29 May 2012

Education in Hindu schools

Today in a fast changing world decaying values seem to be evident in many areas of human activities including K-12 schools.

Though K-12 Education can be managed effectively by using corporate principles, many of our schools including those run by Hindu organisations don't seem to apply them correctly. One main reason for this is the undue obsession for `marks' and `ranks' even at the cost of discipline and values. As service providers, many schools seem to simply follow this odd trend and impart education which isn't values oriented.

It is in this context that articles such as this one will be highly useful in schools which follow Hindu philosophy. 

27 May 2012

Friend in need

By God's Grace, yesterday happened to be less hot than previous days here in Chennai. Though I don't like to go out in such a hot weather, yesterday I couldn't help it, as my real estate consultant was about to come today to  take a passport size photo of mine for processing registration of some land. Though I could take photocopies of docs such as ID proof and address proof using the photocopier attached to my notebook, lack of passport size photographs warranted my visit to a photo studio as land  registration offices still accept only `conventional' prints and not those which could be photocopied or scanned and printed.  (If I delay in submitting my photographs, it would delay the process of my buying the land in Chennai).   

Some twenty years back, getting a passport size photo would have taken half a day. Now that we live in the information technology era, I could get a reasonably good passport size photo (thanks to my webcam) and save the  digitally compact 700 X 700 pixels and 37.5 KB file in my pen drive very easily. After this, it was just a matter of 10 minutes to get the file processed at the photo studio.

Technology indeed brings ease and economics in our lives. It is like a friend in  need. Therefore it is very important that we don't abuse it.    

14 May 2012

Plant talent and Principle of Karma

Many of us have seen ants moving in a very orderly manner (which we need to learn).
But many of us don't know facts such as leaf cutter ants can cut through leaves very precisely, bats use ultrasonic waves to  echolocate, plants turn toward the Sun, dolphins communicate with each other by using specific audio patterns and so on.

It is a proven fact that many plants and animals possess talents which we human beings cannot even imagine.

This evening I had the pleasure of reading an article about plants' talents, which I hope you may also like. During my student days (at Vorhees College, Vellore, India), Scientific American used to be one of my most favourite science magazines. The college had a vast collection of such magazines.

Postage stamp issued by INDIA POST on 10 July 2006
Though all animals possess talents, according to Hindu scriptures only human beings can distinguish between right and wrong. (For example, when a tiger hurts an animal, it doesn't know that it is doing something wrong).  This characteristic is reason enough for humans not to commit sin. Theory of Karma reinforces this fact very clearly.

English language and ease of understanding

Back in the 1960s when I was a school boy I used to read newspapers such as THE HINDU, THE INDIAN EXPRESS and the eveninger MAIL with interest. One main reason for this was the simple and at the same time, impeccable language used in these. (I used to get immersed in cricket news covered by J H Fingleton about county cricket which featured Indian players such as Raman Subba Row).

Of course I also liked reading newspapers and magazines such as Swadesha Mithran (Tamil), Kalai Kadhir (I have never found any Tamil language Science and Technology magazine comparable to this excellent magazine), Dharma Yug (Hindi) etc.
Kalai Kadhir

Dharma Yug
As years go by, it is logical that languages undergo metamorphosis, which fact is very evident if we compare how a language gets used in different periods of time. When I was a school boy, idiomatic English was very much in use. But it is outdated now. When simple straightforward words and phrases are available, there is actually no need to use idiom filled phrases any time.

This morning’s editorial in THE HINDU reinforced my view that standard of English in the newspaper is never like it used be many years back.

As an example, I have listed a few sentences from the editorial and rewritten them in a simpler manner in brackets as follows:

• After a prolonged period of weak initiatives in higher education that stunted enrolment in the university system, India now has the opportunity to speed up remedial action during the Twelfth Plan.

(After several years of lethargy in taking initiatives in higher education leading to stunted enrolment in the unieversity system, India’s Twelfth Plan paves the way for speedy remedial action).

• Evidently, even if the target is achieved, the absolute number of young Indians able to get a recognised higher education degree will remain well below the level a knowledge economy needs.

(Evidently, even if the target is acheived, actual number of young Indians who will graduate with higher education degrees will be far below what knowledge economy needs).

• It is imperative that the Centre makes access, quality improvement and affordability the basic tenets of policy.

(It is imperative the Centre considers affordability, access and quality improvement in higher education as basic tenets in policy making).

• The idea of opening up the physical infrastructure of universities and colleges to start whole new batches of degrees and diplomas late in the evening has been the low hanging fruit in the area of wider access for many years.

I don’t really understant what the above sentence means.

I think that the basic objective of any language medium is to use language which is non-idiomatic, situationally and contextually relevant and simple enough for the reader to  understand. For example, I don't think that `Warm greetings' would be very pleasant in a city like Chennai where the weather is already very warm.

In our digital day to day living in which time controls us instead of the other way round, our language should be economic wherever possible. For example, isn't  "She took two minutes to run the distance"  more economical and easier than "She took a couple of minutes to run the distance"?  Linguistic economics can help us to conserve energy.

Contrary to popular belief, fluency in English (or any other language), is determined by clarity of expression and not by speed.

We can come across numerous youngsters who turn  away from reading English mainly because the material is not user friendly for the above mentioned reasons.  I think that our textbook publishers and multimedia developers should understand this basic fact.

13 May 2012

My farewell to facebook

After much contemplation, I got my facebook account deleted this morning as I don't like spending time in viewing or reading any  material which is of no interest or relevance to me.

However my friends know that though I have left facebook, they can still communicate using conventional email, in which I am far more comfortable. 


05 May 2012

Shree Mahaa Vishnu's avataars

Today is a very auspicious day in the Hindu calender. It was on this day that the Almighty Shree Mahaa Vishnu took one of His ten Avataars as Koorma (Divine tortoise) to protect the good from the evil. Yesterday was also a very auspicious day as this was the day on which He took avataar as Lord Narasimha.

Right To Education Act

Since the RTE became a law in our country nearly two years back, there have been a lot of panel discussions, symposia and other events centering round the contents of the RTE. It is interesting to hear voices from different stakeholders on the Act.

This morning's edition of a newspaper carried a very interesting article  on the issue. As Manabi Majumdar and Jos Mooij write, "The interaction between less privileged and rich students will enrich the experience of both". I endorse their viewpoint, from my professional experience and those of some of my former colleagues who worked in identical school community backgrounds in different countries.

The article took me down the memory lane to 1982 when I came across an interesting book entitled "CLEVER CHILDREN IN COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS" by Auriol Stevens  in a bookshop in Addis Ababa.  Auriol was Education Correspondent for The Observer  when she wrote the book. The first edition of the book was published by Penguin Books Ltd (UK) in 1980.

In this book, Auriol analyses a situation which prevailed in the UK then. It was a time when the British Government was trying to open increasing number of Modern Comprehensive Schools (somewhat similar to our State Government Schools) which catered mostly to children from less affluent and poor households. Affluent parents sent their children to high fee demanding private schools. Thus the situation was not very different from what we witness in our country today.

I think that the objectives of the RTE can be realised if the Union Education Ministry and Departments of School Education in different State Governments work with all stakeholders as partners in progress and help them to view the Act as a positive step in the right direction. In turn, schools can team up with their communities so that they can be child friendly. Perhaps this may require  a number of surveys, discussions, symposia, workshops etc involving the most important stakeholders viz. parents, teachers and children as active participants.

(Coming back to the article, I find the viewpoint of the Principal of  Shri Ram School, as quoted in the article, odd at a time when we are talking about `global village', `quality education for all children', `UN Millenium Development Goals' and so on).

When concluding the article, the writers say, "There are several trouble spots in Indian schools, both public and private, such as curriculum overload, excessive examination-orientation, competition for marks, etc., that can be dealt with only through public discussion, effort and action, and not through individualised private choice".  Curriculum overload and excessive examination-orientation are due to highly quantitative syllabi (prescribed by NCERT and most State Boards). These can easily be rectified by revamping the syllabi so that teachers teach effectively instead of `completing the syllabus'.  Competition for marks and related issues can  be solved by changing the current mindset of parents and quantity content employers.

Though RTE has come out as an effective plan, it is better if many issues are more clearly discussed and finalised. For example, fees reimbursement of 25% students from socio-economically weaker sections admitted in private schools according to RTE. Instead of reimbursing the amount to schools, the Government can work out `student vouchers', which parents or guardians can  use for buying textbooks, uniform and other classroom  related materials directly from authorised sellers. Such a system can prevent abuse of  tax payers' money to a large extent. Student vouchers are in vogue in many countries.

Though the RTE has stipulated a teacher pupil ratio, schools should be monitored as to whether they follow the correct procedure. (Suppose there is a school with 50 teachers catering to 1500 children. This data gives a teacher pupil ratio of 1:30. But this may include teachers who handle core subjects in large classes and teachers who handle elective subjects in small classes. Thus, the ratio does not necessarily reflect classroom reality and hence misleading. When authentic school education documents mention this indicator, what they mean is the indicator in actual classrooms. This fact is misunderstood by and large).

Most importantly, though agencies such as UNICEF will work with local  partners, the impact of RTE can only be realised by fine-tuning the document and then monitoring its impact using an effective watchdog mechanism which places values at its core.

The article is an eye-opener to K-12 education policy makers.

01 May 2012

Easing out the enigma about interactive English

This post refers to a newspaper article (published last month) and Tamilnadu Government’s move to include English medium sections in all schools, which is a welcome one in today’s global scenario.

As the writer rightly states, there are two reasons for the shallow level of English language teaching in Government and Corporation Schools: (i) Insufficient exposure of children to the language and (ii) Lack of appropriate teacher development programmes.

I think that this state of affairs is not only confined to Government and Corporation Schools but also to many Private Schools (including so called `International Schools’).

I know of many schools which use educational technology in their ELT programmes. If we monitor the language used by students in such schools, we can easily find that though they `seem' to be fluent, their English is grammatically incorrect. Any experienced professional would know that effective teacher development programmes which can train teachers to use technology in a user-friendly manner  are more important than educational technology itself, however expensive it may be. In today's digital context there is an imminent need to get children and teachers exposed to positive aspects of computers. If we look from this angle, there are numerous ways in which schools can implement very cost effective computer assisted classroom strategies.

It is very normal for primary school children coming from non-English speaking homes to be deficient in all the four English language skills. Usually these children are asked to speak or write on `My school', `My home', `My garden' etc. In one of the schools where I worked, I liked to break convention by advising my English teaching colleauges to ask them to let their children speak or write a paragraph or so on their `favourite snack' instead of `My school' etc. My colleagues never expected this from me and some were very sckepical. As usual, I assured them that such a non-conventional strategy would go a long way toward the right objective, they accepted it half-heartedly. Once they tried it in their classrooms,  they became overwhelmingly convinced that the strategy worked. Now they realised the immense potential of child friendly approaches in the classroom.

Well, coming back to the issue, it is not difficult to solve the problem by implementing following school based interventions at the lower primary level (Standards 1 to 3):

1. As English textbooks can make use of Environmental Science content in their lessons, we can remove Environmental Studies from the curriculum and replace the subject by English (This will remove the current disparity found in English and EVS textbooks: the former containing simple sentences and the latter, long and complex sentences). This will also automatically increase exposure time for children to interact in English. (I tried this strategy at a K-12 school in Chennai in 2004-05).

2. Instead of simply treating English as a curricular subject, teachers can be trained to handle their classes informally with English as the communicational medium. Research evidences have clearly proved that children learn more effectively in informal settings. While it is important for teachers to be `trained to teach’ English, it is more important for them to speak, read and write good English. (Whenever school managements asked me to conduct `spoken English classes' to teachers, I had explained to  them as how it would not work, and how we can motivate teachers in a better manner by providing them with good audiovisual  resources such as BBC World Service TV and good English language movies besides good books in print).

In countries like Bhutan, English is the communicational medium right from LKG, given the fact that children from rural households know no other language except their mother tongue. By the time these children reach middle school, they communicate well in English. The main  reason for this is that teachers need to speak in English among themselves, let alone with students.

In Cambodian Government schools, children do not study subjects across the curriculum in English. Besides, in remote regions such  as Rattanakiri, exposure to Engish is very limited due to marginal tourism (unlike in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep etc). Obviously, children from such regions suffer a linguistic setback as far as English is concerned. When I was working in Cambodia, NGOs and the Governnment initiated an interesting pilot project: English was introduced into the curricular content in a gradually  increasing manner from Grade 1. My colleagues told me that the project began to show desirable results.

I think that our Departments of Education should try to adapt best practices from around the world when designing and developing programmes. Sometimes it is effective to think  globally and act locally.

Most importantly, these ideas can take shape effectively only if school managements can wait for impact. Oddly enough, from my experience of having worked in schools, most schools don't have the patience to wait for impact.

Hence the first step in the right direction would be for school managements (ultimate decision makers in our Indian scenario) to view these issues from pedagogic points of view and take a non-conventional approach (i) as advised by competent principals who have actually tried innovations with success or (ii) as evidenced by educational research worldwide.

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.