July 2013 – Once a teacher, always a teacher!

Father Hilary Pereira was the Principal of St. Germain High School, Bangalore when I was a student there 20 years ago. While in school we were scared of him, he was a strict disciplinarian. He is now an old man who celebrated his 90th birthday recently. A few of my classmates decided to surprise him on his birthday by landing up at the Josephs Community Home that he presently lives in on the outskirts of Bangalore. 7 of them who turned up for the occasion, unfortunately I was not in the country so could not make it. My friends had taken birthday cake, some flowers and a greeting card. One of my friends Harish brought his little son of 4 years along with him and the group decided that the little one will present the flowers and the card.

This little boy after a quick tutoring session on how to present walks up to Fr. Pereira and hands over the flowers and greeting card and wishes him “Happy Budday Father”. Fr. Pereira instantly responds back “Its not Budday, its B.i.r.t.h… D.a.y” and “Thank-You, my child!”. He was absolutely clear of what role he plays in life, he is a teacher and a teacher for life. He chose to ignore the greetings, the feeling, the emotion and the gesture of the child and chose to correct a child who just made a mistake.

My friend Harish’s wife was a little taken aback and she looked at him. Harish who heads a very large pharmaceutical company today instantly replied commented “That is Fr. Pereira, and thanks to this habit of correcting us we are where we are today”

If you look closely at this incident you will realise that Fr. Pereira did not react like how educators think and act these days. The current crop of teachers and educationists would go on about – “he is just a small child or its ok to make mistakes or it’s the thought that matters”. For Fr. Pereira all that mattered was that if a child makes a mistake it needs to be corrected then and there.

I spent a large part of June in MIT Boston doing a very interesting Enterpreneurs Masters Program. The experience was invaluable as all my batchmates were successful entrepreneurs from across the globe. One of my batch mates had an interesting name John Dewey, during an interaction I mentioned to him that he shares a name with a legendary educator ‘John Dewey’ whose work pioneered ‘Progressive Learning’. My John smiled at me and said that The John Dewey was his great grandfather. John runs a company that manufactures military equipment for the US Army, he is very passionate about education. I guess that runs in his blood.

Getting back to the incident of Fr. Pereira I am reminded of what John Dewey had said over a century ago. “It is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently” (Dewey, 1897)

Instruction must focus on the child as a whole for you can never be sure as to where society may end or where that student will be needed or will take themselves.

“Education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed” (Dewey, 1897) Dewey felt that as education is a social construct, it is therefore a part of society and should reflect the community.

Wonder when we will wake up to the reality of what to teach children?

June 2013 – Are Schools Service Providers?

Schools are increasingly looking at themselves as service providers these days. What it means to me as a service provider is that schools ought to and are providing service to their customers, namely the parents.   This attitude has resulted in a lot of changes in the way schools work these days and hopefully this would benefit the community at large.

Body: Take for instance a conversation I had with a school principal earlier this year. She was hassled with the constant pressure her teachers were put under by the parents with questions like – ‘Why did my child get only 60%? As long as these are questions it is perfectly alright, for it is the duty of the school and the teacher to go a step forward to analyze the performance of the child and provide support to the child and the parent in understanding this analysis. What matters is the tone of the question, for such questions come with subtle notes of accusations. There are instances of Principals who choose to and give instructions to their teachers to give higher marks to students just to stay clear of an annoying parent.

Another interesting aspect that I have noticed is that many principals are against giving homework to children and especially children in the primary classes where home support is a must.    The objective behind the homework is very clear, the child needs support and guidance at home and parents ought to be aware of areas of support as required by the child.  But most parents find it difficult to digest this. A lot of parents tend to believe that a school that gives a lot of homework is a good school. In fact many schools give homework just to satisfy their parents.

All of this has led to the ‘Death of the Free Period’. Good old days had schools with slots which were kept free in the time table as buffers to accommodate variations that came up in the daily schedules. This meant that children landed up getting a period or two free in a week. In fact I am aware of seasoned educators who ensured that children got their free time regularly.

Educational philosophers have always advocated the need to allow children to be free to learn. In fact children will do a lot better in subjects they have to cram if they have a free mind space. Considering that most parents these days insist that their children go for tuitions after school; children get very little free time. In fact I am told preschool children also go for tuitions these days! The law ministry in India is busy making a law that says, tuitions is a menace and that schools need to take ownership of extra support and reinforcement classes wherever required; but how does one explain matters to parents?  Schools need to review the definition of a service provider and in fact ensure that services are provided to both students and the parents, for students benefit from this directly.

May 2013 – Experience Speaks

 “As long as s/he was heading the school, it was a wonderful institution” this is one of the most common statements we hear in schools that have been around for a long time. If we analyse this statement we realise that the functioning of schools is more a factor of individuals running the schools and less a factor of the systems that run the school. As long as the individuals are around things seem to run smoothly, once the individuals running the system move out either the system loses steam or collapses or a new systems comes into being.

Every teacher, educator or principal come across innumerable experiences in their careers – while handling a difficult student or dealing with a de-motivated colleague or putting to rest an aggressive parent concern or an innovative methodology in teaching or sensitising a child to make a difference to the world they live in. These situations would have provided valuable insights, understanding and learning to the ones who undergo the experience. What happens to all this learning? How often do educators make an effort to document or pass on this learning in an organised manner?

All schools have had such amazing tradition, culture and philosophy of nurturing children. Over time schools mature with experience. Unfortunately with people changing this valuable learning; experienceis lost to time. Change is good. Change that builds on the good of the past is ideal.

Experiences that happen within the schools are invaluable. Schools should go out of their way to document these learnings and experiences in the form of records and case studies. Some of the world’s best known institutions like Harvard have such meticulous systems of documenting learning and they create such amazing case studies that even impact industry at large.

Wikipedia defines “Case studies are analysis of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions or other systems that are studied holistically. The case that is the subject of the inquiry will be an instance of a class of phenomena that provides an analytical frame within which the study is conducted and which the case illuminates and explicates.”

All schools should create a system that encourages Case Studies of issues and experiences that create an impact. If these case studies are tagged with the right classifications and stored in a database that can be accessed by all teachers, it could serve as a tremendous source of knowledge and information to everyone else in the institution. This system could go a long way in ensuring that learning and experience do not move away with moving people and are not lost to time.

IT has engulfed our lives in many ways and we live in an era where documenting and accessing information is so simple. Learning is meant to be shared, if schools made their learning and experience accessible to educators worldwide I am confident it would make them a little wiser as they would not repeat the old mistakes.

April 2013 – Organised Learning at a young age kills creativity

The Times of India – Bangalore recently conferred the Bangalorean of the Year Award to a dear friend of mine Mr. Manivannan who is a very respected IAS officer of Karnataka and presently heads the electricity board. I was attending a private party organised by his friends to celebrate the occasion, his friends from his school in Trichy and his college REC-Trichy and then his IAS batch mates were in attendance. It was an interesting evening as I got to learn how an average boy went on to become one of the most respected IAS officers of his generation. What was very interesting to me about his career graph was the fact that he did not go to school till he was 11 years old. He joined schools only in class 6 and his father insisted that the first 10 years children should learn at home before stepping out into the world. His other siblings who are also very successful in their own spaces also went to school only from the age of 11.

Manivannan’s father ensured that the formative and impressionable years of his children’s life were spent at home learning the family’s culture, traditions, customs and values. He realised that nobody else on this planet could have taught his children all of this except his family. He did something, which seemed common in a lot of homes in the past. All great educational thinkers and most traditional educational systems like the Madrasa or the Gurukul have advocated the fact that the formative years should be spent at home.

Somehow most young parents today don’t seem to value their own cultures or traditions as much as their parents did. No wonder they are in a tearing hurry to put their children to school or pre schools or play homes what ever we call them.

When we look closely at the way pre-schools are run in this country it is very scary. On one hand we have no legislation or rules that govern pre-school education or a prescribed curriculum for them in India. On the other hand anybody and everybody seems to start off a preschool, no qualification is required to start one. Everyone seems to know how to educate children and everyone claims to have got a researched curriculum. Putting children through organised learning at a very early age is possibly the biggest blunder one could do, but how do you explain it to someone who claims to have done research to develop their curriculum for kids?

Organised learning at a very young age kills creativity and builds a sense of conformity that can be detrimental to the overall blossoming of children. The lesser the structure the more children would learn. In an effort to create viable businesses preschools seem to be doing more harm then good to the little ones, and to top it all parents are very excited to ensure that the damage happens as early as possible!