Sunday, February 7, 2010

Little things that matter

Life is not about the moments that take your breath away but it is about the little moments that make it breathtaking. During the course of the India - South Africa Nagpur test match, an ad appeared for a public sector bank highlighting the relationship it maintains with people. It showed a beautiful heart touching narrative where a man in his early fifties is rushing for office in the morning. His wife calls him from the balcony to come back and have his medicine which he has forgotten to take. Grumbling, the man comes up and has the medicine. What is particularly beautiful in the ad is the the simplicity and the poignant emotions on display. The masked emotion of love under the irritation displayed by the husband at his wife's nagging is something which transcends age boundaries. The husband loves the fact this his wife loves him and cares about him. The human heart craves for a little love and care and that is what makes us so irrational over our percevied rationality. The little gestures which are part and parcel of our daily lives touch and affect us in so many ways but most of the time we are too busy and blind to notice them. I got a first hand experience of this blindness today.

Today, for breakfast, our cook auntie had prepared Poha. It was horrible to be honest. For quite sometime Abhishek, Shishir and I have been pondering over, whether we should change our cook or not. This latest incident added fuel to the fire. I decided that we should start looking for a cook seriously. Tonight when she came to prepare dinner, all the poha that was cooked for breakfast was lying untouched. I acted a bit indifferently and answered her questions to what we would have for dinner with cold indifference. She went on preparing it in her own daily way. Suddenly she came with a tray in her hand and 2 bowls of poha (the morning poha recooked with vegetables we bought in the evening) and said "The morning poha was not good". It was delicious. This gesture of concern on her part really touched me. I felt ashamed of the thoughts I had been harbouring of looking for a new cook. My irritation and indignation of average cooking got the better of me. What I completely failed to appreciate was the fact that she was running her own household and at the same time helping me in every possible way in my existence just to come to grips with her poverty. My irritation had blinded me to the little things that matter. Thankfully, this little gesture woke me up. The little angel in my heart had overcome the big demon in my head.

Recognising these little things that matter are the real secrets to make one's life breathtaking. Hopefully, I have taken that little step forward today.

Who stole my grades

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be derogatory for IIT students or those competitive examination champs. It is also not meant to be the reason d'etre for the Ministry of Human Resource Development to abolish grading systems. It is just a discourse of the conversations Abhishek and I had today afternoon after we were well fed and watered and raised a few questions.

Those were the best of times, those were the worst of times. Sounds clich├ęd. It was the summer of 2004. I was eagerly waiting for my IIT mains results. Having secured a whopping rank of 128 in IIT screening exams and being constantly fed a rich diet of praises from my teachers who felt sure I would break into the top 100, I was expecting a fair result. Although I had done badly in Maths examination owing to those SILLY mistakes(after all 2 + 2 is not equal to 5 in the decimal number system), I expected a rank within 1000. As has been my superstition, I always prefer to spend a lot of time in the toilet when examination results are discovered by my dad and announced to me, I spent around 3 hours in the toilet owing to the website being down with too much traffic. To my dismay, I found I had committed a lot more silly mistakes than I anticipated and ended up with a rank of 1785. I thought following a career in something I loved from an NIT was worthier than studying something in IIT that I did not like.

Back to today:
Today, Abhishek told me that once Dr. Zakir Hussain(a Professor at NIT Hamirpur) declared in class that all the students in NIT are mediocre ones. Well the previous flashback was an attempt to create credibility for my answer to this rather naive observation. If the mediocrity is being referred in terms of preparing for an examination, then yes the students are mediocre but if the mediocrity is being referred to a student's intelligence and general understanding level then it is not. If a student is to be judged for his intelligence and understanding level, then the platform to be provided has to be uniform. Let us say after a hard grind of 14 years of formal student we take up 2 students who are not informed that they will appear for an examination(not even what kind of examination) and then they are asked to answer the examination, that will give us an indication(albeit a rough one) into their intelligence and understanding level. The examination here has to be carefully calibrated here to measure what a student has understood rather than what a student has not understood and remembered. The whole point of deciding mediocrity based on examinations is as stupid as can be.

In this context, the current grading system in school education in India is questionable. Grading system is like a caste divide in education. Why do we need to allot grade A,B,C and so on ? Does it not reflect the inability of the educators as well as the family to educate/motivate students uniformly ? How does awarding a grade A to a student in class I beneficial in any aspect ? As per my understanding and limited research, the grading system was created to measure the performance levels of students which could be utliised by others for e.g. you appear for a GRE/GATE/CAT test so that based on the test students are evaluated on a supposedly common platform and accordingly rated but how does this help in the school system ? It creates animosity, cut throat competition, a race to the top for students. We humans have a primal instinct for trying to be better than one another. Which is why we love sports to see people warring(in a pacified way) against each other. This brings us to the glorification of those students who top in the board examinations(which in most cases is their ONLY claim to fame).

School education is an extension of the education that begins at home. Imagine your mother telling you, you got an B grade for the way you touched your grandparent's feet and you should do better to get an A the next time. Sounds ridiculous but then education which is supposed to be a conjugation of our natural curiosity with the cumulative human understanding of the world, if graded, should sound ridiculous too. School education is a medium for students to learn and understand the beautiful world all around rather than to be fascinated by marks. After all how does it matter if a student gets an A or a B in one examination. Examinations should be held on a continuous internal level in order to provide a feedback to the educator and the student as to which aspects of the subject a student knows well and which he doesn't. It should be an indicator for the educator to change his mode of teaching rather than to the parents to give a new watch to their children as reward. What graded education system is doing today is creating an atmosphere of intimidation, stress and mutual hostility rather than co-operation,mutual appreciation and enhanced curiosity. A child's curiosity and his unique abilities are not appreciated. What are we really trying to measure here ? We, Indians who had such an advanced education system ("Gurukul system without grades/marks") are not even appreciating the ancient heritage and wisdom. Somewhere over the years it has got lost in the mindless borrowing from other societies(from British education system) without realising why and in which context it was applicable there. Deciding a student's aptitude is important which is why I have not raised the question yet on the graded education in Universities since industry and academia use the grades for further calibration but that too has its loopholes(a matter for another blog post).

In this regard moving from marks based system to a grade based system by the MHRD is a noble next step. Abolishing grade and pondering over an alternative system would be the logical and bold next step. The big question here is what would be the alternative. Maybe the time has come to ask this question to those whose minds have not been polluted as ours over this mad and false race of marks and achievement. The time has come to ask the questions in the Kindergarten classes where the mind is without fear and the mind is without all the clutter. The time has come to to nurture the mind in the same free environment when it was born.

Corollary: This post is one of the few to raise various questions on this aspect of education. It will be followed up with more insights in order to not make it look like a research paper. This is the first food for thought.