. So I asked them how can I get in there, and I was told go to Kota. That was the day I decided to get into IIT. I made only two choices for myself, either I will go to IIT or I will come back home and do business with my dad. I still remember when I was appearing in exams to get inside reputed coaching institutes, I had no clue about questions in the question paper and I made a beautiful pattern in the OMR answer sheets by filling up the bubbles and of course I was not selected in any of the Institutes in Kota. So like everyone else, I was an ordinary boy trying to step foot inside IIT, any IIT for that matter.
It took me two long years just to get into IIT, four fast years to come out of it. IIT Delhi made me a better man, with a full grown beard. Just like anyone else, I appeared for a job interview, got selected, and eventually started going to the office. The ecstasy lasted not more than three months because I knew I did not fit in there. It was a Dutch firm and I was supposed to act as a Business Analyst. I did well for them, for me it was not working well. I decided to move on and look for something else that suited my lifestyle and interests.
I joined an NGO called Pratham. Pratham is a citizens’ initiative aimed at Universalization of Elementary Education (UEE) across India. Pratham works in the area of improving quality of elementary education in schools and communities in the rural areas across 22 states in the country. It allowed me to see places, meet people, and see the education standards in the govt. schools. These were the same problems which I used to face as a school boy. From 1984 to 2009, nothing much had changed. While working there for 2 and half years I created a mathematics module to cater to the needs of children in classes 1 through 5 which was implemented statewide in Punjab. The successful module was extended further is being implemented in Punjab under Padho Punjab Learning Enhancement Campaign 2010-11 and in Himachal Pradesh under Aadhar 2010-11.
It was time to make a leap of faith and that’s when I decided to start Unlearn Formulae where I could work and deliver in a manner I felt would have the maximum impact.
An IITian teaching school kids, we do not see that happening often. Why did you decide to become a teacher?
When I started Unlearn formulae I wanted to make an impact on the education system. If education system changes, if we are able to produce brave and confident students, who can think beyond just taking up a job and then cribbing about it, half of our problems will cease to exist. So I decided to put myself in the shoes of a teacher and become a teacher. The safest, easiest, and best thing one can do to make a change is to become a teacher. When I hear from my students that they want to become a teacher I feel happy and contended. IIT has given me amazing friends and professors who are there to support me and motivate me. Of course people come to Unlearn Formulae at the first instance because of the IIT tag. An IITian teaching Mathematics and that too not for IIT entrance makes me believe that they don’t come to me just because I am from IIT.
What makes you different, if you claim to be different?
Here we are not just teaching Math, we are working towards making them make better choices in life. Catch them young is the motto here. Learning is easy at a tender age. Here I am trying to make them work think, make choices, bear the consequences as well, and become independent learners and thinkers. Here we try to take the fear out of them. We try to make them respect each other’s perspective and most importantly respect themselves.
I have attended one of your sessions and I would like to know more about “deep-breathe” practice in your classrooms.
This is a practice to make them settle down in the class. I have not made it compulsory yet but I try to see the impact of this deep breathe practice on the performance of the class. This practice helps them break their regular cycle of thoughts and help them focus in the class with their whole being. Ten minutes of sitting still with no body movements at the start and end of the class makes them realize that 10 min is a pretty long time and they can do much productive work in just 10 min if they want to.
And with a feet long beard don’t you think you look different to kids and their parents?
May be yes, but I feel happy when one of my students told me that he would maintain a beard himself when he will grow up. My beard never was a problem because I am teaching them mathematics and it has got nothing to do with my moustache or color of my skin or whatever.
What are your current projects and plans for future?
Unlearn Formulae presented its first research paper in the IIIrd International conference by Eduexcellence and IIT Delhi. As we all know that a student is with school for 12 years and if we can identify his/her skills in first five years and work on developing them for the next 7 years with 1 hour everyday, that gives 2500 hours of training on developing that particular skill. This will be a boon for the students.
Project Reflection is a program run with Bluebells School International to train the brightest students to develop their higher order thinking skills focusing on their holistic development by trying to convert them into independent thinkers and learners. UF is helping S.Chand design the framework of its digital assessment program for the primary section. UF also implemented Math Basic program in the Fostiima Business School.
I am trying to find an answer to the question: “What should be the outcome of the education?” I know my destination but I don’t know the path as of now. Well to be precise Unlearn Formulae wants to work for next 100 years for education. Challenges are many and we are ready to deal with them. When I started off, I was the office boy, the marketing man, the gatekeeper, and the teacher as well. Things are improving now and I don’t see any reason why shouldn’t they be much better in the future.
Good luck Mr. Khandelwal. Unconventional-ism is here to stay because it is the need of the hour.
P.S. Published in HillPost