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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.

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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 🙂

Have we won the war against corruption?

Of course, not. We have just won our first battle, the ‘battle of jantar mantar’ against corruption.

The next and major step would be to get the bill passed in the monsoon session of the parliament in July 2011. That too seems to be well on the way with Mr.Veerappa Moily as well as Mr.Shanti Bhushan expressing that there would not be much trouble in agreeing on a good draft of the Jan Lok Pal Bill, 2011. One certainly should keep fingers crossed still. There is a panel with eminent and very knowledgeable people. The representatives of civil society includes Mr. Prashant Bhushan, a senior Supreme Court Lawyer, Mr.Arvind Kejriwal, who has been a main force in drafting the bill who is a former IAS Officer and an IIT, Kharagpur graduate, Shri Anna Hazare ji himself and Mr.Shanti Bhushan, another serior Supreme Court Lawyer as the co-chairman. The government’s panelists includes senior lawyers too. Hence, the panel certainly has the required expeirence and eminence. The only question would be on the will of the government to allow good strong provisions of the Jan Lok Pal bill to be retained.

We would also have to be clear that the focus of the bill remains on tackling corruption rather than allowing the Lok Pal to dictate policy decision to the government, as Shri Harish Salve, another senior Supreme Court Lawyer pointed out. At the end of the day, it is the politicians and the bereaucrats who have to take policy decisions. We cannot have a Lok Pal which would be breathing down their neck all the time. This would impede even good and necessary decisions. For example, if one starts questioning the need for a Unique Identification Number as has been floated now, citing that it is unnecessary and will not help in development, no decision can be taken. The Lok Pal should get interested and question it only if there appears to be reason to believe that while executing this, some companies or individuals have been unduly favoured and for this, certain politicians or bereaucrats have received bribes. So, it is very essential to keep the focus on tackling corruption. We have to believe that if corruption is stopped, then we would have politicians and officials who can take decisions that would benefit the country, even if they at times err in judgement. As long as the intent is good, certain inefficiencies and wrong decisions would not affect us in the long run since they would be quick to realise and correct themselves as against the current scenario when we have malafide intent which is impeding development.

What role do we have as citizens now?
Firstly, we need to ensure that as many people as possible understand why this bill is being put forward and what effect it would have on their lives. A significant percentage of the educated population, with a large percentage of youth have turned up in this movement and have understood the above points. It still remains that millions more remain who do not know what is happening and why it is so. We need to spread the word. People need to realise that if they are focussed on their today and tomorrow alone and how much tax they pay or they avoid or what grants or exemptions or subsidies they get from government are enough and that the larger picture is not of their interest, then such a perception needs to be changed. This attitude would amount to being ‘paise wise and rupee foolish’. Lets take a concrete example. If we say for example, retrieve all the black money stashed away in foreign banks or get the tax from big time defaulters, which are of the order of thousands and lakhs of crores, it would mean that the govt. would have so much more money and may be able to reduce our tax burden or keeping the same tax burden, be able to deliver much more development like investing in renewable energy sources to meet our present and future energy demands. The government can spend the same on ensuring good infrastructure and teaching quality to the millions of children who are our future. We can improve on the human development index by focusing on health, malnutrition etc.
The education cess of 2% can be waived off. We can pay off our debt to the world and save interest that we keep paying to the world bank and others, which contribute significant percentage of our yearly budget.

The gains do not stop there. When there is little or no corruption, free market would work better. Free market will work better because the regulatory authorities of the government would do their jobs well. When free market works well, we the people, the consumers will stand to gain. No companies would be able  to bribe some officials and get away in avoiding safety norms. We will have pilots who have a true license. Our hotels will follow all necessary sanitation and cleanliness so that we get good food. Fire safety in our offices would be correctly taken care and hence man made disasters can be avoided. Hospitals would become safer for patients since a good Medical Council can then regulate how hospitals charge patients and ensure that no unnecessary treatments are done. We will live better. We will have cleaner roads when all garbage is disposed off well. We will be able to generate biogas from food waste to fuel some of our energy needs. Most importantly, we can confidently step into the police station and register a complaint in case of a problem. We need not henceforth fear the policeman himself. If they are not corrupt, they would be more than helpful. If such is the scenario, then would we not have many many gains from avoiding corruption?

Its time to stop being focussed on our own small world and look at the country at large. If the country grows, we certainly will grow too, in fact at a much faster pace than when we focus on just our good. We will be more peaceful when we dont give bribes to get our false house construction plan approved. We would be happier when we do not have black money in our house. When we are peaceful, we can be happier. We will see happier people around us. The housemaid who comes to sweep our house will be happier since her children would be getting good education in govt. schools and her insurance is taken care by a well functioning govt scheme. Would she not work better then? Happier people work better. So, we would grow not at 8 or 9% but at 15%. Not only on GDP, but our Human development index growth also would skyrocket. We would truly become a great nation, a position we deserve truly.

All this will not come easy. It will not come in one year or even two. It may take a decade more but if we are moving in the right direction, we will reach it. There would still be many many anti-social and corrupt people who will try to derail this system. We have to stand up. We have to refuse to give bribes to take short cuts or avoid taxes. Strength is always internal and strength comes from knowledge. We should learn the law, at least to the extent we need. We should stand up for our rights. We should live up to a stature that we deserve all the good things talked about earlier. Thats when all this would come true.

Jai Hind!!!