30 July 2010

Practical skills and pedagogy in schools

Hitherto, I have thought that our newspapers don’t carry much content on development issues such as education, poverty reduction and livelihood except as conventional news items. Past Sunday’s edition of THE HINDU OPEN PAGE changed my point of view. It carried a very interesting and thought provoking article Can't they teach them how to deal with life's problems?. The article stirred up a fruitful discussion among the readers as reflected in the letters to the editor.

Although I was considered to be a meritorious student in my school and college days, I understood many textbook lesson concepts and their applicability in real life situations only after I began teaching, though I had used excellent textbooks such as College Physics by Resnik and Halliday. 

When I began teaching in India more than 30 years back, I tried to integrate textbook concepts and real life applications in my classrooms. But I could not succeed and I was considered to be a `slow’ teacher who needed to give more importance to `covering portions’ until I left India to take up teaching in schools abroad. There, I found that I could do justice to my teaching and my students enjoyed my classes. I had the pleasure of training my students to solve problems in a practical way, using lesson concepts.

If we are to offer quality education that will enable our kids to apply lesson concepts in real life situations as illustrated by Dr Pallavi Praveen, our Syllabus Boards, Textbook Publishers and Government Departments of School Education should initiate discussions, as THE HINDU has done through this article. The discussions should involve practising teachers. The resulting outcome should be documented and syllabus developed accordingly.

Once the Syllabus is in place, textbooks will automatically follow the guidelines. There are guidelines from Syllabus Boards in our country, but not specific and clear enough to enable teachers to teach practical skills. Forty or fifty years back, when children were admitted in schools only when they were 5 years old, there was a range of skills such as weaving, carpentry, tailoring, cooking etc. imparted to children.  The syllabus in those days gave ample time and opportunity for teachers to train their children in handling real life problems with ease. 

I cannot accept knowledge explosion over the years as a cause for quantity oriented syllabi that we come across today.  Even now, teachers who are courageous enough to break conventions can still manage by teaching practical skills to students. Teaching how to fix a fuse does not take more than 10 minutes in classroom settings. But the problem is that neither our colleges of education train teachers in this direction nor there are many teachers who may like to invite the wrath of parents and school managements by attempting something unconventional.

Many textbook lesson concepts can certainly be taught effectively so that children can use them in real life. But to make this happen requires drastic change in attitude and functioning from all stakeholders in the school education system.

28 July 2010

Low priced laptop for learners

"Finally realising his dream project, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Kapil Sibal on Thursday launched a $35 computing device that will be made available to ‘learners’ right from primary schools to universities..."

So goes a news report in today's edition of the Indian Express.  While it is understandably a great idea, I have never been able to find the actual manufacturer or seller's address in any of the media reports about this wonder gadget, which has the potential of revolutionsing the way our children learn.  I think that the HRD Ministry should begin processing MoUs with corportate bodies so that the gadget comes to market as early as possible.  Concurrently, the Ministry should also develope policies and programs to train teachers in guiding children to use the gadget in the right way.  Training can be given first to school head teachers and senior officers in the Ministry, who will in turn train teachers in the provinces.

With solar energy system built in the device, we can take it to remote areas as well, so that all children can derive benefits.

While the digital gap can be reduced by implementing education technology in school systems all over the country, the Ministry should take care that computer assisted learning does not replace simple activity based learning, unless the former is not advisable or not practically possible in any given situation.  There are many instances where computer assisted classroom processes have failed as they were proven to be far inferior to simple activity based ones; one classic example would be LOGO, a mathematics software developed and tried in high schools in the US a few dacades back.  Such costly mistakes need to be avoided if we aim to reach the UN Millenium Development Goals at least to some extent. 

25 July 2010

Teacher Effectiveness: A lesson to learn

Yesterday’s edition of New York Times carried a very important news item.  The news item reflects what the State Government Departments of School Education in the US expect from teachers. 

Although there are dedicated Principals who expect high standards of discipline from teachers, their voices are sometimes not heard by School Governing Boards.  If any teacher deliberately makes mistakes that can have an impact on learning, he or she needs to be counseled, advised and so on. If this doesn't work, there is no reason as to why disciplinary action cannot be taken against the teacher.  School inspections can be carried out without giving advance intimation to schools. 

Quality in School Systems can only be enhanced and sustained if effective monitoring and evaluation of classroom processes are carried out.    

19 July 2010

Institutions and individuals

In a BBC World TV programme known as `Africa Game Plan' telecast at 9 PM IST on 10 July, Mr Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations said "Institutions are more important than individuals". (The programme included Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel and Lakhdar Brahimi as well. These veterans spoke about what lies ahead in Africa after the World Cup). I wish decision makers in our K-12 school systems, syllabus boards and textbook publishing industry think the same way as Kofi Annan does, with just 5 years to go before the Millenium Development Goals deadline, considering the fact that India was one of the signitories of the UN Convention.

Popmusic and pedogogy

As a teacher, I had always liked to use innovative methods (my own or those used by other colleagues in the global village). I remember how my students enjoyed learning English whenever I used good soft rock songs from the ‘60s. I used them to teach vocabulary as well as to assess their comprehension levels. My students found them comfortable (or I explained to them about the utility value of soft low frequency music).

Recently, I had the opportunity of recollecting a few of the LPs and Singles that I liked most, so as to contribute to My five, a weekly column in a local newspaper. 

18 July 2010

Off the beaten track: Metamorphosis of English language and its tools of communication

This time let me take a brake from discussing issues on education and share some thoughts on the metamorphosis of english language and its tools of communication, during the past few decades.

As humans we are all aware of the importance of communication, for which languages are fundamental. I was brought up in a bilingual parentage in which English was being used as an additional lingua franca since my childhood. Perhaps due to this reason, I continue my interest in observing English language metamorphosis that is taking place since I began learning the language.

I remember my boyhood days, when letter writers used sentences such as “Hope this letter finds you in the best of health”. Idioms were used to enhance the cosmetic aspect of letters. But today, we neither have time nor patience to read or write long letters. I would myself prefer “Hope you’re fine” and non-idiomatic simple language.

Until a few years back when Internet was relatively expensive, many of us found `email english' useful despite its oddity (usage of terms such as "4u" which can confuse the end-user).  Infact I think that some features of this version of english make it seem better than conventional english (For example I still wonder as to the need for beginning a sentence in caps, as the `full stop' sign itself is enough to show that the previous sentence has ended.  Anyway, as I usually tell my students, we need to follow conventions).  I for one, would be in favor of email english as long as it does not deviate from basic principles of grammar to a reasonable level.
I think that we should not let English or any other language for that matter, to get mordernised at the cost of core concepts around which the language would have evolved.  This is the only way in which we can display our gratitude to our ancestors who helped to retain the language through generations.

Coming to tools of communication, viz. letters, although typewriters had already been available in those days, they were confined to journalists and professional writers such as stenographers and typists. Most of us used to write with pen and paper (I feel pained to witness the gradual decay of my once very beautiful handwriting for which I used to win prizes in school competitions. Today, it would be very difficult for anyone to decipher my handwriting). Parents derived joy whenever they received letters from their children abroad and vice versa.

Although current communication channels have kicked the `personal’ elements of freehand `writing’ ruthlessely, I too, like most of my friends, prefer the former, for their advantages. I don’t know whether you too think the same way.

Thnx n cu.

Teachers as parents

When I used to work in schools, children always liked me. I think it is easy for me to treat all children like my own, because I don't have my own children.

I think that most of us inherit good values from our parents and teachers (although later on some of these values are lost due to external influences). Teachers' role is crucially important in today's consumerist culture in which children are deprived of quality time with parents, grandparents and other well wishers in the community.

Inspectorates of Education and Syllabus Boards should ensure that schools implement value education effectively by making it mandatory.

13 July 2010

Language in K-12 learning materials

Today is Tuesday. My morning newspaper (THE HINDU) came with the weekly supplement `YOUNG WORLD’.

Although the contents in the weekly column `HeyMath’ were child-friendly and challenging from the mathematics point of view, I have my own reservations about the level of English in the `Brain Teaser’ problems. Following are excepts from the list of problems:

c. Two different candles are lit…

d. A class of students were given two problems to solve…

Students may learn mathematics well by using such contents. But at the same time they may end up learning wrong English, from the above two examples, as follows:

Example c. "Two candles" itself means different candles. What is the need for the word "different"?

Example d. It is grammatically wrong to say, "A class of students were given two problems to solve..". It should be "A class of students was given two problems to solve.."

I view any sentence in English which is grammatically incorrect or which contains unnecessary and ambiguous words as reader unfriendly, especially when readers are students. What do you think?

10 July 2010

Textbooks and Cultural Heritage

Usually during lunch, I watch my favorite TV programs. One such is `Heritage Heroes’ telecast by BBC World on Saturdays. This afternoon’s episode featured local communities that have begun to renovate their ancient monuments or centuries old buildings. There were examples from Nepal (Kathmandu Valley), New Orleans and Saudi Arabia. Any person seeing the program will be impressed by the passion shared by these people in restoring their symbols of culture. (Next Sunday’s episode will include an old engine that is going to be re-used after a long time in Britain).

I think that it is very important for our young people to know about cultural traditions from different countries, in today’s context, where communication and travel have shrunk the world to a global village.  It is good that our children in India study cultural aspects of different countries in their social studies curriculum in school [I remember reading Greek and Roman Civilizations when I was a school boy way back in the `60s].  But then, it is more important for our youngsters to know about their own ancestors and how they lived.

This is exactly what Heritage Heroes and other such documentaries seem to aim at. I think that in India, we have reached a stage, when our youngsters need to watch NatGeo or Discovery to know about our cultural heritage. The main reasons for this odd state of affairs are our quantity oriented K-12 curricular materials and lack of time for today’s parents to interact with children. However, Indians in countries such as Trinidad and Tobogo, still strive hard to preserve culture and traditions alive, as evidenced in the following photograph taken from day before yesterday's edition of a Trinidad based newspaper:

A few years back when I had to give science teacher development workshops as part of my work at Macmillan India Limited, I used to ask the participants, “Have you seen a village craftsman who makes cartwheels? If you have seen them, do you know as to why they heat metal rims to red hot, plunge them in cold water for a moment, and then immediately fit them on to cart wheels?” From my experience I was convinced that none of the teachers (including those who were brought up in villages) had either seen a cartwheel maker or were able to respond to the second part of my question in reasonable detail. In other words, such wonderful crafts have vanished into oblivion even in villages, one of the `rewards’ that we reap due to technological development. (I nostalgically remember how my friends and I used to come across potters, cartwheel makers, groundnut oil extractors, weavers etc. at work, on our way back from school).

Government officials in Bhutan seem to reverse this odd trend, by encouraging local village craftsmen according to an article in Bhutan Observer.  I think it is a very good example to follow.

Our school curriculum and textbooks should guide children to `think globally and act locally’ by not losing grip on our rich cultural heritage and traditions.


04 July 2010

Knowledge, Skills and Values: Core Components of Curriculum

Everyday, a young boy, about 12 years of age, delivers my morning newspaper. He comes without much fuzz, places the paper at the gate, and bicycles away. When we look at him, he casts a pleasant smile. This morning, when I paid the monthly bill, he gave me the receipt. The receipt contained the newspaper agent’s name and his phone number as well, in very neat handwriting, which is a rarity, in `fast’ cities such as Chennai. I admire his pleasant manners and dedication to work. He had written in good English, which meant that he is studying in some school.  I wish that he comes up in life in flying colours, thanks to the newly introduced Right To Education Act, which I hope is implemented fully and justly all over the country.

This morning's incident took me down my memory lane to the year 2005.  We had some carpentry work going on in the school where I was working. As I walked along the corridor in front of the biology lab, during morning teabreak, I came across a teenager cutting a piece of wood with a chisel. As he was doing his work, he was singing a well-meaning Tamil song with a lot of happiness gleaming through his eyes. As I went near him, he politely stood up. I patted him on the shoulder, and told him as to how I liked his dedication to work and respect to elders.  I added that there was no need for him to stand up. Immediately, he told me that he was taught to give respect to elders, by his parents. Later that morning, I came to know from someone that he never attended school.  That very afternoon, my colleague, who was handling "Guidance and Counseling" to students, was happy to organise a meeting, in which the boy could explain as to why he liked his job that much, to our Grade 11 students.  It was a very informal sharing of ideas.  (I had always liked inviting people from wide range of occupational backgrounds to deliver lectures, present their success stories and enable my students get their doubts clarified). At the end of the informal interaction, we came to know from our students that they learnt a very important principle: dedication to work.  I wish RTEA paves way for quality education to this boy in some alternative schooling system, so that his financial support to his family would not cease. 

Two years back, I was attending a group discussion in which there was a young girl, in her early ‘20s. The venue was the conference hall of a large university in New Delhi. When the discussion was at its peak, the girl, politely moved out. Within seconds, she got completely engaged in rescuing a stray dog that entered the compound, from the security guards. When the organisors of the GD told her that she might loose the benefits of taking part in the GD if she didn’t return, she replied, “No problem, I prefer to be outside the GD and do something more important”.  I respect her standing for principles.

When we were young, mothers used to teach values to children by setting themselves as examples.  We used to have moral education periods in the school curriculum. Even today, all Syllabus Boards require schools to allot a minimum number of periods per week, for value education. But unfortunately, many schools don’t follow the guideline, and replace these periods by English or Mathematics. Parents too seem to endorse the trend.

School inspection authorities should visit schools without giving any advance notice, take time (at least a week) to observe what happens in schools, give them a transparent and candid feedback with guidelines to improve and ensure that the guidelines are followed in a consistent manner.  

I think that it is a moral obligation on the part of schools to impart not only education that empowers children with practical knowledge and employable skills but also value based attitudes so that they can be happy and make others in the community happy.

03 July 2010

English medium sections in Corporation Schools

This morning’s edition of THE HINDU carries a news report according to which 25 schools began introducing English medium sections and 15 schools will be doing so this year. This is a commendable move.

We all know that today’s parents prefer sending their children to private schools to government or corporation schools. Although they think that private schools impart quality education, if we look deep into how these schools function, we can easily understand that many of these schools `seem' to perform well due to better physical infrastructure, which they acquire by means of donations from parents, extra coaching facilities, educated parental community etc. and not because of teachers' qualifications, curriculum or any evidence based exceptional school processes. Many private schools admit children after interviewing parents to ascertain their educational qualifications, although this practice is against the very foundation of `Education for All’.

As far as building repairs in schools are concerned, our government agencies can follow what Trindiad, an island nation in the West Indies does. In Trinidad, `Education Facilities Company Limited' takes care of all repair and maintenance problems occuring in Government Schools.  Their website is very user-friendly with instant messaging system which can be used by school principals.

Chennai Corporation’s move will pave way for healthy competition between private and Corporation schools in today’s context where most parents seem to prefer private schools mainly because of the medium of instruction. The move will take schools one step forward toward the aims of our Government's Right to Education Bill and Dakar Summit's Education for All.

About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a retired K-12 Education Management Professional. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.