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Why General Knowledge?

- Ankit Vyas

I have been thinking for a while about two categories of knowledge in a classroom: the must-have and nice-to-have. Going by most Indian classrooms, general knowledge is categorized into the latter by either the teacher or the administration. Its a non-essential. Its neither going to be graded nor going to fetch marks in the board exam. From all counts, all it seems to do at a school level is to help win quiz competitions and not everyone takes part in those. In low-income schools where knowledge of absolute essentials such as language and arithmetic is abysmally low, the very idea of focusing on general knowledge seems laughable. It isn't.

Having taught in a low-income school for two years, I came across some shocking answers to questions we consider common knowledge. “What is the capital of India? Vashi Naka. ” When pressed further, they would say Mumbai. A world beyond Vashi Naka or Mumbai seemed alien and non-existent to them. General Knowledge is required to open up the worlds of millions of students studying in these low-income schools to possibilities beyond their community.

Why should a student who can barely read, know about Bill Gates or the Pyramids or Raghuram Rajan? Because that knowledge will give him a reason to want to read, to work harder, to yearn for a life beyond his community. Role models from history as well as the current era can be used to motivate the children to work harder. Research indicates that people high in general knowledge also tend to be more open to new experiences. People more open may be more motivated to engage in intellectual pursuits that increase their knowledge. Thus, general knowledge only motivates students to learn more, to explore and to be more, creating a virtuous cycle. 

What is beautiful about general knowledge is that it can always be linked to subject knowledge as well. Imagine a student studying a chapter in English about a boy who faces many challenges to succeed eventually, and saying, “That boy is like Abraham Lincoln. He struggled first and then worked hard to succeed.” That student has just been given a frame of reference. Lets say students are reading about the Sanchi Stupa for the first time but they had learnt about the Pyramids before. They can then compare the time periods and know that the Sanchi Stupa came after the Pyramids. Each fact that they now learn is not self-contained. It is connected to some other fact which in turn is connected to something else and that pattern will help students understand everything they are learning in its right context.

Now that the importance of General knowledge has been established, what next? If broken down to its most basic form, a singular general knowledge fact is no different from subject knowledge, other than the fact that it will not be tested. So clearly, presenting random facts to students in the conventional manner will neither engage nor help in retention. Research states that audio-visual content helps in increased retention as well as understanding. Thus at VFK, we are focusing on making brief, general knowledge videos that will improve the quality of education and access to general awareness content among low-income schools in India. We want to make our content freely accessible to teachers and students in low-income schools, thereby taking income out of the knowledge equation.

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