Adventures in Learning

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

(First Published on December 6, 2020)

There’s something to be said for what you think is a lost cause.  If you can’t do anything about it, at least raise a laugh – a joyful belly laugh or a nervous whimper or a knowing snigger – there are choices aplenty for those who will squeeze fun out of anything and lemonade out of lemons.

The Lying Kind

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics!” these lines attributed to Mark Twain, among many other contenders since the 1850s, got me thinking about the connection with what we are doing with numbers, kids and even schools these days. Actually we have probably been doing it since Mark Twain’s time too which might have prompted him to opine, “Never let school interfere with your education.”  We have been reducing the kids to performance statistics, perhaps preparing them for performance appraisals in corporate life?

98% of our students have scored 90% or more says one institution

100% success rate!  says another

Adventures in Learning

Timeless Teaching

This is a post published on December 3, 2020 under Mentor Posts on the website of Cygnus Centre of Excellence .  This is re-posted here with permission. The efforts of Cygnus COE to make a difference in the world of teaching and learning is commendable.  Please do visit their website, check out their various sections and leave feedback.  And, if you like, please share and comment on this blogpost.]

“I can’t attend the program on Saturday or Sunday because we have webinars on those days, every week!” – this from a teacher who works Mondays to Fridays on her online classes. Weekends?  Who needs them?  This is lockdown, we don’t have weekends, nowhere to go!

The teacher’s phone rings at 11:45 p.m. Nearly midnight.  It’s the Coordinator.  “We need to discuss the program for tomorrow morning”. Wait, that’s less than eight hours from now – and even less, as the call continues for 45 minutes. After the call, the paperwork begins.

Texting at the table, a teacher explains apologetically, “We have to keep our WhatsApp available to parents.  If the parent complains that we have not responded, we will get a letter from the school.” The family nods knowingly and eats dinner in silence, punctuated by beeps.

Adventures in Learning

Start an SIP in Etiquette

Photo by Yanalya –

First published on December 2, 2020
[Tonight’s blog post is not about money, honey.  It’s about systematic investment planning in Online Etiquette – something where I can’t predict growth and sustainability, but I can pretend that it’s a value proposition especially in these days of WFH and online conferencing.]

Wake up call

Imagine my surprise when I glanced through half-open eyelids at my list of e-mails early in the morning.  Guilty as hell about checking my phone before I get out of bed, I give it a quick glance before locating my spectacles.  And so, the surprise when I saw a mail from the Bank that apparently read “Start an SIP in Etiquette”.  It didn’t.  On closer look, through refracted rays, I read it again.  It was boringly predictable – Start an SIP in Equities, it said.  I clicked Delete and it sailed into the virtual bin.

Adventures in Learning

Progressive Disclosure Comes of Age

First Published November 29, 2020

[The credit for this memory-jog is from my friend and former colleague, partner in crime in Hyderabad, Padma.  She sent me the snapshots which feature in the main text below and got me thinking of how we, as trainers and facilitators, metamorphosed from the humble chalk-and-talk to the various kinds of projection equipment that we used across all our training.  Thank you Padma.  Please Comment and Share this blog.]

Mystery Words

I mentioned the term “Progressive Disclosure” to a young 20-something and she blushed, flustered. When I asked what she was thinking, she hesitantly muttered, “Is that like strip-tease?”  Knowingly, I tried another word – “OHP”.  This time she was truly mystified.  “What’s that? A kind of complex — like OCD?”  Aha!  I was making her think.  Then I popped the next word into a sentence.  “No, it’s what came after the good, old charts and pictures. The OHP was replaced by the Carousel!”  Now she was vacillating between calling the cops on this dirty old man or taking the plunge into that depth of knowledge that was just beyond the next bend. “What comes after Carousel?” she asked tentatively. Now, I had her.  “Why, the LCD”, I exclaimed triumphantly.  Suddenly all was as clear as daylight.  “LCD, of course!”, she cried, whipping out her mobile phone.  “It’s what keeps breaking every time you drop your mobile, isn’t it?”  I retired into my memories, temporarily defeated, till Padma got me thinking.

Adventures in Learning

Training in the Time of Terror

[Everyone remembers 26/11 2008 in India at least.  On the eve of that great tragedy (November 25, 2020) I am prompted to remember it for reasons that have stuck with me throughout these years.  Learnings of a lifetime were strewn in my path that day, night and the next entire week.]

Just three days earlier we had lost our youngest brother, Paul, at the age of 43, to cancer.  On the 25th we attended his burial service and the next day, November 26th, I left for Mumbai by the evening flight to conduct a training program for my company.  I was to train a group of 18 senior-citizen Master Trainers from the world of Banking and Finance.  They had come from around the country for this week-long program.

The Backpack and the Strolley

As we circled the skies above Mumbai, all that the Captain told us was that we were waiting for permission to land.  He told us this a few times, but not the reason why.  People were worried as any form of communication was strictly disallowed.  We eventually did land but quite far out from the main airport building.  The doors remained locked and we were told that the equipment for us to alight was yet to arrive.  It did, after about 45 minutes, along with a posse of policemen.  We got off the flight, turned on our cell phones to see that I had a string of missed calls mostly from my family.  “I’ll deal with that later”, I thought and headed for the bus. Once we alighted from the bus a few of us were singled out and asked to move to one side where we had to produce identity documents and state why we had come to Mumbai. In retrospect I wonder if it is because all of us had backpacks — a few days later the pictures of the terrorist with a backpack went viral on news channels.  Till this point we had not been informed as to why there was such a lot of obvious panic around.  After the questioning, I tried to call my hotel – Hotel Airlink – to find out if my airport pickup had arrived.  I was told that traffic was not being allowed near the airport but they were sending someone to help.  My assistance arrived and the first thing he told me was about the terrorist attack which had taken place minutes earlier — he had no details, but was sure it was the reason for the flight’s delayed landing and subsequent actions. As we walked, he insisted on carrying my strolley, he was trying to tell me what he had seen on TV when the call came from my immediate boss in the company.  

Not taking orders tonight, sir

“Don’t leave the airport.  Take the next flight out and go back!” I was ordered.  I said that I was already at the Hotel and would take a call early in the morning as my trainees had come from all over India and were already in a Hotel at Andheri. After much argument I firmly decided that I couldn’t leave without at least connecting to my trainees.  I was assured that anything I did would not merit support from the company should anything untoward happen.  We reached Hotel Airlink where they had already prepared my favourite room, a hot meal and all the excellent guest service that I had become used to at this home-in-Mumbai. I turned on the TV and decided to call my family.  As I watched the horror unfold onscreen, I could hear the terror in the voices of my family who had just lost a family member and were obviously concerned about my welfare. And visibly upset that I had kept them in suspense all this while.

The long way round

I didn’t sleep much that night. At dawn I talked to the manager.  I told him though I had booked for a whole week, it might be better if I checked out and went to the Hotel where the trainees were staying.  He was so gracious, he not only cancelled my booking but he didn’t charge me for that night either!   They managed to get me a taxi going to Andheri though I was pretty worried about travelling.  The previous night a bomb had gone off just behind our hotel making short work of any sleep I had planned.  The cabbie assured me that he would get me there but that he would take a circuitous route off the Western Express Highway.  He also told me that since it passed through predominantly Muslim areas, we were safe! The route was amazing, very different to the Mumbai I had hitherto experienced.

Hotel Residency

Eventually we arrived at Residency Hotel .  What followed was hardly a jot short of miraculous.  Our training centre, down the road, had declared indefinite closure, so the conference room wasn’t going to be available.  The gentlemen, who were my trainees, met me and expressed their concern.  Some had come via rail, some via road and only a very few had used flights. Return tickets had been booked weeks in advance.  The airport and railway stations were closed.  They were fast reaching a stage of panic in trying to get out of the city.  I checked in and called for the Manager.  He was most gracious and said he would help in any possible way.  I asked him for a conference room or banquet where we could have an immediate breakfast meeting.  As we outnumbered any other group there, he was happy to make the arrangements with alacrity.  Once my group was settled in I talked about whether we wanted to do the training, since we were all booked into the hotel anyway, or would we prefer to venture out trying to purchase or change tickets!  After some discussion, they decided unanimously, if we lift the embargo on use of cell phones during training (my Hitlerian rule fell by the wayside) they would be happy to be trained.

Banking on Onsite Training

That decided, we convinced the manager that “for a few dollars more” we would conduct the training at this hotel – a deal he was quick to make to stem the ebb tide of guests leaving.  I called a few local fellow employees, went over to the office, collected all the charts, pens, whiteboards and other material and set up a camp training centre.  The training, punctuated by calls from various homes,  went unhindered for a week, by the end of which Mumbai had bounced back to near normal, as it always does.  The trainees bonded so well that there were teary-eyed farewells and promises that would have made a teenager blush.

The two sequels to this story are worth mentioning.  The group of Master Trainers whom we had created went on to do some top class training in the area of Finance (most of them were ex-bankers) and have remained good friends with me since.  In the other sequel, I was let off with a stern warning not to ignore the direct instructions of the MD in future, but thank you for doing this anyway!

Some learnings out of this

  • There are people who worry about you – friends, family, managers, co-workers and hoteliers.  Keep them informed!
  • A Trainer on his Feet is worth Three on the Seat.
  • Panic is no picnic.  Deal with it carefully.
  • When in doubt, carry on doing what you were doing.

[Please do comment and share if you liked this Blog.  Comment if you didn’t.  What were YOU doing the night of 26/11?  How did the news affect you?]

Adventures in Learning

Broken Records, New Records

First Published November 5, 2020
[Some of us might remember the good old vinyl records that occasionally got stuck in a groove. The music went round and round, repeating the same phrase over and over, till someone stepped over and lifted the stylus arm.  Hence, was born the phrase for anyone who keeps repeating the same things over, “like a broken record”.  Sorry to put you through this again, but I feel quite strongly on the subject of online teaching and learning.  The two terms are inseparable as I believe that the result of “I Teach” is that “You Learn” and not “I have taught”. Read, react, object, share, comment .. but give me some feedback, please.]

Over the past seven months I have been part of a teaching and learning community that has been challenged by the new normal – it’s been seven months, so we are dropping the quote marks around those words.  But we also need to learn from the experiments, successes and failures of others and to stop trying to force-fit the old normal into new strait jackets.  Learning has changed.  Teaching needs to follow suit as quickly as possible.

Copy and Paste
One of our first reactions to online teaching, was to replicate the teacher as closely as possible while dealing with the vagaries of online technophobia.  A sort of copy-paste of what teachers did before the pandemic.  The problem is that not everyone taught the same way and to expect that to happen just because we are online is, to me, a huge mistake, to be treated with a Ctrl-X rather than a Ctrl-Z.  For the technophobes, that’s DELETE instead of UNDO.

The ingrained belief that all learning happens only through the teacher is mistaken. Home made videos can be equally ineffective, especially if they show the teacher talking into a camera, or worse still, talking into a screen below the camera — we all need to learn to look directly into the camera during online classes.

Right Aligned
I contend that the teacher is always right, is wrong! There’s Google and Wikipedia too and we have put the power to search and counter check in the hands of our students.

The learner has the tools, the syllabus, the books, the access to other learners in the peer group, and access to teachers across the world.  YouTube, Udemy, Coursera and Khan Academy have made it possible, at the cheapest of rates, perhaps free.

So, teachers need to reinvent what we do in these online classrooms in order to stay relevant. Instead of “correcting” – if there’s one thing worse than online teaching, it’s online correction — perhaps we need to c
atch them doing something right for a change.

Spellcheck and Red Squiggles

In my work with teachers I faced a lot of queries involving the use of the red pen.  Teachers asked me if there was any way that they could underline, circle, mark crosses and write comments on the students’ work.  Old habits die hard.  There are definitely alternatives but most of them revolve around giving advice, comments on text, suggestions for highlighted portions of text.  There are tools that get close but are just not going to clone the teacher with an exercise book in front of her.  A re-look at assessment is the need of the hour.

Learning not Teaching
Schools have begun to rename their staff as “educators” rather than teachers, perhaps recognizing that there is more to educating than the traditional model of teaching.  Once the teachers focus on motivating students to learn on their own or through focused assistance, they will change the classroom transaction model.  Online systems tend to push us in the direction of learning independently as opposed to teaching by telling.  Here are some of my favourite ‘prescriptions’.  I am aware that many of these work best for middle school and high school, but I am sure there are models that work for Primary too.

Interaction.  The children are missing each other.  One teacher I talked to says that she starts every class with 10 minutes of pandemonium which has slowly evolved into social interaction.  That’s really what they come to school for, and what they are missing.  If you rearrange the letters CHEATING you get TEACHING.  And that’s the story of peer learning, it’s not cheating. Promote interactive work, allow collaboration, set up inter-team rivalry, create situations for cooperation and allow mistakes to happen.  The learning is likely to be lifelong.
Games. Any kind of games help learning. They motivate students. They create pleasant situations for promoting practice. Use online resources – there are plenty of games online, especially for younger children.  And most of them are free.

HOTS.  Replace a lot of rote learning with scenarios that require Higher Order Thinking Skills. Create assignments that require thorough familiarity with content. Ask questions that need research skills to locate answers.  Open book learning will prepare them for their future. 

Questioning Ask, don’t tell. Listening is not learning, speaking is. The more questions the teacher asks, the more interactive the classroom becomes.  Questions can be broadcast to the whole group, students can write down their own answers, post them in the chat, or raise a hand and answer on screen. There are several models that can be followed. Let’s do our homework.
Appreciate. We are not in the classroom where sarcasm and put-downs used to work.  Online we are being assessed as much as our students.  Imagine that there are no wrong answers, only opinions or perspectives.  Dignify student responses.  One of my favourite tools, when you get an unexpected answer to a question, is to get other learners to frame questions to match those answers. 

Templates for Trust
Finally we must address the elephant in the room — what about examinations?  This is one major obsession for schools.  Every school I have worked with has attempted to run the exams in the normal way, except that it is now remote.  Some schools have gone through elaborate arrangements to keep cameras on and proctor the exams;  some have invested in systems that “watch” the students.  We are so consumed with cheating.  I wonder about the signal we give students and parents — “we don’t trust you, you are a bunch of cheats who are going to use unfair means to pass exams!”

Other schools have messaged parents and students that they are going to have the opportunity to show that they can be trusted and can attempt examinations without invigilation. Some schools have told the students that they can refer to their texts, but the questions will require different skills and, of course, speed.

It’s my firm belief that the examination system as it exists will need to change.  Board exam requirements will have to undergo a transformation.  

We might need to consider the following viewpoints:

Everyone can learn at his or her own pace – the tortoise reached his destination, right? Online learning makes that immensely possible as school bells don’t ring to time.
Set benchmarks and targets rather than ranks and competition – online learning makes it possible to set personal targets and differentiate the teaching.
Focus on learning not on scores. Reward effort. Peer assessment can be very accurate, let students assess each other’s work.

Parents are the co-educators, share the learning plan with them, they want their kids to succeed.  Let them be the proctors if you must have exams — they will be tougher on their own kids, provided there is no competition they need to win.
Develop trust – it takes time but eventually ethics wins.

If we follow the advice of Kiran Pai, Director of Vidyashilp, Bangalore, we should prioritize relationship building over academics and academics over assessment.  Collaboration and cooperation over competition.  It’s a long hard climb away from where we are.  

Believe in the future.  Set new records as educators.
Adventures in Learning

The Suite Spot in Online Learning

Image by Markus Trier from Pixabay

First Published July 1, 2020

[It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog post.  After the cyclone Amphan, there was an aftermath that kept me super-busy till just now.  I promised myself and my readers that I was going to share something with them, so here it is.  Please feel free to read, share, comment, argue, object as you think fit.  I have also carefully placed this in my Learning & Development Blog as it may not be just for laughs as the rest are.]

Zoom did it

They say (I’ve always wondered who ‘they’ could be) that a bad carpenter blames his tools.  So, as schools rushed to ensure their fee-paying students continue to do so, a lot of action happened with “online teaching”.  In the middle of this action was one hitherto relatively unknown video conferencing software called Zoom.  Not the market leaders but definitely the ‘market openers’.  It was available, user friendly, had an intuitive interface, and FREE.  There’s no four-letter word that works better than FREE in our context. Everyone was talking Zoom. Zoom created new heights in video-conferencing or what was now locally called online teaching. Anyone with an internet connection and a browser, or decent smartphone could be a teacher — long available but seldom used terms like Distance Learning became as popular as Social Distancing.   
And with the new heights came new depths.  There were flaws and ‘security holes’ in the software.  Everyone was jumping on the ‘ban-wagon’.  The Chinese, for some inscrutable reason, were in the middle of this.  They were allegedly stealing information and storing it on Chinese servers, in calligraphic characters, backwards at that!  New terms like zoom bombing, mute all, spotlight view, passwords and waiting room became everyday parlance. Zoom’s name was tarred, feathered and otherwise blackened.

Success Stories

The Art of Debt Recovery

Lucky Singh and his wife, their daughter Beauty and other members of the clan, the village and surroundings were born to demonstrate the gentle art of debt recovery. When we first looked at the content for training several thousand debt recovery agents it seemed hopeless. There was an extremely well-written text book containing dozens of pages devoted to how banks work, the calculations of emi and the Reserve Bank Guidelines.