Saturday, October 27, 2012

From Shirking To Working

One of the defining features of the government offices we visit is the number of people who seem to be comfortably sitting around doing nothing. Literally – nothing. You might find a chair occupier arrive, put away his lunch-box, arrange his things, have a drink of water and then sit down on his chair, make himself comfortable and then – simply sit there, look unseeingly in front. The more social / active among this population might move around talking with ‘friends’. The scholarly ones might unfurl a newspaper and go through it, all the while putting away files and documents absent-mindedly.

However, it would be really unfair to blame those in government service, for the desire to sit around and do nothing, especially if one is paid for it, may be found in almost as many places as you can imagine. The common view that ‘the moment a person becomes permanent he stops working’ does have plenty of reason to be so common! Those paid to do any work, if they do any work, often appear to be doing it under duress or at least clearly wishing they did not have to be doing it. So great is the aversion to actually working that it is common to hear people praise jobs where ‘pay is good but work is not hard.’

So why exactly is not working seen as better than working? Why would one deprive oneself of the satisfaction of becoming good at something, of being successful (and useful), of achieving results or a reputation? I think the reason is that these are precisely the things that most people in such positions can’t hope for. That is why for them, doing nothing is perhaps a better option.

Maybe a whole sociological / psychological / some-other-cal inquiry is needed to find out the underlying causes of this massive phenomenon. My amateurish take is that these people are in jobs that do not require them to think, take initiative or be responsible in any serious way. Their role is merely to follow instructions or – more commonly – pass on those instructions. Their chance of ever getting credit – is zero. Because there are no standards as to what it means to be ‘good’ in their work, they can never be appreciated or recognized or gain a real reputation.

So how do they respond? We know the answer…

The question for us: Is there any way in which shirkers can become workers? It might be simplistic but if we want to convert shirkers into workers we have to create conditions for success, where doing nothing is definitely worse than not working because it so clearly deprives you of so much that is so much more valuable! We need to think on the following:
  •        Clarify where professional decisions must be taken by each ‘level’ of person
  •        Identify standards of doing any task/job ‘well’ – so that it becomes possible for people to take pride in doing something well
  •        Instead of relationships based on instructions, how about developing partnerships

This naturally seems idealistic, but one great thing is that this is one of those efforts that can begin at the top. Which means that instead of mobilizing masses, we need to convince a relatively smaller number of people. Once they do implement any of this, the results would speak for themselves.

The reason for my optimism? I’ve seen this work in far too many places to feel it can’t be done!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Anna's is NOT a movement for change

Let's imagine for a moment that corruption vanishes - no one takes bribes any more. Which of the following do you think would now happen as a result?
  • Dalits will not face discrimination anywhere; people will stop believing in caste and elections will be around issues, not social groups. Unborn girls will not be killed, dowry will go, sexual harassment will vanish, the notion of 'minority' will not need to be discussed, equality and equity will be established.
  • People will start working harder, with greater commitment, be much more innovative, and therefore the economy will shoot up. Private enterprise will no more be required to shore up government efforts.
  • We will stop exploiting environmental resources in a dangerous manner, all power and energy related problems will be solved, petrol will become cheaper, our sources of water will not be polluted any more and global warming will come to a halt (at least in India).
  • All children will start attending school and learning well; teachers will transform into good teachers, all government schools will become great schools, and India's learning standards will be among the highest in the world. In sports too we will emerge as a world power.
  • Inflation will not affect us any more, the price of food and other essentials will come down, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world.
  • Health and nutrition levels will go up greatly, diseases of the poor (water-borne ones or those caused by malnutrition, for instance) will be vanquished.
  • Poor governance will vanish - in the absence of bribes, officials will become competent, start taking good decisions, stop representing power groups, start listening to people and actually working for their betterment.
I hope you were able to tick off quite a few!

Oscar Wild said: 'Stupidity is the only sin.' And in that sense, Anna&Co are great sinners. Unfortunately, those who continue to believe they're helping destroy the roots of our problems and bringing about real change - are even more so.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Three Reasons Why The Use Of I.T. In Schools Is NOT Leading to Improved Learning

Recent reports from different parts of the world show that computer / IT supported learning programmes are not yielding the learning improvements expected. 

So why is this happening?

After looking at a fair number of IT-based programmes, software, and reports from different sources, this appears to be because something critical is being ignored: that improved learning requires both improved relationships and processes, and a clearer focus on outcomes considered worthwhile. Let me explain this a little. 

1. IT Use Doesn't Seek to Impact Relationships 

Relationships among the key stakeholders - teachers, students, parents / community, school heads, supervisors and administrators, and academic support personnel - cannot be bypassed; without improving them, it is difficult to see learning outcomes improve. Living in the hope that IT usage will make a difference here, is to be unrealistic. For relationships to flourish, apart from changing the teacher's role (and several other aspects), activities that require real group thinking would make a difference. At present the IT material has not paid sufficient attention here, though it is uniquely placed to do so, especially in gaming software. 

In addition, of course, several governance changes are required (e.g. in how school 'inspection' takes place) as well as in management of learning (through better preparation for teaching, classroom organization and use of assessment). Again, a misplaced emphasis on IT will not see changes here.

2. IT Use Could - But Doesn't - Sufficiently Impact Processes:

Some parts of the curriculum require face time between teachers and students, and among students themselves. Some parts are better handled through IT - I believe such an analysis of curriculum has not been done, resulting in everything being dumped on to IT, much of which it is not really in a position to support. (Khan Academy does try to increase the face time by 'reversing' the class, but it still does not do this analysis sufficiently and could benefit from it).

3. IT Use Doesn't Always Focus On The Outcomes It Should

The tendency is to focus mainly on a limited number of scholastic outcomes. In fact, even within the subjects themselves, higher order learning objectives are often ignored, or under-represented. Believe it or not, this affects the learning of other aspects as well! E.g. children who have the opportunity to make creative use of language end up being better in grammar and spelling than children who get an overdose of grammar and spelling. A great deal of IT material is geared to towards getting children to answer tests / exams rather than help in real, long-term learning.

But other than the subjects, larger curricular goals - such as cooperation, respect for diversity, development of a scientific outlook and an ecological perspective, developing a questioning mind, democratic values - hardly figure in much of the IT based material / activities. Implying that it is, at best, supporting some parts of subject-oriented learning rather than  education as such.

So is all this emphasis on 'modern technology' wrong and misguided? No, not necessarily wrong, but our expectations are certainly misplaced. In our desire to find the one single magic solution we have ignored the many other actions that need to be taken before learning improves. Perhaps focusing on IT seems easier and more exciting than than the hard work that the other stuff requires.

At any rate, IT is clearly not the silver bullet that many desperately believe it to be. It needs to be treated as just one more tool to be used, rather than as a solution for problems that it can't solve. And even as a tool, it needs to be used much better than is the case at present. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Do We Actually 'Celebrate' In Our Schools?

'So, you're 'celebrating' again.'

'Yes, it's Independence Day tomorrow.'

'Oh, so another round of ritualistic speeches?'

'What do you mean, ritualistic speeches?'

'You know what I mean. The same old 'important' people will be called. They will be welcomed, garlanded and they will walk around, feeling even more self-important.'

'You're being very unkind, you know.'

'But close to the truth, isn't it?'

'I'm not sure if this is really ritualistic…'

'No, it is what follows afterwards…. The same formal atmosphere will be created. Children will sit in neat rows and told not to talk too much. The LIP (or your Local Important Person) will be praised, invited to give us the benefit of his wisdom, children will be asked to shush, and then the LIP will give the same speech as every year – you are the future of the country… freedom is very important.. our great leaders were so very great… you must work hard… you must try to like the great people of the past… And all this while instead of experiencing freedom on Independence Day of India, children will be sitting bored, stiff, not allowed tomove around or talk or express themselves….'

'You're being really harsh!''

'OK, tell me, didn't you hear the same speeches when you were a child?'


'Did you really enjoy those celebrations? Were they a celebration for you?'

'Actually, to be honest, no, not really.'

'Aren't you surprised that the same speeches are being made even now?'

'Yeah, now that you mention it…'

'And shouldn't children be more like the leaders of tomorrow rather than the leaders of long past. After all, every kid is not going to experience walking 17 kilometres to school!'

'Hmm… something to think about, there. And come to think of it, why was every great man's school 17 kilometres away?'

'See, it's getting you too!  And when it comes to – no, no, better not to say that.'

'Well you can tell me... I'm not going to shout at you!'

'I know you won't. But I don't want you to feel depressed either.'

'Come on, I can handle it. Tell me what you were going to say.'

'Well, if you insist. The thing is, children attend all these functions year after year, experience the same thing over and over again. And what do they learn? They learn that they don't matter. Their job is to listen. Their role is to be passive, not think for themselves. And look at you – you were a child who once found these functions boring but you are organizing exactly the same kind of function again! Independence Day isn't quite an experience in Independence, isn't it? My thesis is that these National Day type of 'celebrations' only teach us to be slaves, to accept that we have no freedom to be different or better, to allow ourselves to be defined by the limited vision of those limited adults who were similarly made limited by the experience they went through as children themselves…. Hey, you're suddenly very silent now. This is not look good… come on, say something.'

'What do I say? I'm feeling so…'

'So… what?'

'So depressed!'


What do you think about the other 'celebrations' we have in our schools? Is the birthday of a child celebrated 'more' or differently or better than that of other children whose families are considered to be less important or not influential?

What are the festivals celebrated in schools? Whose festivals are left out? Many communities / religious groups never see their festivals even discussed in school? What do they feel about it? And what do they 'learn' from this?

On Sports Day, do most children have the scope to participate and gain something? Or is only the 'victory' of a  few celebrated again and again? And what do the rest learn from this?

And on Results Day, whose achievements stand out? And what does everyone learn from this? (Maybe CCE will make a difference here?)

Perhaps all these celebrations, in the end, make us realise that their isn't much about us that is worth celebrating. When I was younger I would have said that this happens even though the intention is quite different. But now, a little more battered and older, I think the intention was always this – to make you realise that only a few can be 'important' persons worth celebrating, not you.


So what should we celebrate in our schools?

For starters, children and learning. Simply the presence of every child is worth celebrating (rather than 'Oh God, another one!'). And how to celebrate? By smiling, by welcoming, by genuinely talking with the child, giving space to her questions, by looking for ways to ensure she is comfortable, involved and engaged in an actual learning.

Children will ask unexpected questions, offer different points of view, find innovative ways of doing things, or help each other… celebrate this. Point out what they have done which is so good, and why it is so.

There will be times when those who usually 'fall behind' will make an effort, come up with something of their own (of course, only if you ensure they have the opportunity to do so). Celebrate their efforts, point out their good parts, and indicate what else they can do that will earn them similar 'celebration'.

If you find a fellow teacher, a staff member, a parent, an SMC member who is doing something successfully and contributing to children and the school, that's worth celebrating.

And on Independence Day? Start a few days before. Discuss with children what Independence Day means to us. Ask them how they think it should be celebrated. Come up with ideas that puts the children in the front, not adults or LIPs. Maybe they make drawings and posters related to freedom. Maybe they hold a debate on what freedom means and whether we really are a free people. Maybe they decide not to do a 'function' in the  school at all and instead spend time with children who are unable to be in school because they are not really free…And maybe they will learn something very different from such 'celebrations' than we did.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Here's the text of a presentation I made at a seminar in the New Delhi World Book Fair on 27th February 2012.


What kind of books do children need? And what do we do to enable such books to be selected and included in the school libraries being introduced under RTE across the country?

I. What kind of books do children need?
The five questions that must be answered in ‘yes’ in order to qualify them as being ‘right’ for children.

1. Is it child oriented?
·         Does it see from the child’s point of view?
·         Does it take as its core what will be interesting / fun / engaging for children?
·         Does it see children as having some intelligence and experience of their own, or as empty pots to be ‘filled’ or as passive beings to be ‘moulded’?
·         Is it preachy or does it help children come to their own understanding, their own conclusions?

2. Is it age appropriate?
·         In terms of subject matter, use of fantasy/imagination, treatment of the subject, references made to the child’s life and way of seeing, understanding what is difficult for a child at this age (and making it easy), use of language / vocabulary / structure of narrative or presentation, modes of communication used (e.g. text to picture ratio), designing, fonts, etc.?

3. Is it true to the genre and its requirements?
·         If it is a story does it have a real conflict driving the plot?
·         Does a poem have the kind of word play and imagery that children can relate with as well as take forward?
·         Does non-fiction use entry points that draw children in, and relate with children’s day-to-day experiences while helping them understand something that lies beyond their environment?

4. Can it be re-visited?
·         Does it have the emotional appeal that draws children to go through it again and again?
·         Can they find new things in it, whether in the visuals or in the text?
·         Can they do things with it differently, over different times?
·         Are there ‘openings’ in it that children can fill in differently at different times?

5. Does it take the child beyond what she can usually pick up in textbooks or regular TV shows?
·         A book is a take-off point where the action continues in the child’s mind. It can be inexpensive, easy to carry around and use….
·         And it should enable exploration, sharing, further imagination…

6. Finally, is the overall package localizable?

Children who are deprived of such books are deprived. Period.
In fact, the absence of such materials reflects the true poverty of India…Do our children, everyday, spend hours engaging with such material?

And what do we do so that this happens?

II. Getting the right books into children’s hands

All children will come across textbooks… we need to influence these, but that is another story…

Under the RTE, libraries are being established in each of the 13.5 lakh+ government schools. You already know how books get selected, and why the ‘wrong’ books are so prevalent ‘out there’.

What do we do?

Some suggestions:

1. Establish standards and disseminate them
·         Agree on a reasonably clear set of criteria of what kind of books are desirable in our context. (The context bit is critical!)
·         Convert this into the kind of language that a lay person can understand (accompanied by a set of objectively chosen exemplars to illustrate these if needed).
·         Ensure that you actually develop and publish such material at an affordable price.
·         Organize widespread dissemination of this set of criteria (or standards). In the media there are talk shows, columns, TV programmes on topics such as fashion (what your child should wear), the latest gadgets, preparing your children for admissions or examinations – but not on what your child should be reading. We are at fault, and we deserve what we face…
·         Use the weekend supplements of newspapers to showcase good material, actually give exemplars.
·         Have regular reviews brought out (like the film reviews that give ratings on a 5 star systems!) – while spelling out why something is rated well.

2. Develop and disseminate procurement guidelines
·         Develop what you think should be model guidelines for procurement of good children’s books. Make the process of developing these guidelines itself a participatory and transparent one, involve government representatives.
·         Once you have such guidelines available, ask the ministries / departments to consider using them, make them available in the internet, and in the hands of decision-makers who are required to use such guidelines.
·         Identify good practices (related to large-scale book procurement) and disseminate them. Institute a system of objectively recognizing good governance with regard to procurement and use of books and libraries. Have a credible system of doing this (if our process is in doubt, once again, we would deserve what we get!).

3. Reach out to parents
·         Take the parent and SMCs into confidence. Have a communication strategy wherein they learn about the importance of god books and also realize that it is their children’s right to get them under the RTE. A large-scale parental education programme is called for.
·         This is one area where a large number of NGOs could also contribute.

4. Provide exposure where required
·         Organize a buyers’ book fair specifically for state officials from across the country or at least make better use of the existing book fairs. Maybe you can convince NBT/MHRD to support the organization of a business / buyers’ fair’ of this kind.

May the best books be bought and reach children’s hands!