Thursday, March 25, 2010

Education Part 3: Germany's Graduation Problem.

The Economist recently ran a special section on Germany. What caught my eye was an article on how Germany's education system is seriously deficient. This is Germany, home of the much boasted "german precision equipments", home land of Volkswagen, of BMW, of Mercedes, Carl Zeiss (leading optical instrument maker), crucible of Quantum physics, country of Einstein and Max Planck. We often tend to think of the Western developed world in broad strokes especially when it comes to educational opportunities. The article began with a shocker "Germany invented the modern university but long ago lost its leading position to other countries, especially America. These days the land of poets and thinkers is prouder of its “dual system” for training skilled workers such as bakers and electricians. Teenagers not bound for university apply for places in three-year programmes combining classroom learning with practical experience within companies. The result is superior German quality in haircuts as well as cars.."

When it came to % of population with degree level education Germany had a pathetic 12% compared USA's 31%. In an age when a country's competitiveness in the global market is decided on how many 'employable' graduates they can produce, Germany's focus on churning out 'technicians' is severely flawed.  The dual system (academics + vocational training) has served Germany very well in providing an edge for an export oriented economy but then China is threatening that front. China is still a far cry from dethroning the vaunted German manufacturing that is known for sterling quality that cannot be replicated on a large scale.


What is worse is  that the dual system has a characteristic German rigidity. Economist, notes, "The type of secondary school a German attends, the degree he obtains and the exams he passes classify him for life. The distinctions are made earlier and more rigidly than in other countries. ...Many children are typecast at age ten, which is when most German states decide which of three kinds of secondary school he or she will attend. ..The state bureaucracy acknowledges four career paths: the simple, middle, elevated and higher services. Bureaucrats in one category can rarely aspire to careers in a higher one. "

That kind of feudal rigidity is alien and even an anathema to the average American. Resiliency, the ability to reinvent ones own life, choose different careers at various stages of life etc form the bedrock of this country. I remember visiting Princeton university when a student guide remarked that he was doing some course and that he got disinterested in it finally moving on to Political Science. He was writing a thesis on "Role of primary elections in JFK's election".My dad asked me if he would get a job. I said, maybe, but in all probability he can choose many professions that would use the 'talent' of a political science graduate.

To make the irony sweeter I shall turn to a book I am reading "Great American University" by Jonathan Cole, former Dean of Columbia University. Johns Hopkins university is considered the precursor of a great American tradition, 'the research university'. John Hopkins was referred as "Gottingen of Baltimore" after the University of Gottingen in Germany. Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate in medicine, notes that the American research universities "had all been inspired by model of German research university in which Geheimrat, the great Scientific leader, ordered the hierarchy of his subordinates". So what differentiated the American research university and what catapulted the American education above its peers?

Thomas Hunt Morgan, trained at Hopkins, working on genetics on the famous fruit fly at, Drosophila Melanogaster, at Columbia University who revolutionized how work is done in a laboratory in a collaborative manner rather than a power hierarchy. Eric Kandel summed up his observation with "Morgan, however, based laboratory governance on democratic principles of merit rather than seniority..and to this day foreign scientists are amazed that students working in a laboratory call professors by their first name". Morgan got the Nobel in 1933.

The role of US government is setting ambitious goals to further education is an undeniable factor too. Lincoln created the "National Academy of Sciences" in 1863. Cole says that the Morrill Act (1862) and the Hatch Act (1887) were instrumental in the spread of literacy by making it easy for colleges to be established with land grants. Take a pause. We see a liberal democracy making spread of literacy as laudable goals in the 1860's. The next real big jump was the GI bill of rights (1944). Right in the midst of a world war FDR and the country worried about how to repay the millions of fine men and women who were sent to defend liberty. Also they worried about how to 'educate' the returning veterans. By 1956 7.8 million graduates owed their education to GI Bill.


The Great American University:Its Rise To Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it must be Protected --- Jonathan R Cole. (Pages 19-29)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On Education Part 2: Sesame Street and growing up in America

I am often told 'why lament what is missing in India, tell us what is available in US'. What does a child gain  by growing up in USA? I use USA as a shorthand for a "western, developed world".

When does education really begin? Putting aside psychological battles of pre-natal influences and neo-natal learning I'd focus on early childhood. Todays kids grow up watching TV a lot. Parents feel guilty about this but cave in due to life and work pressures. But lets not feel too guilty. We concede that most kids programs are 'educational' but rarely, very rarely do we even realize the truth in that passing comment "sesame street is educational". Several years back I read Malcolm Gladwell's blockbuster seller "Tipping Point". One of the chapters focused on two popular kid programs, "Sesame Street" and "Blues Clues". Much of what I learnt stunned me.

Sesame street debuted in 1969 thanks to a grant from Carnegie Mellon foundation. Joan Cooney is credited with the revolutionary idea of how to "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them". "Sesame Street was the first children's television program that included a curriculum "detailed or stated in terms of measurable outcome".
What we glibly dismiss as "educational content" had groundbreaking research in the background. Research that pushed the frontiers of how we understood children learned ideas. Two groups of children were put in two rooms with a TV in each. One room had toys in addition to TV, the other had no toys. When a sample program was played and children were observed for "attention span" naturally the children in the room with toys paid less "attention". But when the children were tested for what they "grasped" there was almost no difference. That was stunning. The children in the room with toys "knew" when to pay attention and grasped as much as the other kids who had no distraction. Elizabeth Lorch, a psychologist from University of Amherst did that research.Ed Palmer, psychologist from Oregon, was known for his research in using TV as a teaching tool. He was recruited for Sesame Street. Palmer devised 'distraction meter' , a notational system to document how kids watch attentively during a pilot run of an episode. It helped fine tune concepts and how they were presented. 

Harvard psychologists, educational researchers and many more are involved in the evolution of what turned out to be the most successful kids TV program on the earth. "By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street was broadcast in over 120 countries, and 20 independent international versions had been produced."Thanks to globalisation and satellite TV's today kids in remote corners of the world grow up on what I'd easily call "American staple diet of education" irrespective of their cultural moorings. 

Barney shows, Thomas the train engine, Blues Clues all have very valuable educational edge to them. This is not just about teaching ABC's. Many episodes of Barney, Caillou etc teach nice civics lessons about sharing, forgiving, how to speak politely, how to respect orderliness by using a queue. At the same time none of them feign hypocritical obedience. Children are encouraged to be curious, not ashamed to ask questions. 

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin we have wonderful libraries that treat children as 'patrons' encouraging them to get their own cards. Books, boy there is so much a child in US can enjoy so cheaply and so easily. NYT runs book reviews for children's books. Fantastically illustrated books to teach poetry abound. 

Long back when I was waiting with my wife at a gynecologists office I saw a very instructive moment. A mom and kid were getting ready to leave. The kid, 3 or 4 years old, had drawn something and wondered if she should take it or leave it. The mom addressed her levelly "dear you can take it and show it to your teacher, if not you can leave it too, you have to decide". The kid gave a grin and took it. My thoughts drifted and I shall leave it at that.

References: Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell, 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Education Part 1 - Ridiculing teachers and loving our college days

Recently I spent a weekend with friends from my college days. One was a university rank holder, the other two had good academic credentials. We were regaling ourselves with college stories. Somewhere along the line an uncomfortable silence descended when as if on cue all three paused and wondered why we had not uttered a single word in praise of any teacher. In fact we were actively ridiculing our teachers. There were 2 or 3 that we would spare as "well he/she was ok enough". That's about it. We had sadistic imbeciles, complete nincompoops who had no idea of the subject, thorough wastrels, absolute time wasters and more masquerading as teachers. A telling comment by the rank holder who went on to do masters in USA and work for premier electronics company designing semi conductors, was "when I started my masters I had  to redo my undergrad in addition to doing my masters".When I gave John Gribbins masterful book "Schrodinger's cat" to my wife, her reaction after reading it was "why is Physics not taught like this. Only now the pieces seem to come together".

Ask any Engineering student about Maxwell's equations he/she might rattle of them without realizing that they are talking about what is considered the most beautiful set of equations and a pinnacle of scientific exposition that married disparate fields of science, electricity and magnetism, thus remaking physics. A diligent high school student would recite Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle". How many know the intricate connection between that and matrix multiplication? That Heisenberg's law upended centuries of Newtonian deterministic model of universe shocking the world and required a congress to come up with a philosophical framework is completely beyond the scope of not just students but even teachers. The wave-particle duality of light has been the battleground of ideas that shaped the world we live in. How many teachers even draw out such contrasts in the classroom? How many are even capable of reading Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time" and appreciate the sheer brilliance of writing such a book. A friend of mine, currently a lecturer on Nuclear Disarmament (graduating from Univ. of Illinois) wrote a thesis on Relativity titled "Enigma of space and time". The teacher evaluating it asked "what is this 'enijma'" (he pronounced Enigma as enijma). I remember this after 20 years. In my Engineering course I studied Gauss curvature by rote little did I know how Gauss curvature finds application in cartography until I studied a slim well written book, "Poetry of the universe".

We all can name a few teachers who "did their job" with some flair but I am yet to see ANYBODY say "that teacher inspired me". Even my most beloved professor of English at college was not inspirational. Yes, the literary forum he formed, the competitions he announced and judged with scholarliness all were great for guys like me who yearned for such an outlet and were already cut out for that. But he did not take a mediocre stage shy student and turn him into a thinker. He did not "inspire" a student to be a better student.

Curriculums, rat race etc are all feeble excuses. More than failing its students India first failed with regard to producing teachers who can teach. At the school level this is most dangerously pathetic. Our school teachers are the worst. I studied in the best possible schools (Don Bosco) and elsewhere but barring my biology teacher the rest were just mediocre at best and were scums at their worst. I remember a classmate who, during mandatory recitals, would rattle of Tennyson's "Brook" like a speed reader reading disclaimers for an ad and sit down in a flash. The teacher, happy to see that his student had 'learnt' Tennyson would proceed to the next victim. The words of Nehru describing how Gandhi came "and then he came..." would all be marked off for ERC with little discussion of how Nehru wrote his wonderful "Discovery of India" in captivity or any discussion of Gandhi. We would calculate the maxima minima with the given set of numbers who understood its real time application in designing.

Do we realize the importance of Einstein discovering "curved geometry" to buttress his theory of relativity? How many students can sumarise with a single example the difference with Curved geometry and Euclidean geometry? [The sum of angles in a triangle is 180 deg in Euclidean geometry, on a curved surface for the same triangle the sum of the angles is more than 180 deg, thanks to John Gribbin].

When I worked at McGraw Hill I'd check out the school textbooks and teacher guides put out by MGH. Only then it struck me why a student in America is still better suited for employment than an Indian (Duke University study bears this out). The lessons are so well detailed with real life applications. The curriculum draws heavily from multiple sources of learning. Above all the teacher guides ensure that teachers can do their job really well with a given textbook. Those guides really teach how a subject should be taught with a particular textbook, complete with what exercises to give, how to engage student, how to tickle their curiosity, how to throw a topic for debate, what homework to give, how to introduce the complexity of a particular topic.

When I read books by American academics I shed tears thinking of the pygmies who strut about in gowns in the portals of India. Deans of American universities are scholars of the highest order. Professors publish books that are Pulitzer prize winners. Bharathidasan University VC Ponnavaiko writes as follows on his online CV "Countries/cities visited: Chicago, as tourist". Another VC wonders why Karunanidhi did not get Nobel Prize.In a country where an illiterate R.M.Veerappan was education minister what can we expect.

PS: Why do we mostly talk about our college days like "halcyon days"? Its joyous in hindsight, the carefree days with little to worry about. So when somebody talks fondly of their college or school they are mostly talking of how they had a good time almost never because they had good teachers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Elections in Iraq and Oscars for "The Hurt Locker"

March 7th made history at several levels on the subject of Iraq. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for "Best Director". In a stunning rebuke to crassy hypocrisy laden pretentious 300 million dollar "Avatar", Bigelow's $11 million "The Hurt locker" took home the Oscar for "Best Picture". 'Hurt Locker' is a grim movie on a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. The script by Mark Boal, also won the Oscar, does not get into the mud regarding the politics of the invasion. Instead the movie focuses on how the US army is arrayed against odds that are tearing the country asunder. Questions of whom to trust, whom to dislike all abound. Is somebody who is flipping open a cell phone is doing just to talk signal an IED towards which a guy, heavily suited, is walking to defuse. Question, in that split second, is should the cell phone guy be shot down by a sniper, what if he was innocent and the shooting further inflames an alienated populace. On the other hand if a moment's hesitation leads to the death  of a fellow soldier who will then go home to a young son and wife in a body bag who can condone the hesitation. All this hangs in the balance in the minds of a very young, probably not even college educated, trained to kill soldier and this is not a classroom in UC Berkeley to debate over a cup of Starbucks latte. This is war torn Iraq. How does one deal with a man who wanders into the "Green Zone" arms raised and crying out "I dont want to die". He is strapped with intricately wired explosives and in an iron frame with bolts too tight to break. Of course he is married, he has children. He was hijacked and put up to this. Timer is running, more lives than just his is on the line, can he be shot dead at a safe distance, would saying "sorry I cannot help you" looking into his eyes ease the conscience of the soldier. A boy selling porn is kidnapped and while attempting to sew explosives into his stomach dies on the table. Searching for the killers soldiers barge into homes, guns flash, hurried ill translated questions, thumbs on trigger. No shots are fired but those families are not going to forget gun toting soldiers invading their private homes to search at will.

On a day when such a movie got the Oscar Iraqis braved acts of violence to vote in droves. UN observers and world press were impressed by a stunning defiance. Sunni's who had boycotted the previous election and became 'insurgents' now came back to vote. Women not only voted but contested elections too. This has been  labeled by all and sundry as a fair multi party election. At the heart of autocracy ridden middle east where women, in some countries, cannot drive or go out without burqa and elections are unheard of this is revolution. Yes it did not happen any sooner, did not happen under more amiable circumstances. Better late than never. Today Iraq has a quasi secular constitution, unthinkable 7 years ago.

America walked into a minefield in Iraq to put it mildly. Iran's ambitions, suspicions of Sunni led gulf states, a horrible history of seething rage that was bottled up with brutal tyranny were all unleashed  to clash on the field add to that botched planning, utopian projections etc you have an unenviable recipe for disaster. A pivotal moment came when the bipartisan 'Iraq study group" advised George Bush to pull out. Bush, in typical fashion, dug in his heels. He was cursed with every imaginable word in the dictionary. Bush ordered the Iraq surge and completely revamped the team on the ground and in DC. The results are there to see today. Thank you Mr President.

Watch this youtube posting , especially see around time stamp 1:30 to see women, without burqa, onstage clasping hands with men as equals in an election rally. This video was taken by Al-Jazeera, which is, to put it mildly, unsympathetic towards USA. Recently a gossip writer, masquerading himself as writer, reviewing Bollywood staple "My Name is Khan" lamented that Islamic nations are being destroyed one after another. America stands tall today, I hope Iraqi's in due time will come to genuinely appreciate their liberation. Many cried hoarse "oil" when Bush ordered the invasion. I am not going to pretend that oil was not a factor at all but this was no colonisation expedition to plunder another country's resources. How many of those oil contracts were awarded to US companies? Not much in actuality. If destroying Iraq was the only concern US need not have spent hundreds of billion dollars or  5000 men and women. God bless America. God bless the brave Iraqis. God bless our men and women in the forces.

PS: The violence in Iraq claimed 36 precious lives. Still far lesser than what is lost in election related violence in India in the 80's or 90's until Election commission started running elections with platoons of army.