Thursday, January 09, 2014

Education: what do I/we mean by it?

I wish to write more details about how to orient an undergraduate teaching program in a liberal arts setting. Given the influence of Harvard's "Peer Instruction" and how radical schools (Summerhill and Tagore's Shantiniketan) approach school teaching, I would like to remodel the undergraduate program along similar lines. I will illustrate details using Physics/Astronomy examples, but I believe the principles will apply to other science/social-science streams as well. 

Here is an outline of my future posts: the color codes indicate various groupings under which I will attempt to address the various questions. Perhaps the answers clubbed in this way will allow more systematic thought into this set of problems.

  1. What does a man/woman learn?
  2. What is learning?
  3. What use is learning?
  4. Learner, society, industry...
  5. How to learn?
  6. How can a 'learner' be helped best?
  7. How does 'skill-gap' occur?
  8. What use of a structured program for learning?
  9. How to bridge skill gap through structured degree programs?
  10. What is the right model of higher education?
  11. Economics of higher education.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Do you drink milk like Dhoni?

I am writing this post to point out a serious health problem faced by many Indians. The trouble is, most doctors don't know the basics of health, and this simple solution eludes them. I have to tell you my own story before coming to the actual post.

Before leaving home, aged 20, I was about 72 Kg and very healthy. While doing my masters I remained reasonably healthy, playing badminton, running in the morning, etc. However, my weight came down to about 68 Kg.

It was during my doctoral work that I started losing weight. I had a fairly healthy lifestyle, played badminton, ate properly, trekked, did not drink much alcohol, (and not much of work ;-) ), etc. However, after a couple of years my food intake started falling. My breakfast became irregular, I could not digest food many times, and at some point stopped eating breakfast.

This is was about my 6th year of PhD, when my health took a beating. I was writing my thesis, was tense to search a job, and relocate. My weight fell to 57 Kg! I had no idea what to do, I could not digest most meals, stopped exercising, and left for my postdoc.

It was in my postdoc tenure that I discovered the source of the trouble. At work we went to have coffee post our lunch.  After a couple of months this made my stomach upset, so I thought it was the strong coffee which did not suit me. I switched to drinking tea, after a few days the same feeling returned.

Then I had the "AHA!" moment, it was milk that was causing the trouble!!

It turns out that many of us can not digest milk once we turn adults, this is called lactose intolerance.

I stopped drinking milk, turned to soya milk and managed. My health recovered, food intake improved, and weight was back to 69 Kg.

The funny part is, I can drink buffelo milk (An aside: in my hometown-- Kolhapur-- one can find fresh milk from buffalos tied at designated corners, how many places in the South one finds that?), but not cow milk.

This post was generated by my colleague in Pune, PR, who had an upset stomach for no particular reason. He didn't feel hungry and generally lost weight. His doctor, after a few medicines, suggested endoscopy... 

Two days ago I asked him to stop drinking milk and check. BINGO! It worked, today he is just fine, back to his normal food diet sans milk.

So, do you drink milk regularly, and do you have problems with your apetite?

This post is sponsored by Amul... ;-)


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Daily, prose-bound, routine remembering...

गणपती बाप्पा मोरया !

This week I experienced the lines from poem by Adrienne Rich, who passed away recently:

Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.

      —“For Memory,” from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far

Most of my efforts have gone into :
  • Reading a binary output file produced by a FORTRAN program. Realizing that it was an output on a 32-bit machine, I (i) Installed a 32-bit virtual machine; (ii)Installed the FORTRAN code package with gfortran; (iii) Installed Python environment and a code to read the output file on the virtual machine
  • Applying for jobs,
  • Meeting umpteen people to hunt for suitable positions,
  • Trying to focus on image processing with huge cold, cough, fever keeping me indoors.
  • Fixing my travel to Delhi, my talks, etc.
  • Fixing my talk within IUCAA as well.
  • Avoiding my relatives, friends, and even my own family.

The actual science output has been fairly limited, must I say that?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Educating India: Colleges

Colleges will train teachers for
  1. for democratic pedagogy: It is not easy to grant rights to minors and listen to their valid demands.
  2. for life-oriented learning: Teachers should become innovative and mix different techniques to make learning enjoyable and worthy of hard-work. This means that learning has to be oriented towards lives of students.
  3. to remove teachers' own previous biases and background: We all are humans, and carry our 'culture' with us. It is important to unlearn our habits and past karma, at least to certain degree become aware of them.
Several schools embody these principles (and more), JK Foundation runs 'Rishi Valley Schools', then there is 'Geniekids', or 'Srujan Anand'. However, relatively very few schools also go on to train more teachers in a more systematic way. Geniekids, and now Azim Premji University aspires to do this. This has to grow as a movement, spread as a contagion and take roots as a Banyan tree...

Educating India: Schools

Here I will elaborate the idea first introduced in the earlier post, where I proposed an outline of my solution to India's chronic problem of education.

The proposed plan is to have schools where students enjoy learning, live without burden from parents and explore their own life. I am impressed by Summerhill, Tottochan and scattered readings of Tagore. If you are interested in these books and similar other books/ articles, go to Arvind Gupta's excellent website.

Before we look at schools and colleges, here are the basic set of principles:
  • Happiness is paramount, therefore learning to be happy is of utmost importance.
  • Children should move/ play/ act, not sit idle and cram material at one place.
  • Anyone's worth is not measured by her/his productivity or knowledge, therefore education should be geared towards learning what one likes to do, and emphasizing the pleasure derived from it.
  • Adults should not enforce their sense of morality, importance and life on children.

So, here is what the schools should do:
  1. Students set their daily lives and ground rules: periodic and out-of-turn meetings of the entire schools will set rules for daily lives and punishments for breaking the rules. What is excluded from their purview is: academic matters and dealings with society outside the schools.
  2. Classes are optional: most students play, read books, listen to stories/ music, learn dance, engage in outdoor/ indoor sports. These rules will be set by rule 1 above.
  3. Learning is by demand: teachers assist students when they demand. Teachers will be trained to provide Montessori education to younger ones. The older students (12-16) will be essentially on their own, reading and working. The scientific laboratory spaces will be manned by assistants for safety purposes.
  4. Grading is oriented towards learning: There is no scope for points-based grading in this system, forget 99.23% kind of silly scores. The teachers decide who has gained skills at what level, and when a student is ready, she/he can attend ICSE/ CBSE kind of examinations for their own satisfaction. We will develop alternative to other colleges, where students can register for degree or certificate courses to obtain their livelihoods.
  5. Schools are residential: Parents are responsible for most problems in their children's lives. Schools will be entirely residential and students go home only twice in the year (around December and May-June.)

How we treat children is most crucial here. They have to be treated with respect, sincerity and honesty. Why did Summerhill succeed so much in bringing back so many apparently wild, unruly children to the main-stream? Neill understood the way children approached life, the role honesty and kindness while dealing with them. He never moralized them, never forced them and never judged anyone based on history.

There are many elements here that we want to keep in mind before running a school. John Holt summarizes the bit about 'permissive schools' (please read the entire piece) as follows:
In any case, to call Neill permissive is not just an oversimplification but a serious mistake. Let me cite an example that is widely, indeed almost always misunderstood-the matter of his rewarding with a gift a child who steals something. When Neill gives a child sixpence for stealing, is he "permitting" him to steal? Nonsense! If Neill meant to “permit" it, didn't care whether a child stole or not he would simply take no notice. But in fact he takes a very particular kind of notice, whose meaning is not for a second lost on the child. The child knows, when Neill gives him the six- pence, that he is not saying, "Sure, stealing is fine, go steal some more." The child knows already that Neill does not steal and does not want stealing around the school. What then does he hear Neill saying with this gift of suspense? He hears him saying, "I know you are not a thief." He is rightly amazed, thinks, "Not a thief! Of course I'm a thief, everyone tells me so, all the time. Besides, I just proved it, by stealing." To these thoughts he hears Neill’s silent reply, "No, not a thief. If I thought you were a thief, and would go on stealing indefinitely, I'd be a bloody idiot to give you money every time you did it, wouldn't I?" No way to argue with that; Neill is clearly no idiot. "No, at heart you're not a thief. You may be stealing now, trying to satisfy important needs that you don't know how to satisfy any other way. But there are other ways. I am ready to help you look for them, and I think you will find them.”

There is a good deal of child psychology to understand, develop in-house and internalize in practice. This also means that the school gradation is going to be unique, not the usual 10+2 gradation each year, with x/10 point system. Heck, even home-work will not be mentioned here.

Indian is not a free, as in free thinking. There are several things considered taboo, and children being thought as 'minors' will be one of the hardest to beat. Therefore, a free/ democratic school described above remains a huge challenge...


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How to address India's education problem - III - School-college chain

This post is second in the series after the first one and second one. I propose to alleviate the problem by having a chain of teacher-training colleges and schools. If you remember, the problems we face are:
  1. Not having enough schools
  2. Not having good enough schools
Our solution will first train teachers to teach in a manner 'desirable'. This attacks the second problem, whereby we change the structure of school education and the learning pattern through our teachers.

We will place trained teachers in 'willing schools' . If needed, we will start schools within a periphery of 20 km of the college. Over a period of time, we intend have enough schools and teachers for every child in the vicinity.

Obviously we can't solve both the problems a day or even a year. The plan will involve increase the number of schools /colleges, from (1 college + 5 schools) to (50 colleges + 500 schools) in 2 decades. If each school holds 200 students, we will be teaching a million students.

Of course, there are 4 pre-conditions:
  • Education policy
  • Funding
  • Parental interest
  • Democracy and civil rule

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How to address India's education problem - II

This post is second in the series after the first one. First we need to identify the real problems, for which we need to look at a number of symptoms of this decease carefully (e.g. why don't Kerala students go to schools as much as earlier?):

  1. There are not enough schools (which adds to parents stress) therefore, those existing ones have arbitrary entrance tests, even for admission to nursery classes!!!
  2. Even average, no-good schools charge extra-ordinary fees, and if some parents complain, children are humiliated as a punishment for their parents' action (showing how much they must love those kids in the first place.)
  3. Many students (from poorer families) can not go to the 'established aided schools', Some schools even deny entry to many students. Students are thus forced go to horrible government schools, so many patronize smaller private (un-aided) schools instead. Of course, these private schools are often run by a small team, even then they outdo government schools, for
  4. Government schools do not have enough trained teachers (heck, some states did not bother to have any norms to employ teachers), and many of teachers do not report to work. Those who do teach, are forced to also do menial jobs (for the same salary), such as cooking, census duty and election work. Note: no retraining of teachers or gradation based on teaching skills.
  5. It is not just school teachers, the whole pattern of Indian education system is like a badly-made, well-worn quilt. There are only a handful of schools who care for their students' learning: Hrishi Valley, Genie Kids, (once upon a time) Shanti Niketan...
  6. Against no-fail policy, schools fail students in 9th standard, only allowing the brightest students to appear for 10th examination under its name. This explains 100% pass percentage and guarantees that more students will flock to that 'good school'.
  7. No wonder, students do not want to be in schools and schools are not relevant and do not respond to their lives' demands.
  8. Those students who stay in schools are stressed (can you believe this: some schools have removed ceiling fans so students can't hang themselves ?)
  9. If all this was not enough, there are school examinations and other prestigious examinations to appear for, and students have enormous stress from exams as well. In 2006, about 6000 students killed themselves over examination stress, and many deaths were possibly not reported as such (where are Roy's, Hazare's and Baba's now?)

Simplest things to make out from above are:
  1. Schools are designed not to be fun and are disengaged from students' lives: so students are stressed.
  2. If schools are just about tolerable, there are 'tough' examinations, where gradation is disengaged from learning: so again students are stressed.
  3. For many students, being in school does not give returns in terms of skills for survival.
  4. Most school managements do not care for points above, and are interested in status quo (which includes removing ceiling fans, of course.)
  5. Government makes rules/ laws (who runs a school or how to employ a school teacher) and they do not work, which is not surprising, for
  6. Most government rules are arbitrary, without any love or care for children underpinning it or even simple market economics.

Now, read how Tagore approaches schooling. This is the angle we will pursue further about how schools ought to be (did you not guess it from my previous posts?)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to address India's education crisis - I

You should read my previous two posts from emails in my mailbox here (1) and here (2) . If you read my replies, you will notice how little I could offer in solutions.

In his mail S says, "I wanted BITS very badly, and so we are trying to get admission through management quota". Now, S worked very hard and actually scored decently, but BITS changed its admission criteria: it now requires 80% in some other board examination.

If you think that is irrational, surely you must read about cut-off percentage of 100% for admission to a college which has no international standing of any kind! This insanity has made even crooks and liars to cry foul and allowed a clue-less minister to jump in and make matters worse by hob-nobbing in education sector more than he already does.

Really, how sad is it that we can not have as many colleges and universities as we like! And all Congress-promoted student body does is to add various road blocks to entry of foreign universities in India. Clearly, this is because the student bodies will be irrelevant and passe' in those international schools. This is despite UK and Canada ready to provide better quality education institutions. Others, such as MIT, Harvard, Georgia Tech have expressed desire to start operating in India.

However, the entrenched powers in education sector (unions, babu's weary to loose their power-hold over others) do not want them to come at the cost of damage to our young students. The arguments made range from scare-crows as "given rise to chances of adoption of various unfair practices, besides commercialisation" and "adverse impacts on the national character of Indian education" to blatantly pedantic ideological, such as "these possibilities are attractive to the upper crust of the middle class who have reached positions of power from colonial times through education in prestigious foreign universities." The other "apprehension" generally shared by the intelligentsia is about the possible misuse of liberalisation by 'fly-by-night operators' who could be looking for a quick return on their investment. Now, how ridiculous is that! So many Birlas and Pais have fooled so many Indians to the tunes of billions just to provide mediocre education, where were these argumentative folks then?

There are other simple ways to allay these problems, but powers-to-be would rather divert attention and keep status-quo, while they send their own kids abroad.

We do not have good schools for undergraduates, we do not have enough of even mediocre ones. If you think IITs are world best, please note their international rankings (my alma-matter, IISc, is top-ranked Indian university at a lowly 300+).

We need more schools, better schools and NOW...

Admissions to schools: old problems and new questions

Here is the second email:
This is S from Pune.

How are you? Hope things are fine there.

My BITSAT results have just come out and I have scored 240 marks. But the eligibilty criteria for the same is that one must score 80% in PCM in 12th Boards, which unfortunately I have not acheived. Actually, it was 70% till last year and this year they set the bar to 80% which is ironic because I have 70% in PCM this year.

I wanted BITS very badly, and so we are trying to get admission through management quota.So I was wondering if there is any management quota in BITS that we can avail of. If so, what is the procedure to get admission by management quota? Do you know any trustee, friend or person of authority who can help us out with this procedure? Can you suggest any other way to get admission? Please help me out in this matter. Your guidance is very important for us at this junction.

And here is my response

प्रिय xxxx
तुला निराश करू नये असे वाटते, पण या बाबतीत माझा पूर्ण नाईलाज आहे. BITS मध्ये 'कोटा' पद्धत नाही, फक्त त्यांच्या (माझ्या दृष्टीने चुकीच्या) ठरवलेल्या प्रमाणानुसार ते प्रवेश देतात. [I wish I would not disappoint you, but it is unavoidable. BITS does not have any quota system and they admit students on (in my opinion dubious) merit criteria]

This is utter bullshit, you know. Bright students like you should never be denied good college education and our monstrous government has achieved exactly this. I don't want to get into that right now, but this is not your fault but someone else's blunder. I am very sorry, but I went through something similar in my own student life and hated it myself (which is why I want to teach and start my own university.)

Please don't get discouraged or frustrated, I went through that phase as well. You will still do well, given your ability to work hard and excellent support structure you have at home and around. A better approach now will be to select a good college anywhere, and do something you like. I will suggest not to focus on engg (unless you know what you want exactly), but keep your options open towards science, economics, arts, whatever. It is unlikely anyone at your age can decide everything, another major fault of Indian system is that it does not allow any experimentation (to select and change stream if desired). So, you select now what you find the best, choose a college with a good library and laboratories (as I think it best). Then you are at least set to work on your own...

Admissions to Schools: old problem, new questions...

Hiya, back to blogging. This is caused by emails to my mailbox from two anxious souls, hard-working and well-meaning ones. These two would start their professional life with so much anxiety, it breaks my heart. Why on earth do Indians have such a pathetic education system!

Without further ado: here is email one, followed by my own response. My commentary will follow after the two separate mail posts.

(My friend Abhi writes)
maza bhacha atta 12 wi zala. tyala engg. shivay vegale kahi karayache ahe. [My nephew just finished HSC and he wants to do something other than engineering] i mean BSC -> MSC -> and higher education

mee tyala Chemistry ghe ase suchawale ahe. [I suggested Chemistry to him] ani higher educationla he will have multiple options. so he is starting with PCM and then he can decide but another option is Chemistry, BioChemistry and Botony (he is not interested in Botony - so after 1st year he will drop botony)

what is your view? any guidance tip?

My answer is long (please excuse the small letters)

first of all, give this young man my 2 thumbs up!! in so many years, so many came to ask about where/how to do engg. this is the first time someone asked me about something else. he must have an independent mind and a strong will to search for what he likes/ dislikes. i will highly encourage him and his parents to allow him to follow his instincts and liking.

unfortunately, there are few options for good undergraduate education in India. colleges and univs are not great and syllabi are limiting. if you see what international univs offer to students, it is a shame we don't have anything close to that for intelligent students like your nephew :-( the same is true about engg education, btw, BITS/ IITs notwithstanding.

the only few places who offer some semblance of quality: Xavior's (Mumbai), Stephen's (Delhi) and Presidency (Kolkata). in pune, there is a new IISER, where I have a couple of close friends (xxxx e.g.). there are are some good profs scattered everywhere: Prof Kulkarni at Fergusson, Prof Watve at Garware, for example. The main problem is: students are left to themselves to devise ways to learn, no innovative teaching, etc. i am trying to give you a complete picture, to allow him to choose carefully.

this should not discourage him, with a couple of good friends, he will do quite well. remember, I had Shrirang throughout my BSc and then great friends in MSc. so, my advice is to choose a college like Fergusson with a decent library (and a handful of profs in area of interest), make 'good friends', and connect with interested profs from other places (IISER, IUCAA, Pune Univ, etc.) he should read book by Krishnamegh kunte for some inspiration (that 'failed student' is in Harvard now):

now the BIG QUESTION is: what does this man like? he should not think that only science is his destiny, even a good economist is equally valuable (and earns a lot higher salary in the market). he has to find, out on his own, what he likes and would like doing for a large part of his life. of course, he could do something else later on, but for now he has to have something in his mind. no one can help with this, unfortunately -- `ghode ko paani koi nahin pila sakta'.

he has to explore a bit: surprisingly BITS/IITs offer him other variety of courses at undergraduate level, so there is more exposure possible. this option does not exist in most univs/ colleges. i am not sure how IISER does this either. the only way to know if he likes economics (in a place like Fergusson) is to meet other students from economics and learn from them. it is not desirable but not avoidable. i could not do that, and i wish i had read economics earlier in my life (as well as neuro-biology and Marathi literature).

but, all said and done, his honesty and decision to look elsewhere is commendable. He needs to be open minded and brave, only those do exceptionally well in today's world. If he can write more about what he wants to do, or his inclinations, it would help me write a little more detail.