Shankar K: Mathematician and Computer Scientist from 8th Grade

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Shankar K was a bright student in his 8th grade at one of the most prestigious schools. His academic performance bordered on the top 1% in his school. And recently, he had topped Science and Mathematics Olympiads at the State Level. But lately, his parents had noticed with increasing alarm that he was not being happy. No doubt when they enquired with him if everything was all right he replied, “yes, yes, it is all fine.” It was his mother who discerned his inner distress and described it like this: 

“Shanky was getting bored day by day at school. Even he did not realise it. When asked he simply said it was all right. But as they say, the mother’s heart knows more than her child can express. I felt that something was amiss. He was getting disengaged with everything. As all who know him knows, he is a foody. He enjoys choice dishes and hardly a week went by when we did not take him out with us to some fine place, organic of course. But now, I noticed him merely picking at his food. His thoughts were far away. He appeared lost. And this would have been fine if he was lost in some deep thoughts as he used to. I know my son’s tendency to abstract thinking. He used to read a book on science and start thinking it all over. At those times he was lost to the world, you could say. But in those situations, his face had a glow, almost a secret smile was playing on his face. Both me and his father enjoyed seeing him like that. And when he did come out of that state he would excitedly share what he had found, like an aha moment. But now, that glow was absent. When he came out of that state, he appeared drained out. He almost let out a sigh. I was alarmed. Something was going wrong. I first broached this to his father. He said, well, why not ask Shanky directly. In our family, we were quite open about such things. If something was not oaky, Shanky would certainly speak it out at least when prompted. So both myself and his father prompted him. And when he did not respond, we prodded him with indirect questions. But even then we did not get any clarity. Little did we know then that Shanky himself was looking for the problem and did not know.”

Thinking that their son was working too hard on his academics and perhaps needed a break, his parents took him one day to a science fiction movie. It was in the midst of the movie that they discovered to their shock that he was sad, really sad. He sighed from time to time and hardly even noticed what was going on in the movie. They decided it was better to leave and all three came out of the theatre in the midst of the movie.

Later the next day, Shanky himself approached his mother and said, “Mom, you know what is the problem? I am bored, terribly bored.”

“Bored? Why Shanky, bored about what?”

“I am bored about everything, mom.’

“Everything? But you are reading so many books and watching the Khan Academy videos?”

“Those are fine, mom, but school…”

“You mean, you are bored about school?”

“Well, mom, I am bored at school, all the time.”

“Why?”

“There is nothing new, mom, it is all the same thing, just take down the notes and memorise and write them all over in the exams. It is terrible, mom, I feel so bad doing that. I think it is a sheer waste of my time.”

“But, Shanky, that is the way it is isn’t it? What can we do?”

“I don’t know, mom, but I cannot take it. And you know what, I hate telling you this…today, I bunked the Chemistry class. I went to the Library and read a nice book on Egyptian History…But I can’t bunk the classes like that. If the teachers notice they will complain to the Principal…”

Shankar’s mother was at a loss what to do. After his father came home that day, she confided in him about the real issue. Together they deduced that they needed to do something about it. At first they thought they could take him out of that school and try out a different one. But they realised that his school was one of the best in that city. Obviously, it would do no good to try another one. Then they looked up on the web to se if they could find any resources. That also did not help. Three weeks passed in a fruitless search to find a solution. And then, one day, along with Shankar, they were visiting a friend of Shankar’s father. In course of conversation, their attention suddenly went to a framed certificate displayed on the wall. “Whose is that?” Shankar’s father asked his friend.

“Oh, it is our daughter’s,” his friend replied.

“Is it that of any competition?” Shankar’s father enquired.

“No, it is not of any completion. It is the distinction certificate of an Accelerated program that our daughter has just completed. You can take a look.” Saying that, the friend went up to the wall and took down the frame and brought it for them to see.

The certificate read,

“This is to certify that Aditi K has completed the third year of the CFRCE Accelerated Learner’s Program (Bio-Medical Science) with high distinction and has demonstrated learning and domain mastery in the concerned subjects.”

“What?” Shankar’s mother exclaimed. “What is this CFRCE Accelerated Learner’s Program? And how is it that your daughter has completed three years of study in such a difficult subject like Bio-Medical Science? If I remember right, your daughter is now in the 10th grade!”

“Oh, our daughter goes to CFRCE, the Centre for Fundamental Research and Creative Education. She has completed three years now. She started in her 7th grade. At CFRCE, a student can choose, focus and learn exclusively, topics they are interested in and are passionate about. Aditi was deeply interested in biological sciences, medicine and neuroscience from her 6th grade. Fortunately, we heard of CFRCE while she was in the beginning of her 7th grade. We approached CFRCE and soon, enrolled Aditi in the Accelerated Learner’s Program. And wonder of wonders, in barely a year’s time, she covered a tremendous amount of material in Bio-Medical Science and reached levels of mastery possible only at the Masters degree. Now she has mastered several other topics in addition to Bio-Medical Science including Advanced Calculus, Mathematical Logic, Complexity Theory, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning…and is engaged in research on cellular automata and artificial neural networks. In fact, she wants to skip the 11th and 12th grades and move on to the Master’s or Doctoral level directly, or at least to complete her 11th, 12th grades and skip the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. And by the way, Aditi has been selected for the summer school at the University of California Santa Barbara, USA in July. She is also consolidating her research into Neuroplastic Sensory Substitution Devices from the point of view of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.”

“Fantastic!” Shankar’s father and mother gasped. “It sounds too good to be true! How it is at all possible?”

“Well, it sounds too good to be true. And it is true. And Aditi is not the only one at CFRCE who has attained such extraordinary levels of learning in the subject of her interest and passion. Almost every student out there is like that. I mean, you would not find anyone who is not like that. Just before Aditi there were two students who mastered Mathematical and Theoretical Physics beyond the Ph. D level barely in their 11th grades. In the 11th grade, they were invited speakers in an international conference on Loop Quantum Gravity.” Presently, just four years after their 12th grade, they are completing their Ph. D in Theoretical Physics and Pure Mathematics respectively. Yet another student skipped the 11th and 12th grades altogether and was offered admission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA straight from his 10th grade. Another student turned into a Business Entrepreneur just after his 11th grade! So it is not at all surprising that Aditi could do what she did at CFRCE.”

“But then Aditi must be missing out on a lot of things in life…by focussing so much on studies…” Shankar’s mother was curious.

“Oh, hardly so!” Aditi’s mother laughed. “Aditi is into nearly every kind of activity that kids are into. She is an accomplished dancer since she was four years old. She loves skating, basketball and tennis and gives almost an equal amount of attention to those. It is just that she says these don’t give her the extraordinary thrill that her intellectual engagements do. Her most recent interest and passion is a deep branch of mathematics known as Algebraic Topology. She says this branch helps one to distinguish between geometric objects in more than three dimensions. In particular she astonished us by trying to explain how the 7-dimensional sphere was supposed to have 21 different so-called differentiable structures. This was beyond us so we simply listened to her.”

“How does that happen?” Shankar’s father asked. “How do students at this CFRCE you mention learn at that intensity?”

“The key word is “learn.”” Aditi’s father explained. “At schools students study but may not learn. At CFRCE students learn. They really, really learn. That is what Aditi tells us. At CFRCE, students become independent learners ready to take on any topic of their interest and passion on their own. In fact Aditi likes to quote the great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman that “the best teacher is one who makes himself less and less necessary for the student in the fastest period of time.” When we asked her what then is the role of a teacher, she says that it is more of guiding the student in liberating the creative energies by initiating the student into what is known as Deep Practice or Deliberate Practice or Purposeful Practice. The greatest teacher is supposed to be a “talent whisperer,” one who ignites the student’s dormant interest and passion in a subject and helps the student to concentrate all one’s energies towards the object of learning.”

“Oh, how do they teach at CFRCE then? How are the classes?” Shankar’s mother wanted to know.

“At CFRCE there is no classroom teaching at all!” Aditi’s mother responded.

“No classroom teaching? What then happens there?” Asked Shankar’s mother.

“Yes, there is no classroom teaching at all.” Aditi’s father spoke. “Aditi says classroom teaching is the greatest inhibitor of learning. It masses together students and ignores individuality, the unique strengths that a student has. At CFRCE they treat each student as an individual and therefore each student has his or her own unique curriculum focussed on the subject of interest and passion.”

Shankar’s parents then and there realised that they had found the perfect place for Shankar. Soon enough Shankar sent in his application and was selected into the Accelerated Learner’s Program. And barely in a year’s time, Shankar catapulted himself deep into pure mathematics enjoying topics like Complex Function theory, Elliptic Functions and Calculus on Manifolds alongside his passion for Computer Science. Just as he entered his 10th grade, Shankar was on his way to do Mathematics and Computer Science at the Masters or Doctoral levels.