Thoughts on Learning: Part 5

“When we speak of learning, is Individual Achievement our benchmark of success and if so, should it be?”

One aspect which I find troubling is the focus on “Individual Achievement”. Can companies be built single handedly? Can cricket / football matches be won single handedly? Can societies be advanced single handedly? Nope. We know that and yet we always seem to emphasise individual achievement. Students compete against each other to get to 1st Rank. In everything.

Is there not an inherent message we are giving to students in this process? “Dont care about your friend. You study well. You succeed”. End of story. Right? So, our education system is primed to serve the Capitalistic Economy. We say we are democratic but we dont even teach all principles equally to kids. We dont tell them early on that there are many ways of running a system and Capitalism is just one. We are inherently breeding “Social Disparity”.

I am not saying that Socialism is better or Communism is but that these principles have to be treated on par at least in early stage education. For all the argument that one can give that Socialism failed, one can always argue on the other side that Capitalism forcibly made Socialistic economies collapse for their own benefit. Lets not decide that.

I am concerned because of what happens to the not so previleged students. Every decision we make is “To ensure that the high performers are not inhibited from achieving the heights they can”. Who cares for those who are not doing so well? This seems to me as a classic case of “Sub-Optimization”. We try to “Optimize” the road for the “Geniuses” and hope that they would benefit the society at large later through their inventions etc. I am sure that happens to some extent. Many of the medicines / vaccines the geniuses developed has helped us big time. There are lots more. I only mention medicine since that is probably the biggest change in the last 100 – 200 yrs that has largely impacted societies in a beneficial manner by reducing / eliminating diseases. All else comes later.

My point is this. If we were to also include some “Team based” assessments even at school level, would it not be great? An inherent message will go out saying that true success is when you can also take people along. I think it is also beneficial for the “Toppers” on a life level. I am sure there are many Individual Achievers who end up being Lonely creatures, not knowing how to connect personally / co-operate well in a work place and overall work together to create a better society. We would hopefully not have a society with such large disparities. It would be more peaceful and safe.

(I dont feel I have done enough justice / made my points fully in this aspect as yet. Will follow this up in another post later. Do weigh in.)

Thnx.

Thoughts on Learning: Part 4

Learning happens in 4 stages

  1. Inspiration
  2. Curiosity
  3. Exploration
  4. Realization

Do we see any of these happening in our schools? I guess not. So, what do I wish? Here’s the list

  1. We would do great to have a chain of Museums across the country on all things, Science, History, Language etc.
  2. Kids from schools get to go to these Museums as part of curriculum once in 3 months. We can cycle the exhibits across the various museums so that kids can see new things each time
  3. Classes in school to let kids get creative on what they can fathom about how the things they saw in museum relate to their life. Possibly even uses they can imagine of stuff they saw / experienced there
  4. Small kits (not expensive but well designed) in their hands starting as early as class 4 to explore, experiment with / create stuff and find out how things work. Guidance by teacher would be great
  5. Kids get to take kits home and show to parents what they did. Who knows? They may also end up creating new stuff.
  6. Follow up sessions / exhibitions in school to share what they created (could have even been a poem, a drawing, an instrument to measure time in new units, whatever.. ) with others
  7. Discussions in class based on exhibitions and key learnings

Did you notice the 4 stages in the wish list? 😉

Great to imagine. Can it work? If we cant even imagine, what can we get to work? Been very inspired by Shri Arvind Gupta (arvindguptatoys.com) lately and this idea has been simmering for a while. Comments welcome.

As this conversation in “The Matrix” goes

Neo: I know Kung Fu

Morpheus: Show me.

(and then the cool gravity defying fight … )

I believe that we can claim to know stuff only when we can discuss about it freely / demonstrate it / teach it to others. Kids I hope will be able to do these better if only they went through stuff in the wish list. Thats the right assessment of knowledge.

What do I propose? This thing above is the real need of the hour in the Indian Education System. Can we work out for-profit, not-for-profit organisations, etc that can fulfill this need?

Experience at AngelHack Chennai 2015

Was at the AngelHack Chennai event on Sunday… My thoughts.

Firstly, it was the first hackathon I went to. Was great to connect with a lot of people including college students, other working professionals, those who had quit job at an early age to startup and the experts from IBM, HP, ThoughtWorks and ClusterPoint.

With a list of 30 teams from across India that competed, it was a good event. I am sure there would be events with a lot more experienced teams happening elsewhere though but its important to have teams coming in early. I am sure it would have been a good learning for them too.

The trends I saw are these.

  • Many ideas revolved around building platforms. Only point though is that its easy to under-estimate what it takes to get a platform successful business wise.
  • Multiple ideas that targeted the emergency response / accident / safety scenario (on roads / in house for elders etc). Thats a good thing. Important problems to solve but again interfacing with multiple parties and trying to solve too many things in one shot is tough. Keeping the whole scenario in mind and starting with one focussed device / solution would be great. Over time, can expand to solve more parts of the problem.
  • One thought process to possibly avoid is to start thinking from the point of what tools I have and what problems can I use it to solve. I believe its a wrong approach. We do need tools to solve problems but just because I have a tool, like an API that HP provides on sentiment analysis, trying to use it to solve a problem leads us to try and manufacture problems or see them in wrong light. Very often, we tend to under-estimate the need for domain knowledge. I cant stress it enough. Businesses are successful because they understand how things work on the ground and how they are able to help the players adopt new behaviours / tools which are beneficial. Not because we have tools. So, starting from the problem is the right direction.
  • In a sort of continuation of the thought above, its important to know that we have the right solution to the problem. Implementation is secondary. We cannot use sentiment analysis to judge behavioural traits of people. We cannot use signature based unlocking of phone without having the algorithm to compare it reliably and authenticate. Sometime, some things are not possible and thats why they are not done as yet.
  • Not hitting at bold ideas. I totally realise that its a hackathon and 24 hrs is no time to solve a big problem. Even then, its important to start picking the real big problems that society around us faces. That’s one reason the winners were the winners. The social impact of having a tool to tell us about safe / relatively unsafe areas in a city is great. Its not innovation that always matters. Using existing ideas / solutions to solve a problem which exists where we live is good enough. Also, not-for-profit is a perfectly valid business model. That does not mean its not fundable. Foundations can fund, govt can fund, we can crowd source, run by donations etc. Is it valuable to people? Thats all matters. Means can be worked out. So, would be great to see more technology being focused on solving real problems which exist at the social level. (I am also guilty of the same but have some plans for the future)
  • On the technology front, it was good to see that teams were able to pick up IBM Bluemix, HP On demand, Cluster point etc in a short time and use. Also, good to see frameworks like Angular, Ionic being used. Few ideas on Internet of Things (IoT), those involving hardware, were good to see.
  • Safety / interoperability. When we design hardware that goes along with other existing devices in the market, we need to know that they will play along well and that safety is not compromised. Addressing specifically a team which attempted to enhance efficiency of water heaters, its important to address safety concerns first. It cannot be an after thought. I am not commenting on whether the solution was safe. 5 minutes is not enough to judge that but in such attempts, safety must be explicitly addressed as one of the key areas for which design is done. Also, interoperability is primary when our solution is not complete in itself. That is critical to address.
  • Lastly, one point on Privacy concerns. I saw a fair number of them looking to use GPS sensor from the phones to use location and build location aware applications. Its great but again addressing privacy concerns is important. We cant take the user for granted. Just because a sensor exists, we cant use it. Also, it drains the battery. So, apps which expect GPS to be on all the time are not welcome from user perspective. I am all for using all sensors on the smart phones. This is what allows phones to do things that we cant do with laptops but care and concern for user needs primacy.

I wont be doing justice if I were not to mention that there were more than 3 good ideas and implementations. Events have certain specific requirements as success criteria. We need to respect that but that does not mean that the ideas which didnt win are not worthy of pursuit.

Please feel free to weigh in.

Hope to attend more events in time…. Cheers 🙂

Thoughts on Learning: Part 3

Linear / Non-Linear / Staggered ….. Is there a right way to learn? And hence to teach? A disclaimer. These are more my understanding from various sources. Not a result of a structured study. I do not even quote specific sources. I frankly find that at times, very structured studies get inefficient and get far away from reality. Hence, this approach.

Today, I want to share thoughts with you on the various ways learning can happen and how we can look to plan it. Firstly, I will quote in summary 2-3 theories and then discuss them.

  1. The most esoteric is probably the relationship between games and learning. The theory goes this way. Even games are to be learnt. And kids love games. Why do they love games? What is it in games that cause the attraction. Can we use that in learning? So, comes the concept of “Flow”. In simple terms, what it says is that, the goal must be very clear to the player. Rules must be real simple and what they should do must be clear. Start with very simple targets and progressively increase complexity as they LEARN. Otherwise, we end up either getting too difficult against their learning level of the game or too easy. One way, they end up demotivated and other way, they get bored. So, thats great. Why dont we apply that to teaching stuff in classrooms? Teach students some simple things. Get them to do it. Once they do that well, increase the complexity and go on.. Whether all students can learn at the same pace is a different issue altogether. Even assuming we can deliver in a personalised way, is this a great concept applicable to learning? Should all teaching follow this concept of “Flow”?
  2. The simplest method goes this way. How can a student solve a problem without knowing the rules that govern it? So, if one has to solve a problem on how many times a ball will jump when dropped on a floor, then teach them the physics behind it and then let them apply the rules (of nature in this case) to the problem. So, theory first. Apply on the problem next. Of course, we take simple problems first and then go to more complex problems but there is a primacy to theory. In part, that’s because this approach is easy to run on mass scale.
  3. A method somewhere in between is more reliant on practical learning. This method believes that what is the point in attacking a problem without understanding the problem itself? How on earth did Newton learn physics? Did he learn the theory first? Of course not. He started from the problem and after studying it, playing with it, arrived at the rules that nature followed. Should we not go the same way? The obvious trouble with this method is that it appears to be too slow. Why should we re-invent the wheel? Its after all known what the rules are. Why go through the cumbersome process again. Let us directly deliver the end result to the students. (with some background on how it came)

Things are getting complex. For sure. And the article is going long…. Let me break here. I will deal with further thoughts on this in Part 4.

One caution though. Looking back, I note that Method 1 goes like this. Learn phase 1, practice phase 1, learn phase 2, practice phase 2…. and so on. Not that this contradicts with Method 2. Just that the chunk sizes are supposed to be much smaller and palatable in Method 1 as against that in method 2.

Let’s look at more thoughts on this in the next part…

Cheers. 🙂

Thoughts on Learning: Part 2

Dr. Abdul Kalam’s speech just made it easy for me to start the second part.

Do read http://yourstory.com/2015/06/entrepreneurship-in-syllabus-kalam/

Today, I would like to address the question of “What is the purpose of schooling?” as of today? How do schools measure themselves and how they should. If schools (in India, my limited knowledge area) are measuring themselves by PASS Percentage, then we certainly are on a wrong path. I would rather believe that schools in essence must be working towards the purpose of leading to betterment of humanity. We cant expect corporates to do that for us. If we believe that this is too lofty a goal even for school, then where else will we address this issue? For all the science that we teach, if we dont let the students explore the consequences of using science wrongly, would we be doing justice?

Coming back to the original thought, for all the advancement we have made, the basic problems that plague our society still remain the same; health, malnutrition, lack of education, sanitation, unequality of wealth distribution, religious intolerance etc. Who will even work towards solving these problems or have we accepted defeat at the hands of these problems and taken them for granted. Are we happy in a world where 70% or more of the population will just scrape through life or even struggle to be free. If we dont bring up these aspects in front of children (at whatever appropriate age), then what message are we giving them? That either we adults know the solution to all of this or that these are not worth attempting and they should just think about how to better their own lives.

In essence, I would believe that a one liner can sum it up all. The goal of schools can be to impart this simple understanding. Coz if only unit economics works, will whole systems be fine.

“Each should give more to society than they take from it”

Some may do so by creating new products that improve health, some may do by establishing social organizations that work towards equality, some may use law to achieve the same. Entrepreneurship need not be restricted to creating for-profit companies. It is as I see a “marathon towards solving problems” which are relevant to society. In that process, one may make money but not always. Creating systems for betterment is the key. That should certainly be a thought which students come out of school with. By not telling them this, we are telling them that we adults know all solutions and that they need not worry. We simply dont. We would better encourage them to attempt some of these and may we help them in this attempt.

(Sorry if I did digress.. That seems unavoidable the way I write 😉 or may be I will learn how not to. )

Thoughts on Learning: Part 1

Its been long… Really long since I wrote something. Of late though, thoughts are pushing me to write again… Not long articles. Not as if I know what I am saying completely. Just putting out ideas that are shaping up. On the Learning Process.

My broad thought lines as of today

  • How meaningful is our schooling and college system to learning?
  • What remains the purpose of schools and how much or how little are social aspects a part of learning?
  • Who should learn what? Who decides? and when?
  • Is STEM Education becoming more the focus and are we missing out on letting kids learn aspects of ethics and social responsibility?
  • Is “Teaching” as a full-time profession a great thing? I mean, what of a teacher who does not continue learning / researching? Are they the kind of teachers we need or would we be better of with teachers who are themselves into creation / research and take students along in that process?
  • How critical is it to start learning from the problem than try to learn stuff and then attack a problem.

Lots to think about. Lots of ideas running in my mind. Would welcome thoughts, links to great articles on the subject in comments.

Have fun 🙂

The future of online tests…

Can someone give me a more really meaningful and engaging test?

 

I hope so… All of us have written tests. Starting from school days and then when we wanted college / university admissions and then when we wanted a job. Life in itself is another test. Which one do we enjoy? Well frankly, none of them. There is one other test though that many enjoy, and especially kids. Guess what? We dont even call it a test but we love it. GAMES… 🙂

Games are tests. Really powerful tests. Angry birds tests so many of our skills, knowledge, ability to strategise, plan, find the right angle, our understanding of height and distance, rigid body mechanics and even fracture mechanics when you need a few hits to break something and more to break others and that too at the right place. It must be testing more now but I am not following it anymore…

I used to love playing Wolfenstein 3D when I was in high school. That was a challenging game. Memory was crucial to play that game. We had to get through buildings which were a maze. 9 levels in each building and I remember playing 5 such sequences. Planning was also key. We had to know where we could get food, where medicines, where wealth etc and be able to plan how we get there and beyond. Digging out carefully hidden treasures, health and food were nice to do…. 🙂

 

Now, do any of these have any relevance to the way we do tests for professional purposes i.e. like selecting candidates for admission to college / university or for a job? Not much yet. Guess the puzzle solving requirements of Microsoft and their quizzing is one. I remember solving one puzzle of theirs when I was in college. Well. I didnt attend their interview coz I was a mechanical engineering student but then it took 2 days to solve it. Thats an interesting test to take.

So, what would companies and universities do, say 5 years down the line to choose candidates? Guess they will all move away from two things.

  • Relying on checking knowledge of component competencies alone
  • Paper based tests

 

Let me explain. Let me take a case close to my area of specialisation. Mechanical engineering and being more precise, computer aided engineering. When we want to hire someone who can be good at structural analysis of a particular aerospace system for example, we have multiple choices. We could either ask him/her to show us how he/she would do it. The trouble there though is the length of time we would take to get to a conclusion in this mode. We would all love to have somebody to spend a few days or may be more on a task before we can judge. Thats simply not available. So, we then list out all component knowledge that a person would require to execute this task, list out tools that one should be adept at handling and list out the systems / components one would have to handle. Then, we quiz them on those

  1. Knowledge (of engineering concepts in this case)
  2. Tools
  3. Domain

It is not very easy to do all of these in limited time. So, we also rely on records of their experience.

If this were for admission to a university, component 1 (knowledge) would dominate or probably be the only one. Are we happy with the result? Not always. We then end up seeing that this person may have an issue with say ‘decision making’ or ‘planning’ or simply ‘lack of focus’ on the job. Then, we add psychometric assessments to the set of tests we do.

While there are obviously many many more ways that people implement such tests and probably add rigour of multiple tests or interviews, the point is that it all costs time and effort and we would all love to use more meaningful and interesting ways to test candidates. Can we test multiple factors in lesser time? Factors like

  1. Knowledge of subject
  2. Problem solving ability
  3. Communication skills
  4. Planning ability
  5. Perseverence, will to succeed etc
  6. Willingness to learn
  7. Ability to cooperate

I could add a few more that actually matter when it comes to whether someone can succeed in a job or in a university course.

All this leads me to think whether we could devise games that can test many of these aspects, if not all in shorter time and with more precision. By precision, I mean the correlation between a positive output from the test and success of that candidate.

Now to the second point; of online tests. A game is of course an online test; whether played in a smart phone or on a desktop computer. Offline games could also be good but there are serious limitations in regard to resource to conduct such games. It is already seen that many organisations have started moving to online tests rather than use the paper based Optical mark reader (OMR) sheet system. Many more and I believe almost everyone will eventually move out to online tests for the below few reasons

  • The relief from limitations of geography
  • Transparency
  • Speed of publishing results
  • Cost
  • Lastly but very imporantly, ability to test much more…

The objective type questions which still dominate the scene would have to give way for newer methods of testing. Interactive tools including games are going to be essential to test much more than component knowledge and skills.

Lastly, the learning from the games is not to be discounted. While testing might be a primary purpose, the same can be used in a learning mode too. Militaries have certainly been at the forefront of exploring methods to assess skills including psychological skills but for the civilian world, we need alternates that help quickly and more meaningfully deliver tests and get better outputs while delivering a great experience to the candidate too… I believe that online games; interactive with the system and probably even interactive across a group of candidates could find a place in tests conducted sometime down the timeline….

Will write more as I learn. Please do leave your comments. Thnx.

Jai Hind !!! (This is my regular ending…)

 

Does secularism mean we dont need any religions?

The current context…

The debates and issues related to secularism are gaining big momentum as of today in India. I will not overplay it since I believe that there is still a pretty good working relationship amongst multiple communities. People do not react until something directly affects them. There are such situations occurring once in a while but those, I believe usually are local issues which probably get sorted out in some time without any major issue being made out of it. Those in positions of power or those wanting attention though, seem to be provoking trouble in the name of picking up issues and the news media faithfully amplifies these issues leading individual citizens to think whether there really is such a problem.

Some of the issues being debated today are

  • Teaching of Bhagavat Gita in schools
  • Fatwa against Surya Namaskar
  • Quota for minorities within quota

As you can see, none of these are issues that have cropped up from the ground level scenario. The first was a decision by a govt., the second a fatwa issue by a cleric, the third a statement made by a central minister. These are ones that media picks up and blows up… while I as a citizen do not have any issues of such magnitude with those of other religions and communities working with me or living near me..

Do we need religions?

Quite clearly, unless one wants to be blind and take extreme views, we as humans do need religions. Every community across space and time has come up with some vision of a supreme power and who they call god. It could have been the communities which regarded nature and it’s powers as supreme and accorded them godly positions or the major religions that came up. Broadly speaking, religions are a means for society to feel secure and control itself rather than allow each to go one way and thereby de-stabilise the society. After all, each of us individuals are unique. Religions brought those living together under one umbrella of faith to ensure some cohesiveness. Morality and thereby law and order were intrinsically linked with religions. Primarily, religions apart from having a theory on how and why humanity came about, who or what created it etc, also imposes a moral code which all are expected to follow. The first is only a theoretical aspect. The second is the one we face day in and day out. Each religion also had a blasphemy concept whether mild or severe to ensure that almost everyone conforms to the rules and does not jeapordise the system. They valued the system more than the individual beliefs. This certainly was necessary to some extent since each of us may start thinking wildly, not take any lessons from the past and come up with crazy rules to live. This will of course, kill the communal harmony, even within a single small community living isolated from most others. So, even tribes have some form of religion if not one with great theoretical standing and big volumes of written sacred texts.

The major point we see is that religions were born to bring together individuals and to them, give a sense of security and establish a moral code of conduct. It was a uniting and stabilising force.

When did problems start?

As we can easily imagine, when each group living in isolation evolves it’s own religion and runs the society there and then, there are no issues. Problems occur though when people of various faiths come together or else, two or more religions are born in the same place and time. All religions have a commonality in purpose. There is no dispute there. The dispute is in the way it has to be practiced and the rules. Differences are hardly even on ‘WHAT’ but most often on ‘HOW’ .

If religions had been used only for their main purposes as illustrated earlier, there would not have been issues. Trouble started brewing though when it became a tool for oppression and power struggle. Religions never had this purpose. ‘Power’ has always been a great attraction for humans across time and is..  Some religious heads, who already wielded some power craved for more and tried to bring some other communities under their fold. Some believed that theirs was the best religion and that others need to be saved by bringing them into their fold, irrespective of whether they already had one. So, religions which were meant to stabilise society and define a common way of life became reasons to fight and die for.

What is our scenario now?

Coming to today’s scenario in India, being a large country and one which has faced multiple imperalistic attacks across time has many religions and faiths being practiced. When we got Independence, we already had the many religions amongst us. So, in time, our constitution also got the word ‘Secular’ into it’s preamble itself. (If I remember right, through the 42nd amendment in 1976).

We had Hinduism from many centuries. We had also many tribes who had non-codified religions of their own. We got Islam when invaders came in. We got Christianity when the Europeans came in to do business and then decided they were the best to rule the place. We had others come in like the Zoroastrians who come to seek shelter when persecuted. We saw the birth of Buddhism and Jainism here. So, we today have many many religions and even within each, have many schools of thought and thereby sects.

There are also others who have long contended that humanity needs no religion. The atheists in their various forms, whether influenced by Karl Marx or others have stood on the other side, although highly outnumbered.

Hence, we obviously are a highly pluralistic society and today, no more live in isolated pockets. We are thoroughly mixed up and each state or district has a population with most of these religions. This clearly means that we need a way to live together without fighting. Once we start fighting on these lines, we can not live comfortably.

What we would do by living amicably is a different question. Essentially, a peaceful existence is the platform for evolution. Some may consider discovering planets and stars as evolution, some finding new ragas in music as evolution, some others in genetically engineering humans and yet others in seeking the goal of life in various philosophies. Those are irrelevant here. The common base though is that to do any of these, a peaceful co-existence is essential. I will stop at that.

So, is it better to be secular?

Given the fact that we are highly pluralistic and thoroughly mixed up, interactions among people of various religions are a day to day issue now. Since our constitution also says we are a ‘secular’ country, all political parties which today fight to govern the country have to declare that they are secular. They do so. Just that, each one has a different definition.

Yes. It is better to be secular. We do not have a choice. We cannot become a ‘hindu’ nation or an ‘Islamic republic’ or something else. We need to evolve a good definition of secularism.

My view on what secularism should mean…

What choices do we have?

  • Take the atheist definition and remove all religions
  • Try to make all religious communities equally powerful
  • Each keeps their religion but we evolve a good working relationship

As we have seen, the first option is out of questions. Humans need religions and they will not let go of it. Even the atheistic view still serves the purpose of religion by defining a social code of conduct. Just that they do not recognise any god existing above the clouds. The communist parties who have advocated this and still do remain a minority. There have been attempts in other places. I am given to understand that ‘basavanna’ in Karnataka attempted the same to remove caste differences but we still live with it. So, I rule out option-1.

Can we make all religions equally powerful? Not really. The numbers count. We are supposed to have about 80% hindus, 13% muslims, 6% Christians and so on. I am not too sure that 80% are hindus in the sense that they follow hindu books and traditions. I understand that many tribes who do not have a codified religion but follow practices similar to hindus are classified under hinduism. In fact, the ‘dalit’ community as it is called has become the bone of contention with each wanting them to belong to their religion and each political party wanting their votes as they really are a huge number.

However we look at it, we can never have all religions wielding the same amount of power.

The final option. I call it final. Some others may come with others though.

Religion, social structure & conduct, governance and thereby politics have always been closely linked and will remain so.

This really is why much of our political fights are to do with religion and caste centered fights. It is a power struggle. The one with power governs. To gain power, you need the backing of people. The largest scale of grouping people is on the basis of religions. I do not want to delve much in the political games. I am only interested in a peaceful social structure which can form the platform for development, whether it is capitalistic or philosophic or artistic or whatever.

What we can clearly see from above arguments is that while religions were meant to unite people to give a stable society, power struggles have hijacked them and have made them into a divisive power. Those looking for power (politicians mainly) are playing with religions to gain or retain power. Each has their definition of secularism. What is important though is what we as citizens of India want to choose as the definition of secularism. Can we have a sane understanding and one which works to our benefit rather than drag us down? The final purpose is clear, to have a peaceful society allowing all persons equal opportunity to evolve and live comfortably. To do this, there is no choice but to let each person practice his/her religion but to learn to live together amicably. We cannot get swayed by what politicians choose for us. We as citizens should choose what we want.

Who am I?

I am a Hindu and happy to be one. I consciously choose to say ‘happy’ to be one rather than ‘proud’ to be one. Not that I do not have pride in being a hindu but that is not what is important. Pride is always associated with a sense of superiority. Hinduism in itself does not preach that. Hinduism clearly brings out the fact that our enemies live within ourselves and ‘ego’ amongst all is the toughest to defeat. The great Vishwamithra had to finally bow down to gain the accredition from the even greater sage Vasishta. I am very happy to be a hindu since that has provided me the opportunity to learn the many good things from the various philosophies associated with including those from the Bhagavat gita.

I have read the Bhagavat gita more than once and revere it as a great text, full of insight on how, we as humans should conquer our enemies within. It illustrates clearly the many paths one can take to achieve the goal of reaching the supreme. It does not in one place deride any other religion or belief system. It is not so much a part of religion as it is a part of philosophy. We cannot easily separate religion and philosophy in their existence but can easily separate the content. Yoga is defined within the bhagavat gita and it goes beyond the physical exercises which form part of ‘hatha yoga’. It is thus a text which helps us find a good way of life and go beyond it too. When we are trying to go beyond life, it would be crazy to believe that we can go there with a sense of superiority. So, obviously, the Bhagavat Gita itself teaches one to kill pride and ego. So, it would be self-defeating if anybody who understands the Bhagavat gita claims superiority. All religious communities have humans of similar mix of knowledge and ignorance. Our common goal is to kill ignorance and ego; not others and their beliefs.

Philosophy is not a common man’s game. It is way too complex. So, let us leave that out. ‘Hatha yoga’ though is something to do with health which all of us wish and need. I realised one thing recently. When I was trying to do ‘Vajra Asana’, I realised that this is the same pose which a muslim uses when doing namaz. So, each community has evolved ways of life and some common aspects are bound to exist. We certainly have uniting factors across religions too.

I am also a child rights activist.I also see the role of social science in education as a very key component, more so than natural sciences. I am very interested in what children learn at school and what we as a society teach them. We certainly build the platform for a good society at the schools. So, we need to very careful about what we teach at schools.

How do we live out ‘the most helpful form of secularism’?

I will not define a ‘true secularism’ as this ‘true’ version will always have contenders. I am interested in the utilitarian aspect of how it can be helpful for us to achieve a peaceful co-existing society. Thus must ‘most helpful’ definition of secularism.

I have to now come back to the current issues I highlighted; that of teaching bhagavat gita in schools, or the fatwa against surya namaskar or quota within quota. These clashes are bound to arise. They are are power struggles. They will not be an issue between two individuals belonging to different religions. It is always a fight between leaders who wish to amass people and power on their side. Media will go behind the powerful. So, such issues will crop up. We as a society should learn to live with it.

Solutions? Let me try…. (I cannot claim to solve it sitting in front of a PC in the comfort of my room)

Teaching Bhagavat Gita in schools: I am in favour of it but at the same time, I would go beyond it. If we teach the bhagavat gita alone and tell students that this is the only and best theory of life, then we would be doing a dis-service to our society and our children. We should teach ‘Religions, social structures and social conduct’ as a subject. In that, the Bhagavat gita will certainly be a part but this subject should be taught in a non-judgmental manner. The facts that we have so many religions, the reason they were born, their nature and how they hope to build a society with stability and peace, how they give strength and courage to humans, how it works against crime is to be taught. Certainly, the Bible and the Quran will also find a place as will the teachings of Buddha. but in all that, we should not be judgmental to say that one is better than the other. This is where we will build unity amongst our children and respect for each other’s faith. Are we as a society mature enough to do this? I doubt. We are still swayed by what the politicians and others in power say and what the media echoes. I hope we get the maturity to do this.

Fatwa against Surya Namaskar: I think this was unnecessary. I do not practice surya namaskar but that does not make me a non-hindu. It is my choice or laziness that leads to me not doing it. If a muslim likes it as a good form of exercise, then why not do it, even if he wants to call it by another name? I,  as a hindu do not want to claim credit and superiority because some muslim people adopted surya namaskar. That would not be appropriate and it cannot be blasphemic for a muslim to do surya namaskar.

Quota within quota: Reservation is a major issue. It had a purpose when it was built but certainly has been hijacked by politicians. Now, they want to use it as a carrot to get votes. No more. I do realise that many communities may need some extra help and that minorities including muslims may need additional support to claim their due representation in every field but that can happen by universalising good education and making govt. schools better. I am fine if we have time limited quotas for communities. If we want to see ourselves as Indians having quota systems 100 years down the line, it worries me. Can all of us not come to an equal level even in 100 years? 100 years is 3 generations; more than enough to equalise any imbalances that exist.

In conclusion, I would say that secularism needs to be defined in a utilitarian manner that helps us and not kills us. We can certainly live together harmoniously and ask our politicians to focus on development issues rather than keep playing religious and casteist cards.Each of us can practice our religions and still remain respectful of others. Most of us do that on the ground. Just that those greedy of power are trying to split us and media follows and blows up what they say and do.

All religions have a common purpose,  just like the many languages we speak. May we mature as a society to start seeing religions as uniting factors rather than divisive factors.

Jai Hind !!!

Open Letter to the Editor of Deccan Herald on child rights reporting

I sent this to “dhfeedback@deccanherald.co.in” but it bounced back. Hence, I put it up as a public open letter here.

 

Hello Sir,

I wish to bring to your notice a comment which I wrote on the article titled “Class VIII student turns kidnapper” dated 02 Oct 2011 (link given below). I write this mail in addition to the comment since I am not sure if the comment is just for public view or whether you read it and take action if necessary.

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/195102/class-viii-student-turns-kidnapper.html

Text of the comment:
To the Editor,
I switched from buying another newspaper to “Deccan Herald” a few months back so as to be able to see more local news. We certainly expect a newspaper like yours to do “Respectable Journalism”. The above article though seems to me as pure sensational stuff. I have written personally to Shri Nitish Kumar, CM of Bihar about the issue about the child rights scenario there and the need for their police to act lawfully. The above case is a serious violation of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 as amended in 2006. A boy less than 18 years of age cannot be put behind bars and questioned by the police in treated like a criminal.
While you do not control what happenned on the ground, I would expect your journalists and yourself as Editor to say that while this happenned, it is in violation of law and that their police has to act more responsibly. I see ignorance of the law on your part while reporting this and mere need to catch the attention of the reader. I take serious objection to this. Kindly ensure that while reporting such issues, one is firstly sensitive to the child and then also know what the law says and how we should treat children. Even if one does not know law, is it not apparent that such treatment to the boy is wrong? Hoping to see better sensitivity and professionalism in research and reporting.
Thanks,
Amrudesh.

My suggestion:
I understand that your reporters cannot be proficient or even always aware of what the law says on such issues. It would be nice though if you have your reporter on child rights issues study that subject before he/she writes about it. In the event that is not possible, the minimum that the reporter could have done is consulted someone knowledgeable in this field, taken their opinion and then written accordingly. I am sure there would be quite a few people knowledgeable on child rights in Bangalore who would be more than happy to give you the information about the law which you can quote in the article.
Well. There may be those who may wish that you mention their name also so that they get publicity or those who may ask you to pay them for their opinion but certainly there would be others who would not ask such favours. Otherwise, you certainly have the option of consulting govt bodies like the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights or the Child Welfare Committee and Juvenile Justice Board members.

Immediate action:
I understand that space is a premium for you but it would be great if you could write at least a small follow up article on this tomorrow and convey the message of why such action by the police was wrong and why they should immediately release the boy from jail and produce him before the Juvenile Justice Board (if present) in Patna.

Doing responsible journalism is in your hands. Media is very strong and needs to be so if democracy has to survive but the power has to be utilised properly.

 

Jai Hind !!!

Indian Education policy: Is the centre going the right way

Education is a concurrent subject under our constitution. Has the central government forgotten this????

It does seem so. The central government seems to be in a hurry to make changes over changes in the education system and in this process seems to forget that we are more of a federal democracy and that education is not a central subject.

I very much welcome their move of bringing in the Right to Education Act, 2010 (RTE) and the current proposal that the right be extended upto 10th standard than just the 8th standard as of now.The announcement of the Prime Minister on Independence day to reconstitute the Education Commission to reformulate the Education Policy (the last being that of 1986) is also a very welcome move. We obviously need a relook at our education system. While many good recommendations of the previous commissions themselves (including the common schooling system) remain untouched, it would still help to have a relook. Things have changed a lot since then. Kerala has an IT@schools policy and recently Tamil Nadu has announced ICT@schools as a focus area. More and more changes will be seen in the near future for certain and a direction in the form of an Education Policy, 2012 would be most helpful.

Having said that, I see a few disturbing trends. We heard last week about the proposal from IITs to have one single common entrance exam for engineering across the country. While the RTE is fine, it still has not taken off very well in most states. There are still cases pending in the Supreme Court about it’s interpretations. The bureaucracy is still trying to figure out how much budget is really required if all provisions of the RTE are to be implemented in it’s spirit. State commissions for protection of rights of the child (SCPCRs) still do not exist in most states, which are supposed to be the body which are to check the progress of implementation of the Act. There is I guess a lot of confusion too regarding what the RTE says about curriculum. It does seem to say that the State bodies (like DSERT) would formulate it. Does that mean though that there can be only one curriculum within the state? It does not talk about it’s relationship with CBSE, ICSE etc. Moreover, it does not seem to give liberty for a school to evolve it’s own curriculum. Why is the status like this?????

I believe that the centre is going in the wrong direction. The way to go is to de-centralise and not to centralise. There seems to be a craze of bringing in a ‘common standard’ as if that is the best. Please….. Certainly not. Anyone can tell that averaging out a set of data does not give you the highest value. It brings up the value of those which are below the average but also brings down those which are above it. We do not want to just settle for ‘mediocrity’ in our education system. We want to ‘excel’. Right? So, the solution is not to set a ‘common standard’ but a ‘common minimum standard’.

I have gone through the NCERT books. They are really good. I wish all the state curriculum come upto that standard at least. The emphasis on social science, on economics etc even at 10th standard is really good. Before one learns ‘natural sciences’, I believe that one should learn the ‘social sciences’. We are to first co-exist with others well, get ourselves to a fairly good ‘standard of living’ and only then do we get the freedom to think about ‘natural sciences’ in their true spirit. So, the NCERT books can really set a good ‘common minimum standard’ but if we say that no one should do better than that, that would be absolutely counter productive.

The vast majority of our Indian children today do not get quality education. This is a well known fact. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) prepared by the ASER Centre (http://www.asercentre.org/) clearly illustrates how even 5th standard students in most cases have a learning level of just about what a 2nd standard student should have. Hence, lifting all those children to a standard of learning as given by the NCERT books would be a great move. That certainly should be our focus. Given that fact, this certainly should not stop those wanting to innovate and get better than that. Each school can be allowed to follow their own curriculum, provided it meets the minimum standards that the state sets. That is the right way to go. What does that mean? Absolute de-centralisation. This is when we will achieve ‘excellence’ in some pockets. Never will we achieve ‘excellence’ throughout the system. That cannot happen. Only a few will go to the top (although the upper limits will continue to keep rising) but even that is possible only when downward pulling forces cease to exist. Talking in a mechanical engineer’s terminology, the education system should act like a ‘one-way spring’. It should pull up those who are below but not pull down those who are above. I hope that by now, I am making enough sense. The RTE should impose the need to use a good curriculum but not say that the curriculum proposed by the state body should be the only one to be followed. Similar arguments can be made on other counts like infrastructure etc.

If we need de-centralisation, then we clearly note that it is not the central government which should be the biggest player but the Panchayats. I recently read about a village in Karnataka which has become very famous for providing teachers to many parts of the state. Apparently, there the ‘teaching profession’ is highly respected. Every family aspires to have teachers in it. This certainly is a community effort and by no means a government effort. The government can only be a service provider which ensures minimum delivery. Taking a system to heights depends on the people. Without a strong will at the Panchayat level, ensuring good quality education to all our children would remain a dream. It is thus essential to put the responsibility with the Panchayats. It need not be only on implementing the curriculum given by the state but probably also on altering it for the better. We do know that each locality has it’s own specifics in India. Within a single state also, we have so much diversity. While one grows more rice in the south of karnataka, the north of karntaka grows more of ragi, bajra etc. Language varies within a state too. If the local community want a little more stress on such things in their schools, then why not? A little flexibility can exist and in my view should exist. That is when, one feels that education is relevant to the local community.

No one likes to be dictated to. In a democracy, there is no room for dictation from the top. This is probably the reason most states are still very slow in implementing the provisions of the RTE. Probably, if states had evolved their own legislations based on a ‘common minimum draft’ given by the centre and on the basis of Sec 21A and Sec 45 of our Constitution, we would have seen a better result. I hope that the Education Policy, 2012 takes that route.

This is also what I feel about the single common entrance test for engineering across the country. Makes no sense to me. While I agree that writing multiple written tests, one each for each state and each deemed university is not the right way, I have my reservations about a single common test. I will not outright reject it as a possibility today but think more about it. After all, the GRE is a single common entrance test which is accepted by all universities across the US … So, may be… I still doubt it would work though…

To conclude, I think we should set minimum standards but not single absolute standards. I have heard of children having been raised without ever being sent to school and yet doing great. Learning happens in a multitude of ways and to say that our current schooling system or even a better one to be formulated by the state would be the best is to only fool ourselves and condemn ourselves to ‘Institutionalised Mediocrity’ and stay far below ‘excellence’. May we realise this and head towards ‘excellence’ while assuring at least a minimum level for all.

Jai Hind !!!