Changing Education

About blogging, I find, the ideas are relatively simple to define and build upon, while the topic is the difficult part. The topic being done, let’s get to the idea of this post.

There are two basic problems with education delivery today, I feel. One is the shortage of skilled teachers, and the other is the piecemeal approach to concepts taught to children. Let’s look at these one by one.

When talking about shortage of skilled teachers, I don’t mean at the aggregate level. The problem facing education is that while in pockets skilled teachers are available, there are also pockets where they are not. In the age of technology, this gap should be one that should be easy to bridge. Having said that, I believe that on can’t rely on purely virtual education delivery when introducing a new subject, which is what is the a of the education system for the most part. So we might need to look at a blended approach towards doing that. For this blended approach, content taught could be divided into three parts: pure theory, guided problem-solving, and practical application. Concepts of a subject could be taught through recorded lectures, for which a panel of distinguished teachers could be identified from the vast pool available. This would help being the best teachers to students in areas where they are not available. At the same time, this would standardize the delivery of basic concepts. Building upon these concepts, to develop skills of applying these concepts, a set of real-life scenarios could be developed. These would need to be delivered in-person, and would help students to learn how these concepts could be applied to solve problems. These could be simulations or case studies, depending on the requirements of the course being taught. Building on these would be labs to experiment and to apply concepts, as required.

The other aspect is the piecemeal approach to teaching. Children are taught mathematics and physics and economics and history as separate subjects. The concepts they learn and their application are demarcated by subject, while in reality, these subjects are interrelated, and so also should their teaching be. To address this, and to develop holistic problem-solving skills, which enable students to see the big picture, appreciate systems, and building systemic thinking, classwork, homework, and exams should be based on a systemic approach, where students are able to see the system as a whole, understand it in it’s entirety, and be able to understand impact of one thing on another.


A Gamification Scenario

Let me describe a scenario that i came across, of gamification changing the way one tends to interact with something. I have been playing, as i suppose a lot of you have been, sudoku for some time. I have a version of sudoku which is a straightforward one. You select the level of the puzzle you want to play, and it generates the puzzle for you, and you go ahead. It tracks the best times for completing puzzles with different levels of difficulty.

Some time back i got another version of sudoku which has puzzles at different levels of difficulty. The difference is that in this one, the higher levels of difficulty need to be unlocked. Only once you have solved the puzzles at easy level, with a particular best time, and some other parameters, does the medium, difficult, and super levels get unlocked. You cant just jump to a higher level puzzle.

The same game, with simple functionality included creates a different level of motivation to solve the puzzle less time. Earlier, i wasnt too aware of the best timing for the different levels, but now, i was keeping track. And unlocking the level gave a sense of achievement. In short, i tended to look at two versions of the same game in different ways, and this was because of the small component of gamification introduced.

This is the impact of gamification, and this could be harnessed to create the motivation, engagement, and a sense of achievement, like in a game, in learning.


How To Teach Maths?

A recurring question which keeps coming up in discussions is how mathematics should be taught. There is a strong view that given the computing power which is available to us, we should relook the basic maths curriculum. So i went looking, and found this video which i feel looks at the problem in a logical way.

Conrad Wolfram is giving some compelling reasoning for why maths education should change, and gives a description of how it should change, too.

Hand-culcating the mundane way should not be the focus on the curriculum. Rather, the focus should be on building and enforcing the concepts, and leave the calculating to computers. In other words, as he says, students should be taught the procedures which define fundamental concepts, but the implementation of those should be left to computer programs. For example, students should know what a square root it, how it is calculated, but they shouldnt have to calculate, beyond illustrations. And here is the cool part he says … focus on teaching students how to write programs to calculate square roots, rather than having them mechanically execute the procedure for calculating. This will immensely help students clarify their concepts (how can one write a program without understanding the underlying principles to a very large extent?), while at the same time help them become more comfortable with the concept of application of these concepts. In other words, our mathematics curriculum should stress understanding and application (application to real world problems is a very good way of teaching these concepts) rather than stress on the mundane calculations which stress out students as well as parents alike. After all, why should a child lose marks in an exam (thats what happens) if he or she takes the square of 5 to be 10 when all the conceptual aspects of the solution are correct, and the only mistake is a calculation mistake?

Connect this with the post i had written earlier, and a rather innovative picture of mathematics teaching emerges.


The Focus Of Education

When we talk about education, we are talking about giving the children the right answers. We teach the children to answer questions. That means, the focus of education is on answers, as Lawrence Krauss says in this video.

What is more important is to teach children to ask questions. Answers are the consequence of questions, so it is important for children to learn how to ask questions. If children know to ask the right questions, they can find the answers they need. Education needs to be to teach children to ask questions, and then, only then, try to find the answers. In the process of finding answers lies a high level of learning.

This isnt necessarily true of the sciences, but of any subject. I believe that this demarcation between science and the humanities is an artificial one, and that children need to be taught to ask questions and find their answers in all realms. For example, when teaching history, instead of telling them the facts, if children can be taught to ask questions like what circumstances led to the emergence of a civilization or a culture, or what was the social milieu in which an empire grew, the children would learn more about history just trying to find answers to these questions than today.

In this process, the teacher needs to, to begin with, guide students to the fundamental questions and their answers, about the subject being introduced, and from there on, help children formulate questions. Children should be encouraged to come up with new questions, and then, either the teachers could answer those questions, or enable collaboration in the classroom which lets children find out the answers to these questions.

As you can see from the Kalikuppam, Gateshead and Turin experiments, children’s natural curiosity, and their ability to collaborate easily can be harnessed to enhance education being provided. This curiosity can be channeled into asking the right questions, and this collaborative nature can be channeled into exploring the vast sources of information available to the children, and to find the right answers from there.


Teaching Maths Without Words

Thats a somewhat crazy question. I came across this video, and i would say its quite a nice watch.

This video makes a compelling case for the why and the how of teaching maths in a visual way. After all, maths is not about words or languages, is it? If so, why should mathematics education be so language heavy? It should be about the concepts of mathematics. And i have found that the visual impact of mathematics is quite powerful. I tried this trick with my then 10-year-old … I introduced him to the concepts of integers, and multiplication with negative numbers without bringing in negative numbers to begin with.

We started with directions. Left and right. So, theres 3 to the left and 2 to the right. Or, 4 to the right and 5 to the right. Now, adding the 4 to the right and the 5 to the right is easy, but how does one add 3 to the left and 2 to the right? This is where the concept of the negative sign came into the picture. And once this was done, then it was a simple extension of this to see how multiplication with negative numbers simply changed the direction and nothing else.

What this did is help him build a mental picture of these concepts. In my experience as a trainer, i have found that these mental pictures are far more enduring than theoretical concepts. To take an example, i used to teach the concept of min-max planning, or the sawtooth curve, using the analogy of mom planning to go out and buy rice. Now, a few days after the class, the students, even if they had forgotten the min-max planning theory, or the sawtooth curve, still remembered the rice story, and this helped them to relate to the concept. The rice story here helped build a mental picture which is more enduring than theoretical concepts. So this isnt just about children learning mathematics, but also about adults learning.

Now, knowing him, he would have built a picture of Ben10 doing something which saves the world from the wildest aliens imaginable while multiplying two negative numbers, but hey, thats a picture i can live with!

Oh by the way, where there are integers, can vectors be far behind?


Training’s Khan Academy

Theres lot said about the way the principles of Khan Academy can be applied in the world of education. However, i see education and training as two essentially linked areas, and so, if there are lessons for education from Khan Academy, there must also be lessons for corporate training teams.

This made me think about what could be the key take-aways for a training manager from the way content is structured in Khan Academy. And an immediate answer that comes to mind is brevity.

Today, organizations are under pressure to increase productivity so that organizations are able to deliver more with the same number of employees. This means that employees need to deliver more in the same period of time. In consulting organizations, this is a euphemism for utilization pressure. Many of us would have heard those, havent we? And while L&D managers are under pressure to deliver training to enhance employee capabilities, there is also the constraint of getting participants away from their work for a few days to attend classroom sessions. There is of course e-learning, but can e-learning be an en bloc alternative for classroom or virtual education? I dont think so.

And this is where the Khan Academy concept comes in. This is something i had championed to some extent over a period of the last few years. I am talking about training modules which are a twitterized form of training. In other words, module videos which are to youtube what twitter is to blogs.

In this scenario, the fundamental idea is that people are more interested in training to enable them to do their jobs more effectively. This means that they would be more interested in short, crisp programs (not more than 5 minutes) which help them learn how to do specific tasks as part of their job. Just the things which are required for them to become more effective in their work.

Think job aids meet youtube meets twitter.


Learning

I have been having discussions with some friends about the gamification of education, and one theme which is coming out is the question … What about learning for the sake of knowledge? After all, with gamification, we are changing the process of learning into achieving some sort of recognition, whether it be in the form of peer recognition, or in the form of reaching some levels in the game model. So some folks are asking whether we shall be able to retain the ideal of learning ofr the sake of learning, of getting to know the world around us.

This, i feel, is an important question. But the answers are not too difficult to find. After all, today the way education is looked at is from the prism of exams, and the marks a student gets in these exams. Arent these marks also a form of recognition? If they are, and i feel so, then maybe its a better idea to change the form of recognition which is inherent as a part of the system to a form which is more fun, and which creates real motivation to learn. After all, how many of us studied in school with the aim of learning for the sake of learning?

Another aspect to understand here is that in schools, students need to learn a wide variety of subjects, from maths and science to history, and the arts. Is it really a fact that students would have an interest in all these subjects? After all, learning for learning’s sake happens when you have an inherent interest in a particular subject, which pulls you to study that subject. This means that learning for learning’s sake typically happens in one or two subjects. On the other hand, in school, students are not meant to be learning only one subject, but rather, gain an appreciation of, and learn about, the world around, which encompasses many subjects, and this is why it isnt possible for teachers to grab the attention of students for everything they teach.

So while i feel there is importance in the ideal of learning for the sake of learning, this can happen only when people have matured and have understood what they feel pulled towards. In schools, it is theoretically impossible for this to be achieved, and this is why gamification, or creating the framework for education which makes it more engaging is very important. After all, how will the child know what interests him unless he or she is exposed to all the different subjects, and this is achieved by the education which is given at schools.