A Palpable Experience

It has been long since I wrote reason being a shift from my usual passion to follow changes happening in education, and introduce the change in the children. I joined a school as a regular teacher to teach and get the feel the system from within, to understand how and where are we wrong? I am from a genre of giving freedom in learning, believe in providing a unbounded unstructured platform where imagination and creativity would play their best to bring out the thinker from a student. From the Ken Robinson school of thought, putting in practice the SOLE pedagogy of Sugata Mitra, I was hard hit by a very very strong wall of India’s performance oriented schools. Schools that stand tall in producing top scorers and record marks holders of the nation. Do note I am not calling them ‘progressive’.

With high hopes to be the harbinger of change I went to teach social science, which is prima facie considered ‘children of lessor god’ (after Xth boards, hence in school as well). With a such mind set and with forty odd children in each class I found only way of making the class interesting was by allowing children to contribute on the topic in class before I took it up for discussion. I had in mind the new trend in the world for ‘collaboration’. While it was well accepted and enjoyed by the children, authorities questioned the method, as it was inconsistent with that of the school’s. There was no tangible work done in the class! “How are they learning? Where are the dictated notes? How are they are supposed to study for exams? Why are they being shown presentations in AV Room instead of explanations in class? Why are the students making presentations, on topics unrelated to exams?” Shocking questions for me but realized a few research oriented presentations and group discussions for middle school did create ripples.

A very structured day has 40 min classes of nine subjects including two co-curricular activity classes each day. In between this schedule are two breaks for food where they have to squeeze in loo time! Unless emergency no body should go out during ongoing class! Such robust training has turned them to pavlovian dogs conditioned to bell rings for food or loo or happiness or sadness. They are happy if the bell rings for games and sad for any other subject for which pay attention for the entire period is a must even if the subject is not to their liking.

Being trained to be silent as long as teacher is in the class more as exhibit of respect than attention, for ten years or more, the school has successfully bred disciplined sincere sets students who mostly show up in the media for excellence in competitive exams. While discussing with a teacher about ways to make the class interesting she retorted that ‘if the topic is uninteresting, we should instill fear to get the attention’!!

The need of the world has changed drastically. Organisations hire people who can think differently, are team players and can work in mixed cultural environment. According to the director, International Curriculum Development, The Wasatch Academy‘Unless a child develops her innate curiosity, she will be a misfit in the new-age work environment’. For this children need to ask questions. Not being encouraged to question (either due to time constraint, or not within the purview of the teacher’s topic of discussion or asking too many questions in a class foster indiscipline!) the children failed to write an exam when questions were concept based rather than routine. This spoon feeding for exams should be swapped with more activity/project based learning. If the present framework can be reversed allowing them to work in groups and leaving the onus on them to evaluate each other, it would definitely make them flexible, collaborative and research oriented. Otherwise, barring a few exceptions, the little chatter boxes with their innate curiosity who would have bombarded every elder with questions when they first came to school, metamorphose over 14 years into individuals who in due course, become obedient white collar managers diligently following instructions of their CEOs but may be strugglling to become one. No wonder Noois, Nadellas and Pichais rule the world only after they became ‘immigrants’.

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Changing ‘Home’

Shall be back in a while!

This is because we are relocating- the 10th time! To Bangalore for the third time, and my son is changing his school eighth time. He is in IXth  so on an average every year of his schooling he is in a new school!! Amazing!

Delhi-Bangalore-Madras-Calcutta-Bombay-Bangalore-Delhi-Bangalore, over 1998 to 2014. While we were busy with packing and unpacking, losing and gaining, settling and unsettling and starting from scratch in between, forgetting the borders that we have crossed between states, we were too busy to notice that all but Delhi changed their names, and all but Chennai got their metro rail and Mumbai its mono rail. The cities expanded in size horizontally and vertically to accommodate rising urban migration encroaching into the land of other habitats, from bird’s eye-view, greens gave way to brown, gray and black. With varieties of brands of cars catering to newer segments and spectacular architecture and illuminated malls engulfing consumers, the proportions of local language speaking population dwindling in each city, India has become the largest market for the globe and we her citizens.

Au Revoir!

Transformation of Schools

Schools should go for a professional makeover!

In this period of continuous change, there is a need to look at the institutions that are responsible for creating human resource for the 21st century. How are they bracing themselves up to the face continuous change in technology, evolving education system, shifting focus on learning and grooming to face the changing work force?  The children of today will face a very different work place when they grow up. Given that scenario they should learn to learn by themselves, be creative, develop team spirit, work in groups, learn to negotiate et al that are taught in management institutes. The schools, therefore, need to transform from teaching institutions to institutions that develop individuals with academic and social competence.

The first challenge is to improve governance and management. School principals need to be given enough authority to actually lead their schools. They need to recruit effective teachers who would be willing to learn the newer methods of teaching. A strong school leadership is indispensable if countries are to raise learning outcomes. This also means the directors and principal may need to focus their professional development on building skills in personnel management. They should look at their school as an organization where they need intellectual capital to produce intellectual capital. So they should first recruit teachers who would be most effective for the organization and simultaneously create a workplace, which they would not like to leave.

In any organization there are internal and external customers. Same holds for schools. Parents (and secondarily the society) are their external customers, students are the products and teachers are the internal customers. As soon as the goal of the school is to satisfy these customers, they will all work toward a common and mutually beneficial goal of engendering capable individuals. These are not mutually exclusive goals but are complementary to each other. Therefore, a slight change in the relationship between the teachers and the principal and between the teachers’, principal and students may bring about an exponential change in the outcome. In an organization with intellectual capital, the employers motivate employees through empowerment, recognition and reward. Extending this concept to schools can improve the performance of the educational organization. Teachers, like any other individual, have aspirations and goals to fulfil. They get motivated if they achieve these in their work place. School have limited levels in their verticals, given their typical hierarchical structure. So getting rewarded through promotions is far-fetched and time-consuming. Rather, empowering teachers to take part in decision-making together with the principal, recognizing their performances and rewarding their achievements would be better way to emotionally engage them with the organization. An educator has direct and profound effect on student success, so the internal customer is happy, his or her motivation will translate into creation of an engaging learning environment.

The other most important challenge is teaching vs learning. As said earlier that skills required for the future are higher order managerial skills like team work and critical thinking.   21st century skills require 21st century teaching, which requires 21st century educational ‘organizations’.  It no longer requires set of classrooms with several rows of chairs with children sitting on them, facing one person – the teacher and the black-board through which all the ‘relevant’ information will be transmitted by this one person to the students. It is rather a place, which will cultivate creativity, imagination and problem solving skills in the students. Where in the students will learn self-directed learning abilities. Where teachers will help them in finding and pursuing their passion. WHERE THE LEARNER IS THE CENTRE OF INSTRUCTION RATHER THAN THE CONTENT. Most students in the class know many things more that the teachers through internet. Technology is an integral part of their lives and knowledge is freely available. Instead of being in denial of ‘unnecessary and/or harmful information from technology’, the teachers need to embrace it and use it in their favour. This requires a paradigm shift from their age-old method of transmitting factual knowledge to mediating collaboration and group learning. They should to become facilitator, mentors, mediators and minimally ‘teachers’.

High performance of the organization would depend on high performing teachers, which results in and depends on high achievement of students. This interrelation can succeed only in a conducive organization structure, under strong leadership.  While a good leader would be one who can adapt to the changes, it would be better if he can go a step ahead, visualize future and bring about the change. In the context of present schools, even being a ‘good’ leader will mean much. Incorporating 21st century skill requires a different mind-set altogether. A shift from academics and marks orientated, exam based, about 150 years old system, to application oriented, technology based learning, requires a revolution in the thought process for everyone involved in the system – parents, teachers, principal and octogenarian directors on school board et al.

The onus to bring these changes internally, may lie on the leader. Even though it can be influenced to a certain extent, change in the mind-set of the external customers can be brought about by parents themselves. Unless there is a consensus of belief and trust for the changing system between the customers, it will stumble and fall. With the 150 years old method breaking down and mandatory teacher’s training degrees becoming irrelevant, shifting the focus from past to the future is an imperative. This can be done by changing our outlook and partnering with the transformation to engender ‘innovation ready’ (a.la Tony Wagner, Educationalist at Harvard) generation.

Setting up SOLE

My Experience with implementing SOLE

With the urge of doing something to change the education system but not knowing how or where, I suddenly came across the award winning TED talk by Dr. Mitra. His wish to build a ‘school in the cloud’, needless to say, was awe inspiring and had a tremendous positive effect on me. His request at the end of the speech, to give him data to succeed, motivated me to go out and tell all educators, parents, students even the policy makers that solution to many a problem in education, at least in India, is SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment) and SOME. Self Organised Mediated Environment)

To begin with, I initiated a talk with the Principals of  few schools. The first impression about SOLE was that it was outright radical idea and would most likely not fit in the structured environment of a school however after discussing for several days, one of the school was interested in experimenting, only if I could support the process.  I did not want to let the chance go, despite my lack of knowledge and experience about SOLE. I mustered a lot of courage and agreed to take up the SOLE sessions. We decided to start off on an experimental basis with only one class. Need to mention here that the stakeholders were not very enthusiastic about the idea.This made my task even more difficult. We planned to move slow, introduce it to a class at a time, so that the idea penetrates gradually till it reaches a point where no one can deny it anymore. To achieve this SOLE could not be started in entirety. It was improvised to suit the needs of the curriculum – to help teachers with ongoing topics. The questions were neither BIG enough, nor was there enough time to wrap up the sessions. 

The sessions began with utmost enthusiasm. The children were very excited to be able to work on laptop, with choice of friends and unsupervised. Once they were given the ‘BIG QUESTION’ they immediately ran to grab the laptop and started their research. Even after the given 20mins searching time, nobody was ready to give up their search. They were not satisfied with their presentation. I had to force them to return the laptops and get ready for the presentation. Despite this reluctance, the outcome was incredible!

Every group had unique ways of presenting. Some showed ppt. Some enacted a short skit! Others drew pictures and made charts. One group wished to make a movie but unfortunately the software was not available on the school laptop. They had so much to share. Being in a school which has to follow a regimented schedule, time became a constraint to allow discussions at length after the presentations by all the groups. On one occasion when there was enough time for discussion, the children drifted from need of alternative fuel to future transport system, to how technology transfer can reduce the difference between rich and poor.  Not to forget that the groups were only between 10-11 years old. I was amazed!!

After a few days, the enthusiasm turned into craze to attend SOLE. Who so ever was chosen, felt they were the luckiest class and the rest of the sections felt deprived. They disliked a holiday on a SOLE day. They were upset if I was on leave. One of them told me ‘why do you fall sick on Mondays?’ The parents started showing interest by suggesting questions. Some parents were happy to see a positive change in their children. The sessions developed confidence in otherwise shy ones, improved camaraderie, developed presentation skills and creativity. There was visible

Now, Seeing these positive outcomes and  the love of the children for SOLE, teachers started showing some interest and came for the sessions. They suggested the topic on which the question should be framed. but did not want to digress away from the syllabus. Keeping up to this expectation was very difficult for me for with such narrow leeway the entire purpose of SOLE was getting compromised. I could understand their apprehension, if the students know much about the topic then a. there will not be much left for them to teach  b. repeating the same thing in class will make it boring for the children. Well ‘teachers are limited within their syllabus’ in a school. They are helpless. To quote one of them who did not approve of SOLE – ‘What is the need for them to know so much at this age? Will they be able to understand?’ No wonder a pre-requisite of SOLE is  ‘change in the mindset’.

Meanwhile, seeing the enthusiasm in the kids and their excellent performance in a test on a topic learnt through SOLE, the HM and the Principal wished to take it further. A discussion took place over skype with Dr. Mitra to clarify the doubts of the teachers. Things showed a positive turn and the school now plans to extend this method to the other classes also.

This was surely some success. But this is just the beginning. It is only one school. There are many more to come. But at least I am on my way and with more conviction now. I am sure SOLE will find its way through. It only needs some catalyst and I intend to be one.

Should schools evolve or dissolve!

Revolution is a forcible overthrow of an order to bring in a new system. History tells us that many countries, religions or societies have experienced revolution in different times. A revolution is in the offing, perhaps for the first time of its kind, as this time the entire the world in tandem – the revolution in education.

Schools were set up in the 17th and the 18th centuries with the purpose of creating capable subjects to serve the rich and the aristocrats, to cater to industrial revolution. Till then, education was restricted to the authoritative and privileged to rule and to decipher religious doctrines. Over many hundreds of years, the world has changed. The demarcation between the classes or the castes has faded. Education for all has been included in fundamental rights. In order to achieve this goal of providing education to every child, schools have been set up in remote areas, which were deprived so far. The new question is whether building up schools only solves the problem of education? Probably not!

We are fortunate to have been born in the era of information technology, when internet is a boon to the society. In this time, education can no longer be confined between the covers of books nor can it be restricted within the syllabi decided by boards. It has now become technology driven. With the wings of internet, education has soared out of the four walled classrooms to the clouds in the sky! It is available all over, the only things required to grab it are a computer, an internet and to top it all, the willingness to learn.

Anybody who wishes to learn in any field can do so through the net. The barriers of region, culture, economy, institution etc. no longer acts as a hindrance towards  learning. A step towards this is the groundbreaking work of edX, a joint endeavor of Harvard, Berkley and MIT, where courses of all the three universities are available for free online – gigantic leap for open learning initiative. Imagine a girl from a remote village in Mizoram (one of the poor states of India) who was incapable of even dreaming to migrate to her state capital for admission to collage, undertaking a course from Harvard from home! Online education has by far popular for those who cannot reach school rather has become a blessing in disguise for those who wish to pursue their passion and failed to do so because of irrelevant compulsory curriculum  in school. And now researches are on to find out how far the social sites can contribute to education!

This is true and is happening. The wave of change is soaring. Therefore the role of the schools needs to be redefined. They either choose to evolve or turn to become structures housing only social and physical activities for children. The way they need to evolve is by changing the role of teachers from mere feeders to facilitators. Children are anyway informed about what they want to be informed about, so it becomes the responsibility of the teacher to arouse the keenness to know, to stimulate creativity, to encourage them to ask questions. These can be achieved through student centric rather than teacher centric learning. When the students are given the responsibility to learn they not only love to do they do with an excitement that is not generated in teacher centric environment. The teacher then becomes the guide who encourages making mistakes and finding the right solution to problems rather than suggesting answers. And the ideal school becomes a place where a child who wants to learn beyond the prescribed doses of learning or ‘syllabus’ as we call it, would not have to wait to reach a particular age or class to do so. And school with such an informal environment will become an adventure center for the children where they look forward to be in.

Inspired by:  Ken Robinson, ‘Schools kill creativity’;  Dr. Sugata Mitra TED 2013 winner wish ‘school in the Cloud’; http://solesandsomes.wikispaces.com/

Is Mitra the Modern Tagore of Education?

Horace Mann ‘The Father of Common Schooling Movement’ wanted schools to embrace children from all sorts of background so that they could have a common learning experience. This would bring children at par in terms of their social and educational footing, therefore – “equalize the conditions of men”. Also, a common school would discipline the child, teach timeliness and respect authority – as a result of which create valuable future workers. Though the need for equity still exists due to widening income inequality in developing countries, the need for disciplined worker who would be ready at the ‘ring of the bell’ is no longer the priority in this technology driven world. This was required in 18th century when the socio-politico-economic background was that of racial discrimination and industrialization.

About a hundred years later, a visionary, born in India, widely refuted this concept of schools. He did not believe in forcefully pouring knowledge in the brains. He said, “we insist upon forced mental feeding and our lessons become a form of torture. This is one of man’s most cruel and wasteful mistakes”. This great philosopher, who for the first time in history, brought reform in education and in the society through literature, was the first Noble laureate from Asia, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, who never had formal education himself, earned his degrees through honorary bestowing, learned at his own pace at home. Inspired by his own way of learning, he developed his idea of an open model of education where the child is given the freedom of imagination – hence freedom of learning. He established a university in the serene surrounding of Shantiniketan, (a village away from the clutter of cities) where he encouraged learning out of interest rather than out of need. He criticized the then modern schools established in India by the British thus:

“At half past ten, in the morning the factory opens with the ringing of a bell, and then as the teachers start talking, the machines start working. The teachers stop talking at four in the afternoon when the factory closes and the pupils then go home carrying with them a few pages of machine made learning”.

Almost another hundred years passed since then. Plethora of changes have taken place in science, technology, social environment but the schools still exist, the bells still ring the same way to start or stop, children still crowd in the class (of 50 or more) to listen to the teachers. Even though the need for disciplined workers in the bureaucracy no longer exist, ‘factory made pupils’ still come out of the schools. Shouldn’t they transform?

Progress in Information Technology has shrunk the world to a size that fits in the palm of a child. A child can learn anything or can reach any part of the world (not physically though) using technology. If Tagore were reborn, he would have been immensely pleased to find that ‘learning out of interest’ could not have been easier! However, we may find bits of Tagore in visionaries of modern time like Ken Robinson and Dr. Sugata Mitra. Tagore emphasized practicality of education that develops creative skills within the learner. Educationalist Ken Robinson visualizes a neo-modern school that is free of any restrictions to encourage creativity and helps pursue one’s passion. Dr. Mitra is trying to form a global educational village, something that Tagore also dreamt of when he formed the University at Santiniketan, which he wanted to be multi cultural and multi racial. Tagore rejected bookish learning and advocated learning by doing, as does Dr. Mitra. This modern day visionary throws a question to the children as a challenge, with internet being the only tool available for research. Children are then left on their own to discuss, debate and collaborate – essentially learn!

Tagore believed in what Mann stated, that, “education…is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” He realized that the people in the remote villages needed education to equalize with the city elites. Even now in many parts of the world, inequality is high and widening. The policy of  ‘education for all’ can only narrow this gap and to this end, Government of India has been spending a large chunk of GDP on establishing educational institutions in backward areas, generating schemes to ensure children go to school, recruiting teachers who are perpetually absent from schools. The outcome is not rosy. An easier way to educate these children in the remote areas where teachers never desire to go has been proposed by Dr. Mitra. If they have a computer and a net connection, Dr. Mitra’s experiment proves that the children can teach themselves anything! Voila, a perpetual problem of not only ours but many other countries of the world – educating the poor- is solved! He also roped in volunteers who help, teach and encourage these children, for free. And now, through net they can get teachers from England teaching them English, or professor from MIT teaching them physics and so on. Dr. Mitra through his efforts has truly democratized learning globally in two ways: one, the children are free to learn anything they want; and two, education is accessible to anyone who is willing to learn.