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.)



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 ( 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

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…)