A Mindful Year!

It is December and another eventful calendar year comes to an end, time is literally flying these days. As I look back at the year gone by, I wonder if I have done justice to the responsibility that I have as an educator.

I am writing this article from Saudi Arabia where I am on a visit to implement School Cinema. I was leading several workshops for educators and students here on the importance of preparing themselves for a life ahead. In one such session a teacher asked me – ‘What is that one thing that I should do before I enter a classroom?’ As a response to that question I shared a practice that I have followed for a long time. I always make it a point to ask myself a question before I enter any class – ‘I have a session for 1 hour with my class of 50 students, what am I going to do with the time they have given me?’ I am always very mindful of the fact that the most precious gift given by God to each one of us is our time.

When we choose to sit through some session/class we choose to give a part of our life away to the teacher/speaker; it is now their responsibility to make the best use of the most precious gift that God has given us. I feel very responsible when I think about this, the children/participants give us their time, time that will never come back to them ever again in their lives. The question in my mind then turns to ‘What can I do to make this time worthwhile for my students/participants?’ This mindfulness brings a sense of responsibility upon me and I have always found my sessions to be a lot more focused and meaningful.

On a similar note, we are now on the threshold of stepping into another new year that is coming to us as a gift. It is time for us to hold back for a while and wonder – How will we make the best use of the most precious gift given to us? What will we do with the time that children will give us in the coming year?

As you plan the year ahead, be mindful of your responsibility. It is essential that you focus your attention to the systems and processes of running schools, the schedules of admissions and exams, the task of recruitment and training. In addition to this I invite you to be mindful of a couple of questions that according to me will make all the difference – How will I make my children happy? What can my school and me do to prepare my children for life?

From all of us at Mentor and EduMedia, I wish you a mindful year ahead!

Grooming and Etiquette in Children

Every year from 1997, I have been travelling across the Indian Subcontinent organizing Horlicks Wizkids.  The event draws unparalleled talent and enthusiasm across five countries and over the years I have seen the levels of talent and competition grow immensely. It is heartening to note how very young boys find it very cool to participate in cooking, hair styling and mehendi design competitions. As part of the event we had introduced some very interesting team competitions like Best Dressed and Best Disciplined School. These were awards that I remember schools took pride in winning; students and teachers alike would go out of their way to compete for these awards.

I can distinctly recollect an incident from a prominent city up north about eight years ago. During the Horlicks Wizkids event I got a frantic call from a colleague who was handling the reception.  I reached her within no time just to see that she had held back a high school boy for having ‘gutka’ in his mouth. For her this was unacceptable, how could a school student in uniform representing his school do something like that?  My thought process was that it is wise to leave that matter to the school so I asked the boy to fetch his teacher coordinator. In a few minutes the boy promptly brought a ‘gentleman’ who was supposedly the school coordinator. He came up to me and asked me ‘Ka hua Sir’, his mouth was reeking of ‘gutka’ and I was at the receiving end of a ‘red fountain’. I could only smile at him and said nothing and asked them to move on. How could I expect the boy to be any better than the teacher? This incident is a favourite of mine and I have narrated this on many an occasion over the years. But sadly with every passing year I realize I see more ‘gentlemen and lady’ teachers in schools who have no idea of how to carry themselves.

Another aspect that needs focus and attention is the manner in which parents behave and carry themselves. In an era of brands and social media pressure, parents go out of their way to provide the best to their children. Discipline and manners seem very low on their priority these days. Like everything around us things are changing dramatically over the years. The enthusiasm levels and the desire to win at any cost has gone up multifold; but sadly what has come down is the discipline and grooming of students. It is appalling to see the manner in which students carry themselves and their uniforms. It seems like most schools do not even remotely consider grooming and etiquette as part of their curriculum. The way students from so-called reputed schools walk and talk is deplorable.

Education is futile if children do not learn etiquette, manners and grooming. You do not teach this in high school, it is not a subject, it has to be part of a system and we teach these by setting an example at home and in school from a very young age. It is not about ‘Finishing School’; it is a process that runs right through school.

 A New Concept!

From the past few years I have seen a very interesting drama unfold in the school education arena; the genesis of this drama is the trend of media houses to rank schools. Some media houses choose to focus on their prime markets and rank schools in specific cities and some believe that the entire country is their play pen and rank schools for the entire country.

Over the years, I have had innumerable principals and school owners asking me about my opinion on the subject of school ranking. I have always found school rankings as a concept in India bizarre, on one hand schools and parents want to abolish ranking system and remove exams for children claiming that ranking children is not healthy but on the other hand the same people have accepted the fact that schools can be ranked and given numbers by some random people’s perception. I wonder how the perpetrators of these rankings do not understand the basic premise that if ranking is bad for children it is disastrous to rank schools.  I can only imagine “Page 3 parents”, who want the best for their children, shuttling their kids based on some random ranking to ensure that their children study in the so called best schools.

There are too many anomalies and flaws in the way the schools are ranked. A few random people and their perceptions decide what ranking an institution gets that has been around of generations, schools that have not had a single batch graduate out of high school get ranked higher than the ones that have been around for a century, schools that don’t even have playgrounds get ranked among the best schools of a city, schools that don’t even have a principal on board get ranked. According to these rankings, India has good schools only in big cities; all schools in small towns and smaller cities are so terrible that they do not even get mentioned.

These days I come across 3 types of educators/schools – first are the ones who are happy with the ranking, the second are the ones unhappy with the ranking and the third are the ones that do not care. Funnily enough, the first two keep oscillating depending on the ranking they have got this year. If you belong to type 2, a quick note if they have not yet noticed, schools that advertise get high rankings. So if you are unhappy with the ranking and want to improve, seems like advertising does work its magic here.

I feel really bad for schools, they get ranked – yet they do not even know when the exam happened or what the syllabus was!

Rankings of schools are here to stay and that is what I believe, the biggest reason why they will stay is because schools that are happy are going out of their way to publicize their ranking and the more they show it off the more these rankings will become relevant. The ones who choose to ignore will remain oblivious of the world they live in and the ones who are unhappy choose not to talk.

Who is the Loser?

It is very disturbing to hear the incidents of child abuse in schools that are being reported in the media over the past few months. What is even more disturbing is the manner in which people are taking to streets and demanding justice without having an in-depth understanding and clarity of the on ground situation. Very often the actual voices get lost in the din of public outcries and the attention veers from the factual to the hypothetical. When that happens, street justice takes over. I am in no way suggesting that what has happened in these schools needs to be brushed under the carpet, what I am hinting at is the fact that the very dramatic public and media reaction can have some long term implications in the way our schools function.

The good that comes out of such fierce focus from society is the fact that government bodies and authorities wake up and make a new set of regulations. I can only imagine the sleepless nights that the school managements and principals across the country must be going through as you are constantly in the scanner these days. Even if one of your staff members commits a crime, people bay for the blood of the principal and the management. Yes, you can put in systems, both manual and computerized, to monitor the schools, but the more we do it the more we build fortresses for children and the more we take away the joy of learning and being in school.

Another thing that I worry about is the consequence of the new regulations that schools are putting/will put in place in the coming days. The doors of these schools might be closed permanently for freelance and part time professionals who add a lot of value our schooling system. Schools have always sought the support of professionals to help them out with teaching skills that do not require full-fledged staff – choreographers, art teachers, theatre professionals, music professionals. I am afraid that in an effort to ensure safety of the students, schools will close their doors to such professionals as the saying goes ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

Fifteen years ago as a college kid I used to conduct ‘Life Skills’ classes in Bangalore schools. I distinctly remember the encouragement I got from Mrs. Deepa Sridhar who had just started the CBSE division of Sri Kumarans Children’s Home in initiating the program and the seriousness with which the school took me as a young facilitator. I wonder if schools will give the same kind of encouragement to young talent in future, with the backdrop of various incidents of abuse in schools these days. The best ideas that are shaping education these days have come in from entrepreneurs and mavericks that got the attention and support of educators over the years. I worry that if schools shut their doors to young talent innovation in education will be the biggest loser!

Believe Me!

The recent incidents of sexual abuse in my city of Bangalore shook up the country. The mainstream media made it national news and the social networking sites kept the social geeks busy with their dosage of trolls and tweets. It was a great opportunity for the activists in our society to go vocal with their protest marches, candle light marches and raise the decibel to another level. The good thing about all this noise is the fact that an important issue like sexual abuse in schools has finally come out of the closet. School managements and staff will now be a lot more mindful of their systems, processes, infrastructure and training processes. I hope that all this noise leads to a concrete change in the way we look at sensitive issues such as this.

My worry though is that National news and activism does not change things on ground, they can bring an issue into focus which itself is very important but the real change has to happen from within the system.

Let us rewind a couple of years ago when Anna Hazare held center stage in this country to create a corruption free society. It looked like the whole country was with him and we were in for a corruption – free society, sadly not much has changed after that. A year ago we had a Broom led party that wanted to sweep this countries politics to usher in a new era of governance. Both these high decibel movements died out and things went back to being where they started. I worry that the present issue of focus on Safer Schools will go the same way if we do not take some concrete steps.

At EduMedia, we have always believed that Education is the key to changing societies. It is very difficult to address the issue of sexual abuse and not many people or organisations have the sensitivity to deal with this topic, yet making it interesting enough for children to understand and learn how to handle themselves. Cinema can play a great role in addressing such sensitive issues as it is practical to implement, scalable and there will be a consistency in messaging. Three years ago we produced two films as part of our School Cinema project to address sexual abuse – Believe Me for children and Beyond Belief for adults. Schools who bought license to use our program have benefitted from it.

Keeping in mind our responsibility towards the society, School Cinema has launched a campaign called BelieveMe which is a film based online campaign to educate children and adults about Child Sexual Abuse and suggesting ways of dealing with it effectively. The campaign aims at educating 1 million children/adults across India. These films are available both in Hindi and English and can be accessed free of cost from our website www.schoolcinema.net

I urge you to first educate yourself, your school and spread this word to as many educators as you can so that both children and adults are equipped to handle the menace of sexual abuse better. Support BelieveMe Campaign!

Walking on the Road

I was in Germany last month driving across the length and breadth of the Bavarian nation accompanied by 5 bright young students, winners of the South Asian finals of Horlicks Wizkids 2013. It is an amazing learning experience for me to travel with some of the best students from across South Asia, every year.

The best way to see Europe is to drive around the countryside and walk in the smaller towns and cities. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of the students while we were walking around the streets of Boppard a beautiful town in the Rhine Valley and a UNESCO world heritage site. In the narrow winding streets, one of them had the habit of walking on the street just below the footpath. I pointed this out to the student and pat came the answer “no one is watching Sir”. I reminded the student a couple of times but old habits die-hard. After a while, the student noticed that a car driving down the street stopped a few feet behind her, though the street on the other side was empty. It was only when the student got back on the footpath did the car make its way forward. The student looked at me and gave a sheepish smile. She asked me if everyone follows rules in this country, I looked at her and said I do not know. During the trip, we drove from Germany to the Czech Republic and then back to Germany covering a distance of over 2000 miles. When I dropped our car back to the rental agency I realized that right through our journey there was not a single occasion where we came across anyone who broke any rule on the road or had parked in a wrong place. It was just so peaceful to drive around and so safe, all this was possible simply because everyone knew the rules and everyone followed the rules.

Contrasting this incident was a comment I heard over dinner at a friend’s place last week in Mumbai. A very senior creative person, he headed some of the world’s biggest creative agencies, he now spends time cycling around the world, painting, cooking and helping build brands. In some context, he lamented how “the children today are so indisciplined and have no idea how to walk on streets. If the child gets good grades we are so happy with him that in the process we forget to teach him how to live life, we are so engrossed in the grades that we degrade their life skills.”

Who will bell the cat? When will we start addressing the simple issues of life that make our societies and cities worth living? It is a very scary thought for me to see millions of children in school. A decade later everyone will be out there on the streets, I am scared how they will walk, talk and act on those streets?

If we do not focus on teaching the simple lessons of life, we are headed for disaster. We will grow a generation that will look around to see if anyone is watching and then deciding their course of action. Let us start teaching them to keep a watch on themselves!

The Rainbow Chase

EduMedia was awarded the prestigious President of India’s National Film Award for Best Promotional Film for its production ‘Chasing the Rainbow’ at the 61st National Film Awards held recently. ‘Chasing the Rainbow’ was produced as part of School Cinema – a film based learning module that combines a fun and exciting workbook to reaffirm values, morals and equip children with skills to deal with everyday challenges.

While giving away the award to this wonderful film the Jury of National Film Awards 2013 quoted – “For scratching the moral surface of the Indian middle class and holding a mirror for all of us who are torn between self-interest and ethical dilemmas”

For over 15 years, we at EduMedia, have been working in the life skills domain, we have seen things change dramatically from explaining the meaning of life skills to educators when we started off to these days witness life skills being the latest educational fad. It is heartening to note that most educators are keen to equip children with skills that will enable them to grow into fine human beings, the challenge however is to enable this on ground. Life skills education according to me is more talk and less action in most schools across India. In an era of 3D printers, app based education and social media integration in schooling; life skills are still being taught using a textbook/workbook with some activities thrown around them. I have to admit that life skills, like moral science in the past; is one of the most insignificant and boring subjects of the curriculum today.

Over the past 4 years, School Cinema films have won 3 National Awards, participated in 40+ International Film Festivals and today over 500,000 children across India and the Middle East use School Cinema as part of their Life Skills curriculum. Our biggest achievement I believe is that we have managed to transform the most boring and insignificant subject into the most anticipated and talked about subject by students. In addition, the programme brings into the classroom topics and themes which schools and homes conveniently ignore or do not have time to address – gender bias, body image, anger issues, religious sensitivity, self-awareness, responsibility, sibling rivalry, suicides, child abuse and many more.

Sometimes I feel that we as educators have taken up the responsibility of educating the future too seriously and in all our seriousness, we have made the process of learning too serious. This is a problem; education has become too serious and boring.

Our School Cinema experience has taught us that if we can speak a language that children are familiar and use a medium that they can relate to and the experience is enjoyable; learning truly happens and children love it. More importantly, our journey as educators becomes a lot more enjoyable and we seem to make a big difference while walking our path.

Here’s hoping that we see many more enjoyable and entertaining projects life School Cinema take center stage in the education domain and educators understand what I believe in ‘no fun, no learning’.

Are you ready for the challenge?

The story of India always revolves around its population and sheer numbers. Any business that figures out how to use these numbers to their advantage can do wonders in the long run. While staying at these numbers it is hard to ignore the fact that India boasts of over 1.2 million schools, a majority of these schools are government run, a sizeable 15% of them are private schools.

A recent trend that is slowly changing the fabric of education in India is the emergence of Low Cost Private Schools; these are schools that charge anything from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 per annum per child. These figures might seem very small yet I have seen several institutions that manage to provide much better quality of education and outcomes as compared to government schools that cost the exchequer an average of Rs. 20,000 per child per year. How do these low cost private schools manage to deliver reasonable quality of educational outcomes? I think the answer lies in a combination of wise financial planning, economies of scale, service industry best practices and most importantly accountability.

This leads us to a question – Why is the standard and quality of government schools so low across India? The answer lies in one key word – Accountability. The system has created a monster out of the ‘teacher’ and the ‘system’ – owing to irrational appointments, reservations, redundant appraisal practices and political interference. Over the past 6 years, we, at EduMedia, have been working very closely with government schools across several states including Karnataka, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh… erstwhile! Our experience tells us that there is very little that can be done to undo the damage that has been done to the school systems fabric across India. All the initiatives taken up by the government serve as band-aid solutions that seem too little too late, so any new schemes or policies that the government comes up with will not have the teeth to change the quality of education dramatically. Two possible directions come to mind as possible solutions to improving the quality of education – improve accountability or privatize. The former seems like a herculean task while the latter seems more possible as many sectors like telecom; roadways, airlines have shown that privatization leads to improved quality.

Here is something for you to think about, if over a million schools get privatized overnight who will have the bandwidth to take up this task. I am not aware of any single educational organisation in the world that has the capability to can take up this humungous challenge. The answer I believe does not lie with one, but with many small organisations taking up clusters of schools and running them for the government.

If the government decides to privatize its schools tomorrow, are you ready to take up the challenge? I believe a lot of low cost private schools unintentionally or otherwise are geared to take up this challenge.

Getting hands on!

The ultimate goal of education in India is to prepare children to get a job someday in some place that could probably make their life. This drives the entire school and college system and other auxiliary systems like tutorials, online classes, content companies, publishers etc. Inspite of all this effort several statistics show that most of our graduates are not employable.

There is an old industry adage that goes as “It’s easy to get a job when you have already had a previous job”. The working world out there seems to take it very seriously and yet somehow our schools and colleges are oblivious to this fact and their systems are not geared to give any practical experience to students.

One of the best ways for students to get a firsthand experience of the working world is to spend time during their vacations doing an internship. In countries like Germany and Switzerland, schools have tie ups with prominent industry bodies to ensure that their students get good vacation placements and internships. I am not aware of any school in India that has an organized internship programme for their students. Whenever I speak to educators about this issue they quickly enlighten me about the fact that their school does have an industry connect.  Sadly, when I dig deeper I realize it is an industry visit that they perceive as industry connect. All of us are aware that looking at animals in the zoo is very different from living in the jungle!

I am talking about the good old internships; you get your hands dirty and actually hit the floor of the work space. Over the past several years we at EduMedia have made a conscious effort to bring in interns as young as class 9 and 10 to work on real life problems that our organisation faces. I must admit that every time we have had someone who has worked with us they have pleasantly surprised us with their quality of thinking and innovation. Our EduMedia experience has also taught us that interns who are in school or have just completed schooling seem to be far more creative than interns who are in graduate programmes, the worst are normally the ones who are doing their masters.

I am talking from sheer experience here. I have during my senior school and right through my engineering programme done several jobs and stints in different companies and these jobs remain to be some of the best learning experiences of my life.

Every year in the last term of school I try and spend time with students of grade 10 and 12 talking to them about careers and sharing with them my experiences of how successful people have chosen their careers. I always urge them to pick up a job in their holidays. If someone wants to be a doctor they should work with a clinic or a hospital; the one who aspires to be a CA should work at a financial firm; anything that gets them to the real working world and gives them an insight is possibly the most valuable learning that students can get. It is vacation time, let us encourage students to pick up a job and make a difference to their own lives!