Archive for May, 2010

Defining the “new age” teacher

I’ve personally worked with almost 500 teachers so far (in past 4 months) and given my previous article I got into a discussion with my friend on what in our opinion defined a “new age” teacher. You may, rightly, ask why the classification? Well, I could have as well used “good”, “excellent” and some other such term, I chose “new age” on purpose. One, it gave the discussion a purpose of looking for something “different” and secondly, it clarifies that we are looking for someone who is “contemporary”, irrespective of age.

Ok, coming back to the main point. What are the characteristics that define today’s teachers? In my mind the baseline is clear, she should be knowledgeable in her subject and she should have good communication skills. But, how does one go beyond? In today’s world, with its abundance of information, a teacher with a capability to upgrade her knowledge “just-in-time” instead of the traditional view of being a “know-all” is a cut above the rest. Another key quality is curiosity, more a child-like curiosity to devour information ensures that she facilitates better understanding and guidance for the child to navigate the complex world that they are faced with today.

A teacher who recognizes that today the skill set required to fit into the world has changed from hard work, obedience and intelligence to critical thinking, independent thought process and yet, being a team player will help mould the child accordingly through various activities and aids available in the classroom. Of course, the teachers need exposure to the corporate world or some way of upgrading their skill set to be able to acknowledge, accept and implement this change in their teaching methodology. What do you think? What defines a new age teacher?

Damages: A Play

I was at Rangashankara this last week to see a play. Me and my friend had been wanting to go see a play for sometime and we finally made it happen. I really like the theater ambience, it forces one to get into someone else’s shoes while being oneself, at the same time. It is different from the movies for me, personally.

Anyway, coming back to the play, the first half was not that gripping but the second half was well-paced. Overall, the play was about a tabloid whose main passion is to destroy people’s reputation but prevent themselves from getting sued while doing so. So, we are faced with two stories that could potentially be splashed on the front page but each have their legal tangle so a legal consultant gets called in who apparently had a past “connection” with the tabloid and in the brief time that they have to decide on what to do with the splashes a lot of personal and professional drama unfolds.

I do think, the scriptwriter zoomed in on a good enough level to operate his characters in and the concept itself is not bad. But, the characters got so lost in themselves that they forgot that we were encountering them for the first time. The dialog delivery was too fast and at that same pace throughout the play. Probably it was because things are always so rushed up and hectic in a newspaper room before print deadline. And yeah, the punch lines were absent so not too much laughter or melodrama, people didn’t relate to the tabloid culture or someone’s reputation issue.

When the light bulb went on

I had completely missed the implication of the second half of the statement, when Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, until it struck me today. He had not done random experiments, he had done controlled and well-thought out experiments and figured out what works and what does not. That is the genius!

Many of us try mindlessly several times to do things, invest our time on building markets, converting customers, but doing it in a scientific manner, where even the fact that you failed adds to your knowledge and improves your chances of success is more important. Being flexible and open to the fact that your method or business model or idea is not perfect and that one needs to figure out a way of making it happen step by step thought out manner is a very interesting observation in entrepreneurship.

What do you think? Are we at least partially scientific in the way we try to get through our lives, in relationships that don’t work, with colleagues/bosses who we don’t get through to, with customers who don’t respond and new products that we try to launch in markets unexplored? How can we do better?

Quick & Dirty Market Check

The other day I received an email from Vijay Anand as part of a group that I’m also part of. It was about the ongoing debate between figuring out the business model vs. writing a detailed business plan for startups today. I will cover my thoughts on that topic in a later blog post.

This blog, however, is on a note that caught my attention in the email. It said that startups should test the market quickly by doing a “lean” product/solution and turn it around/change it if it does not stick in the market. He also gave an example from their current incubator.

My concern on this is the following, any startup especially the one trying to develop a new market is trying at some level to change people’s behaviors/habits. We are coming up with a new of getting information, collecting it, storing it, accessing it, implementing knowledge, new technology-based tools – and more…While, many of them can be created as a minimalistic products/solutions and test-marketed for a few weeks or months, the change in behavior required to cause even a ripple in the market and create product/solution adoption may not occur in the same time frame (in fact, I’m sure with new markets it will not). It will not even show signs of changing.

But, this is not an argument against doing the quick and dirty market check. What it will show you, in fact, is what you are really up against and it might even point you in the direction of incorporating some changes in the product. The answer to big ground-level changes does not really lie in only figuring out a “business model” or writing a “business plan” . It is in the vision that this change can happen or is required to happen for the world to be a better place. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to figure out how to build something tangible and repeatable for sure but it is also important not to get discouraged while doing so and hence vision is important. I hope people don’t start shelving their plans because nothing moved in the market based on their quick and dirty market check. I agree, it shakes you, quite a bit and it should. Like Steve Blank says, “No business model survives first contact with customers” . But, if you have the right vision and you are solving the right problem, keeping an eye on the market and an ear close to the ground will help you see it through.

The forgotten “why” in education: redux

I wanted to revisit this topic and add some examples which added fuel to my thought process the other day. So here goes:

1. A teacher who was teaching 4th standard science wanted to explain the concept of gravitropism in plants. Negative gravitropism in shoots and positive in roots. Now, not a bad concept to choose to show audio/visuals, but, apart from the part that she was adamant that google should give her images to the terms she searched for and that she would not iterate, the bigger problem appeared when I asked her if she knew why it happened that in the same plant, two parts that are connected to each other behaved in this drastically different manner. Her answer shocked me. She said, I’m teaching 4th standard, I don’t need to know this! Well….

2. Another teacher wanted to cover solar system for primary class again. This time round the situation was completely different, she had done a fantastic job and put together some really good set of images and videos. However, when it came to the turn of pluto it was shown as one of the planets. So, I asked her if she knew that it had been changed to the status of a dwarf planet to which she said, “yes”. Then, the conversation veered to why the change in status happened. One of the teachers vaguely remembered that scientists had found other such planetesimals but apart from that they had no idea what had happened. We refered her to search the answer using internet and get it from Wikipedia. She had the resource at hand when she was making the playlist but the fact that it didn’t occur to her that she could have upgraded her knowledge using information from the internet shows the lack of the reach of technology (in this particular school’s case, it is the case of too near, yet too far) and also lack of curiosity to figure things out.

3. This one is a little embarrassing to say the least. We were showing the teachers how audio/visual concepts can be applied to teaching grammar and how they can make effective lessons using internet as a source for getting the audio/visuals and then putting it together. So, as the sample lesson we chose to show a playlist on “sentences and the types”. It came to “interrogative” sentence and we asked them if the 6W’s were a must for an interrogative sentence – pat came the answer – no! Then, we asked them if 6W’s always indicated an interrogative sentence. Now, partial silence, then someone said we can make an exclamatory sentence with them. Then, I asked how about declarative/assertive sentence using 6W’s? Stunned silence. I had to give an example before they came out of the shock.

4. Another teacher was teaching “safety rules” to kindergarten children. She put together something really nice but I didn’t know how to respond towards the end of the following conversation. Most of her images were about what not to do, so I suggested why not tell them something they can do to keep themselves safe – “so how about the action of wearing rubber slippers before they touch electric connections in a wet bathroom or place?” I asked. Pat came the anwer, “no, they will try to do a lot of things by wearing rubber slippers we can’t take that chance”. I’m not sure if children will/will not do something naughty if they get this information but not giving it to them is even more dangerous in my mind, they have no tangible take away from the class on being self-reliant but instead a lot of fear has been induced in them about every sharp object around them, every electrical point around them and so on. Do we want a bunch of scared children?

It quite clearly shows that they are not thinking about the teaching process on a day-to-day basis. They don’t question the way a text has been structured, they don’t question the way notes are being delivered and they don’t entertain questions in their head about the efficacy of their own delivery in the classroom. Will it break the bubble? I’m sure. But, will the prick be sustainable? Can they survive in this “informationally” flat world? What do you think?

Delighting your customer

I’ve to acknowledge that in this world of “heavy” sales pitch and large budget marketing, we fail to notice people who provide us service quietly, efficiently and go out of their way to do a good job, yet don’t make a big fuss about it. We give these people repeat business because they are good at their work, but they don’t get written about or awarded or given accolades for helping make people like do better. I want to talk about a printer guy that I’ve been working, who has done an excellent job of delighting us. (I’ve to mention he is tardy and never keeps time, but this post is not about that!)

We are a startup and I don’t end up giving him large quantity orders. Orders range from 500-1500 pieces for print and at these quantities most (offset) printers refused to give me good rates. He on the other hand, the first time I worked with him, took up the job gladly, did it in reasonably good time and offered me a very good price for the order. The second time I worked with him, he gave me a substantial discount on a price that we had agreed upon (which was already a good price as per the market) and he did it again the third time round! I was surprised when I saw the bill.

I never had the time to thank him for this gesture and he never made a hue and cry about it either. I finally did it today and I’m giving him repeat business for sure. But, more importantly, I learnt a thing about “delighting one’s customer” without making a big fuss about it from him today. If you are good and you are giving your customers something of value, they will realize it without you having to do “heavy-duty” pitching.

This lesson is even more important because he doesn’t speak English or Hindi that well at all, at least not well enough to have a “misunderstanding-free” conversation and so much for the importance of learning “English” that we place in India. Anyway, I’m tending to believe more and more that in life it is really important to do one or two things really well and just get the rest of the things “right” enough, that defines success more than well-roundedness! What say guys?

The forgotten “why” in education

I still vividly remember the lesson in class 6, “curiosity killed the cat”, that taught us a moral lesson not to be curious. I also remember thinking how it was relevant to me because a) I was not a cat and b) I learnt a lot of things by asking questions! (So much so that my general punishment in class used to be to go 5 minutes without asking a question!)

Why do I broach the topic today? The whole of last week has been hectic, we had back to back training sessions at two schools. We were training them on the usage of RazorBee (the device from Ariem Technologies, where I work) to create their own audio/visual content by using Internet resources (images, videos, text etc.). Now, over the period of time we have evolved a method by which we can get them to effectively search for concepts on the internet (and belive me it is quite a skill, and I still have to bail teachers on certain tricky topics, but most of them do fine now) but presentation using audio/visual aids is a totally different ball game.

When you present a topic, with or without an aid – it shows three things:

1. Your knowledge on the topic

2. Your thought process while you put together the lesson

3. Obviously, your skill to engage the audience

What happened during our presentation session, left me reeling. Not so much because of their skill, most of them were good, but because most of them were not engaged – neither with the content nor with their audience. In my mind, the engagement with the content and the audience happens only when you have a natural curiosity to find and figure things out and then explain it with equal amount of gusto, where you raise the curiosity in the minds of the children, get them to question their knowledge, rake their brains a bit and then wait with abated breath as you demystify the solution! I didn’t see even one example of this kind of classroom delivery in the 100 odd presentations we did in the past one week.

That brings me back to the topic of the forgotten “why”. Looks like our teachers have forgotten the joy of learning and the natural curiosity to understand things that made them teachers in the first place. ICT or no ICT, teachers matter, what they teach the kids imprints in them forever. Even if it were just another job today, isn’t it ones duty to oneself to do it well? Information abounds today, it is teachers who can set the students in the quest of knowledge. I wonder….what we are teaching our kids?

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