Living Logically for Quality of Life

January 2012:

Tragedy occurred when a plane waiting for a landing slot at Delhi airport ran out of fuel and crashed in to a residential area of Gurgaon. First reports indicate 36 people dead and 78 injured – some very seriously. Government has promised a full enquiry in to this terrible tragedy.

February 2012:

How could this happen? Fire broke out in one of Gurgaon’s biggest malls. Due to locked fire escapes many people were unable to escape the raging inferno that engulfed the shops inside. Police are investigating and the Mall manager and some others are likely to be arrested soon. 36 people are known to have died and at least 78 people were injured, some with horrendous injuries.

March 2012

Tough questions are being asked after a fire broke out in a packed cinema today, killing 36 people and leaving a further 78 with injuries, some of them crippling for life. The member of parliament in whose constituency the cinema falls has promised a full and complete investigation, new regulations and justice to all the victims.

And so on and so on and so on ………………………..

If these were real news stories for 2012 wouldn’t everyone be in uproar? Wouldn’t demands be made for fundamental reforms? However, these, or there equivalent are actually true for the fatalities and injuries on the roads of Gurgaon every month in 2012. 438 people dead, 940 injured just in a place the size of Gurgaon. These are tragic and completely unacceptable figures. What’s more, I believe they are unnecessary. Seeing these figures, shouldn’t there be outrage? Shouldn’t we all be getting our heads together to get these issues addressed?

Reading through these tragic statistics this morning, I couldn’t resist laughing at one figure. It claimed that 40% of all accidents on the roads of Gurgaon prove fatal. Well, there’s a thing. I see accidents every day, very few of them fatal. Maybe I’m just lucky? We all know that in most places at most times the traffic in Gurgaon struggles to move fast enough to cause fatalities. The irony – incidents like last week where an irresponsible taxi driver carrying out an illegal driving maneuver put a dent in my back bumper are not even called accidents – is that because we would be too ashamed of the astronomic numbers. Just take a look around at any set of lights at the proportion of vehicles with dents and/ or scratches to know the reality. Every day we step out there we risk something happening that shouldn’t. Most of the time we consider ourselves lucky if it’s not at the serious end of the scale.

The first problem, as I see it, is that people excuse away such statistics by waffling about ‘the state of the roads’. This is a nonsense, especially if you just delve a little deeper in to the data. Police records indicated that the biggest causes of all these accidents were;

a) Pedestrians suddenly crossing/ stepping out,
b) Speeding
c) Drink driving
d) Passing/ overtaking on the inside/ left
e) Driving the wrong way on one-way systems

I can certainly vouch for the risks relating to a) having come close to hitting pedestrians myself on a number of occasions, despite being a well-trained and competent driver who had NEVER had my vehicle come in contact with any other or any person in all my years of driving before coming to India.

Someone once told me that to address the issues on India’s roads there was a need for 1 million trained driving instructors across the whole country. However, when I look at this data I don’t see the issues related to poor training or teaching, but willful bloody-minded selfishness and stupidity. Points b) to e) above do not require any training or teaching to learn that they are wrong – they just require that the people using the road have some respect for the rights of their fellow road users – that each road user acknowledges that the roads are a common resource for the good of us all, best used when we utilize them in a way that entails ‘sharing’. It is a horribly scary experience to be driving on a one-way road, to have not one, but two side by side(overtaking) cars driving towards you, both going the wrong way, both flashing their lights at you to get out of their way.

Part of the issue is about consequences and outcomes. The TOI today talked of drink drivers who are caught being put behind bars for 3-4 days. I say this is pathetic. Firstly, I believe as in other countries the media can play a big part in creating a sense of shame in being caught drink-driving or committing other extremely dangerous acts on the roads, regardless of whether you happen to cause an accident. Let the prominent business man deal with the fallout for his business when his picture and name appear in the newspapers as an insensitive, callous immoral human who is willing to put innocent people’s lives at risk. Let the company employee deal with the anger of colleagues and peers, and fury of employers who see the name of their company embarrassed in public through such actions. I remember an occasion where local media and police where I lived in London were ready to carry out such a ‘name and shame’ campaign concerning people who were failing to stop for pedestrians at crossings in an area where a couple of accidents had happened.

India’s legal system often seems so clogged up with petty matters that it fails to have the time to do justice to such life-threatening issues that really matter. I also believe that economically, today, India has such disparity of wealth that the ‘one size fits all’ legal penalty system is ineffective. To be ‘just’ and effective, I believe there is a case for a far more radical system that pitches the penalties/ fines at means tested levels that would be a genuine deterrent. So, while the fine for talking on a mobile whilst driving might be Rs300/- for a driver, it ought to be at least Rs3,000/- for someone of my economic good fortune.

The cost of maintaining the status quo is just too much in human tragedy and suffering. In addition, the price is too high when a society perceives itself as uncaring, selfish and lacking humanity. It requires creative, imaginative solutions and public commitment and awareness to start to bring real change. It also requires serious attention at the schools level with children (more than just a morning at a traffic park once every 4-5 years!) to bring broader awareness of road safety combined with approaches that would see healthier attitudes towards public assets such as roads held and used ‘in commons’. We have to start somewhere and soon.


Amazing Battling Spirit

Here is an extraordinary talk from last year’s TedXTeens Conference in the US. One of the things i found so moving and powerful was this young man’s acceptance of all the bad things that had happened in his life, without bitterness or rancour and without letting them become excuses for bad choices he might make.

Mteto Maphoyi’s story is, in some ways, more amazing than anything someone might be tempted to write as fiction. The solitary possession left behind by the deserting father – a Pavarotti CD leads a young boy from a squalid and violent South African township to listen to it so many times, mimic it, train his friends to do likewise leading to the most unlikely musical renditions in such challenging circumstances.

To me, he is one of the most profound examples of the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning; “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Enjoy the video:

Time Management as an Organizational Priority

Here’s a superb article from McKinsey that sets out the case that instead of treating time management as an individual issue far greater gains and benefits can be achieved if it is treated as a whole organisation issue, especially for people who fulfil senior positions. I feel it has some interesting things to say for people who are senior in schools, who frequently express the kinds of frustrations talked about here regarding lack of time to address all organisation key needs:

McKinsey Article: Time Management

Getting Scientific About Study Techniques

I’ve written in the past about the ways in which I believe education systems have fundamentally failed many learners because educators have been so intently focused on the ‘stuff’/ the content to be learned that they have paid scant regard to process – the how of learning. Students, left to figure out the ‘how’ for themselves play a game of ‘follow my leader’ perpetuating the bad study habits of their elders – like the blind leading the blind! Too many students (me included, when younger), have wasted far too much time doing things that were at best unproductive and sometimes outright detrimental to effective learning. When we want to find the reasons why so many students lack motivation for studying. I believe we may not need to look too far.

As a result, I am always happy when I find material that shares information related to genuine scientific studies to determine what really does or does not work when it comes to study methodologies. This article from Time magazine gives some useful information on some common methods, not least putting the hard evidence about the weakness of highlighting as a method. This is one I find so frustrating when I think of the enormous numbers of hours frittered away doing this myself. I watched a student doing it for nearly 2 hours on a flight recently – what waste.

Time Magazine Article

Fellow educators, I ask you – is the ‘stuff’ that you teach so uniquely important to the exception of all else that you have no time to enable students to engage more effectively with that very same ‘stuff’? Even when that better engagement would lead to better learning? I can’t see the sense. We have to care so much more about ‘process’ of learning – otherwise I will assume you only care about teaching, not learning!

Here’s the link to the original academic paper: Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education: Translational Educational Science



Goa Goa Gone

A couple of years ago, I was very fortunate to get the benefit of a box full of DVDs of the entries in the CMS Vatavaran Environment Film competition. One film stood out and had a considerable effect on me, especially for the courage shown by the citizen campaigners. So, I was so pleased to find a copy of that film on Youtube. Here it is, in two parts. Called ‘Goa Goa Gone’ it highlights the battles of ordinary citizens of that state as they endeavoured to stand up to the bullying power of the mining elite and contended with the apathy (at best) of the government in power in the state at that time.

Since the time when this film was made there’s been a change of regime in the State government coupled with two Environment Ministers in Central government who have had the courage to stand up for what is right environmentally, especially when it comes to all types of mining and the implications for the environment, for tribal and indigenous peoples and for the legacy that we will pass to the next generation.

I don’t claim to be an expert on all the issues, but this film really strikes a chord with me:

More evidence on the Importance of Sleep

Here’s a nice article that looks at some of the most recent research on sleep, why it’s so important (for adults and children), the impact of going without and ways to address the need. I fear that, if we were to do detailed study of the habits of children in our schools related to sleep we would find vast numbers blighted and undermined by poor sleep habits in the home.

It is our job, as educators and parents, to help our children to establish good sleep habits:

Mindshift Article – Why Sleep Might be More Important Than Study

Hate School – Love Education

A young British Rap-Poet, Suli Amoako, shares his thoughts on the difference between schooling and education – pretty clear which one he’s in favour of:

Learning and Remembering

If, as educators, we want our students to learn more and remember more of what we teach doesn’t it become imperative that we pay more attention to the processes? Don’t we need to understand more about how the memory works and how we get to do real learning? To a layman I suspect that the affirmative answers to these questions would be so obvious that they would wonder whether the questions really merited asking.

However, those of us in education know that, in reality, educators tend to give very little thought to how memory and the learning process work. Therefore, i’m always very pleased when i come across evidence of peers who are addressing these issues. Here’s a TedX video from an event at The cooper Union, a college in New York:

Exposure to material on learning and memory was one of the motivating factors for my professional shift in to the field of education. What I came to know in my mid to late 20s troubled me because i was mystified by the dislocation between this kind of knowledge and the day to day practice of what goes on in classrooms the world over.

One of the most powerful experiences was reading "Accelerated Learning" by Colin Rose which included a chapter with details and graphics related to the wonderfully named "Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting" (see an example here: Ebbinghaus) and, perhaps, more interestingly ways to overcome the impact as a learner. Still, to this day i struggle to understand why this isn't a major focus of educators' attention.

Dis-Ownership – The Next trend? I Hope So…..

“I’ve gotta have it”, “I want, I want, I want”.

For me, as an educator and someone who cares a great deal about children, both as children and as what they have the potential to be as a future generation there are some things that trouble me. One of them is to see children and young people craving possessions because they believe that having and owning things will define who they are – that they are somebody. We know they didn’t just get like this and that they have caught the bug from their parents – a generation who convinced themselves that if that @@@ their boss would just recognize them with a bit more money, if they just had that newest model of car (instead of the one that was superb and new 6 months ago) then they could find the key to meaning and happiness in their lives.

Quite a long time ago I stopped going anywhere near malls at weekends. To me, they appear to be full of people who have stoked up on the biggest mortgage the bank would allow, have maxed out their EMIs on the car loan and their credit cards. They don’t usually have any store bags in their hands, because they can’t buy. They’re there to look longingly at all the things they should be able to buy, if only the world was fair; all the things that if they just had the money to buy would turn their lives around to an experience of unending bliss – but are just out of reach.

All of this saddens me from the individual perspective – it’s really no way to live a happy, meaningful life. It also saddens me from a collective perspective, as this mass unnecessary consumption and waste of resources is rapidly driving our planet to an early grave. If the populations of India and China choose simply to replicate this shallow, superficial version of modernism, then plainly and simply the world has no future.

So, I get excited, hopeful and more positive when I read articles like this from Fast Company some days ago:

Fast Company Article – Dis-ownership

I love the simplicity of these ideas. I love the fact that there are people described here who are ready to be judged by their fellow man on the basis of their ingenuity, creativity and the work of their minds, rather than whether they have accumulated the latest ‘must-have’ possessions. Articles like this hold out hope to a man who is not ashamed of the fact that he wears clothes which are nearly 20 years old and still doesn’t own a flat screen TV. We need a new model for defining human success and a new model for creating happy societies. I’m willing to gamble that it won’t be built heavily around consumption.

Decision Making for Education

Here’s an interesting and very telling story from the Guardian newspaper, UK:

Guardian newspaper – School Design

The gist is that civil servants and politicians, sitting in their ivory towers will dictate to schools and local schools’ management boards about how schools are to be built. This includes what features they will/ won’t have etc. In India, ironically, so far, this has been a much healthier state of affairs. Government sets down (and occasionally enforces) minimum standards about such things as square footage space per student, rooms available and numbers of toilets etc. of course, there’s still a further irony that whilst these rules are imposed on private schools there are vast areas of the country where the government’s own schools in the public sector don’t comply with the rules.

Reading this news story I was troubled by the underlying message that government wasn’t interested in views based upon the views and expectations of educators or those who have developed specialized skills in the creation of effective learning spaces. I could understand if the restrictions were about preventing large swathes of wasted space in fancy reception areas or decorative features like domes etc. on buildings, but this appears to cut far closer to aspects that impact on the actual learning environment.

Interestingly, Kunskapsskolan and its school designer from Sweden, Kenneth, have recognized that if you design school buildings that don’t have conventional classrooms and corridors you make far more effective use of space in a way that supports far more imaginative and creative learning for children. The UK government has welcomed Kunskapsskolan to run Academies in UK, but I can’t help thinking they would do well to also understand the educational model and its implications for learning spaces, school buildings’ efficiency etc.

Here in India, conventional schools are, sadly, extremely wasteful in use of space, whilst often scrimping on the actual size of classrooms (limiting educational flexibility in pedagogy due to limits on space). If you go, at a particular point in time in to a school that has eight sections of students and visit the classrooms of a particular year, you will find one room empty as the children are having a PE lesson, another empty as the children are in a computer lab and maybe another empty because the children are in an art class elsewhere. So, at that moment in time, half the classes of that year are empty, whilst the others are working in a way that is cramped.

Yes, we educators need to think about how schools are designed and how we use space. However, I’m not sure that politicians and civil servants are the best people to reshape the agenda on school design!