Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Science for school: The Gyanome Project

June 21, 2013

I have been busy creating several knowledge communities over the past year or so. You might ask what a knowledge community is  but that will remain undefined for now. Fortunately, you know a knowledge community when you see it.

Gyanome, also here, is a community that brings science and math (for now) via scientists and mathematicians to school teachers and students.  In other words, take the standard curriculum – in India that would be the NCERT syllabus – and get well known scientists to teach the essential concepts. Gyanome is a hybrid project; scientists are busy and spread across the earth, so we are creating online resources paired with classroom interaction. 

Apart from our content creation, we have also started having conversations with young Indian scientists about hot scientific topics, in order to give children and teachers good role models. Here is the first conversation I had with Abhiram, a young physicist. We will be doing more in the future. 


Praja Factory

May 1, 2013

While we teach children physics and poetry, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the goal of education is to create citizens who will create a just and flourishing society. For that, not only do we need to teach subjects such as mathematics, we need to teach the art of citizenship itself. I have been working for a few months on a citizenship learning platform called Praja Factory, whose goal is to teach us how to be citizens in the full sense of that term. The site is still in its infancy, but I would love it if:

  1. You give me feedback and/or suggest new topics for the site. 
  2. Register.
  3. Ask and answer questions.
  4. Better if you have an hour or so a week to volunteer and contribute.
  5. Even Better if you are working in a school or a community and want to get children in the school or community involved in this project.

Learnhow versus Learnthat

March 5, 2013

I was at Mapunity earlier today with Ashwin Mahesh and E. S Ramamurthy of the Sikshana FoundationI wish I have Ramamurthy’s energy when I am 75. 

Ramamurthy mentioned something to us which I find interesting: in *one* month, he is able to teach a kid who’s reading at 4th standard level to read at the 7th standard level. One hour a day every day for 30 days. Which makes me think three things:

  1. Should we separate skill acquisition from concept acquisition in schools? After all, when we learn driving, we don’t learn whether we should take the car for vacations or the route to work. It might be useful to separate out the *what* and the *how* of education. 
  2. Do we really need 12 years of schooling that mixes factual, skill-based and conceptual knowledge and does a bad job of all three? It seems that we can impart the basic, universal skills (broadly the 3R’s) in a very short period of time if the person is ready. Why not create an education system that identifies when a person is ready – we will need good data and integration of developmental psychology into the assessment of children- and imparts the skills at that time. Let’s say that takes a total of 3 years. The rest of schooling can be continuous and lifelong rather than an enforced confinement for 12 years. 
  3. Can we imagine skilling schools that are more like driving schools and less like our current teaching schools? These schools will be optimized to “learning how” rather than “learning what” and can be used for lifelong skill learning, from the 3R’s to coding and 3D printing and all kinds of 21st century skills?

How to run a successful scam

June 22, 2012

I received an email yesterday from an organization called the India International Friendship Society, based in Delhi. They claim to be a

a voluntary organization established to forge greater unity and integrity among the people of Indian origin living anywhere in the world.

and one of their contributions to world unity is a conference “on “Economic Growth & National Integration” at New Delhi” where they award “the most prestigious “Bharat Jyoti Award.”” In case you were wondering about the prestige in this most prestigious award, they are anxious to assure you that

Certain cabinet ministers from the Centre and various States, members of Parliament, industrialists, social workers and intelligentsia have been invited to address the event.

and that past awardees include

beatified Mother Teresa, former vice-president B. D. Jatti, Governors like Iqbal Singh Governor Of Pondicherry,  Shekhar Dutt (Governor Of Chhattisgarh) Dr DY Patil (Governor Of Tamil Nadu) Gen J J Singh (Governor Of Arunachal Pradesh) Justice M. Fathima Beevi, Gen. G. V. Krishna Rao, Lt Gen Ajai Singh and Dr. Bhisham Narain Singh; former  Air-Chief-Marshal N. C. Suri, former chief justices of the Apex Court like Justice P. N. Bhagwati, Justice R. S. Sarkaria, and Justice H. R. Khanna; Election Commissioner G. V. G. Krishnamurthy

Their website has pictures of a prominent Indian cricketer receiving the award from the usual clutch of superannuated political types. Other greybeards are prominently displayed on the website as well. Having exhausted their source of saints and statesmen, they are digging into their B-list including yours truly.  Except that I am not the only one being chosen for this honor. A quick google search reveals that the award has been given at least three times this year – Feb 14th, March 27th and May 5th.

I am delighted to be a Bharat Jyoti. I even believe that I am a Bharat Jyoti. Except that India International Friendship Society doesn’t know why I am a Bharat Jyoti; they would rather I told them about my brilliance:

Will you please mail us your Bio Data highlighting about your achievements only with latest photograph to reach us at the earliest, by courier.

Since India is full of brilliant scholars, IIFS is contacting academics en masse. Plenty of us are falling for the scam, enough to justify a conference on Economic Growth and National Integration every month this year. The awardees include an IIM Director, a scientist at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, a prominent industrial chemist, a professor at Amrita University, the list goes on. It goes without saying that Bharat Jyoti recipients (I wonder if they paid for it) display the award prominently in their homes and their websites. The scam has managed to get its share of media attention as well: the award has been written about in major national newspapers. The organizers are brazen enough to upload the proceedings on to youtube.

I am confused about the significance of the award: should I be honoured now that I am a light of India, delighted that so many of my compatriots are shining or sad that with so many lights, I will need to burn some extra gas to shine brighter than others? However, I am certain about the basic psychology of the scam, which I have condensed into Rajesh Kasturirangan’s three laws of scamming:

  • Appear sincere
  • Play on the vanity of the victim
  • Hand out large but worthless prizes

Fortunately for IIFS, Indian academia is full of dupes. I am tempted to start a prize of my own. I am looking for good names for the medal; any suggestions?


The Future of Higher Education

May 23, 2012

First in a series of curated posts

The Future of the Book

May 4, 2012


The Kindle made ebooks popular, but the ipad and other mobile devices are making us question both the form and the function of books. Authors, publishers and academics are all interested in the future the book. I am at an MIT event about the future of the book. This is an academic event but I have already learned one interesting fact: when printing first became popular-in Europe, the fonts in the newly printed books resembled the cursive writing in the (handwritten)manuscripts.


Rights and Responsibilities

April 25, 2012

Citizenship has always been about rights and responsibilities. When kings and Rajas were sovereign they had all the responsibilities, in theory anyway, and they had all the rights as well. The modern nation state is a descendant of the sovereign king; unsurprisingly, it holds most of the responsibilities and in return demands our allegiance. 

Calls for greater citizen rights are inevitable now that the state doesn’t have the immense information and material asymmetries that it did in an earlier era. But instead of demanding greater rights, what if citizens unilaterally started taking on more responsibilities? The British thought that Indians weren’t fit to rule themselves, which we now believe to be a rationalization of their own desire to colonize and rule. The Indian independence movement had to spend time convincing other Indians – and to a lesser extent the British rulers – that they were fit for Swaraj.

The Indian state still believes it is “Sarkar,” a sovereign power that sits on top of all of us.  If citizens started solving problems on their own, wouldn’t that be proof by demonstration that the state needs to share more power with citizens? Demands for Swaraj must be accompanied by public problem solving. 

Citizenship in the 21st century

April 23, 2012

Scientific and social structures are influenced by the technologies of the time. Modern democracy is unimaginable without print newspapers and other mass media. It isn’t surprising that the one way, creator to consumer nature of newspapers, radio and TV is mirrored by the one way, politician to citizen nature of modern democracy.

Social media is far more interactive and bidirectional. Everybody hopes that next revolution in democracy will be catalyzed by the mirroring of the social web. I am sure that’s a half truth, but the future will portray social media as a precursor to real democracy. Facebook will be seen by the next generation as a lucrative but ultimately unimportant way station toward world citizenship.  

The Future of Learning

March 2, 2012

More here; You Tube video of my talk at TEDx here.

Modeling Education

March 1, 2012

We had a pretty productive thinkbinder discussion hour yesterday night. There were about seven or eight participants (10% of the class, not bad in my opinion). Two observations about the discussion itself:


  1. Even a chat window is a productive tool for strangers interacting for the first time, as long as we are interested in similar topics.
  2. Thinkbinder as a technology needs some improvement. It is good for asynchronous social interaction (i.e., social interactions where you and I are not on at the same time, like what we do on Facebook)
  3. We need a wiki for pooling our discussions around particular topics. I have created a wiki for this class here. The wiki will be the core of the ++ in the Stanford ++. It is where we will showcase the projects that come out of this course.

I was hoping to use the discussion to start thinking about collective projects and in that respect the discussion was great. We spent quite a bit of time on discussing the use of model thinking in understanding the current education crisis in India (see this blog for a lot of interesting data and analyses). As a country, we are among the worst in the world in education parameters, however one measures them. Several interesting trends are emerging in education:


  1. Private schools are increasing in popularity across social classes.
  2. The government is making a huge investment in higher education.
  3. We have an ever larger population that needs to be educated in employable skills.


As you can imagine, these trends put together suggest that we are almost about to go over a cliff. What happens when 200 million Indians come of employable age with the abysmal skills that PISA and others are doing? What happens when government schools start emptying out and we keep pouring money into the govt education system? What can we do help analyse these trends? What can model thinking do to help us understand and improve the quality of education? These are some of the questions we should think about and the steps we need to take are:


  1. Pool as much data/resources/links on education in India that we can.
  2. Start modeling some of the data with plausible assumptions.
  3. Visualize the results.


It goes without saying that education is of great interest to a lot of people; this data-model-display cycle should be available to everyone, not just people in our model thinking class. So let us think about this as an edudata challenge:


Can we crowdsource ideas/models/solutions on how to improve education in India?


I think we can, so please do spread the word.


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