Sunday, March 26, 2017

My father, my Superhero!

This is a personal tribute to my late father, who gave me this life and all the learning that I have had so far. He continues to live inside of me and motivates me to do better and good. Though this writing doesn't fall in the blog's genre, I have included this as a source of learning to me through my experiences with my father.

As I sit next to the hospital bed, with my ailing father's hands in mine, the soft wheezing sound of his breath seems to defy the roaring life he has lived. I look at his face that has suddenly grown old and pale in the last one year, when his cancer showed up.

Looking at his frail body, who would have believed that this same man was cycling 30 kms and more to collect small change from his clients just a month ago! It was quite unusual for us to see him lying down, from the time we woke up to the time we went off to bed. And he was here now, lying still, perhaps thinking about the unfinished micro financing business that he had started, even before it was made fashionable by the likes of SKS MIcrofinance.

I have heard from uncles and aunts, and more so, from my mother, about his resilient and laborious nature. At one point of time, he used to manage 3 jobs apart from his regular one at the Army Medical Corps where he grew from a junior clerk to the head clerk by the time he retired. I remember seeing him leave for office at 7 in the morning after the daily ritual of complaining to his wife about getting late due to her not getting the food ready in time. She, in turn, would be a picture of a superwoman trying to manage everything in about 40 mins- from waking herself up and the two of us siblings to pushing us hard to get ready for school, to making the always-the-best tiffins and finally being on time for her 8 am bus to reach the office just in time to avoid being late. My father returned the favour by making her a refreshing cup of tea whenever he could manage.

My father was never a hands-on person when it came to household work, preferring to wait, instead, to let the two sons grow up to help the superwoman at home. Right from changing the light-bulb to shifting pieces of furniture, he would just let the three of us take charge. I guess he always had larger things on his mind, like how would the country fight corruption or how he could have changed the course of Indo-Pak relationship. Those were the times, when men used to discuss issues of national importance over a cup of tea, though my father didn’t even care for the cuppa. Even while I started developing a taste for tea due to our nocturnal sojourns preparing for exams in the hostel, he remained a stoic milk-drinker, or mostly, a water lover. My brother and I gazed at him, in wonder, when he used to gulp down a one-litre water bottle, and then precariously ask the host aunty for more water. Since refrigerators were a rare occurrence then, he would take every opportunity to make the best use of a visit to one of the “cool water” homes. Much to my mother’s consternation about etiquettes and manners, he would simply ask for more and more water while we stood in anticipation of a minor share.

Things were always quite adventurous with him around, and he never made us feel the pinch when it came to travel. I can blame it entirely on him for mylove for travel of any kind. We had two bicycles for the family. And I can still hear him telling us that walking never hurt anyone, not even the ten and eight-year old kids. Of course, the harsher reality was that we couldn’t have afforded a rickshaw every now and then! I have an uncomfortable thought that the cycle journeys to the far-away parks in Lucknow were far more enjoyable than the countrywide tours we have gone on recently. There was always a sense of togetherness on those bicycles than what you feel in the car or the flight. Now, I stoked his hand in anticipation of a response, but he seemed to be deep in sleep after the intense struggle with a particularly heavy breathing session.

My thoughts went back to my first day in the hostel where he left me standing in the reception. I recall not showing any emotions as a twelve year old, and just turned my back to him even before he was out of sight. I always thought I was like him, unemotional, non-committal and above the worldly relations. Fathers and men are meant to be that way, I guessed. I was taken aback when my mother told me that he had cried inconsolably and shamelessly that day in the train journey back to home. “Why did he leave me all alone in the hostel then?”, I had asked. And she had replied truthfully, “because we cared for your future more than our own feelings then.”  Parents have such a queer habit of turning everything in your favour without any feeling of remorse.

Display of emotions was never his turf, with an exception. I am certain he must have been a romantic person during the short period of his marriage before I was born as the elder offspring. His occasional maneuvers to woo my mother to accompany him on the journeys gave a glimpse into the past. Strangely though, his offer for company would always be veiled under the guise of “everyone should accompany him”, even when we were a four-member family! As children, we pestered him with promising our company, without mother, and he would expectantly look in her direction. My mother was never a “walking” enthusiast, and the disinterest continued on even when the family afforded a bicycle, moped, scooter and a Maruti 800 in that order. I suspect she always wanted to be wooed into the act instead of giving in so easily. Her husband, on his part, never gave up, even up to the day before he had to be admitted to the hospital this time. I hadn’t missed the moment when he was looking at her longingly before she decided to leave for home this night.

Such moments were rare when he was in his full elements now a days. Things had started turning a bit hostile, if I may use that word in context, gradually but surely. I tend to believe that the sequence of events, right from my moving to a hostel from the age of twelve, to moving out again after marriage to leave the pair alone, had a large role to play in the deteriorating relationship between the two. At least in the later part of the life, I could have managed to stem the rot with my closeness to both. My brother, though far more caring than I was, tended to take mother’s side leaving my father to guard for himself. My brother had been at home for most of his initial life before college. His mannerisms and steadfastness reflected what he had inherited from my father. In these hard times for the family, he stood quietly, yet somewhat defiant, mostly out of sight of his ailing father. For my father, his younger son always remained someone to be protected and loved, albeit, from a distance. There were ideological conflicts between the two strongmen in the house, and each one of them stood his ground as true warriors.

My father never missed any opportunity to show his deep hatred for all things “wrong”. In his heyday, I remember him showing intense aggression towards anyone showing a hint of disrespect to a woman, particularly his woman, in a train compartment. There was always a palpable nervousness in our minds when we were about to confront an unsuspecting public servant looking for some “tip” for doing his duty. Out of the numerous instances that I can recall, one stands out for its elaborate manner of execution. One fine day of anticipating the official visit of the inspector, the poor man showed up at our door to conduct his regular inspection for our passport application. This didn’t, however, turn out the way he had quite anticipated. My father welcomed him in the house, fully aware of his intentions as soon as he showed up our passport form. He was made to sit and, in true “Lucknowi andaaz”, offered tea and a choice of homemade snacks. We sat at the edge of our seats anticipating the moment of truth for the poor man, who took his time with the snacks before belching out his innocuous demand for money. My father was unusually slow in his reprimand, perhaps honoring the Indian tradition of letting a guest have his full. By the time he was half-way through his sermons on how public servants should behave, the poor servant would have wished not having to come to our place at all. Such was the finesse in the method, that the powerless passport inspector not only had to leave without any reward, but had to promise that he wouldn’t repeat his demand elsewhere! I am sure the promise would have vanished into the hungry bowels of his conscience, yet I got an important lesson of my life. In a recent encounter with a traffic policeman, I insisted on him giving me a receipt for the official fees for a red-light jump offence. While the hapless fellow tried in vain to produce the receipt book, I quietly thanked my father to help me do my bit. I wouldn’t be honest if I said I haven’t paid bribes at all. I maintain that honesty has its own limits, and those limits are often defined by the bulge of your wallet.

A sudden grasp on my hand brought me back to look at the frail man in the bed. Ever since his reports confirmed that cancer had infiltrated his spinal cord, he had internally lost hope of a revival. His exterior, though, only broke off during bouts of intense pain. His doctor described the pain being equal to dozens of bones cracking and dissolving in the body. We could only help him make the least movements possible and the mere feeling of being dependent on others for his daily rituals made him want a quick end for himself. God has his own ways of dealing with such feelings of mortals, and he was made to bow to his wishes in these last days.

My father was never a devoutly religious person, though as is the norm with an Indian hindu, he was given to perform puja every morning. Much against mymother’s constant reprimands to follow some respectful routines, he would follow his own instincts when it came to the nitty-gritty of the ritual. Mondays were a totally different matter. On Shastriji’s call for a one-day fast by every Indian, he began the fasting with a vengeance. Mondays used to be no food and no water days till he broke the fast with his late evening meal after a generous two-hour long puja. I believe it was his way to put his body to test regularly to know whether he was in command. The Monday routine, followed for more than four decades, was rudely interrupted by the demands of modern medicine for the last few weeks. He quietly resigned to our requests for letting the doctors inject the vital energy juices into his body. I wonder if his body revolted to this intrusion by giving his mind sleepless nights.

His eccentric ways of testing his physical endurance seemed to be growing with his age. On one of the several occasions of my mother coming to visit us, when he found himself alone at home, he resorted to a liquid diet of water and juice for 21 days! My mother was distraught and vowed never to let him alone again, only to give him another opportunity a few months later. We used to insist on both of them staying with us for a month while my father always had his business to attend to back home. After retirement, he had made himself even more occupied with his social venture. Though he impressed upon us that this gave him good returns, he was much too emotional to earn money out of it. He wanted the small-time chaiwallas and rickshaw-pullers to cultivate a savings habit by depositing small change with him. To facilitate the process, he went on his cycle covering more than 20 kms everyday to collect tens and twenties from his loyal clientele. A margin of ten percent between the lending and borrowing rates, he maintained, would take care of bad debts as well as give him some returns. The  more we tried to talk him out of it, the more stubborn he would behave. Eventually, we gave up.

Well, we didn’t give up completely. We tried to bring the other hobbies of his yesteryears back into his life. He was a good artist with his pencil. His slender fingers were magical in drawing sketches of Ganesha, the God most given to artistic liberties. And of beautiful maidens who seemed to come into life of their own from his creations. He had also developed a liking for making paper models of buildings and houses. In a stall we put up at a local Durga Puja festival, he had even made a grand replica of the Parliament House. The most striking feature was that he didn’t use any adhesives or pins to bind it all together completely relying on folding and cutting the sheets. Over the years, his hands gave in to more manual labour than pursuing his softer passion. His art showed up in some of the mundane work like the much-disliked wall-plastering work he took up of late. Inspired by a fantastic work of a neighbor, he began collecting broken ceramic tiles and plastered them on the walls of our house trying to get them into designs. Even while I have always had a bias to whatever he does, I was taken aback by the rawness of the creations. While I have inherited his earlier quality of perfection, this was completely out of sync with my imagination. My mother, always a discerning critic that she is, was in her elements when she finally had it all removed in an act of defiance. After much huffing and puffing, she gave in to his demand of plastering the inside wall at the terrace. Till today, a portion of the wall stands testimony to his misadventure.

After our attempts on bring back his artistic form failed, we tried to revive his interest in Chess and Carrom, his other expertise. I feel proud to have learnt the latter from him and put it to good use while winning a few trophies in the game. He always pushed both his children to take up some sport and adventure, and I did take up a bit of his advice while pursuing Table Tennis, Basketball and Cycling to good measure. Post retirement, carom seemed more like a resignation than a pursuit. He didn’t take the bait and continued his social adventure instead, much against our collective wishes. Secretly, he seemed to enjoy doing whatever my mother disliked. My mother, wise enough after years of togetherness, made good of this habit by coaxing him into doing something by asking him do the exact opposite! Like an awed soldier, I often marveled at the strategic skills of these warring commanders.

My years of distance from the family were interspersed with brief visits back home and the picture presented to me was often a temporary feel-good image of a perfect home. My brother was a witness to the true family drama and hence a more rational mediator at the occasional feuds. It will suffice to say that my father was never a submissive party that our matriarchal home could have easily made out of him. In matters of conflict, he would stand solid on his grounds while ensuring regular supplies of food and ammunition from his adversary. I admire my mother’s ability to cook and serve food to the family even when, from the inside, she would have surely wished otherwise. We all knew when to stop our gibberish if we wanted this to continue.

Even during the bed-ridden days, my father would never want to miss the delicacies made by his all-rounder chef partner. Even while my brother became an accomplished chef, and later, an almost revered teacher by his students, my father sang paeans in reverence to his wife’s culinary prowess. My mother on her part, looked forward to his words of praise, much more than the recognition she won easily at the local social dos. He was quiet a foodie and devoured huge quantities at his old age, much beyond I could muster even at the prime of my youth! I can’t fathom what must be more fulfilling a thought for my mother- feeding a man and his two sons with humongous quantities of food, or get the few words of appreciation from him. It must have been quite unnerving to get a request for a few hand-rolled chapaties after coming back home from a good meal at a hotel! Now, of course, it is a struggle to feed him with a few mouthfuls of the choicest of her food. What an irony for a person like my father!

I haven't been the most obedient or trusted son that a father or mother look for. I haven't followed in his footsteps to be a teetotaler and even a non-smoker. I have had my share of adventures in my college days to be a bit reckless with smoking and drinking. Though I never allowed this to become an addiction, money to sustain such indulgences was always a problem. My father used to send money on demand. I only realized it later when my mother showed a letter written by him. This letter was never posted that it summarized into just one thought that the humble family finances couldn't afford such luxuries. I can only imagine their struggle now that I have to refuse my daughters about some foreign excursions from their school. The scale might have changed but not the struggles. Some day the daughters would grow up to have a similar learning about life.

As if reading my thoughts, my father tightened his grip on my hand and motioned me to come closer to him. I bent forward to lend my ear to him but was taken by surprise at what he did next. With an immense energy that probably was all that was left in his body, he hugged me tight. I hadn't hugged him for years as the unwritten rule of the family was to touch his feet whenever we met. The memory of that embrace gives me shivers to this day. It was as if he wanted to take his son along with him. But this son wasn't going to oblige his father. I felt that embrace fill my body with such force that I was almost scared for my life! Wasn't this life his own? Does a son owe it to his father?

I believe I have become him. I am reminded of this Urdu composition by Nida Fazli about a father-son relationship. After the death of the father, the son is supposed to pray on his grave. But he doesn't do the ritual as he just doesn't believe that his father is no more... 

tumhārī qabr par 

maiñ fātiha paḌhne nahīñ aayā 

mujhe mālūm thā 

tum mar nahīñ sakte 

tumhārī maut kī sachchī ḳhabar jis ne uḌaa.ī thī 

vo jhūTā thā 

vo tum kab the 

koī sūkhā huā patta havā se mil ke TuuTā thā 

mirī āñkheñ 

tumhāre manzaroñ meñ qaid haiñ ab tak 

maiñ jo bhī dekhtā huuñ 

sochtā huuñ 

vo vahī hai 

jo tumhārī nek-nāmī aur bad-nāmī kī duniyā thī 

kahīñ kuchh bhī nahīñ badlā 

tumhāre haath merī uñgliyoñ meñ saañs lete haiñ 

maiñ likhne ke liye 

jab bhī qalam kāġhaz uThātā huuñ 

tumheñ baiThā huā maiñ apnī hī kursī meñ paatā huuñ 

badan meñ mere jitnā bhī lahū hai 

vo tumhārī 

laġhzishoñ nākāmiyoñ ke saath bahtā hai 

mirī āvāz meñ chhup kar 

tumhārā zehn rahtā hai 

mirī bīmāriyoñ meñ tum 

mirī lāchāriyoñ meñ tum 

tumhārī qabr par jis ne tumhārā naam likhā hai 

vo jhūTā hai 

tumhārī qabr meñ maiñ dafn huuñ 

tum mujh meñ zinda ho 

kabhī fursat mile to fātiha paḌhne chale aanā

(Composition: walid ki wafat par/ Source:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

5G: Impact on Education & Training

You may be excused if you want to take this with a spoonful of salt, or think of this as sci-fi. But I would rather dream on and take a peek into the future. Some reports put the 5G launch to 2020, but most of us in India will be happy with a 4G by then. I don't intend to argue on when this will happen, but I would definitely want to foresee what will happen to education when it happens. Before that, let's get some 5G basics right:
Source: (

  1. For a full HD movie of 8 GB size, 3G speed should take a few hours (the above illustration shows much more!), 4G speed should take 6 minutes, but a 5G speed should take a mere 3-6 seconds! 
  2. Even more importantly, latency in 5G should come down to 1 millisecond from 50 milliseconds in 4G. What it implies is that the devices will be able to interact with each other much quicker. So, the response from a remote learner's iPad can reach a teacher's laptop in a flash.

There is no consensus on these figures yet, but experts broadly agree on similar scales. In any case, it looks to be too futuristic to begin a debate on a few thousands of bits. So, if we go by these estimates, what difference will we see in how people will learn in the future?

Let me take a parallel in defense applications where technological innovations deliver a mission-critical advantage before a civil application is made feasible. In the days of our Maharajas fighting battles, the speed of information would determine changing strategies and a win or loss. An army waiting for reinforcements a thousand miles away depended on pigeons to know the status. From those times, transition to the modern warfare where a missile can manoeuvre itself to follow a moving target based on a GPS tracking capability. The critical factor that has changed the scenario is the response time to a stimulus.

In the educational context, imagine training a batch of mechanical engineering students on machining. The trainer might just connect with an alumnus working in the industry to show the machining processes Live. A more structured approach could enable the alumnus give a case study and a project based on the organization's existing requirements. A sure outcome of this would be a better matched and trained work force for an organization.

A group of school students in India might interact with 20 more classrooms from across the world to work on a project involving best practices adoption in environmental awareness. We know how traveling in foreign cultures opens up a person's mind and helps her come out of the shell. Any of my visits to a foreign country has always made me a better citizen back home. Interacting with students from other countries or states, and the ability to talk to them live on a video call can be a much better education than in a closed wall classroom.

To seriously contemplate the seemingly impossible task of training 500 million people by 2022 (of which NSDC has achieved about 1.3% till 2015, with all the good intentions and projects), we need to explore entirely new ways of doing training. With a communication technology like 5G available on mobile, without the need to setup wired infrastructure, a group of young men and women in a remote village can be trained by working professionals directly from their work environs. Imagine having a live and interactive video feed from a drone in a machining workshop that can move around and talk to the operators when they can explain a few things to the trainees.

Just the other day, I got the Google Cardboard to explore what is available. The most interesting part of the VR idea is that a teacher may someday be able to create VR models for her class just like we create word docs today. Coupled with 5G speeds, the VR technology will make it possible for a class in Lucknow full of inquisitive children to make an interactive tour of an educational excursion being conducted by another teacher in Bengaluru's Science Museum! On a real time basis, the teacher's head mounted device will convert the environ into VR and the students in the Lucknow class will be interacting displays on their own individually!

My head is dizzy thinking of the possibilities....Dream on :-)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cinema and education

You might have seen the Hindi movie, Drishyam, or its original Malayalam version by the same name.

Apart from the fact that the movie has a very terse narrative and direction, one dialogue struck me the most. The female lead in the Hindi version, played superbly by Tabu, wonders how the "fourth-grade fail" cable businessman (played by Ajay Devgn) could be so "smart"! And then she makes a very pertinent observation after a colleague remarks on Ajay Devgn's penchant for watching movies. She simply says that the cinema angle is important in this context.

Theatrics and Tabu's attribution to her industry aside, can cinema actually educate an illiterate? It looks like an over-simplistic solution to India's education woes. But does it deserve any merit? I would hazard a "Yes" for that answer, though the kind of education that I am talking about is quite unlike what is taught in our schools and colleges. Would Ajay Devgn's character have learnt from his school all the things that he learnt from his countless hours of watching movies? That is a definite "No". Our education system doesn't gear us for real-life challenges, not to mention the ones this movie talks about!

The things that I could learn from Hindi cinema are values, traditions, strategy, leadership, communication, problem-solving (of the real kind), patriotism, history, geography and culture, to name a few. Some of them are, of course, dealt with at various stages in schools and colleges, but the focus tends to be on completing the syllabus and securing good grades. At the same time, a viewer can also acquire dangerously different connotations of the same elements that I mentioned above, depending on his/ her state of mind, social context and the atmosphere itself within the theatre. A rape scene, for instance, may have two diametrically opposite stimuli on two people.

Given the strange "uncontrollable" effect on a viewer, is it really possible to use cinema in classroom? I recall watching "Other people's money" with my MBA class as a part of the "Mergers and Acquisitions" subject. It completed the subject by giving it a soul. We were often told that the big deals had more of a human element than some numbers. With our dear Professor discussing the movie intermittently and expertly relating it to what we had learnt in theory, the movie has remained etched in my memory.

Movies with "a moral of the story" like Swades, Lakshya and Taare Zameen Par are easily a great source of inspiration for our children. But specific instances or characters or even dialogues have brought out the teacher in me. One particularly hilarious dialogue from the bad guy played by Prakash Raj in the 2009 hit, "Wanted", is a lesson in leadership (gone wrong). Here's the link to a "lesson plan" I thought of. This is the first of the blog piece from my new blog effort called "Lessons From Cinema".

Keep watching this space for more...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What's the ultimate aim of education?

I am sure everyone ponders over this question at some point in life. A child in school probably thinks of in-class time as a waste of time, considering that she has a lot of exciting things to do outside the four walls. A teacher in the same classroom is concerned about completing the prescribed content and schedule within the limits of time. The parent at home is mostly at ease with the fact that the child is in school while he goes on with his daily chores.

The one entity that gets impacted more than anyone else, and that, unfortunately, has the least power to influence the whole process, is the Society. The human civilization has, over the ages, come to terms with the fantasy that education (or, simply, bringing up a child) is an individual's responsibility. To be fair, states do put in a lot of emphasis on making their presence felt by controlling the essentials, namely, the finances and the "rules of the game".

What happens at the end of one's education is something that hits the society like a fireball. You get people who don't want to work on something, but they must- for whatever reasons! You also get people who are not able to cope with the real-world pressures and display behaviours that don't exactly gel well with others. The education that was supposed to produce "good human beings" suddenly begins to look as if it had all the right things in place, yet without a heart. In some countries, I am told, schools begin with social etiquettes and then with the alphabet. I wonder if they "fail" a child for not passing the first phase. What does a child do if she can't fathom the "selfishness" in her demanding the cookie of her brother? Or what does a teacher do on seeing a "hyper-active" child trying to jump over another child in the class and hurting himself in the process?

Do we really have a choice to not make good human beings more than anything else? And who should be doing this more than anyone else in the whole cast? Should we hold someone else accountable when a young male in the streets makes obscene overtures towards a girl? Or when an adult hits a child at the roadside because the child was "tampering" with this expensive car's side-view mirror? Or when a religious "jagrata" in the neighbourhood keeps you from sleeping peacefully for the whole night?

I fantasize about a day when brain-mapping technology would advance to a level when it identifies a suspect behaviour in a child at the age of four and provides help to its hapless (and often, defensive) parents. Until then, we need to help the society in bringing up the right next generation into its fold by giving preference to "bringing up" than "educating".

(Also published simultaneously on my other blog on Unschooling at

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Be A you really have a choice?

Data 1: The second goal in India's Millenium Goals for 2015 states, "Achieve Universal Primary Education". The UNDP, India site ( proclaims, "India is on-track and in some cases, ahead of targets that relate to universalizing primary education in India. Gross Enrolment Rates for both girls and boys in 2006-07 crossed 100 percent."

The data point looks quite encouraging. Yet, when you walk to any surrounding areas in your city, you will inevitably find children working or idling around when they should have been a part of the statistics UNDP, India mentions.

I pass by a temporary jhuggi colony along my way to office everyday. This colony has mostly labourers employed in the burgeoning Indore city landscape that is turning it into a concrete jungle to be in line with the other developed cities. Like any other similar habitation in any other city in India, this too boasts of children lining up the streets for their daily chores. On both ends of this street are located two of the most populous and prominent schools of the city. With buses and cars ferrying the privileged and more fortunate children into these two schools and many more from the residential areas nearby, you can't help but notice the urchins looking wistfully at their could-be childhood.

Where are we going wrong? Are the researchers and statisticians ignoring the vast populace that migrates in search of work? Not to mention the Chotus and Bahadurs who you meet at any chai shop!

Data 2: The Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) conducted in July 2013 results that were released on 2-Sep show an overall pass percentage of 11% (a commendable jump from less than 1% in the last test conducted six months ago- partly due to a 1-hour increase in the test duration). More than 9 lakh teachers (and to-be-teachers) wrote that test from across India. Similar State-TET results across India have similar pass figures to boast of!

The second data point indicates the poor "infrastructure" quality to realize the dream. If our schools wouldn't have good enough teachers, how would the parents feel secure about handing over their wards to the schools? With the firm belief that the TET is an evidence of minimum quality teaching standards, Beyond Teaching is trying its best to improve the success rates by providing help to the test-takers.

I went to my regular Istri-wallah one day and found his usually reticent children reading out aloud from some textbook. The clueless parents proudly proclaimed that the elder child, the son, went to DPS. The younger son and the eldest daughter went to the government school in the nearby "village". While the child was busy reading, the parents voiced their problem of not being able to afford a tuition for him. Without a secondary support in the form of a good tutor, the child might just drop out, as many of our national statistics would indicate.

While the government does its bit by implementing Right To Education (RTE) and the DPS Society does its own part by offering a low-cost model of education to its dependent employees, there seems to be a gap in making these children use these resources better.

How many of those who can read this article help young primary class students in their regular studies? I presume, each one of us! But why we don't do it is a question of need. Whose need is it? We should be happy contributing to the government treasury by paying our taxes and let the machinery take care of such issues, right?

Wrong! The social and macro picture rather goes on to show that it is our need that all children around us study, and do well in their lives. The only big opportunity for these children to do well later is when they are in school. Some of the obvious advantages to the society are fruitful usage of their free time, better understanding between different strata of children and, most importantly, an almost sure way of ensuring a diminishing crime rate.
My newest students!

I set out to correct it in my own small way, and offered free tuition to the child. Right after the first day, two more children joined in, one of them being our maid's son. I had to commit a 7-8 pm slot for the children, and have managed to stick to the schedule for most part. My younger daughter, who is in second grade and too young to understand the differences in learning styles, has started taking keen interest in their progress in their grade 3 work. I am certain that she will learn much more by actually teaching others, as most learning philosophies would confirm.

There are a few more benefits that I am now able to appreciate after a few weeks of being on the job. I found the children and their parents very much interested and obliged. It was hard to convince them that I was doing it for my own satisfaction, and not for money.

Initially, my young learners were quite shy to open up and speak out. But with some encouragement and reassurance, they have begun to come out on their own. I can now make small changes in the way they speak, behave and learn. My own skills as a teacher are improving and I am hoping this would help me teach my own daughters better!

One of the children studies in Hindi medium in a government school, and I am only too happy to be able to teach him in a language that was always close to my heart.

I would encourage you to take up one such assignment and give yourself a chance to teach. If you want a better tomorrow for your children and your own old age, you really don't have a choice!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The real purpose of Assessments

In a scene from the 1996 hit movie, Agni Sakshi, Nana Patekar confronts Jackie Shroff in a rare face-off. Jackie, playing a rich (and good samaritan to Nana Patekar's estranged wife played by Manisha Koirala) belittles Nana with  a big difference between their status. Nana, in his nonchalant tone, responds with this gem, "Just because your car is bigger than mine, it doesn't make my car any smaller or bigger than it actually is"!

Somehow, this dialogue has stayed with me over all these years. And I have interpreted it in many different ways. The one big interpretation is that in its relevance to assessments in today's education world. I interpreted it as "What others achieve (or don't) doesn't make my achievements any bigger (or smaller) that they mean to me."

We need to understand assessment in its core and entirety. At its core, assessment is a means to self-improvement in two dimensions- progress over where I was and in the context of what I can be. In either context, it is a very personal event and can't have it's bearing on or from another person's assessment state. A 15-year old child, whose paintings adorn the school walls and are worthy of being displayed in an art exhibition in the central town hall, needs to be assessed on how much more he can stretch his imagination and mature in this subject. At the same time, a child, who is branded as "good-for-nothing" has to be assessed on his ability to find his true meaning in the context of his surroundings. He has to be guided in this quest pushing him gently into the realms of the unknown.

Assessment, in its entirety, encompasses the whole, not a part of an individual. In his seminal work on appraisals (in the corporate context), T.V.Rao captured the spirit of assessment by coining the term "360 degree appraisal". Although set in a different environment, it holds equal relevance to a school assessment situation. Modern educational setups try to capture an overall picture of a child's situation by getting observations from classmates and parents to present a more complete picture of the child.

Over the years, I have graduated to assessing myself in a very personal and introspective mode than from an outsider's perspective (typically, my bosses, family and subordinates). It is a much less stressful activity and much more contented. The obvious question, of course, remains that of its relevance and impact on the real world that I live in. The most glaring, and hard-hitting, event is the raise in salary or position that I get because of someone else's perceptions. I believe it is also an event to be incorporated into my own assessment model. It should become a way of understanding how much I can convey to others about my worth. At another level, it should also indicate the course I would like my life to take.

Assessment is an important and a most critical component of the life of every entity- from an individual learner to an organization going right up to a nation. Shying away from assessment is like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. Methods of assessment and the actions taken can have such a very high impact on a society. A recent report by Pratham indicates the result of the No Fail policy in just two years of implementation. The reading and arithmetic levels, the two most critical performance indicators of a nation's young learners, dropped to alarming levels. This relates well to the way assessments are done, and even more importantly, the way the results are interpreted and implemented.

I am reminded of a recent post on Facebook about the experiment a Professor did in his class to explain the results of a communist versus a capitalist society. After they all agreed to settle for the average score of all students to be awarded to all students irrespective of individual performance, they found that within the year, the complete class had failed. Obviously, the top performers felt demotivated to work hard given that they would get a lower score. I didn't quite agree with the logic that since this system failed, the other one (that of extreme competition) would succeed. It never has either, given the ever-widening gap in the performance levels of students in any academic class.

Summing it up, I feel that conducting assessments is a very serious business, and should be entrusted to the right people instead of taking it as a middle- or end-of-the-term formality and, worse, as a criterion to pass a judgement over the learner's capabilities. Let the learner decide!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Big Language Barrier and the Indian learner

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be a part (after a long period) of a team at an Engineering College at Odisha. We were helping the young engineering students to get ready for their professional career ahead, and more specifically, their campus interviews. This isn't the first time I have done mock interviews or group discussions, and I hope there would be many more to come! I have interacted with students in different states, including Delhi, UP, MP, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Odisha. My experiences have been strikingly the same irrespective of the state and closeness to the city. There is a similar scenario in all campuses, the ratios only varying depending on the social background of the students.

This isn't something that you wouldn't be suspecting already, yet I felt it was important to bring this out in the open to explore solutions. But first, the problem statement. To define the problem, we must try to answer these questions as accurately as possible:

  1. Are our current graduating students very different from the past generations in terms of:
    1. Technical/ Subject Knowledge?
    2. English Communication?
    3. Readiness for professional life?
  2. Are the current recruiters "asking for" or "demanding" a highly proficient English Language communicator? More pertinently, is the current employer laying more emphasis on English communication than knowledge or overall personality, and how has this changed over the generations?
  3. Is English communication really the biggest hurdle in a student's self-esteem?
Our answers to these questions may vary when we take a distant and impersonal view of the matter. But when we get into the thick of reality that we see around us everyday, it almost reeks of a conspiracy! You will have to be blind and deaf to miss the stark differences in how a person is perceived by others and by himself. If we all know this reality, then why do we have schools as foundations to ensure this dark future? Our schools are not equipped to handle this situation. At least, not in the current setup. We have state education boards that treat English as just another subject, not even giving it an ESL status. How do we expect children from these schools to wake up to the harsh reality of English being such an important aspect of their future life? It doesn't really help to have teachers who can't frame a proper sentence in English. Such deplorable state of affairs continues into the higher education stage, albeit a wee bit better.

I am sure all of us are aware of this reality, yet fail to come up with a solution. At best, we send our children to a decent school where we hope they will pick up the language and rise. It isn't surprising then to see an "English-medium" school charging a hefty premium over its poorer cousin next door. This, however, doesn't seem to be working in the direction of bridging the wide gap.

Now, here are my radical solutions:

1. Make English mandatory at all schools at all levels: Easier said than done, I know! For this to happen, we need to train teachers in the language and adopt English as a "vocational subject" rather than a subject. The key difference is in the way English is perceived. Instead of making it sound like learning a language (with its grammar nuances etc), we should learn it in the form of a "skill", much like carpentry, welding etc. This will result in laying the stress on the "employability" factor rather than "marks" factor. A certificate-course that gives a level of proficiency would be the end result.

2. Make employers realize that English isn't all that matters while recruiting: This is kind of an anti-thesis to this post. Yet, it is important for us as a society to take a step back and assess manpower at all levels from a standpoint of competency than smooth-talking English-speaking gentry. It is quite easy when we talk about hiring an office boy or an electrician, because they are not "supposed to be" interacting in English. This ease stops immediately even at a trainee-level hire.

The second point is actually a kind of remedial action that wouldn't be needed if the first one is addressed properly. Because it will take a long time to achieve a sound level in the first point, and the second point may seem to be quite Utopian, I have a third and more doable approach.

How I wish our Medical, Linguistic, Neurological and any other expert communities could come together to create the "English pill"! It could come in different packages for different learner groups and one pill (or a sequence of pills) could make someone a Level A, B, C...Z in English. Well, while I let my imagination fly, why not have some pill that could translate your language into English while it was on its way from the mind to your mouth! Alas, science may have to jump into 3000 AD to make it happen!

For now, I have a simpler, though quite imperfect, solution. In spite of the good success of English-Vinglish (hats off to my old favourite, Sridevi for pulling it off), I suspect if people really become English speakers in good measure from these courses in India. Mind you, we are not talking about making fiction writers from the learners. We are talking about only making them proficient enough to acquire an employability skill.

We need to have English-speaking modules (not classes) for learners of all ages, minus the ridicule that comes with them. I remember the Rapidex era when people wouldn't want to be associated with the book, though the book did brisk business, thanks to a helping hand from Kapil Dev. How do you make English learning more acceptable for all types of learners- kids, teens, housewives and working professionals alike?

When I was a kid, I could have never imagined watching TV commercials selling sanitary napkins with my family one day! The slogans like "Have a happy period" or "Don't worry!" for advertising sanitary napkins and similar innovative slogans for selling condoms, deodorants etc. have taken away the "awkwardness" out of them. Why we never needed such campaigns for the products like a talcum powder is because a talcum powder is not "awkward". To make English learning a necessity, we need to disrupt the normal approach for product design, marketing and delivery. Technology usage can disrupt all the three aspects by making it convenient for everyone to learn. There have been attempts to use CDs, TV, Internet to deliver language courses. But somehow, we still haven't reached the masses. I don't see it happening without a government enforced compliance in schools and colleges to begin with. A working professional is able to see the necessity and importance of English for his growth, but a student rarely understands. The need of the hour is to make it evident, easy to access and free to use.

Once these are taken care of, we will be able to ponder at those huge skill gap numbers thrown to us by every demographic expert. And I hope to see the day when people would appreciate true talent wrapped beautifully in the garb of English language...