Category Archives: English

Practical Experience

A friend of mine from the US asked me if my child was doing any community service as part of his high school studies. Moreover, he told me that his son is required to perform 200 hours of community service to graduate from high school. This is a requirement in many states in the US.

A news headline caught my eye last week. India continued to lead the global consumer confidence index for the last 6 quarters according to Nielson survey. India, especially urban India has huge middle-class and upper-middle-class population who are supposed to be the huge consumer market. We have crores of kids, from well-to-do families, who attend costly schools and private tuition classes. Can we use their time and energy constructively and in the process teach them something really useful? Can their energy be channelized into community service through their schools? There are some rare examples where schools and/or parents make sure that their kids get some exposure to community service, but could we make this a regular feature rather than some exceptional cases?

Community service by high school (teenager) students will not only help social organizations and the society, in general, but will also teach real life lessons to students. Children can get exposure to non-cognitive skills like teamwork, problem solving, and communication. This will teach them empathy, sensitize them on social issues and inculcate good civic sense in them. Moreover, it will give them some practical work experience.

Teenagers can help in several activities. They can contribute in literacy programs, in cleaning rivers and lakes, in old age homes and the like. Of course, it would be challenging to plan and execute such programs successfully. However, nothing worthwhile ever comes easy!

Regimentation of Teachers

In the last post, I wrote about regimentation of children. However, in the current education system teachers are being regimented as well.  Teachers are confined to a set plan. They have to conform to the curriculum, exam timetables, completion of the syllabus and meticulous weekly plans prepared by head teachers or class coordinators. For example, does a teacher have the flexibility to show and discuss the Gandhi movie in a class while teaching India’s freedom struggle? Could a four-hour movie fit into the school timetable? Many children learn Sanskrit or a foreign language like German or French in school. Do teachers have the time and freedom to plan a small skit or show some interesting videos in these languages?

The purpose of syllabus and textbooks should be to define learning goals and provide reference material. Strict adherence to completing the textbook lessons takes away all the creativity and fun in teaching as well as learning. Teachers should get more flexibility, freedom and room to apply their own mind.

Regimentation and Discipline

I like the concept of school uniform in Indian schools. It promotes equity and fairness. Even though countries like the US don’t have school uniforms, British schools have continued the tradition. However, most British schools are no longer into the regimentation of children in the name of discipline. Indian school system, however, fails to differentiate between disciplining and regimentation many a times. Schools are very particular (even picky) about children’s haircut and assiduously check if girls have tied their hair. They ensure that little girls don’t wear bangles, don’t apply Mehendi or nail paint. Even when applying Mehendi or wearing bangles is part of their culture and festivals, it is labeled as “against the school rules” and a disciplinary action is taken. Children are shamed or humiliated for doing these trivial things (even though corporal punishments are no longer given, at least in cities).

Discipline is teaching and the goal of disciplining is to teach self-discipline in the long run. Punishing a child for petty things does not work. It may temporarily stop the (so called) negligent behavior, but in the long run children don’t learn to follow rules. No wonder our country is full of adults who have no respect for any rules, laws or civic sense what so ever.  As children, they were forced, dominated and controlled to follow rules. They adhered to it to avoid punishments and embarrassment. They were never disciplined which comes from within. Hence, they learned “not to get caught” rather than developing their own internal standards.

Board Exams

Last Bihar_examweek I saw this shocking picture in English daily, The Hindu. The news item described how parents, friends and relatives pass answer chits to students taking Board examinations in Bihar. Friends and relatives of examinees often hurl stones at authorities deputed to stop unfair means. Bihar minister admitted, “It is a big challenge to stop 100 per cent unfair means in the examination”.  The current state of our education is really pathetic.

In other states, even though the picture is not so dismal, it is not encouraging either. In Maharashtra, almost all the schools start teaching 10th grade syllabus halfway through the 9th grade and don’t think it is necessary to complete the 9th grade curriculum. Students spend a year and a half memorizing books, attending private tuitions and solving numerous practice papers for the 10th standard board exam – an exam, where the quality, standard and methods of assessment have deteriorated over years. We have taken “teaching to the test” to a whole other level! If kids need to slog so much for the 10th standard board exams, how are they going to deal with higher education curriculum?

Long time back computers could perform very basic tasks. They could do basic mathematical operations and could store lot of data. We put our children through school from KG to 10th, kill their creativity and produce these old computers that can perform basic maths tasks and store lot of data! The 10th standard board exam has just turned into a quality assurance test to check if these machines are working well. The undue importance to board exams, quality of these exams and this whole system needs a big overhaul.  The cheating in the exams is just a symptom and we need to address the root cause of the problem.

Judging a book by its cover

The tenth standard board exams are just around the corner. It is quite amusing to read or hear the important tips and guidance given to the tenth standard students e.g. write a new answer on a new page, leave enough margins on both the sides, draw a box around the answers in Math paper etc.  None of these things are even remotely related to the understanding of the subject. However, many schools give undue importance to paper presentation. If a student poses a  question like, ”If all the answers are correct and written in a neat, legible handwriting, what’s the need to start every answer on a new page and waste more paper?”, do we have a logical answer?  I would be really interested to learn how drawing a box around the final answer really matters and how much of a difference does it make!

Growth Mindset

A lot has been said and written about fixed and growth mindsets by Carol Dweck.  In a nutshell, people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, talent and personality are givens and there is nothing one can do about it. However, people with a growth mindset think that their qualities can be developed through effort and dedication.

I always wonder when our education system, our teachers and parents would get this growth outlook! We often label children as smart or dumb and appreciate them for their innate capabilities. Kids who are labeled ‘smart’ might think that hard work and learning is not necessary whereas those who are labeled ‘dumb’ might think that there is nothing much they could do to improve their performance.  Instead, praising the efforts, concentration and dedication is a good idea. This gives children the control to learn and improve.

It is not easy for a generation that has grown up with a fixed mindset to accept and believe that brain is a muscle which can be strengthened with practice. Nevertheless, we should try!

Asking Questions

If you talk to any student about his/her studies, you’ll see that the only thing they are focused on is learning (rather memorizing) the answers. It is all about the answers. What about the ability to ask questions though? Asking questions is an essential element of creative and critical thinking and that seems to be missing from our education system. Children are naturally curious and want to learn more. Their curiosity can be channelized into asking questions and eventually asking ‘good’ questions. This is not the same as asking questions to get their doubts clarified on the lessons taught.

There are various ways to develop the ability to ask questions. Can we have group projects to ask meaningful questions on various topics or can we conduct brain storming sessions in the class? In the language exams we often test comprehension by asking questions on an unseen prose or a poem. Instead, we can ask students to come up with questions on a given text. Of course, the school teachers need to have enough time and skills to evaluate every student’s questions separately.  This kind of evaluation is very different from marking all the papers based on a set of model answers.

As children grow up, they can learn different types of questions and what it means by asking relevant and good questions. They will know that some questions are about seeking more information whereas other questions challenge our assumptions. Some have no concrete answers whereas others can have more than one answer. Asking good questions is really a critical skill in this day and age. We need to incorporate it in our school education and the sooner the better.

Math is fun

In the last post I have written about how hints are not helpful to learn Math and problem solving skills. What could be helpful though? We need to start thinking about other alternatives to solving regular Math problems.

Can we teach a new concept and ask kids to make new problems on the concept, rather than solving the given problems? Can they come up with their own word problems? That will encourage them to apply the concepts to real life situations. For example, when kids learn about percentages, they can think of many situations to use it such as 15% discount on some product, 5% price hike or percentage of their marks in the exam and so on.

Often we give all the necessary information to solve a problem and ask children to substitute the values in a formula and calculate the answer. There is nothing to think, nothing to wonder, nothing to evaluate and hence it becomes a boring task. Instead, can we discuss a situation, with lots of unknowns, where children get to ask questions, seek information and then calculate the answer? For example, can children plan a class trip? They will need to ask lots of questions like the bus fare, the possibility of a group discount, other modes of transport and so on. Suddenly it becomes a lively, interesting discussion with practical application of Math skills even if it is an imaginary trip.

One of the best Math activities is to watch cricket matches together with kids. We can do a number of calculations like the required run rate, the bowler’s average, the batsman’s strike rate and have real fun at it! You can see how the required run rate goes up when the bowlers are dominating and goes down when the batting side is doing well. Have you tried it anytime?

Are Math hints helpful?

The following examples are from an Indian Math textbook:

1) The length, breadth and height of a wall are 8m, 0.2m, and 16m respectively. The length, breadth and height of a brick are 20cm, 15cm and 5cm respectively. How many bricks are needed to make the wall?

Hint: Number of bricks=Volume of wall/volume of one brick

2) A bicycle covers 3km distance. The radius of its wheel is 21cm. How many rotations did the wheel make to cover the distance?

Hint: Number of rotations=Distance covered by bicycle/circumference of wheel

I often wonder about the purpose of such hints.  The basic question one needs to ask is what kids are supposed to learn in the math class.  I think the main purpose of solving a math problem is not only to find a solution to the given problem but also to develop good problem solving skills. In this day and age having loads of information is not that important because information can be easily searched for on the web. However, the ability to apply that information to solve a problem is critical.

Our kids are going to grow up in an ever changing world where they are going to face problems that we haven’t even imagined. They should be ready to handle new problems and unpredictable situations. If the Math curriculum and the text books are designed to reduce the scope of the bare minimum thinking and problem solving, we are not letting our kids learn, let alone experience the fun in tackling the tricky math problems. These hints are supposed to “help” the kids, but in the long run, this is not helping.

Learning New Words

Whenever kids come across a new word in the lesson, they note down the meaning of that particular word and move on.  What if they could learn a few more words related to the new word?  For example, the word ‘forelimbs’ would be a pretty good opportunity to teach other allied words like ‘foresee’, ‘forecast’ and ‘foreword’ (and highlight the difference between ‘foreword’ and ‘forward’ too). In future if the kids come across the word ‘foreyard’, they will be able to figure out the meaning by themselves! Not only would they enrich their vocabulary, but also realize where words come from.  Learning new words can be fun.

However, with very demanding timelines to complete the syllabus, do we have enough bandwidth to explore and love the language? Moreover, why bother teaching and learning new words when such aspects of the subject are not part of any exams?