Adventures with Learning to Teach

A roller coaster journey which started out with teaching a kid and a habit that developed a life of its own!!!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fire without Fire

Hi, This is Vinay. My first post:-)
Christmas holiday classes called "Why?" got kicked off. Candles,Graphs,Evolution,Centre of Gravity,Sketch up and a lot more sessions...We had introduced constructivism as a part of our programme.Burning charcoal,friction cradle, fire by friction etc etc...

Why do all kids first use match sticks when they are asked to burn charcoal?( to learn abt ignition temperature ),... Why do all kids put burning paper on top of charcoal when they fail with match sticks?( to learn that hot flame goes up and not down),... Why do all kids rejoice that they have lit charcoal when they just see fire?( to learn the difference between fire and temperature ),... Why do all kids try to produce red hot iron on a candle flame when they are asked to produce it on charcoal stove? ( to learn the difference between heat and temperature ),... and on and on and on.....

But here is one meta reason for all these why questions. The great Murphy's law ( If something can go wrong then it will go wrong ). This is one place I thank Murphy wholeheartedly. He is making learning so very interesting.

One of our constructivist activity was to produce fire by friction as done in pre historic times... First two stones were taken to rub ( Thanks to our text books which jumps to final product without any intermediate steps )... Failed... Wooden sticks were used... Failed... At this point of time we decided to go to prehistoric times from 21st century instead of coming from pre historic times,.. We used petrol... Iron knives ( Iron age )...

Kids recollected how their grannies used to churn curd...

Bow - Drill method...

We have only reached a stage to produce smoke but failed to get sustained fire out of it ( By the way, the wood used was turned and cut by specialists )...Gave up the mission doomed, dejected, depressed, distressed and desponded after trying nearly for a month:-(

One cool evening (nearly two months after Christmas classes), uncle was on a evening stroll... He saw few kids rubbing stones and wooden sticks...Curiously he asked what were they up to... They replied telling that they were trying to produce fire... It made him even more curious and asked how come they came to know fire can be produced by rubbing stones and sticks... They said they saw few people trying the same in a nearby home and got inspired to repeat it... We laughed our hearts out hearing this...

Though we haven't managed to produce the actual fire, we have lit the fire of curiosity among a few kids. Hope this spreads like wild fire and kids learn the way they are supposed to.

Fire without Fire...........

Inspired to Cradles of Innovation

Saturday, November 08, 2008

More Flowers that deserve to Blossom

I serendipitously bumped into a multiple sclerosis survivor who is involved with the Cerebral Palsy foundation of India. Out of curiosity I checked out Wikipedia which says:
Cerebral palsy (CP) is an umbrella term encompassing a group of non-progressive,[1] non-contagious conditions that cause physical disability in human development.

Cerebral refers to the cerebrum, which is the affected area of the brain (although the disorder most likely involves connections between the cortex and other parts of the brain such as the cerebellum), and palsy refers to disorder of movement. CP is caused by damage to the motor control centers of the young developing brain and can occur during pregnancy (about 75 percent), during childbirth (about 5 percent) or after birth (about 15 percent) up to about age three.[2][3]

It is a non-progressive disorder, meaning the brain damage does not worsen, but secondary orthopedic difficulties are common. There is no known cure for CP. Medical intervention is limited to the treatment and prevention of complications arising from CP's effects.

It was really surprising that I had never thought about disorders like Cerebral Palsy etc as a completely separate class of problems relating to motor control. This in-spite of the fact that I am a cognitive science freak and have a bro who is a JRF in neuroscience!!!

A person with a motor control problem is a seriously powerful resource for the nation. They have perfectly functioning brains with limited output ability. With some focused training they are likely to easily outperform perfectly normal peers merely because they are likely to be more passionate about what they do.

Stephen Hawking's story who had ALS comes to mind.

Just imagine a profession like radiology. The job involves looking at an image using ur imagination and training and arriving at a diagnosis which comes after some deep contemplation. Lot of processing and very little but valuable output. Of course just like any other population we can find people of various IQs suffering from any condition.

I am sure that there would be innumerable well paying jobs that people with motor neural problems could do. I am pretty sure collective brainstorming can improve their options. I suspect that the guys having motor neuron problems themselves have the collective IQ to multiply their opportunities if they can think like a swarm. I feel something must be done about this!!!

I was shocked about my own ignorance in this area and realized there exists a huge communication gap.

Of course a job is just one aspect of quality of life. But definitely a significant aspect.

Preparing for a career beyond 2020

I had told myself that I would write a book when I felt I had something to say. I guess it is almost time. I was deeply influenced by former President Dr.A.P.J Abul Kalam's book: You Are Born To Blossom.I even changed the title of the blog.

I have begun to feel that I have a lot to say to parents, teachers and students involved in myopic career planning. The world in 2020, into which a school student today would be graduating, would be drastically different from what it is today. You cannot drive a car by looking into the rear view mirror. It is time to put on the headlights and look forward.

It also appears that I will now be getting a lot of inputs from persons from varying backgrounds which could make this endeavor even more fruitful. So that it no longer remains "A techie's vision of how to prepare for a career in 2020" ;-).

Missing Posts

LOT of things happened!!! I wonder why I never posted anything!!! I guess I was too lost!!! I volunteered for teaching the explore program during summer of 2008 at the planetarium and also taught a few classes of Sessions on Week Ends which ultimately inspired me to bootstrap my own teaching institution called "inspire". Created a lot of teaching materials with Achutha for his school teaching activities. Also some animations for International year of astronomy 2009.

This Pooja holidays we had a 7 day activity centered program at Inspire called Discover. Of course it was a small scale activity and anyone who had seen my former glory would laugh at me ;-). But hey I enjoyed it immensely and the kids enjoyed it. What more do u need!!! It was a wonderful learning experience.

Many more things happened... I have lost track!!!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Can we do something to eradicate ROTE LEARNING in India?

"Rote Learning" or Memorization is the most commonly used method of learning in our country. From all the fuss I see on Slashdot, I suspect that China follows India very closely on this. I think South America is also similar. Most of Africa is struggling to provide education. So maybe they can do some rote learning... Maybe they can leapfrog ROTE learning altogether.

There are other variants of rote learning like practicing math. Practice is definitely necessary to make anyone a good mathematician. But if the effort is directed to merely familiarize yourself with the "expected problems in the exam" through repetition, it is no better than memorization. In physics and chemistry, learning to substitute values in equations is no use unless, the real essence of the subject sinks in.

I wish to recollect a recent incident that Raghunath was narrating to me. His sister was "trying to memorize a program to print the Fibonacci sequence". Raghu is not yet much of a programmer though he has written some code with some guidance. But REAP has "spoilt" him beyond repair. So he cannot tolerate such an absurd thing!!! He was nagging his sister and his sisters response was "There are only 12 programs and if I learn them properly I will get the marks. So what is the problem." Her parents joined in and asked Raghu to keep quiet and not unnecessarily trouble his sister. After all she had other subjects to study also!!!

When I heard this, sparks were flying off my head. How can anyone be so dumb?? But then I paused and asked myself, "Whose fault is it anyway?". Raghu's parents wanted the best for their son and daughter. In India parent child relationships are much stronger than in the west. Most of what the parents earn is preserved for the future of the children. This might look absurd from a western perspective where you have 3 marriages and divorces in a life and things look normal. But how can some one tell Raghu's parents that they are hurting her rather than helping her though they don't intend to.

And this is not a freak incident. I have time and again seen a huge obsession with cracking the exam rather than cracking the subject. So the question that needs to be asked is... Who really benefits from Raghu's sister getting the funda behind the Fibonacci series? Raghu's family obviously benefits, but they have no clue!!!

The answer is "THE FUTURE EMPLOYER".

A person like Mr Narayana Murthy or Mr Sam Palmisano or Mr Ambani would benefit by a highly skilled and "useful" workforce. Don't they do anything about it? Well they do try... For Eg people like Mr Murthy keeps emphasizing the need for quality education wherever he goes and so on... But still there is a huge gap... Raghu's parents are still going to live in their own parallel universe. Does "Quality Education" mean "not memorizing the fibonacci program?" or "Memorizing even more programs"? How are they supposed to know? And if she is not going to be a programmer aspiring to join Infosys, is it then ok for her to memorize? Maybe she will get a job in a Bajaj or a Coca Cola...

Rote learning not only hurts Programming... It not only hurts Scientists and Engineers. Even a Salesperson, Accountant, Manager or Call Center Operator needs to know what he is doing. Computers will do all the storing and retrieving of the data. The real job of the person is to figure out what is going on.

I believe that all major CEOs of the world, be it Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Narayana Murthy, the Czars of Biotech, Oil n Natural gas, Manufacturing... Just about every brand that has been registered in the minds of the Indian should take a Unified full page ad on the front page of every newspaper in every language proclaiming that "ROTE LEARNING IS USELESS". If your scores can be attributed to Rote learning, you will NOT GET A JOB WITH US. Of course you could do well in your exam AFTER figuring out what you have learnt. But you cant join us if you behave as if your head is a replacement for a HARD DISK. The page must contain the trademark of each company as well as the signatures of the CEOs.

If a guy like Raghu, needs to answer his parents, he just needs to thrust this paper on their face and declare : "All the bosses in the world say, If she memorizes the fibonacci program she wont get a Job". It is a lot more powerful argument than, "She won't be able to appreciate the beauty of programming".

Is this going to be a very costly exercise? Companies place full page ads just to recruit individual positions for their companies. Here a single sheet is shared by thousands of companies. The cost per company would be negligible and would not even make a tiny dent in their ad expenditure. But the unified Message is STRONG!!! If done on a nationwide scale in a synchronized manner across languages across industries, people like Raghu's parents can't help but notice it. In fact the exercise would even strengthen the brand image of the participating companies saying that they really care about education. The price they pay would be an insignificant fraction of their marketing budgets.

Firefox which is an open-source browser manged to pull off such a campaign. Here we are talking about Chief Executive Officers who are rolling in money. And they desperately NEED a better pool of high quality professionals to hire from. They can wait 5 years to see the results. They will gladly agree.

The thing that is left to be done is to use all the people on the planet who are as frustrated as Raghu and me to propagate this message to other such frustrated people so that it can cascade and reach the CEOs of all companies that matter. All the IITans and the guys from the IIMs and research institutions and all freaks across the nation, please pass this message on until it makes it way to the top. Digg this, slashdot this... do whatever you can... Here is an invitation to all geeks across the nation to help eradicate the menace of rote memorization. You are doing yourself the greatest favor by doing this. You will have fewer morons to argue with. You will need to clean up the mess on fewer computers of your relatives. You will get to live in a more interesting world.

Hope this also spreads to other countries where rote memorization is rampant. It should become clear to every one that, if you rely on rote memorization, the only place you can get a job is the government. And the role of the govt is declining fast in the country. Most public sector undertakings are getting privatized. So the message to all Rote learners from all the CEOs shall be "Make yourself USEFUL".

How can each child on this planet be given a laptop?

For a moment let us keep the question of whether we need to give each child a laptop aside and ask what does it cost to give each child a laptop. The world has between 6 and 7 billion people. Assuming that we declare all people b/w the ages of 5 and 21 as kids. It would not be too wrong to say that we need to give out about a billion laptops. Let us say each laptop costs about $100 by 2010. I think OLPC will be able achieve the $100 mark at the earliest. I guess even the competitors of the OLPC laptops like the eee PC , the classmate PC and so on will be able to achieve a similar price unless they unnecessarily get distracted by features. This would mean that we need about $100 billion.

Moore's law will halve the price thereafter. When I was in college I thought the cellphone would be just a dream. Today even my maid servants and auto rickshaw drivers have cellphones. In a few years I am sure that I will be able to talk to anyone anytime over my cell 24X7 and it would be free. We already have Skype, Google talk etc. With widespread Wifi and WiMax Deployments and their successors, shuttling voice over IP around would be trivial even from ur phone. The same would be the case with affordability of laptops but it may take just a little bit longer.

If you look at $100 billion. It will look insanely large from a layman perspective. But to get an idea of how big or small this amount is, you need to compare it to the size of similar things. For Eg look at Microsoft. It has a Market Capitalization of 319.49 Billion on 6th Dec 2007. Google had a Market Capitalization of 218.52 Billion on the same day. Of course, you cannot look at Market Cap and treat it like hard cash. If the CEOs sold all their shares on a single day, the market cap would vaporize in an instant. But hey still have huge piles of cash and immense power.

Google bought Youtube for a 1.6 billion dollars. They are giving away 300 Million dollars in the Google Lunar XPrize for the first privately funded lunar lander. That is 3 followed by eight zeros. All that just for showing off their geek pride ;-).

Have you ever wondered where all that money pours into google? No it is not their search engine!!! It is advertising!!! Google is the world's largest advertising company. Most of their money comes from the Google Ads. I am not making this up. Use Google itself to check whether I am saying the right thing. Each time you click on a Google Ad, they get at least 5 cents or Rs 3. Usually the amounts are much larger. Did you ever imagine that google could get something like Rs 10 just because someone just clicked on a Google Ad?? Fortunately or unfortunately this is TRUE.

Who pays that money?? The consumer pays that tax!!! Each time you buy a car or a wrist watch or a camera or a bubble gum, you are paying an absurd amount towards advertising. Ask an MBA, how much money the marketing department gets in comparison to their research labs or product development teams and you will get a stunning response. You think a few cents or rupees from ur wristwatch or camera are going towards advertising?? think again!!! Where do you think the Money for tycoons like Rupert Murdoch comes from??

Now let us ask ourselves this question... How much does a child need to pay per day, if he has to earn the laptop in 3 years. Let us say each year has 333 days. So we have 1000 days. So the kid needs to earn less than 10 cents per day or less than Rs 4!!! That is like clicking a single google ad per day. Of course pointlessly clicking a Google Ad is illegal. What I mean to say is that, the amount of advertising required to for a kid to earn the laptop is as low as the advertising needed to make a person spontaneously click a Google Ad.

If each student is given a laptop and all education happens through it, then you have a fixed channel, that has exclusive access to the kid, for about 8 to 10 hrs per day. Even a cable channel would feel envious at that.

It should be a no brainer to integrate advertising elegantly without compromising on the quality of educational content. Because such a SMALL amount of advertising is sufficient to keep the system going.

There would be plenty of students for whom $100 is small change. For them, completely ad free solutions can be provided. Another approach could be make students a part of networks such the Amazon Mechanical Turk. Earning 10 cents per day on Amazon Mechanical turk should be a no brainer. The class teacher in conjunction with Amazon can set an upper limit on the earnable amount, so that the school does not turn into a sweatshop and kids into zombies. The governments can pass rules forbidding the usage of the system beyond a certain threshold and classifying it as child labor if the limits are exceeded.

But 10 cents or Rs 4 is a very tiny amount per day. I think you can earn 10 cents by answering 10 CAPTCHAS at the rate of 1 CAPTCHA for each cent. Or maybe google could ask the kids to participate in the Google Image Labeller and so on. 1 cent for 5 Images labelled. The IQ of the kids would also improve by this.

What do you think? Is it impossible for a kid to earn back his laptop in 3 years?? Do you think that I am misrepresenting the situation? Don't think about what happens if each student has a laptop... That is a separate issue... Just because a your cable TV have Discovery channel or NGC or History channel, a student will not immediately switch to watching it. He would still choose Cartoon network or POGO. Dumping laptops onto the child wont solve problems. In no time it will turn into a gaming device and usually the preferred game would be a shootem up or a racing game. But let us keep all that aside for the moment. Let us just focus on the question "Is it even possible to make a child painlessly and effortlessly earn his own laptop??"

How hard would it be to bring about a system where each student manages to earn his own Laptop? Should one wait for the governments to do infinite time pass and slowly adopt the laptops as Nicholas Negroponte suggests? Let the governments focus on arranging food for the starving millions... One thing I can assure you is that no Indian Politician is capable of giving laptops to kids and win votes using that. They can give out televisions/jewelery/alcohol and win elections... But laptops to kids?? no chance!!! Nicholas Negroponte must be daydreaming.

Do we have to rely on charity like the G1G1 program for this to happen?? As a parent in the US, would I give a Lenovo or HP or Mac laptop to my kid for $500 plus some more... or would I donate to kids in an African country? I dont deny that there are nice parents who would do that. But how many? Is the G1G1 program sustainable after each geek has got an OLPC laptop for himself?

Can't capitalism and corporate greed be exploited constructively to give laptops to billions?? Is there something wrong in doing that?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Arguments about Constructivism

The guys at OLPC are obsessed with constructivism. But the rest of the world seems obsessed with criticizing this. I am going to do my own share of critising soon... but some opposing arguments are outright silly. One argument says that, "Did the exisitng system not produce everything we have? So it is unfair to criticize it" There are two parts to it. A lot of credit of what we are today goes to people who managed to cleverly bypass the system. They did whatever they did in spite of the system. Just think of them all... Aristotle, Socretes, Galelio, Edison, Einstein... Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Dhirubai Ambani, Narayana Murthy... the list just goes on...

I don't know whether I will accomplish anything worthwhile beyond talking to myself through a blog. But if I did accomplish something worthwhile, would I thank the system for all the rituals it made me follow? I don't think so.

The real question is not whether the current lousy setup can produce results. The question is how do you prevent the wastage of the rest of the intellectuals who are crushed before they blossom.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

How students can benefit from simulations

Just before leaving the planetarium(mentioned in my previous post), I also asked Madhusudan Sir if he would like me to be involved in anything to do with simulation. He seemed reluctant. I understand his skepticism. We need to touch and feel things. He was talking about the delight on his daughter's face when an evacuated bottle, crumpled under atmospheric pressure. I can fully relate to that.

I believe that a simulation is half way between a formula and an experiment. So someone who can enjoy a formula as well as conducting an experiments should definitely enjoy the stuff in the middle. But I would like to someday actually show delightful faces after a simulation and then and only then would I have convinced myself that yeah simulations really have really good pedagogical value. I was really impressed by some simulators such as the following one from MIT

I have been bowled over by this. At least I find it to be an awfully interesting toy for kids to play with. Unfortunately u need a tablet PC or the fundu Whitebord being shown... Otherwise I could have checked it out myself.

Madhusudan Sir is of the opinion that one should preferably use real objects and use simulations only if the experimental objects are exotic. Of course he admits that it is his personal choice. And he can like apples and I can like oranges. But maybe who knows... his opinions were formed by some rotten oranges ;-). But, I think he will change his mind after seeing that video. But I also understand that it is long way before I can figure out how to use it in teaching students. But I am confident that there are a lot of places that this forms a perfect solution even when the objects are not exotic.

I have always missed good simulators when I needed them.

As kid, I was obsessed with inventing perpetual motion machines just like any other physics geek would love to ;-). I had noticed an interesting anomaly. Inertia says, that something that moves will keep on moving... blah blah... and that a coil moving in a magnetic field would induce an EMF. But the friction would bring it to a halt over time. So I thought that you could trivially create an infinite source of energy by moving a magnet in a coil of wire in free space. I wrote to Prof. Yashpal who used to come on Turning Point and got a reply after a long long time. In a bizzare way, I had rediscovered Lenz Law. But no one around me could tell me what was wrong with my argument. Lenz's law was an anticlimax. But if I could run to my comp and create a coil and magnet and get it to spin and see it slow down... it would have been a Eureka moment at that instant. I would have happily gone and told my teacher that if I drew power from my generator, it would slow down. If I did not it would not. If my simulator was too good, I might have noticed that some energy was being radiated out as electromagnetic radiation... Maybe even gravity waves ;-). I can run a fast forward and see what would be the state of my generator after 1 billion years. And still I don't need to think about the core getting rusted ;-).

Here is another instance. Very early in my education, I had figured out that chemical rockets are a real disgrace and mock at human ingenuity. Going to orbit on a chemical rocket is like driving a petrol tanker filled with petrol half way to the destination and then leaving it there when the petrol gets over and then skating to your destination until all the food you have eaten gets used up. A space shuttle is incapable of even getting you to the moon and now they need a new bunch of reinventions to take man to the moon again. Summary of the story is that you need to something about it.

I had noticed that, a tape recorder motor placed on the table with something heavy and asymmetric connected to the shaft and powered up would start walking on the table though no moving parts touched the table. This looked like magic. I was in my first PU and concepts like the real cause of centrifugal force were still fuzzy... I was aware of the law of conservation of momentum but was not even fully aware that newton's 3rd law was telling me the same thing. Law of conservation of angular momentum seemed to apply to some other parallel universe.

My logic was simple... The sun provided more than one kilowatt of power on each square meter. Silly calculations showed that if I converted that to kinetic energy, I could do some insane accelerations. And I did not need to break the law of conservation of energy. I thought that all I needed to do was create some bizarre bending twisting thing that could use the power from the sun and move forward. It took a long time for me to figure out that the creator of this universe has created a huge book of rules and each law in that book holds true in tooooo many places. Following law of conservation of energy was not enough.

I wanted to see whether my ideas would work... But how do I get rid of the "unwanted behaviour" of the world?? Suspend things from strings? Move things on water? My math was not strong enough to face this at that time, not even now to conduct those experiments on a sheet of paper. The real world just introduces reaction and friction according to its own whims and fancies. In fact I got a glimpse of the meaning of "reaction" only after I skimmed thru Feynmann about a year ago and realized the coulumbian repulsion is at the core of the world's stability... so that it does not collapse into itself... and also supplies interesting forces on demand!!! How did anyone dare to tell me that there are only 4 known forces in this world when this funny force called "reaction" can rear its head wherever it chooses to ;-)... Anyway, I digress...

It was impossible for me to setup an experiment to check out my ideas nor the theoretical muscle power to face the challenge. I don't have the theoretical muscle power to model those systems even today. Of course I realize that, I need to bow my head to many more laws and this was a wild goose chase. But if I had a good simulator, I might have been a master at mechanics by now... Maybe I might even have developed the theoretical muscle power to understand the nitty gritties of why my solution would not work. But hey that is what learning is all about... Making wrong predictions and figuring out why they were wrong.

I am sure each one of those reap boys has the audacity to think up such mutant thoughts like me. Whenever such mutant thoughts occur at least a subset of those thoughts can be tackled by simulation.

Here are a few more thing I thought of... The lens in my eyes were removed during dislocated lens surgery when I was a child. So my eye has no lens. But I can see fairly well even without spectacles(especially at medium distances). These days they put an artificial lens in place. But those days they did not do it or it was optional. So I have always wondered whether my eye works like a pin hole camera... the pupil seems too large for a "pin hole" to be able to focus enough... does the curvature of other transparent objects like the cornea have a significant effect on the resolution of my eye? My mom and aunt underwent cateract surgery and they both got artificial lenses implanted. They seem to have a much poorer vision even with spectacles. The doctors blamed it on diabetes.

But the question that occurred to me was that "Were these doctors fleecing us?". The lens is just an optical device. If the rest of the system can't provide the needed resolving power, then a good lens is of no use. I wanted to be able to pull out a virtual eye... delete the lens and see how it would work. I would like to check the resolving power of this new system. Of course that is just a daydream... but hey who knows... Now that I think of this... the question is even more profound. The creationists insist that human eye is too complex a device to be created by evolution... i.e. by accident ;-)... In the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, the situation is explained beautifully... lenses without eyes and so on... I have nothing much to say beyond the fact that I realize in practice how well an eye without a lens and without spectacles can work.

Another interesting simulation experiment rolling in my head is Spherical Aberration. My First PU textbook had some interesting gobledegook about it. If I look into a camera I can see many lenses... I guess they are there for chromatic and spherical aberration. How about asking the student to use POV ray to design any damn system of lenses and minimize spherical aberration or chromatic aberration. The student can even choose a non spherical lens... He can virtually cut out lenses according any equation he chooses... parabola,hyperbola,centenary... or some bizarre eqn he himself wrote... Refractive indices can be changed according to whims and fancies and so on... If he did that by grinding glass, he could spend for ever... Simulations are extremely good if you have a hunch and want to see if you are getting closer to your solution or you are moving farther...

Madhusudan sir was talking about some real world probability experiment which seemed to show some crazy behavior producing a gauzzian when I felt it was absurd. He too found it odd. Maybe it was bad data or too little data. But I want to know if this is physics related or mechanics related or probability related. It is extremely unlikely that two very different systems will show the same loophole unless there is some profound connection among them. After conducting an experiment in the real world, you can come back to a simulation and see how different the two behaviors are. In the real world you cannot switch laws off. To do that you need to do a lot of work. In simulation you can simply delete a law that troubles you.

Ultimately, the objective of Open Education is to give the student the maximum number of eureka moments and other satisfying experience and maximizing the grasp of the subject per unit time spent. I guess simulations can play a huge role in this.

Meeting with Madhusudan Sir.

I had always planned to meet Madhusudan Sir at the Bangalore Planetarium. I wanted to see if I could fit in anywhere and what I could do. Achyuta took me there today. We discussed a lot about everything we liked and as usual I cribbed about everything I hated about how the world works. We discussed a lot of experiments that were fascinating.

Madhusudan sir told about the experiment where we measure the acceleration due to gravity... and how u can avoid measuring the radius of the bob if the the string is sufficiently long... and how silly it is to a screw guage to measure the bob. Actually it all started with me cribbing about my aversion towards too much focus about the last digit of accuracy. I did not intend to say that accuracy was uselss. But just wanted to say that each digit of accuracy must be added only when the previous is mastered. A kid should know how to perform an experiment with a scale before he does it with a vernier. He should be able to do it with a vernier before he tries to do it with some other precious apparatus. Maybe I miscommunicated. But the conversation turned interesting... never mind.

I am still figuring out if I can do something worthwhile here. The beauty of the planetarium is that it has already distilled the cream of the city and it has 3 programs for BSc students(REAP - Research Education Advancement Programme) and PU students and High school students(SOW - Sessions on Weekends). What I like about these programs is that very quickly, the kids unlearn the non sense that they have been force fed by the system. They quickly start thinking for themselves. I was exploring if I could informally get in touch with the kids and hang around. But I realized that I did not want to disrupt the schedule they have or interfere with their regular practices.

Madhusudan Sir also asked if I would like to introduce computing as a tool for the kids. It would definitely be helpful to get these kids to think like programmers. But the more they learn about programming, the sooner they will learn that it is a no brainer. The kids who fiddle with tensors and quantum entanglement will instantaneously figure how to become code jockeys. I strongly feel that their aptitude to think about anything in general would multiply when they are exposed to programming. And their ability to think openly will make them good programmers in no time.

But once they learn the tricks of the trade, they will need an infinite amount of self restraint to continue on the paths they have chosen. Peer pressure and parental pressure will shove them into the Black hole in no time. If I teach them for one week, I am sure I would have have spoilt them beyond repair!!! And Madhusudan Sir and Prof Lokanathan and the rest of the Jedi council will drive me out of the planetarium in no time.

Programming helps scientific work in a large number of ways. The other day, I saw Raghunath mechanically doing a lot of manual labor gathering star images and data from SDSS database. There were 3 options... Do manual Donkey labor... Use SQL on the SDSS database... Write some trivial code to automate the manual activity. I told him that I would help him write a program for that if he would do the coding. After some requirement gathering, some code was written and Raghu learnt the fundas of programming. I needed to catalyze certain parts as time was in short supply. Maybe it even took a bit longer than the manual process. But he learnt a lot. He told me that even now the kids at the planetarium are using that tool for annotating and managing SDSS data. He even kept me awake one night ;-).

My bro once wrote the code for tracking the transit of venus with a bit of assistance from me. Today he does tracking of walking drosophila from videos in some neuroscience experiments using python and he now usually refuses to take any assistance from me ;-) unless it is a really peculiar requirement. He now has an instinctive feel of deploying technology to his benefit. With a mild amount of assistance he was able to convert a VC++(a language he had not seen even once) Image capture to his needs... interfaced a stepper motor to a comp for some experiment and so on... Somewhat feel good about these things... I feel the other guys there must also learn such stuff.

I think I should also teach them to Google effectively and use Wikipedia well. It makes a difference. It might look silly. But it makes a difference. You can check the post about the role of the internet for more info.

Programming is a powerful tool for scientists in a million ways. Even a simple thing like a spreadsheet can be a serious tool. But every time they touch code, I fear they are being sucked by the huge Blackhole(the IT industry).

And by the way I secured access to the planetarium Library and Lab... All I need to do is declare that "I know Madusudan Sir"(the password) to whoever asks me ;-)... And u can tell u know Sudarshan ;-)... Of course, if you are not a freak, you will find nothing there worth taking ;-)... and if u are... u will find everything priceless but won't take it ;-)...

He asked me why I had never come to their exhibitions. I always had one or the lousy reasons... During the first 3 years i was working too much for my company ;-)... later Sudhir moved of REAP and a bazillion other reasons including laziness and poor memory ;-)... This year I will there during Jan.

Frankly speaking, there were no surprises... I already knew that the folks at the planetarium are very open minded. So I did not go there expecting a hostile reaction. I kept telling obvious things that I knew both of us knew... and vice versa. But I think it was nice for both of us to recollect things we like. And we were able to get a feel of the other persons thought process and expectations. I hope to go back there soon and get involved in something.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why can't a school teacher make Rs 60k to Rs 70k per month??

Don't worry, I am not introducing some form of scam here. I just want to ask some provocative questions. What is the difference b/w education in the 21st Century India and 19th century India? Nothing much has changed... has it? During those days you had to hail the queen of England... Today we know we are kind of independent. Some elite schools also have LCD projectors these days instead of chalk boards... We have tutions and Xerox notes. But the teacher mostly performs an identical job. Today a teacher would show you a some stuff from encyclopedia Britannica on the Projector and read out what is written there for the kids. Nothing much has changed in the centuries. During the Good ol' days, there were a few teachers who would inspire you in spite of the system. Today, you have fewer teachers who inspire you in spite of the system.

If anything has changed, it is that teaching has become a much less favorable job due to low salaries. Merely switching to BPO or IT can multiply your salary anywhere between 2 to 10 times. Even if you have a passion to teach, the smartest way out is to become a corporate trainer. How will the next generation get a meaningful education when nobody wants to teach?? As the years pass, the problem will become even more acute as the previous generation teachers retire. My friend Achyuta says how much he loves to teach primary school as these kids have endured the least amount of brain damage. But he also says that it is impossible to manage your finances with the miniscule salaries you get as a school teacher. I hope and prey that he never moves out. But hey everyone deserves a good quality of life.

Is there no money in education? One of my colleagues who is a manager who moved to Bangalore for a single year, had to cough up Rs.20,000 to get his kid admitted to some anonymous nursery school in his area. What can they teach for 20,000 in one year in nursery?? Where is all this money going? It just gets siphoned out of the field of education. It does not reach the teacher. Even a teacher himself/herself needs to cough up insane sums of money to get their own kids educated. What an irony. And in a flash all this money moves out of education. God knows where it lands up!!! Real estate? Stock market? Pubs? Your guess is as good as mine...Wherever the money lands up, it makes life even more expensive for the teacher...

Do these school managements really provide such an irreplaceable service? What are they providing? Real estate? Furniture? Library? Labs? Teacher recruitment and time management? Keeping the Boards happy? Payroll? They do provide all these and more... But still I can't spot a single thing they do that seems so spectacular, that they need to keep such a huge slice of the pie. Compare it with Hospitals v/s Doctors for Example.

Why do we need so many middle men? It is the teachers who teach just like it is the doctors who cure. The rest of it is just grunt work some one needs to do and is best handled through consolidation and economies of scale. One has to realize that management is just another service.

A good teacher at least deserves a pay greater than a lousy programmer gets in IT. At least he or she is making some positive contribution to society. The lousy programmer just adds more bugs than he has fixed... and takes time and resources to do that. And he will refuse to do even that unless he gets an on-site opportunity. I am not speaking of the top 10% of the cream of IT. I guess they do provide value.

But the rest just make IT even harder to manage... Most projects I have seen look like 10 people trying to sweep a room at once. A lot of dust moves around in circles. But very little dust leaves the room. And everyone is tired at the end of the day. Sooo many people are not really needed to keep the IT infrastructure running.

Another problem with teaching is that it wastes the time of the teacher in an infinite number of funny ways. How many surgeons dress the wounds of their patients or give them pills at regular intervals, measure their temperature and BP and so on? In a school, the next lower person below the teacher is the ayah who is usually not even literate. So even the dumbest jobs need to be done by the teacher if she can't outsource it to the students. She needs to spell-check each class work and homework. Give the home works and punish the defaulters, take attendance, conduct dictations, tests, recitations, evaluate the results, tabulate them, dictate notes and confirm whether all students are upto date... the unending list just goes on.

Doing all this needs nothing more than a 10th grade education. But there is no nurse. So the neuro surgeon needs to do even the job of the barber to keep the show going. Imagine if a real teacher could really reach out to 600 students at once instead of 60 and she could be engaged in “pure teaching”... Her salary would multiply by 10X and job satisfaction would multiply by 100X too. You would only have 1/10th the need for such teachers. Hey, this would be an entirely different breed of teachers. Don't start imagining a cinema theater full of students and a class teacher standing in front. I mean something very different. For a moment ignore implementation... just question the math about the amount of “real teaching” v/s “pointless rituals” that happens in a classroom per day. 25% of the job of the teacher is to be the “Gurkah” of the classroom. i.e maintain law and order.

You must have started wondering... but hey, that can't be possible!!! How can you introduce the equivalent of the nurse into the classroom?? I want to hear your fiercest objections to questions I ask and then I will proceed towards possible solutions. Remember, we live in a world of infinite technological possibilities we did not have at our disposal a couple of centuries ago. We are not using them the right way... that is all. Let us get creative about technology deployment in the classroom. Right now I don't want you to think of solutions. But am I not asking the right question? Once you start asking the right questions your problem is already half solved.

Can you imagine, the profit margins on the so called “Organic Farming”. Would anyone have believed that you could sell "Mineral Water" in a country like India, twenty years ago?? Is it impossible to really sell “Quality Education” to at least the growing Indian middle and upper middle class? Is it impossible to pay a teacher, proportionate to the value he/she brings to society. Does the neuro surgeon really need to do the job of the barber also??

Internet and Education.

My friend Achyuta was talking about a certain student who was saying... “If we go to the internet parlour and give that guy 6 bucks(how accurate!!!) then he will download and print the information about Bhaskaracharya and I can submit it in school”... Is this the way technology has to be applied in the classroom? Is there any point in giving such teachers LCD projectors?? Most teachers have no clue about how to check plagiarism on the net nor the time to do the same. In fact even some high profile competitions don't seem to care. Do they even realize that their duty as teachers has changed dramatically from how they were brought up. An iPod can store thousands of times more info than all the stuff a brilliant kid manages to memorize or write down or submit in his entire education.

Here are some thoughts I recollected when I was thinking of what students should do with the internet. Search google to solve a “google hard problem”... I once challenged my brother's friend arun who is a doctor ... ”Ask me some M.B.B.S question and I will answer you using google.” He started off with a lot of lame questions that had easy keywords... then I discussed with him how easy it was for me to get him the answer. If that was what doctors did, then I promised him never to visit a doctor again. I asked him to ask me a real bouncer. So he asked... “A girl had a long bone fracture. The next day she died. Why?”. I searched and answered him. And I was not using any magic knowledge as a programmer. That is kind of question a layman can solve with Google today. Try this and tell me why the girl died... You just need some imagination and familiarity with search engines.

The previous example did not mean that the internet is now a substitute for my doctor. But I can use the net to detect if my doctor is incompetent or careless. I can check whether my doctor is taking me for a ride to fill his own pockets or not. And so on. If my doctor can spend 15 mins on my problem, I can spend 15 days or 15 months. So even if I am not an expert I can get valuable insight that will be useful to me as a patient.

Never ask a question of the form “Who is Bhaskaracharya?” when the internet is involved. At least make it somewhat interesting and ask, “Who can bring me the most interesting Bhaskaracharya controversy?”. I have never checked Bhaskaracharya anyway. But I assume every person whose name is known to a school kid has a maze of controversies surrounding him. What were the 3 smartest things Aristotle said? What were the 3 dumbest things he said?

Recently, I gave myself a question and an open ended project. How long will it take for 1 square meter of solar panel to make another square meter of solar panel on the moon assuming we are limited to our current knowledge of chemistry and physics and dreams like nanotechnology may not materialize. How does doubling of capital on the moon compare with doubling of capital on the earth? If you were Warren Buffet and you had $500bn with you right now what part of it would you invest on the moon or earth orbit and what part would you invest on earth? How fast would your wealth grow? I cooked this question up myself, just for some timepass when I was bored.

And there is no right answer. NASA royally goofed up with the economics of its so called “reusable space shuttles” and turned it into an economic disaster. So the student has every right to be wrong. The exploration is the only thing that matters and it is immensely enjoyable. It could even become more interesting if one of the groups tries to argue... “I won't spend a single penny on space because it eats up precious resources like a black hole and produces no real benefits.”... But all arguments should be based on solid logic and reasoning.

In fact, while searching for this I unknowingly stumbled into some of the work that had been done by some of my favorite nanotech inspirers. It was really nice to know that really capable people have addressed this issue in a professional manner. I thought I was just day dreaming. I was really amazed at what you could do with space in spite of very little new science. I realized that, it was not surprising that companies like Google are coming out with things like the lunar challenge. I thought it was just a PR stunt. But now I guess, these guys really mean business.

The real challenge on the internet is to solve problems using partial information from various sources having variable trustworthiness. If a child can't be taught how to exploit that, then there is no point in using the net. I can instantaneously get the enthalpy of formation of silica. But I can never find how many people saddam hussein or hitler actually killed using the net. But if I am a good googler, my figures are going to be more interesting than what CNN or BBC would try to tell me.

Here is another question that occurred... There is so much noise pollution in the cosmetics industry. So are there things that really work that are advertised? Can hairs grow by eating proteins and vitamins from shampoo? Do sunscreens work? What is a bleach? Do moisturizers work? And million other such questions... Challenge every apparently technical looking claim and check the amount of truth. Try to help the student learn to distill the truth from the partial truths.

A couple of days ago, one of my friends raghunath asked me where I got the poem “Playthings” for one of the blog posts. He asked me to forward the link. I said, Sorry Go find!!! In two minutes he had what he wanted. He also skimmed though similar other poems. Anything you can recollect is just fingertips away always. Learn to use your brain to only remember things that are worth googling and not the data itself. And never forget things that you should not have to google. Eg your girfriend or boyfriend's name.

If using the internet for acquiring knowledge means going to the parlor and paying for the print, I would prey that every single microprocessor and network connection on this planet should evaporate this very moment. Only then we will be able to give our next generation an education. And let the poor kids go to ice cream parlours instead of net parlours. At least it will produce some happiness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One Laptop Per Child

I have heard a lot of criticism about OLPC. I felt that I must voice my opinion about this. I am speaking about Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop per Child Program. It is natural, to question the wisdom of doing that. What use can a laptop be to a child when there are starving millions??

First let me discuss it from a child's point of view:

I remember a poem by Rabindranath Tagore

Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust,
playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts,
adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think,
"What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!"

Child, I have forgotten the art of
being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings,
and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games,
I spend both my time and my strength over things
I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire,
and forget that I too am playing a game.

I am fully sure that the child cares no more about the laptop than his broken twig. He hardly cares about the technology or the cost. For the child, the OLPC is nothing more a broken twig.

The specialty of the OLPC is that the teacher can channelize the child's play with a broken twig into a constructive, track-able learning activity. A magic wand that the child can use, to breathe life into its creations. If you have never waved a magic wand... Don't complain!!! It is like blind men arguing about the color of blood.

$100 billion / $200 billion is less than or equal to the market cap of Microsoft or Google. With that amount, every child on this planet could have an OLPC. How much money was squandered in killing innocent people in Iraq? How much money was burnt away this year in the form of crackers across the world... Just for a few moments of joy?? How much money is blown away in interim elections?

The Simputer was a disaster. At least that is what one of my friends who happened to work on some project on the Simputer told me. Coding end user apps for the Simputer was a PITA. At least that is what he said. I never got a chance to try it out and the guy told me not to bother... I had done Gtk coding before... but I also knew I wanted something better than coding in Gtk in C if I was writing an end user application. At least from what I heard, they just reinvented the PDA without the universality. Anyone with a pleasant experinece... I would like to hear from you.

Now they seem to be obsessed with doing that again with OLPC. On the one hand, I love indigenous stuff. Hats off to ISRO for Eg. But there should be some genuine value add. If I want I can call my wristwatch a supercomputer according to some bizarre standard. But can anyone really deliver something like the OLPC at $10? I am skeptical. They will have to bend and twist Moore's law or play jugglery with words.

I don't need a typewriter for the kids. I need a powerful teaching tool. I don't care about the gigahertz. In fact my best used system till date has been a 300 Mhz Cyrix that used while I was in college. It should be able to do what a teacher would want it to do. Not what a salesman can get away with. I know some day Moore's law will give us a $1 laptop. But we need to get some laptops in the field and check out how it works. And we need to do it NOW.

India is an upcoming superpower. Do we really have to make it a "this or that" choice? Why not welcome OLPC with full enthusiasm and push our indigenous ideas too. Good ideas will win in the marketplace. If some one has the capacity to slash prices by 10X everyone benefits. WLL became popular not by discriminating against other telecom options. It just succeeded by its own merit.

We don't need to help our own products by discriminating against OLPC. Let them win by their own merit.

I am glad to hear that OLPC in conjunction with Reliance is doing something in the form of a pilot project in this area. It was interesting to read about the OLPC pilot being conducted in India at Khairat

I'm also excited to hear that SimCity is coming to the OLPC platform. Strategy games are a powerful way to make kids realize how the world works. I have learnt more history from Age of Empires and Ceasar and other games and from History channel than from my textbooks. I learnt a 100 times more about town planning than they would care to teach me. Sometimes I wonder that the situation in bangalore is not as bad as I imagine it is. After all they are able to keep the chaos to at least tolerable levels in spite of having no save game or restart!!! Where demolishing a single building can lead to an out of control situation.

I am a bit annoyed at the continuous increase of the OLPC prices(it has gone to $200 from $100) rather than a decline as one expects from Moore's law. Hope this trend continues only during the initial phases. Hopefully by 2015 we have a $10 laptop. And hope that the $ to Rs conversion becomes Rs 25 per Dollar. That should make it Rs 250 per child. Guess it is too much Wishful thinking ;-). And I am not sure how to apply the law when you have relative changes in currency and the major cost becomes LCD screen cost. And 2015 is not very far away!!!

Make my train move

Those few hours I spent with Nikhil seem to have a much greater significance than I thought of. And I am proud that I did a few things right, the first time around. I did not ask Nikhil to draw something that I wanted him to draw. I asked him what he wanted. He demanded a train. And I re-discovered something that K.T.Margaret had noticed. Kids like to draw and discuss trains. I thought this was a random choice by Nikhil. But it seems it is universal preferred choice by kids.

Remember how Nikhil demanded that the train should start moving and I was left dumbfounded... That is what kids want to do... Create objects and breathe life into them. I had to fool him by dragging the selection and creating the illusion of movement. I felt all the Force within being drained away and my Ego shrinking into a tiny void.

All this years of programming were useless. If I want, I can write a device driver... I can fiddle with XML,YML and what not. I can fiddle around with Natural language parsing if I want to. But I can't breathe life into the creation of this three year old. It was the worst humiliation I ever faced.

Then I encountered Scratch. In a few minutes I was blown away. It was as if I had rubbed a lamp... a genie had appeared and granted my wish. I could help any kid breath life into his own creation. In fact I was so startled that I realized that after all these years of programming, had even killed my ability to dream. I did not even know what to ask for. And here is gift, that cries out to me. Is this not what you would have wished for, if you knew how make a wish?? Hats off to the guys at MITs Life Long Kindergarten Group!!!

The kid is too small now. I am not obsessed with turning him into a prodigy. I have learnt the hard way round, that you have to wait for some anatomical changes to happen in a child's brain before he is ready to grasp certain kinds of things. Just because something is logical to you and a child is able to understand logic. You cannot stuff its brain. I think, it is also unethical to do so.

The moment he is in 5th grade, I will attempt to teach him Scratch. I learnt BASIC in 5th grade. So it should not be hard for him. He seems orders of magnitude smarter than I used to be at that age. When he is in 3rd or 4th Grade, I will try to see if he is interested... I think he may be able to at least concoct dramas,jokes and stories using scratch even if programming takes longer... Any kid would love to create cartoons... that too ones with “behaviour”... but I will not put any pressure... I want him to enjoy every minute.

And now I know what to wish for!!! Let Scratch get ported to the OLPC platform as soon as possible and let millions of those Laptops reach the Kids. Amen.