30 July 2012

Cambodia and India: Historic ties

This morning's newspaper too carried a news report which reads somewhat like a travelogue. The report reminded me of 2008-09 when I worked in Cambodia.

Let me leave you with a UNESCO resource about Angkor Wat

29 July 2012

Travelogue: A review

Though many newspapers and magazines publish travelogues, most of these are confined to stories about Western countries or Austalia/New Zealand. When my newspaper boy delivered this morning's newspaper, little did I know that it would come with a pleasant deviation from the abovesaid monotony. It contained a very interesting East Africa centric article.

As soon as I saw the title and writer's name I was sure that it would make an interesting read. True to her unique style, Mini Krishnan has blended her expertise in English literature, History and experience in travel in this article too. (When visiting wildlife parks, most of us `sight' animals whereas Mini `meets' them). As a reader who has been reading her articles for several years and as one who has worked with her in Macmillan India (Editorial) in Chennai, it was nice to read her work after many weeks.

I hope that she travels to other parts of Africa and writes about historically important places such as Axum. 

28 July 2012

Sreejith's birthday

Today is the birthday of Sreejith Karthikeyan, about whom I have mentioned in my post on 5 September 2010. Sreejith and I were colleagues in a K-12 multimedia materials development company in Chennai a few years back. Now he works at Technopark, Thiruananthapuram, Kerala. Hope he likes the greeting that I mailed to him. Many happy returns, Sreejith.

27 July 2012

Shree Vara Lakshmi Pooja

According to Hindu calender, everyday is an auspicious day as it is a gift of Shree Hari (Almighty) to us. Today is also auspicious because today is a Shukra vaara (Friday) auspicious week day for Shree Mahaa Lakshmi,  wife of Shree Hari (Shree Mahaa Vishnu, the Almighty). Today is Shraavana Shukhla Navami; every year on this day, Hindu spinsters and married women offer special worship (Poojaa) known as `Shree Varalakshmi Pooja' to Shree Mahaa Lakshmi who is also known as Shree Vara Lakshmi. Hindu Brahmin priests organise special spiritual and religious programmes of worship (Poojaas) to Shree Vara Lakshmi in temples on this day. Many TV channels telecast special programmes on this day.

20 July 2012

Too many cooks spoil the broth

We have all heard the saying "Too many cooks spoil the broth". What happens if many of them are not cooks at all? I think that this is the situation in our K-12 textbook industry in general in our country today.

Whatever be the teaching situation, digitally driven or conventional, it is proven beyond doubt that quality education cannot be imparted unless our K-12 systems consist of well qualified and appropriately trained teachers. This fact is endorsed by numerous research studies and reported in policy documents such as this one.  As we can easily see, though this document is US based, its implications are global. Let us apply some concepts in the document to our scenario in India.

  1. The document is drafted by a team of 6 professionals among whom one is retired. Assuming that this person is not a retired teacher, at least the remaining 4 are practising physics teachers which comes to nearly 70%. This is unlike what we have in India, where such documents are drafted by teams consisting of more retired or serving University professors or physicists than school physics teachers. For example, out of 35 members of the National Steering Committte involved in drafting the National Curriculum Framework, only 5 are practising teachers which means that actual teachers involved were only nearly 14%. If some of these 5 principals are `non-teaching' principals (as it is with many school systems), the per centage is even lower. (I don't think that any school principal can function effectively without being a teacher). Presence of University faculty involved in policy issues in the US is far more meaningful (than in our country) as University professors many of whom would have worked as school teachers for many years collaborate with school teachers constructively unlike in our country where their counterparts have no experience of teaching physics in school classrooms at all.    
   2. `Classroom climate' mentioned in the paper is usually far from practically possible in our physics classrooms because of lack of adequate time to prepare their lessons (often due to administrative workload) even if we assume that physics teachers are given a few free periods while in school. (I had the pleasure of adapting such a `Classroom example' when teaching abroad and not in India until the time I became a school principal and had the freedom to innovate like for example when my Std 9 students used to fiddle around with improvised simple pendulums in a school in 1998, Std 8 students worked on `total internal reflection of light' in a school in 1997 or when my students watched classical dance forms and understood the physics behind them. However, some school managements to whom I reported, weren't interested in innovations.

    3. In `Role of a Physics Teacher' `Teacher Self-Preparation', the document lists the following tasks:
  • Set the goals in terms of conceptual and process outcomes
  • Decide what students will do in the classroom to achieve these goals
  • Decide how to assess whether the goals are achieved, including the roles of both formative and summative assessments
  • Maintain a positive outlook and be flexible
  • Prepare subject material: sequencing and correlating to standards
  • Prepare lab apparatus and equipment
All these tasks are possible by developing offering appropriate teacher development programs and teaching resources. This warrants a drastic improvement in K-12 Curriculum, Teacher development and Assessment of pupil learning.

    4. In `Teacher-Student Interaction' the document lists the following (I have omitted the last few as they are not relevant to the topic discussed in this post):

• Establish a learning community consisting of the teacher and the students.
Recognize and celebrate diversity in students.
Design or select varied instructional strategies to accommodate different learning styles.
• Establish and implement a consistent classroom management plan.
Listen to student ideas and be prepared to address them.
Guide students to view the place of physics in the wider scientific world.
Encourage and support students in discovering concepts independently when possible.

Highlighted ones are in general not very possible considering the overloaded curriculum and large classes. The latter can be sorted out by opening more classrooms, recruiting more teachers and offeriing effective school based teacher development programs considering the local context.

  5. The document doesn't specify minimum qualifications needed to be a qualified teacher. I think that this sends a message that a teacher's ability to effectively deliver quality education is more important than academic qualifications.   

We can see that the situation in many schools in our country can be improved by (i) involving more practising teachers in policy issues, (ii) replacing our textbook (and digital) contents by reducing quantity and making them more quality oriented (It is a well known fact that the contents taught in our Standards 11 and 12 are taught more or less duing the first year of Bachelor Degree Programs in US Universities) and (iii) toning up our teacher development programmes to suit current contexts.

19 July 2012

Crafts and arts in the school curriculum

This post is related to some extent to my post published on 1 July. This afternoon there was yet another nice TV programme on Podhigai channel (a Central Government channel beamed from Chennai studios). It was on cottage industries such as weaving and silk production. It was pleasant to see people of different religions working together.

When I was a school boy, I remember how we used to enjoy our weekly `weaving' periods. In those days, every school's timetable consisted of certain periods for Arts and Crafts in which children received training in local art and craft forms. Currently much talked about Private Public Partnership used to be silently functional on much healthier ground with values at its core in those days. Children enjoyed their spinning wheels and developed a respect for their parents' and other elders' occupations (In contrast to the present scenario where village based occupations have been pushed to take a backseat). 

Our K-12 schools are still expected by law, to include such arts and crafts in their curriculum (with a far wider choice than in those days). But the problem is that many schools don't implement it in practice because they think that academic subjects (particularly English, Mathematics and Computer Science) are far more important as these will help children to score `marks', obtain `ranks' in largely memory testing Grade 12 Board Exams and thereby help them get into any University in India (or in countries such as USA, UK or Australia with the only aim of settling down). 

As any seasoned education professional would agree, today there is an obvious deviation from pedagogic aims of providing quality education at the K-12 level in India.

We can easily find from our newspapers or by visiting K-12 schools that arts and crafts are taught in general outside school working hours or on weekends and parents are charged extra fees for such programmes. Of course there are K-12 schools which do impart arts and crats education well within their curriculum, but their proportion is small. 

NCERT, CBSE and State Boards of Education need to revamp the manner in which they view these issues and make their documents more practical so that our children get quality education in every sense of the term.  Most importantly, there should be an effective watchdog mechanism to monitor as to whether schools function as well meaning catalysts of socio-economic change.

I remember having a read a book written by a western writer on this issue which is global, not confined to India. The author says that the ingenuity of the village artisan in India is superior than what the textbooks seem to be delivering in classrooms. Probably the author is very right. I think that this applies to all cultures in the world today.

16 July 2012

Lunch time, long wire antennae and Radio Lotus

As any homesick expat from India would do, I used to carry a lot of audio and videotapes from home, when I was working in Southern Africa in the late '80s and early '90s.

I also had the pleasure of listening to a few old Hindi film songs on Radio Lotus, a Johannesburgh based FM radio channel catering mainly to Indian audience.  I remember how I used to experiment using a combination of antennae and developing different types of long wire antennae until my SONY ICF 7600DA gave out very clear signals from Radio Lotus and other FM broadcasters as if the programmes were from a local transmitter. 

Today without any need for antennae and other DX gadgets, we can listen or watch programmes from anywhere in the global village simply by clicking the digital mouse, thanks to the Internet.

12 July 2012

Quality in K-12 textbooks

Large textbooks with not much of quality have been a matter of concern to K-12 professionals in our country for the past 30 years.

In the '80s and '90s, Central and many State Government Departments of Education produced National Curriculum Framework and other such regional level documents respectively with elaborate proposals on the importance of reducing quantity in textbooks,  making the school bag lighter, need for child nutrition and health etc. But the problem was that many of these proposals were assumption based and not practically possible in actual classrooms.

At the NGO level, Organisations such as  M S Swaminathan Research Foundation produced far more meaningful evidence based multimedia supported reports such as  `Kuzhanndaikku inda bharam  tevaiah?' (with English versions as well) and public awareness products such as this this one. But still, as education administration professionals and teachers would know, impact of these publicity campaigns was marginal mainly due to absense of an effective monitoring agency. (In fact in spite of viable proposals, Syllabus Boards and textbook publishers added more quantity at the cost of quality and many schools began replacing value education periods into Maths or English periods in their time tables, thereby violating mandatory requirements for affiliation).

Very recently, things seem to  have improved in this direction: for example, Tamilnadu Government's implementation of Activity Based Curriculum and Trimester system in its Primary schools. Such a move can make children's school bag lighter with enjoyable lesson materials.   Naturally, the move seems to have received overwhelmingly positive response from stakeholders, particularly parents and teachers. (This afternoon I happened to look at an activity based textbook for Standard 1 published by Tamilnadu Government. It looks very good and child friendly).

Hope such improvements are implemented effectively and the impact monitored closely using an effective watchdog mechanism which places values at its core.     

09 July 2012

Exceptional example in ECCE

This afternoon duirng lunch time, when reading an online newspaper, I came across a very interesting and thought provoking article. It reminded me of the Hollywood movie `Kindergarten Cop' in which Arnold Swartznegger plays the role of a KG teacher. Hats off, Mohenesh.  

07 July 2012

Our exams and marking keys

This post is related to a newspaper report which I happened to  read yesterday. The report touched upon a very important issue of concern to parents, teachers and students.

I think that the common notion among parents that examiners give marks only if students reproduce textbook contents verbatim is somewhat exaggerated. As in K-12 examination systems all over the world, our examination boards too have specific marking keys for every paper which students write. These marking keys, as any professional would know, function by giving correct answers as examples, to guide examiners when marking answer scripts. Marking keys are not meant to be strictly prescriptive.

Though I studied in the Tamilnadu State Board System nearly 5 decades back, parental perception in general was no different. But still, I used to write answers using my own words and get very good marks. When I wrote my SSLC examination in 1966, I obtained 71 per cent in English. I lost 10 per cent because I missed answering the question which tested puncturation, due to oversight. Otherwise, I should have obtained 81 per cent in the paper. We used to get full marks for any correct answer irrespective of whether it was reproduced verbatim from textbooks or not.

In 1960s, unlike today, Tamilnadu State Board Exam answer scripts were being marked by Board nominated Assistant Examiners (who were also subject teachers) in their own residences. My father had served as Assistant Examiner as well as Chief Examiner. Whenever he received answer scripts, he would mark them, add marks for all the answers and write it at a specified place on the answer script as required by the Board. My responsibility was to add the marks and confirm that there was no mistake by oversight. My father used to give monetary compensation for my part of the work. As marking of scripts was being done during summer holidays, it didn't affect my schooling in any way. This was a common practice in teachers' houses in those days. I remember having bought my first ever wrist watch using the money which I got by doing this work, years later in 1969, when I was doing my first degree course. Strict parents never used to give any `pocket money' in those days.

I have literally seen my father giving marks even if the wording in the answer script was different from that of the textbook as long as the answers were correct. Moreover, as a science and physics teacher himself, my father used to introduce many innovations thereby deviating from `standard' presentation. When I began teaching I did the same thing.   

As a former K-12 teacher and school principal (who has served as examination superintendent for CBSE Exams), I think that what matters to the examiner is the quality of answers and nothing else, unless the examiner is ignorant of answers beyond those from textbooks or marking keys.

Oddly enough, I have come across many K-12 teachers, with B Ed and M Ed degrees, who cannot pronounce `quite' and `quiet', `science' and `signs' etc. differently or cannot find the difference between `describe' and `explain'. (Even some BBC news readers seem to be oblivious of pronunciational difference between `of' and `off'). I know of a  K-12 school principal who can be heard saying, "They doesn't know..". The 3 decades old school in Chennai is affiliated to the Tamilnadu State Board and CBSE. These are clear indications of lack of quality in recruitment, performance appraisal and professional development of teachers and principals in our school systems.

Regarding Comprehensive  and Continuous Evaluation (CCE) introduced by CBSE and followed by different State Boards, though the aims and objectives seem to be good in a pedagogic sense, the evaluation process is often misused like in the case of internal marks for practical exams. The only way to ensure that this does not happen is to revamp the pattern completely, somewhat like how Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations does.

In general, problems can be sorted out by reducing quantity and increasing baseline requirements, in terms of quality

Digital Classrooms

Digital delivery of lesson concepts seems to rapidly replace other modes in classrooms all over the world. Government Departments of Education and Corporates seem to join hands to bring in cost effective technology in K-12 classrooms. A very good move indeed.

But, providing children and teachers with cost effective computers and tablets alone it is not enough; it is important that the full benefits of technology backed education reach all children. This means that we should make broadband and education technology accessible to all schools including very remote ones. Equally importantly, we should see that all teachers are trained to use education technology in meaningful ways. Otherwise, we may end up doing more harm than good by contributing to widen the already existing digital gap. It is very useful to learn from documented experiences abroad such as those contained in this news report.

Amidst a glaring digital disparity between schools in countries like ours, there seems to be a wrong assumption that digitally backed classrooms are superior to others. Many elitist schools in cities like Chennai seem to benefit from such assumptions.

Though animations and simulations bring in numerous advantages than textbooks and still images, many research studies have proven that digital delivery of lessons succeed only when these resources are of quality. The most basic requirement for a quality resource is a set of clearly defined aims and objectives. (When developing any quality lesson material, I think that the path of  flow involved should be somewhat like that in a `thread' of oil which we see when some dense oil is poured from a container).

In countries like India, there is a fasle notion that products from developed countries are better in terms of quality. In my experience, I  have found this not to be true always. In every country and community, there are textbook and multimedia developers who develop substandard materials as in this example from New Zealand. As we can see, there is an obvious blunder in how the conept is presented, as illustrated in the following image:

The image shows magnetic north pole to be near the goegoraphic north pole. In reality, magnetic south pole is near geographic north pole. This is the reason why the north pole of any freely suspended magnet points toward geographic north pole due to the force of attraction by the south pole of the Earth's magnet which is near the geographic north pole. In other words, north pole of the freely suspended magnet points towards geographic north pole. Any junior high school physics student would know this.

When I happened to see this picture several months back, I communicated with the web developer using an option available at the webpage explaining the mistake with a request to correct it. But still the mistake is not corrected.

It is simple common sense to expect that any resource for children, whether it is a conventional textbook or digital content, to be free from mistakes (factual or conceptual). With numerous textbooks and digital products flooding the market, it is important for schools to select the best material.

I think that the main difference between conventional modes  of content delivery such as textbooks and digital modes is that the latter enables wider access to information (thanks to internet) and possibilities for exploratory learning (for example by manipulating different parameters and observing responses in a virtual lab) and  instantaneous interaction. Hence all principles which we need to follow in developing any good textbook are applicable in digital dimension as well.

Though digital classrooms, if properly planned and used, can transform how children learn, role of the teacher (or more aptly `facilitator') will always remain to be crucial as indicated in this report. If we walk into any digital classroom and observe, we can easily find the truth in the above statement. (Giving a digitally packed computer to kids and leaving them alone is just like giving a textbook and leaving them alone).

As professionals we all know that cognitive processing in children is more effective when they work with audiovisual materials than with lesson materials in the print format. This means that diluted quality in digital resources will be reflected far more obviously than in printed textbooks. This fact makes it necessary to consider quality aspects when developing digital resouces far more carefully than when developing a conventional textbook.

As an education professional who has been involved in developing and using digital resources for nearly 25 years, I like to write about how we best can proceed in this direction from my own experience as well as from research based evidences, in my future posts (when I find time).

06 July 2012

This afternoon, I could afford to spend a few minutes of lunch time listening to Graceland, one of my most favourite pieces of music.

It reminded me of the late '80s when I used to relish such authentic African music by listening (as well  as singing sometimes in my English and Physics classrooms for pedagogic reasons).

I particularly remember one pleasant evening in Kochi in August 1986 when I had the pleasure of listening to it for the first time, thanks to my short wave receiver, and Paul. 

03 July 2012

Shayani Ekaadashi and Chaaturmaasya Vrata

According to Hindu calender, as Shayani Ekaadashi, yesterday was a very auspicious day. This day marks the beginning of an auspicious four months period known as Chaatur Massya when Chatur Maasya Vrata is observed. 

As Guru Pournima and the day on which Vyaasa Puja is performed, today is also an auspicious day.  As the term implies, this day is dedicated to `Guru' (samskrit word for `teacher) in the Hindu calender.

01 July 2012

Education and employability

This affternoon during lunch, I happened to watch a TV debate on our school and university education system with particular reference to (i) education quality and (ii) employability of graduates in the industrial sector. It was telecast in Podhigai channel (Government of India run channel beaming out from Chennai). Participants included all stakeholders: Teachers, parents and students.  As with many such programmes, this programme was also thought provoking. Though the participants touched on almost all important issues (many of which are blushed under the carpet by Universities) none of them seemed to consider the abnormal quantity of our K-12 lesson materials as a bottleneck.

Today, with mushrooming number of `deemed' universities with diluted norms of teacher recruitment (reflected by classroom scenrio in many colleges and university departments where graduates with B E ot B Tech teach B E and B Tech classes) beside age old corruption at all levels, it is no wonder that Corporates find the quality of newly graduated engineers low. News reports and surveys endorse this fact with ample evidences. Though media publicity is targeted mainly on Engineering education, same is true in other professional areas as well.

Within the K-12 system in our country,  though there are many causes such as teacher training and lack of organisational infrastructure, I think that the main casue is  quantity driven syllabus, as I have always been mentioning. (A simple google search for our K-12 school syllabi can reveal the truth in my statement).

Another cause is our wrong assessment system at the Higher Secondary level. As Classes 9 and 11 textbook contents are not included in Board Exams at the end of Classes 10 and 12 respectively, as some students revealed in a TV programme recently, many schools do not teach these portions at all. Obviously, though students obtain even 100% in Board Exams (without knowing anything from Class 9 and Class 11 materials), they are not able to get into job market or higher education.

The first step on our road to better quality education is to revamp the syllabus so that our students are equipped with knoweldge, skills and attitudes appropriate in today's global economy. The second step  is develop appropriate quality oriented textbooks and other learning materials. Third step is to train teachers in a more effective  manner than at present. Fourth step is to revamp the Exam pattern. Once these are accomplished, those who pass out from Class 12 can fit into employment or higher education easily.

It is good that syllabus boards sush as Tamilnadu State Board have recently  begun working on the issue. These boards should monitor improvements in a structured and focussed manner and manage changes. on a consistent basis.

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.