Sunday, July 22, 2018

How To Make Learning Easy


 “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Children often complain that they are unable to recall what they need to, especially during exams. The major reasons that are quite apparent are mindless cramming and mounting information which is difficult for them to channelize. In this article, I would focus on the importance of understanding and practice for enhancing the capacity of memorization.
Learning is an ongoing process. Every day, a child spends around 6 hours in the school, seeking knowledge, understanding, applying the concepts learnt and showcasing acquired skills. Memory plays a very important part in this process. It plays the key role in the recalling the knowledge acquired; the very first step in the ladder of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Short-term memory acts as a kind of “scratch-pad” for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time whereas working memory refers more to the whole theoretical framework of structures and processes used for the temporary storage and manipulation of information, of which short-term memory is just one component. Long-term memory is, obviously enough, intended for storage of information over a long period of time. Despite our everyday impressions of forgetting, it seems likely that long-term memory actually decays very little over time, and can store a seemingly unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether we actually ever “forget” anything at all, or whether it just becomes increasingly difficult to access or retrieve certain items from memory.” (http://www.human-memory.net/types_long.html)
So why does it become so difficult to retrieve certain information? It happens when learning is done without understanding. “Understanding helps remembering in knowledge/concept.” If our brain is impressed by a concept, takes interest in it and tries to connect it to already learnt and understood ideas, the information remains with us forever as we have understood it. Understanding helps us record the information in the long term memory and it can be used as and when required. Now, here I would like to mention the criticism of rote learning. Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. Some of the alternatives to rote learning include meaningful learning, associative learning, and active learning. It is generally believed that rote learning should be discouraged but I feel that rote learning ensures that at least some data has been stored in the brain which can now be understood, analysed and applied. I agree that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and knowledge without understanding is useless” but knowledge is the priority. Even if knowledge or information is initially acquired through rote learning, it will only help the child further the concept of learning. In a classroom situation if a child has learnt just a little part of a concept just by repeating it, he/she will be able to recall it when it is continued in the next period and then he might as well move further to understand it. If someone has not even acquired that much information they will have nothing to start with, “knowing something is better than knowing nothing” in this case. The first step towards understanding is learning. For e.g. a student was not able to understand a difficult topic entirely during a classroom discussion. But he was able to memorize a few basic theorems or principles. Now, when the teacher brushes upon the previous knowledge and does a quick revision of the topic in the next class, it would be easy for the student to come back on track compared to the one who understood nothing during the class.
What can be done for a better retaining power?
Ø  The first step is to pay attention. Children must realize that focus and concentration cannot be replaced. It you want to recall something and keep it in your memory for a significant period of time, you need to ensure that you are paying attention when the topic is discussed. Attention span is very significant when it comes to learning and understanding. 
Ø  You can actually fail to use the information even after you have learnt it though understanding if you fail to Practice. Yes, as we all know, Practice is the Key. To make an information or knowledge acquired permanent in our memory, practice is of utmost importance. Though players like Sachin Temdulakar, Nadal, Lara, Kumble, and many more had acquired the best of the knowledge and technique of their respective sports but still would practice for hours every day. All good teachers would revise and prepare the lesson before going to the class though they would have been teaching the same thing for years.
Ø  I would emphasize here that often adults too procrastinate when a complicated and humongous task is at hand. Students also tend to keep the complex and lengthy problems for later. My advice to students in this case is that we should Divide and Rule the complex problems or topics. Take up a little part at a time and then move to another part of the problem later. This help in better understanding by reducing the burden.
Ø  Chunking is the organization of material into shorter meaningful groups to make them more manageable. Chunking of information can lead to an increase in the short-term memory capacity. For example, a hyphenated phone number, split into groups of 3 or 4 digits, tends to be easier to remember than a single long number. Experiments by Herbert Simon have shown that the ideal size for chunking of letters and numbers, whether meaningful or not, is three. However, meaningful groups may be longer (such as four numbers that make up a date within a longer list of numbers, for example). With chunking, each chunk represents just one of the 5 - 9 items that can be stored in short-term memory, thus extending the total number of items that can be held.
Ø  Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information. Commonly encountered mnemonics are often used for lists and in auditory form, such as short poems, acronyms, or memorable phrases, but mnemonics can also be used for other types of information and in visual or kinesthetic forms. Their use is based on the observation that the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, humorous, or otherwise "relatable" information, rather than more abstract or impersonal forms of information. (Wikipedia)
Ø  Whenever I read a new book, I make sure that I share the ideas acquired with teachers and students as much as possible. This helps me store the ideas in my long term memory and they become a part of my understanding making them really difficult to forget.
So, when you pay attention, you understand, when you understand you recall better and for a longer span and finally practice and sharing makes learning more concrete. These simple steps should be made a part of student’s daily classroom activity and easy and concrete learning can thus become everyone’s cup of tea.
I would like to caution all that only remembering and understanding is of no use if you do not have skill to apply the same. So understand the concept and develop skill to use that concept.

In this competitive world that spares none I advise the teachers and parents to encourage the kids to be inquisitive. Understanding can only be achieved when a child is interested in what is going on in the classroom. Once the child gets involved it won’t be difficult for him to understand and recall thereafter, as and when required. Also allow them so much time that they are able to practice what has been learnt by them. We must also remember the quote by Plato, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”



Thursday, July 12, 2018

Expectations and Creativity


DON’T LET EXPECTATIONS KILL CREATIVE PASSIONS
As written in earlier article, Central Board of Education has taken many revolutionary steps in the recent past, for the benefit of students, focusing on their holistic development. It has laid special importance on sports and extra-curricular activities, considering them as an integral part of school life. While the policy makers are experimenting to enable the students flourish in all spheres of life and make an informed decision based on their interests and forte; the ground reality portrays a totally different scenario. For most of the parents, school is a place to acquire specific subject based knowledge and a means for their kids to become capable and qualified for a lucrative and main stream job opportunity in future.
Aspiring “secure and prosperous” lives for their children, parents turn towards coaching centres. I have stressed upon this matter numerous times that as soon as a child reaches class XI, he is enrolled in a coaching centre, in many a cases even before. The coaching institute becomes the pivot around which the life of the child revolves for the last two crucial years of schooling. Unfortunately, some parents choose options like dummy school thereby curbing the nurturing, prolific and lively social interaction of a child to the minimum. The students are sent to coaching centres to cram the same concepts that they had covered in school to score better and crack so called highly acclaimed competitive exam. In this rat race, parents often forget and even become indifferent to what the child wants. The passions of the child whether it is dance, art, music or sports, become mere “hobbies” to be avoided or sacrificed for the sake of competition and better marks.
I believe that kids are little bundles of exemplary spirit and talent. They amaze me with their talents in varied fields, every day, showcasing their passion and skills on the stage, in the art room, dance room, music room, class room, play grounds or in the auditorium. The stage becomes their means of expression. Through dance, drama, recitation, debate and extempore etc. they express themselves on a profound level. The same quiet, shy, lost child struggling in mathematics or the naughty one who seems to lack focus during history class becomes a completely different personality on stage; confident, focused and passionate. Recently, the students left the audience enraptured with a soulful recitation of “dohas and kavyas” from the Bhakti Kaal, during Hindi Recitation Competition.
It’s disheartening to accept that the students performing exceptionally in the extracurricular activities are still labelled as average and mediocre if they cannot do that good academically. Their merit is judged on the basis of marks and academic performance and if they fail to perform up to the mark, the first thing the parents do is to discourage their extracurricular activity. The reason I am discussing this issue is because some recent incidents have shaken me up to the core as I felt quite helpless as a teacher and principal. A student of the school who is an epitome of discipline and brilliance was taken away from the school as the parents felt that their child is “wasting” time while practicing one of the performing arts subject and taking part in competitions related to it, while when the child is needed to prepare for class XII exams/ competitive exam. I have seen this child on stage, giving extraordinary performance and receiving accolades in academic areas too because of excellent performance in that area also. But the devil of coaching centre once again played dirty due to which the moment a little dip in the child’s academic performance was observed, the parents decided to make the child leave regular school for “self-study”, so that coaching centre is attended more regularly. The child was forced to sacrifice the passion of performing arts. Ironically, a child who was loved by all the teachers had to leave the school so that the child could attend coaching centre and get into some good college.
I remember how excited the child used to be whenever a dance competition was won. Even the parents felt elated at such moments, and these moments occurred quite often, I must emphasize.  One could see the sense of pride and happiness on their faces. Every time the child performed on stage, there was divine look, in control of body and soul, confident and sublime. I wonder why the source of happiness of the child needed to be sacrificed for so called better do better future. All of a sudden the interest of the child and source of happiness and stress buster became a problem for the child and parent tagged it as a hindrance as it wasn’t considered a lucrative job option by them. Is it the sole purpose of school to help a child learn how to earn money through main stream options?
Another case which came to my knowledge is also equally important to be shared. The teachers noticed that another child of senior class remained quiet and indifferent to what was happening in the class. The parents were called and told about the same. As per the parents version the child had been like that from the childhood and now things have become serious because of the pressure of studies in the school and coaching centre. In this case the child’s nature was just opposite to the case discussed before. They also thought that it was better to let her attend coaching centre more regularly than the regular school. Both the children are the victim of circumstances and the ambitions of others.
I wondered that a quiet child was taken away from the friendly school environment and encouraged to continue in the mechanical and cut throat competitive and depressing environment of the coaching centre. Why couldn’t the parents understand that the child needed the company of friends and family and not that of a coaching class? Will the coaching centres ever be able to help the children deal with the pressure faced by them?
Here I need to ask few questions. Is it wrong on the part of some schools to encourage the children to take part in co-curricular and extracurricular activities? Are the schools used as dummy schools helping the children and the nation? There are schools which help children to be creative and pursue their passion. Many schools provide children the stage to explore self and be brave enough to dream beyond the set norms. Since ages the conflict between passions and expectations is on. Why can’t they be on one side? Why can’t the expectations of parents align with the passions of a dedicated child? Why can’t we realize that this conflict can and will kill a child’s uniqueness? As a result the child will become just another cog in the mechanical scheme of the world, detached from her/his passion and ultimately devoid of the spirit of being her/his self.
I can understand that parents might worry that if their child chooses a creative career path they will struggle to support themselves, and become the stereotypical “starving artist”. However, should the parents not worry if their child is not passionate about a conventional well-paying academic career and is still forced to pursue that? Won’t they end up feeling unhappy and unfulfilled in their work throughout their life?
“If your child is pursuing a more unconventional and creative career path, you can support them in following that dream too. Help them to find schools or courses where they can learn the skills they need to thrive in creative fields and encourage them to develop their art to its full potential. Help them to make connections with performing artists, painters, writers and other creative types that are actually making a living, so that they can learn from them. Stand up for your children when others say that their creative dreams are foolish and they will never make any money. With your support and their hard work and passion, your child can succeed and make their dream of a creative career a reality.”
`To conclude, I would just say this to the parents that we are here to guide our kids and bring them to the right path if they are distracted. But if they have their dreams sorted and know how to follow their heart with discipline and dedication; let’s just facilitate them. In such a case let’s just be “the wind beneath their wings” and avoid being the ones who “clip their wings”.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

THE PROBLEM OF BRAIN DRAIN AND HOW INDIA IS TACKLING IT



Recently, while welcoming the students to school after the summer break, the students of class XII raised the issue of Brain Drain during the assembly. This left me thinking that in spite of the fact that India is such a patriotic nation with people firmly attached to its roots; brain drain has always been a significant setback for us. How can you imagine a nation to grow and prosper if its people are ready to become an asset to a foreign country? Some people still often say that they would like to work in some other country. When probed for the reasons they accept that they are not happy with how the policies are implemented in India.

“Over the years, millions of young talented Indians from various disciplines have left their soil in search of better opportunities. This is what is termed as “Brain Drain” and policymakers have been grappling with this issue for a long time. It is well known that the consequences of brain drain are severe, especially for a developing economy like ours. It adversely affects the quality and quantity of human capital formation, which is the bedrock of modern economic development. A higher number of Indian students, professionals, doctors, and scientists are working abroad now than ever before. On the other hand, the money they are sending back to our country (as remittances) is declining. There is an urgent need to revisit the problem and find new and innovative solutions to reverse the trend quickly.”

The major reasons for brain drain are:

1.      The population of our country is 1.4 billion and granting job to the whole of the youth of this nation is next to impossible. Millions of engineers are graduating every year in India, so it’s nearly impossible to give a job to every engineer graduating. Jobs are not matching the growing population, and thousands of engineers remain unemployed, and they have no option but to fly to foreign countries as they welcome them with joy.

2.      One common answer we get is that India did not have the right opportunities for their specialization. It’s true for technical PhD holders who need employment from research institutes which might not have been prevalent in India with quality as required.

3.      But what about entrepreneurs? They had a market of 0.7 billion people, something that nobody would like to ignore. Instead of going to a foreign land and toiling hard to become entrepreneurs, why did they not remain in India and do the same here? After all, India being a developing nation could have provided them a chance to experiment as well as capture market share. It is easy to say that they were greedy, did not care for our country and flee to the US for greener pastures. But the real reason lies in the political & economic system.

4.      And not to forget the sheer amount of running/lobbying one had to do to get hundreds of approvals to start a business in the license raj era. Such policies led to corruption in the system which forced honest businessmen to flee the country.

5.      Another reason why India’s young, skilled labour force leaves is in search of better rewards for their effort and talent. When seen in the context of the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), average wages for a person in the US is more than six times of his Indian counterpart in the academia, more than three times in management and more than double in the IT sector.

6.      Are wages the only major reason why youngsters migrate abroad? The simple answer is no. Quality of higher education in India is one of the other factors which pushes brain drain. India, having come a long way in almost ensuring every kid goes to primary school, lags behind the developed world in terms of quality higher education.

Here, I want to point out that the roots of this problem lies deep within the system and it’s very complications. We are unable to provide basic facilities at a very basic level. Hence, people move from villages to small towns looking for better opportunities. The ones who do good, move to metros and from there they look forward to moving out of the country. With the human resource shifting to the cities, villages continue to lag behind.
One recent policy decision by a state government is perfect example how people are pushed to move out of their native olace. The Government of Rajasthan implemented the policy of giving admission on the basis of percentile for higher education. The reason was that they wanted to normalize the marks as they thought that students from CBSE affiliated schools get more marks than students from RBSEaffiliated schools. As a result, enrollment of CBSE students in colleges reduced drastically. They were forced to go out of the state for higher education. Once this happens, most students do not come back to their roots. This is an example of how policies force people to leave their roots.
To overcome this situation certain number of seats should be reserved as state quota. This is a common practice in many state universities and I feel that there is nothing wrong in that.

There is always a solution:

All this does not mean that the problem of brain drain cannot be curbed. We need to provide the youth of our nation with better opportunities. With the growing start up trend we can hope that the young entrepreneurs are here to stay.

Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences claimed that Over 1,000 Indian scientists working abroad have returned to India in the last two-three years. Meanwhile, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is all set to roll out a scheme to attract scientists from abroad on a longer term basis. The program, called Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) Faculty Scheme, will offer accomplished NRI scientists the opportunity to undertake research in India for a maximum period of three months every year, while granting them the status of adjunct faculty in an Indian institution round the year.

Industry in India is also contributing support in establishing research laboratories, creating collaborative projects between academics and students, and sponsoring research projects. IIT Kharagpur has attracted significant funds from a leading corporation to carry out advanced research in power technology. 

The Indian government launched a prime minister’s fellowship scheme for doctoral research with industry partnership last year for science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and medicine. Under the scheme, 100 fellowships will be given to selected candidates working on research projects jointly with industry.

When it comes to easing out policies and regulations to promote small scale and large scale business, our prime minister has taken many commendable steps but there is still a long way to go.

Ultimately, I would like to say that preventing brain drain and keeping your country’s collective human asset intact rests on our culture and the value we place on people engaging in these types of behaviors. By supporting our youth’s efforts to share their insights, we’ll keep all the knowledge where it belongs and ensure that your youth is able to pick up the torch and run with it.

Friday, July 6, 2018

You Do Not Need Privilege To Dream Big



I feel fortunate being in the company of thousands of wonderful children and hundreds of teachers every day. Children, who aspire, dream, try, fail, achieve and excel, and teachers who give their best to help these kids, realize and achieve their goals. Each child is an individual full of dreams. I should mention that parents are also playing their part in shaping these individuals. They are doing their best to stand by their kids through thick and thin. We also teach our kids a lot of values, we ask them to be positive and count their blessings.
Amidst all this we often forget to remind them that they are privileged. Yes, it is indeed a privilege to able to attend a school. From the clean water they drink to the very fact that they have clean water to take a shower every day, is a privilege. With all these facilities being provided to them, kids often confine their world to themselves. They become indifferent to the fact that they are a part of a community, a society and a nation; a nation that was built by legends who put service before self, and who believed in ‘giving back’. “I believe giving back is one of the greatest life lessons we can teach our children: that the world isn't all about them and that, through our actions, people will really discover what kind of a person we truly are.”
We often read about various NGOs working for the upliftment of the underprivileged and how these children provide us an opportunity to give back to society. Can you imagine that some of these underprivileged kids want to give back so much more to their country? The patriotism and humility that we as teachers and parents try to find in our kids, flows in the veins of these deprived little souls, in abundance.
Let me now share with you my ‘privilege’ of getting acquainted with two little kids who dream big in spite of their deprived conditions and most importantly, they realize that they are a part of this country and thereby have certain sense of responsibility towards it. Four years ago, we happened to meet a little girl, about 8-9 years old. She belongs to a very poor family in the nearby village. She lives with her father, mother and three siblings in a hut. She is suffering from a severe medical condition and her physical and mental growth is not appropriate. She also suffers from a severe speech defect. Her father is a daily wage earner and their economic condition is miserable. Her innocence and honesty moved us when we first met her and now we make sure that we visit her at least once a year and provide her and family with few basic necessities. This girl is lively and amiable. She welcomes us every time with a smile on her face. Due to our frequent visits, kids from the neighbouring huts gather around her and focus on the food packets and other stuff we give her. Interestingly, she simply passes them to her mother and gets engrossed in playing a perfect host.
Recently, when we were on the way to visit her, we stopped at a shop in the village to purchase the necessities for her family. A little boy, who studies in class VI, was helping the shopkeeper. He told us that he aspires to become a CBI officer. His charming and zealous personality instantly attracted our attention and soon we were lost listening to the story of his life. He told us that his father is an alcoholic and often beats him. He lost his mother few years ago and the generous shopkeeper is paying for his education. This promising kid with big dreams in his eyes assured us that he has everything ‘sorted’. He will finish his education from the village school and then apply for college and later he will pass certain competitive exams and work for CBI. Here, his face became solemn for a few seconds as he was lost in deep thoughts, “I know I will have to “waste” a lot of money for my education but I will have to be what I have decided, it is important.” (“In sab me bohot paisa bigrega pr mjhe toh CBI me jana hi h.”). Enraptured by his spirit and sincerity towards his cause I asked, “Why? Why is it so important for you to work for CBI? He smiled and said, “Saheb, it is my responsibility to do something for the country, isn’t it?”
This made me wonder about the kids back in the school. Do they have such aspirations? Aspirations that prioritize the country they live in and parents who dedicate their lives to them. Then, something beautiful happened. We got a glimpse of the calibre of this confident ‘future CBI officer’. After he handed over the items to us, he started doing the calculation. To our surprise he did all the calculation without using a pen or a calculator. Considering that he is just a child, we insisted the shopkeeper to do the calculation again. The shopkeeper pointed out that we had given 25 rupees more than the amount as the kid calculated it wrong. The child said with confidence that he was pretty sure about his calculation. The boy insisted that we should visit him again when we return. We told him it would be very tiring and we would not have the strength (“Beta, himmat hogi toh ayenge”).  To which he said, “Saheb, Himmat kroge toh himmat aa hi jayegi.” (Please try to come; you can do anything if you try). Anyway, we smiled at this childish assertion and left for the little girl’s house. At the girl’s house we were welcomed by her cheerful face and she tried to express a lot with the little words she could manage.
We decided to meet this boy again as we returned, just to bid him goodbye and have some water as we did not want to disappoint him. When he saw us he happily came running to us and served us water. With a proud smile on his face he said at once, “Saheb, my calculation was correct, you paid 25 rupees less. The shopkeeper accepted the same as he handed over the new bill accepting that the calculation he made on the calculator turned out to be faulty. We were so impressed with this little boy. My good friend who accompanied me on this visit proposed that we should bring him to the city and enroll him in a good school with hostel facility, for his further education. All of a sudden a thought stopped me. I realized that he has seen the hard life; he has seen that everything in life comes with a price. Nothing was ever handed over to him for free. Providing him with a comfortable life, will I not be taking away the most significant lesson life has taught him at such a tender age? The lesson that, ‘nothing can substitute hard work and hardships are a part of life.’ Back in the hostel, amidst all the facilities, he might forget his purpose, I feared.
I appreciated him and bade goodbye. I knew, this hard work will inspire him and take him to his goal. The austere life he is living will teach him that nothing in life should be taken for granted. With this I wondered about the kids back at school, will they ever realize how privileged they are? Will they ever learn that the blessings they don’t count are a farfetched dream for the little boy and the handicapped girl? But I know that adversities bring out the best of one’s abilities and I will spread their stories as an inspiration and encourage other kids to dream big and not to let the hurdles perturb them.
I ask the parents and teachers to make sure that the students get to know about the underprivileged so that they can learn empathy and start appreciating the blessings that the Almighty has bestowed upon them; encourage them to dream and eliminate all the excuses because when you aspire for something with all your heart, adversity becomes your friend.
A.P.J Abdul Kalam once said addressing the slum children of Mumbai, "My teacher once explained on the blackboard how a bird flies... I instantly got attracted to it and I decided to make something fly one day. Every child must have some great aim before the age of 15, every child."