Conditioning hatred for books

INFANT NURSERIES. NEO-PAVLOVIAN CONDITIONING ROOMS, announced the notice board.

The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in
khaki.

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

On respect in the classroom

If you are a teacher (of any sort) and teach young people, don’t be disheartened if the students in your class don’t respect you or listen to you or maintain discipline. Even great philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle has a tough time dealing with their students

Socrates grumbled that he don’t get no respect: his pupils “fail to rise when their elders enter the room. They chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, and tyrannize over their teachers.” Aristotle was similarly pissed off by his stu­dents’ attitude: “They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertions; this is, in fact, the reason for their carrying everything too far.”Their jokes left the philosopher unamused: “They are fond of laughter and conse­quently facetious, facetiousness being disciplined insolence.”

– Judith Harris The Nurture Assumption

That being said, the students are also very perceptive about the knowledge of the teachers, and know who is trying to be a cosmetic intellectual.

Technologies in the classroom

ict-satellite-education

How to modernise education? How to make use of new technological developments that are around us to make learning in schools better? These are some of the questions that we will look at in the current post. In particular, we will be looking at the so-called satellite education as being implemented in some schools.

In many discussions regarding education, the teachers are usually blamed for not doing their assigned jobs correctly. There is some truth in these accusations. Having worked with teachers at different levels (primary to university) and in different settings (govt schools, private elite schools, teacher training institutes, colleges, and universities) I have come to the conclusion that teachers are part of the problem. This will be elaborated in another post and before you draw out your pitchforks the disclaimer: of course there are good teachers, who do their jobs well.

So one of the solutions is to take these good teachers to all the classrooms. Of course, it cannot be done in a physical way. This is where the technological advance pitches in. We take the good teachers to classrooms via satellites. The TV in the classroom becomes the blackboard, which allows the students to get the best of experiences that the system can offer. Now, this is not just limited to schools but also colleges, some of the best institutes in the country are offering “distance-education” courses like this. The government has invested a large sum in higher education in the form of Swayam channels. These channels are running lectures by various faculties of institutes across India 24×7. Mind you most of these are not specially produced lectures for the TV, they are recordings of usual lectures that these faculties give to their classes. Most are boring af, with them reading out the powerless-pointless slides one after other. They cram as much text as possible on these slides. Making them dense in terms of ink ratio, but unfathomable in terms of learning from them. Anyways this is a subject for another post.

Imagination and philosophies

Our sense of imagination is limited by what we know, and the
philosophies that we subscribe to. For some, it is clear about what their assumptions are for others it is not. They think that this is how it should be, completely ignorant of the notion that some of their concepts are based on assumptions. For some people, this is something that they are aware of, for most of us, we are not aware of this. Many
times we think of finding solace in things which are traditional. Since it has stood the test of time, it must have some inherent value they say. It is our ignorance and arrogance that we are not seeing any value in it. Hence people resist change. Why try something new which might or might work, or work equally well when we have something which is tried and tested? Of course, stability is important, but then stability does not lead to change. Yet when people change things, they try to replicate the models that they have found to work, and hence reducing the risk.

If we apply the same idea with regards to education, we also come across many such examples. The satellite television used in the classroom is one such case. The idea is not new. As soon as television technology became commonly feasible in the 50s and 60s, immediately some pedagogues of the era jumped to the idea of using them for education. This ideally suited the “transmission model” of education which was in vogue at that time with behaviorism ruling the roost of psychology in general and education in particular. In a way, learning via television is the ultimate epitome of the transmission model. In a regular classroom, there is at least a scope for the teacher and student to interact. But in this case, the entire flow of information is in one direction. The transmission is the transmission of learning. No wonder for many decades, and even now television was seen as a game-changer and harbinger of technological learning. Television was also seen as non-invasive technology, as it is passive which works for everyone involved, except perhaps for the most important stakeholders the learner. The television didn’t and doesn’t challenge the traditional “transmission model” of education, which most teachers and stakeholders (including parents) do believe in. The values which enlightened pedagogues worship, find a very low priority with most other stakeholders.

The central mindset in education

The term “centralised mindset” refers to the idea that in complex systems there has to be a controlling agent who overseas all executions.  The centralised mindset refers to a belief that any system which works well must have a system or authority (in the form of a person or a group) which must somehow control the mechanism. The belief in the centralised mindset is that the individuals in a complex system are too unintelligent to behave in a coordinated, complex manner. For example, for a long time, it was believed that the “V” formation that one sees in the flying birds is due to a “leader” in the group. This supposed leader will make the group fall in the “V” patterns by organising the other group members. This is a very intuitive model that appeals to common sense. Whenever we see some patterns, we assume there must be an inherent design or a designer. In the case of the birds in “V” shape the same logic applies. There must be a leader who makes sure such a pattern is created. But such a view, however intuitive and correct it may seem is incorrect. As it happens with most of the other principles in science, in this case too the correct explanation is counter-intuitive. There is no leader in the case of the birds. The “V” pattern that we see is an example of what is known as an emergent phenomenon. It arises from the interaction of the birds which are flying together. When all the individuals follow simple rules in interacting with their neighbours, the “V” pattern emerges. The people who believe in a central leader are wrong in this case. It is a fiction that makes things that we observe easy to accept. But it is not correct. For many such examples and deeper discussions, see Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick.

There are several natural and artificial phenomena where earlier we (including the experts who propose such explanations) though that there was a central control involved in creating patterns, but in most cases, we have discovered otherwise. The counter-intuitive explanation that there is no central control or mechanism just doesn’t appeal to people. How can it be that there is no central control and yet the thing works on its own? Do we always need a centralised control? People argue that without a centralised control there will be chaos or anarchy. Stable patterns of behaviour or observations cannot emerge, it is assumed if there is no central control. Examples are given of a central governing that we are used to so much.

Now you might be wondering what has this to do with education? The general bureaucracy in the educational field is seen as centralised. For example, the creation of a textbook or syllabus or curriculum and assessment is always a centralised process. Think of the board exams.

Why cannot a school or a teacher decide upon textbooks and curriculum?

Why this is so? Because that is how it was in the other government departments. This is what the tradition says. A bunch of experts (preferably with a prefix of a Dr. or Prof.) will decide for everyone what they should learn and more importantly how they should learn it and most importantly how will this learning be assessed. This triumvirate or what to learn, how to learn and how to assess is assumed to be too complex and too important to be left to the plebs. This is where centralised mindset in the form of centralised expert committees is brought in.

The power of the teacher in the classroom is reduced to
a mere executioner ( a meek dictator if you will, as per Krishna Kumar) of all the algorithms set for them to follow. Some good teachers would improvise on this little elbow room that the classroom did offer. But now in an effort to make it
more central in discourse and execution, a centralised teacher and
teaching is needed. Indeed this is the idea behind the satellite television in the
classrooms. To ensure that quality (standardised) education reaches all learners. This also reduces the load on the local teachers, who just have to shepherd the learners to the AV room, and their job is done. The parents are happy as their children are supposed to be learning from the best teacher. And this happens live in some cases, I witnessed this entire process in Rajasthan. Seeing it from the studio being recorded and transmitted live via the satellite, and also saw (at another time) how it is received and executed in the schools. In some cases for interactivity and feedback, a Whatsapp number is provided where the teachers or the learners can reach out to the teacher in the studio. This teacher at the studio genuinely believed that he was being helpful to the students and the system worked. The proof for this was not some study but the messages he received from the school teachers thanking him for taking their class. Real interactivity which might happen in an actual classroom was found to be missing.

Just like the illustration on the top of the post shows, the core idea in the satellite television in the classroom is to centrally repeat the process of transmission of knowledge to all the learners with an added bonus of synchronicity. One act can be used at multiple locations. But this creates inhibitions for interactivity. Constructivism of the experts can go for a toss. Why do we need to create a custom curriculum for each child, when one expert in one manner can teach them all at the same time?

 

Millions of Computers for Millions of Children

Yesterday ( it should be now read “a couple of years back”)while giving a talk, I was asked this rhetorical question (not verbatim, but close):

“What did you say was the sample size of your study?”

“Two. This was a case study.”

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a computer and expeyes (a hardware for collecting data). How can you scale it up to schools which have millions of children?”

It seems that the person who was asking the question, for lack of any other question asked this. In seminars and academic institutes, there are always people like this, who will ask the question for sake of it. Just to make their presence felt. Anyways, it was good for me. I was expecting that this question would be asked. And I was very happy that it was asked.

The short answer that I gave was:

“You give a million computers to a million children!”

one-computer-per-child

Some people thought, this was a rhetoric answer to a rhetoric question, which incidentally was also humorous, as it also generated a lot of laughter, but this was not the case. In this post, I would like to elaborate on the short answer that I gave.

Of course, most of these ideas have come from reading and hearing Seymour Papert (who has recently demised, the article was started before that, but due to my lethargy never seen completion). The memes have been transferred, and now I am trying to make sense and adapt them to my own experience. And I would like to assert again that reading Papert has been an immensely rewarding and enriching experience for me. His are perhaps few books which I do not mind reading again and again. I like his writing style of giving parables to explain points in his arguments because the points he wants to make do not need a backbone of statistics to survive. Here also I will give a hypothetical example (derived from Papert) to explain what I meant.

The technological tools that children are using now mainly in the traditional school system are the pencil and the book. In this case, almost all educationalists would agree that every child would require to have one pencil to write and book for study. Even then there are some children who do use computers, some because their parents have them, some because the school has them, some have both. Now we consider a time 50 years back. Computers were almost non-existent, as we know them now. Computers were one of the most complicated and expensive technological artefacts that humans produced. But the enormous amount of money and efforts were put in the miniaturization of computers. So finally now we have computers that have become devices that we now know. In the last 50 years, the computer technology has grown exponentially, while the prices for the memory and computing power that one gets are falling, their usage.

Consider a classroom of 50 years back. Though there were computers they were something to be wondered about, something like very very expensive toys. The computers were not mature enough that children could handle them. In the classroom, the only available technological artefacts were used. The technology in the classroom was the pencil
and the printed book and a notebook to write with the pencil and of course, there was the blackboard.

Wait, you might be thinking we are in a digital age technology by default means computers, be it in your smart-phone, laptop or a desktop or at least a projector for god’s sake. But here I would like you to think about somethings which are very deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. The very fact that many things which we take for granted are
all technologies. For example, the writing instruments that you have to be it a pencil or a chalk are all technologies. But most of us don’t think of them as such because they are so common and most of us have had our experience with them. The mystery is lost. As the Arthur C. Clarke once said about technology and magic as his Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So deeply embedded this image is that we define it as the normal for our learners to be able to use this technology. Rather the entire edifice of our educational system rests on it. For example, your educational achievement is more or less based on the fact how much you can “write” in a limited time, from memory. And this we call assessment, examination and the like. Also the written text, from the time of Gutenberg, has more
or less complete hold over our intellectual activities. The text formed the basis of our discourse and analysis of the world. Why do children use to write with a pencil on piece of paper in order to learn. The drill typically starts with the children trying to
recreate elegant fonts in some shape or form which is decipherable for the teacher. You have to write “A” 500 times to get it right, ok? How would you write words when you cannot write alphabets? How would write sentences when you cannot write words? How will you write examinations if you cannot write sentences?

Is it the only way in which we can learn language? If we observe this in detail we see that only reason we ask them to write “a” 500 times in a notebook is because it comes from an era when there was no other technology to write. And this is the same learner who can converse well and answer questions, but yet we need them to write it down with their hands. It was the only possible solution. And generations of humans were trained using this method. So much so that most of us still think this is the only method for education. Any deviation from hand-written text is seen as a abomination. But typing on a computer provides us, and especially, young learners with cognitive offloading of immense task of holding a writing instrument and shaping an alphabet, a word, a sentence out of it. Children learn to type much much faster than they learn to write with a pen. And what is even more important is that the written text is in electronic form, which can be revised and shared with their peers and teachers. In hand written text there is no question of revision, the original takes too much effort to produce so there is no question of revising it.

one-pencil-per-child

Considering the amount of cognitive load the child has to undergo to produce decipherable alphabets, words and sentences in order to “write”, a thing which he can perfectly do orally, are the results worth the effort? Are there any studies which show that this is an efficient method? Yet is used everywhere without exceptions and we accept it meekly without challenge because this is how it was done in the past and someone in the past must have had good reason to use this hence, we should also use this. Papert calls this as “QWERTY Phenomena”. Somethings just get culturally embedded because the are
suited for an bygone era, the are like relics in the current era. And writing with pencil and paper is just one of them.

Now consider the question that was asked at the beginning of the post. Replace the computer with a pencil. The question then becomes,

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a
pencil and a notebook. How can you scale it up to schools which have
millions of children?”

one-pencil-per-1000-child-cyan

Suddenly question seems rather bizzare and at the same time sotrivial. Of course you might say but the pencil and notebook is so much cheaper than the computer. Yes. It. Is. But if you consider that a well designed laptop like OLPC, can serve a learners for 5-6 years and can remain with them through the schooling years. Then calculations show the investment that we seek is rather modest. In general when something becomes more
common, it also becomes cheaper. Mobile phones provide an excellent proof for this argument. And it is not happening in some first world country but in our own. What has promoted a rapid growth in the number of mobile users? How do tariff plans compare
from 15 years back to now? How come something which was something exclusive for the rich and the famous, just a few years back, is now so common? It is hard to find a person without a phone these days. Even people who do not have access to electricity have a
phone, they get it charged from some place else. Now if some sociologist would have done some study regarding usefulness of mobile phones for communication, perhaps 20 years earlier, they might have had some statistics to show, but critics would have said,

“but the cost is too prohibitive; this is perhaps ok for a case study you seriously
think all (or most) of the people can have this; and people who cannot
read and write will be able to use this; people do not have
electricity and food to eat and you want to give them mobile phone?”

But look at where we are, because people found contextual and personal value in using a mobile, it became their personal assistant in communicating with others, an inherent human trait, they got it. With proliferation of the mobiles, the cost of hardware came down, the cost of tariffs came down, almost everyone could afford one now.

It is sensationalist to compare a pencil and laptop in terms of cost, but when you consider the kinds of learning that can happen over a computer there is simple no match. They are not different in degree but in kind. Note that I have used “can happen” instead of will happen. This is for a reason, a laptop can be used in a variety of ways in learning. Some of the ways can be subversive, disruptive of the traditional education system, and redefine radically the ways our children learn. But in most cases its subversion is tamed and is made submissive to the existing educational system. And computers are made to do what a teacher or a textbook will do in a traditional context. So it is blunted and made part of a system which the computer has the potential to alter radically.

Some people then cite “research studies” done with “computers”. These studies will typically groups “with” computers and “without” computers. Some tasks are given and then there are pre and post tests. They are looking at the submissive action set in a highly conservative educational system. Even if such studies show the use of computers in a positive light, all these studies are missing the point. They are just flogging a dead horse. The point that computers when used in the right way, the constructionist way, can change the way we learn in a fundamental way. There are many studies which “prove” the counter-point. That computers don’t improve “learning”. Typically children will have limited access both in terms of time and sharing it with more people. One computer shared by three people, one hour in a week. Even then children learn, with computers if
used correctly. Continuing with out example of the pencil, consider this: one pencil shared among three children, once a week! Seems absurd isn’t it? But this is what typically happens in the schools, children are not allowed to develop a personal relationship with one of the most powerful learning ideas that they can have access to. Access is limited and in most cases uninformed involving trivialisation of the learning ideas that can redefine learning.

one-computer-per-1000-child

Examinations: Students, Teachers and the System

We think of exams as simple troublesome exchanges with students:

Glance at some of the uses of examinations:

  • Measure students' knowledge of facts, principles, definitions, 
    experimental methods, etc
  • Measure students' understanding of the field studied
  • Show students what they have learnt
  • Show teacher what students have learnt
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies
  • Provide students with landmarks in their studies and check 
    their progress
  • Make comparisons among students, or among teachers, 
    or among schools
  • Act as prognostic test to direct students to careers
  • Act as diagnostic test for placing students in fast 
    or slow programs
  • Act as an incentive to encourage study
  • Encourage study by promoting competition among students
  • Certify necessary level for later jobs
  • Certify a general educational background for later jobs
  • Act as test of general intelligence for jobs
  • Award's, scholarships, prizes etc.

There is no need to read all that list; I post it only as a warning against trying to do too many different things at once. These many uses are the variables in examining business, and unless we separate the variables, or at least think about separating them, our business will continue to suffer from confusion and damage.

There are two more aspects of great importance well known but seldom mentioned. First the effect of examination on teachers and their teaching –

coercive if imposed from the outside; guiding if adopted sensibly. That is how to change a whole teaching program to new aims and methods – institute new examinations. It can affect a teacher strongly.

It can also be the way to wreck a new program – keep the old exams, or try to correlate students’ progress with success in old exams.

Second: tremendous effect on students.

Examinations tell them our real aims, at least so they believe. If we stress clear understanding and aim at growing knowledge of physics, we may completely sabotage our teaching by a final examination that asks for numbers to be put in memorized formulas. However loud our sermons, however intriguing the experiments, students will be judged by that exam – and so will next years students who hear about it.

From:

Examinations: Powerful Agents for Good or Ill in Teaching | Eric M. Rogers | Am. J. Phys. 37, 954 (1969)

Though here the real power players the bureaucrats and (highly) qualified PhDs in education or otherwise who decide what is to be taught and how it is evaluated in the classroom. They are “coercive” as Rogers points out and teachers, the meek dictators (after Krishna Kumar), are the point of contact with the students and have to face the heat from all the sides. They are more like foot soldiers most of whom have no idea of what they are doing, why they are doing; while generals in their cozy rooms, are planning how to strike the enemy (is the enemy the students or their lack of (interest in ) education, I still wonder).  In other words most of them don’t have an birds-eye-view of system that they are a focal part of.

Or as Morris Kline puts it:

A couple of years of desperate but fruitless efforts caused Peter to sit back and think. He had projected himself and his own values and he had failed. He was not reaching his students. The liberal arts students saw no value in mathematics. The mathematics majors pursued mathematics because, like Peter, they were pleased to get correct answers to problems. But there was no genuine interest in the subject. Those students who would use mathematics in some profession or career insisted on being shown immediately how the material could be useful to them. A mere assurance that they would need it did not suffice. And so Peter began to wonder whether the subject matter prescribed in the syllabi was really suitable. Perhaps, unintentionally, he was wasting his students’ time.

Peter decided to investigate the value of the material he had been asked to teach. His first recourse was to check with his colleagues, who had taught from five to twenty-five or more years. But they knew no more than Peter about what physical scientists, social scientists, engineers, and high school and elementary school teachers really ought to learn. Like himself, they merely followed syllabi – and no one knew who had written the syllabi.

Peter’s next recourse was to examine the textbooks in the field. Surely professors in other institutions had overcome the problems he faced. His first glance through publishers’ catalogues cheered him. He saw titles such as Mathematics for Liberal Arts, Mathematics for Biologists, Calculus for Social Scientists, and Applied Mathematics for Engineers. He eagerly secured copies. But the texts proved to be a crushing disappointment. Only the authors’ and publishers names seemed to differentiate them. The contents were about the same, whether the authors in their prefaces or the publishers in their advertising literature professed to address liberal arts students, prospective engineers, students of business, or prospective teachers. Motivation and use of the mathematics were entirely ignored. It was evident that these authors had no idea of what anyone did with mathematics.

From: A Critique Of Undergrduate Education. (Commonly Known As: Why The Professor Can’t Teach?) | Morris Kline

Both of the works are about 50 years old, but they still reflect the educational system as of now.