The bad school grades conundrum

During school, we used to get new textbooks in early May for the new academic year beginning in June. Being the summer holidays and having loads of free time on my hands, add to that a love of reading, it was a chance I just couldn’t let go. I used to devour those new books, from English literature to History to Science, in about 40 days flat. To this day I vividly remember a few chapters and poems in the literature books and a few ‘why-this-works’ illustrations from the Science books.

Then came the academic year, and the tests followed. On the same topics that were in the books. On the same topics that I had read and understood so passionately. I did secure average (and in some cases, above-average) grades throughout my school life, but nothing to set the world on fire. Why didn’t the passion translate into the much-coveted grades?

I suppose many people reading this blog would have a similar conundrum.

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When I looked back at this question, I realized that I was missing an important perspective. Most of the grades which I lost were for questions which did not test my level of understanding, but tested how much I could remember facts and figures and techniques. I actually did score well on the questions which challenged my understanding of a subject or tested my reasoning. Consequently, I was ready for the tests life was going to throw at me in the years to come regardless of how good or bad my school grades were.

Assessments are important, sure, but there are other ways to carry them out. In an age where information can be readily searched online and analyzed at length, does testing students for their ability to remember the bare facts count for anything? Could the resources be better utilized in discussing and testing a student’s reasoning behind certain events in History or the logic behind certain laws in Science? Sure they can. Can questions on the dates of the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England be replaced by a discussion and debate about its effects? Yes, of course. Instead of factual questions on an Internal Combustion Engine, could students be encouraged to learn about it through mockups, models and in-class seminars? Yes they can. Assessment by experience, if possible in a ‘live’ setting, is probably one of the most effective ways of determining how good you are.

Perhaps I still remember the stories and concepts in my old school books because, experience-wise, I connected to them at that moment or found parallels and examples to the topics discussed in them later in my adult life, wherein those analogies came back to me. Its something that has helped me in things like writing blogs on this site or teaching in front of a class of students or approaching a difficult problem in an unconventional way.

I never read those books to study for a test, but for the pure enjoyment in acquiring and understanding a new piece of knowledge. As Seth Godin puts it succinctly,

“If you read a book to take a test, you’re missing the point.”

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The best person for the job

Quite frankly, its not you. Neither its me.

The best tennis player in the world is somewhere in Somalia, scrounging for food and squandering away his true stamina and talent for want of opportunity. While my country, India, is lamenting about not being able to secure medals in the Olympics, the best archer in the world is living somewhere in its tribal hinterland. These people just haven’t been discovered yet.

The best young talent in the domain of car racing is somewhere in Afghanistan, dodging bombs and the remnants of a bloody civil war, whiling away his childhood playing with toys and excelling in mock car races with his friends.

You are not the best teacher in the world. Your college or your university just hasn’t come across that person yet.

You are not the best software developer or architect in the world. Your boss or your client just hasn’t stumbled upon the best person for your job yet, and the day he will he’ll happily swap you for him.

You’re not even the best spouse for your husband or wife. If he or she had waited longer each one would have found a better, and maybe a more ‘perfect’ partner.

In a world so varied in geography, economy and history, success and fame are a function of ability and being at the right place at the right time. Everything after that is just chance, and how you capitalize on it. This is the best tool I’ve ever encountered to help me keep my feet grounded at all times.

Wonderful feedback received from a student

Yesterday was my last lecture of this year’s sessions at the Fergusson College here in Pune for the Mobile Computing subject. A Kenyan national from among the class, himself a teacher back in his mother country, wanted to mark the moment by clicking a picture of us. Its just the sort of thing I like as well. Later in the day he sent me a wonderfully worded feedback e-mail, which I have copied below.

“I have received the pictures. At least they will remind me of the only committed teacher I have had in Pune. I really appreciate your pedagogical skills. You are a talented teacher. I can say this authoritatively because I am also a teacher by profession and I understand what it entails for one to be able to deliver information effectively.

Mobile Computing is too wide but you tried to make it manageable.

Again thanks a lot. May God bless the work of your hands.”

It is the best compliment I have received so far about my teaching endeavor, and I was absolutely speechless for minute or so after reading it. ūüôā

I feel that its probably the best feedback a teacher can ever receive, and its importance and lasting impact is far greater than any financial reward. I’ve always tried to be honest in giving the audience the best idea about a topic based on the knowledge and experience I’ve had at that point, in as entertaining a way as possible, and it feels really good when someone recognizes and appreciates the effort. Though there are a LOT of areas where I can still improve,¬†I will definitely cherish this feedback for the rest of my life. ūüôā

ÔĽŅ

My first teaching experience

Over the years there have been some professions which have been termed as ‘noble’. The medical field or nursing is one. Teaching is another, and the following is an account of the experience I’ve had with it.

I’ve always believed that though you are the best person to judge yourself, you never know the full extent of your abilities and it takes some person or an event to bring them out. The same was the case with me. After looking at how I used to interact with people around me, and the technical background I had, a friend of mine thought that I should forward my name for a position of guest lecturer which was open in his college. To be frank, at that point I thought that he was either playing a ‘very-belated’ April Fool’s joke on me, or had totally freaked out! I mean.. during my schooling and college life I had been a fairly good student, but I had seen both – very good days (like standing in the top 2-3 in class for some modules, especially during my C-DAC days) and very bad days (like flunking many subjects at a time!). Plus I had almost taken all the liberties you can think of in the ‘free’ college life, and was far from an ideal person to coach a bunch of guys. After all I regard it to be a noble profession and only noble men-women should do it (though that is rarely the case in schools and colleges across the country).

Then I was reminded of a fact – a very clever person, though eligible, may not be good teacher but an average person, who doesn’t have a great history of achievements, may turn out to be good orator and can explain the subject to someone in a lucid manner. “That’s what teaching is all about, isn’t it..”, I thought.

So after turning down one opportunity, I took up the challenge the following year. It was the position of a guest lecturer for the Mobile Computing subject at the Ferguson College in Pune for the MCS course third semester. Not only was this subject an all-time favorite of mine, but after having a day job as a software developer and working on unrelated technologies at times, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to keep in touch with some topics I love and a get a chance to know the new developments in an ever updating technological field during the preparation for the lectures. It would also give me something constructive to do on weekends, apart from setting up a second line of work to go with my primary job, which is the need of the hour in an effervescent IT industry.

So there I was.. already committed to taking the lectures and with absolutely no idea of what topics to start with of how to manage all of them in the given time frame. Plus there was a certain nervousness which you feel before going on the stage and facing an audience for example. Naturally there was also a fear of failure, but in the end I did not want to regret not trying to something like this ever in life.

I eventually prepared myself for my first ‘encounter’ with the students. Unfortunately I have a ‘bad’ habit of never reaching a given place on time.. and the first day was no different (well I admit that even after my concerted efforts over the next 4 months, this track record did not improve). So there they were.. about 60 students waiting for me in the classroom. Obviously I was jittery at the start but tried hard not to show it. As the first few minutes went by, I started becoming more and more comfortable in my new role. I tried to take everything in a light vein and enjoy the time there. The first lecture, apart from some funny incidences, went very well – much to my amazement.

The lecture on the following day was the crucial one. I thought that even if roughly 40% of the guys present on the first day turn up, then I have won the first battle. When I saw the class strength on that day (a Sunday) – little more then 60% of the first day – I knew the challenge I had accepted had paid off!

The next few lectures were fun. I used to stay up at nights during the week to prepare for the lectures on the weekends, but I used to like it. Well I must admit that like every batsmen who goes out to open a new innings in Cricket, I used to have that strange feeling in my stomach every time I went up to face the students. But it was fun!

Each day was like a new challenge.. a new test for me. I had to explain the topics in as simple but effective way as possible. That meant a lot of research on the internet too. I did not want to repeat the same errors that my teachers in college made – of not ‘involving’ the students in the learning process and overlooking them. I tried to throw in some innovative diagrams, some self-explanatory videos and some presentation slides to augment my teaching.¬†I tried to focus on the fundamentals of the topics.¬†The main thing I tried to do was to be honest with myself and not merely assume that I am doing a good job – and I realized that this was no easy task.

There were many memorable incidences during the course of the sessions. Including the day when the recital of the national anthem took me by surprise (refer to my earlier article related to this). I realized that instead of taking a formal lecturer-to-student approach, keeping a perennial smile on the face and taking a friend-to-friend approach was a good option. This way the students tend to take more interest in the subject.

Anyone who is even remotely involved with the IT field knows how monotonous it can get. Sometimes I used to look forward to the weekend lectures at Ferguson as a place to rejuvenate myself. It really feels different to be on the other side of the dais and you tend to understand the thought process of other teachers.

I was really surprised by the attitude shown by the students at times during the 4 months. It used to rain cats & dogs sometimes during the rainy season but they would brave it all & be present for the lecture – in spite of it being a Saturday or Sunday. They were even open to share their class trip photographs with me, which I think was a special gesture because they had known me only for a few days really. I would always remember these things.

I myself gained a lot of experience during the sessions and also unknowingly learned a lot from the students in turn. It would seem like a cliche but it really feels great to give something back to the society in this way, and I would like to thank the college for giving me this opportunity. Who knows, this may be the first of many such opportunities. Of course I realize that there are many areas I need to improve myself to deliver a more enjoyable learning experience, but at least this was a start, and when you do something for the first time it is always close to your heart.

To the students of the MCS batch whom I taught: (I’m being very formal here for a change!)

It was a wonderful experience for me taking the Mobile Computing sessions. Thank you for all your support and feedback during this time. I will definitely miss taking the lectures. Keep in touch and I hope to work with you as a colleague someday.

I am also sharing the group photos we clicked in class –

The MCS class I taught at the Ferguson College

The MCS class I taught at the Ferguson College

Me sitting amongst the MCS group

Me sitting amongst the MCS group

When the national anthem becomes a pleasant surprise!

Hey,

I am very fond of teaching and I recently got an¬†opportunity¬†to teach Mobile Computing to a bunch of Masters of Computer Science (MCS) course students at the¬†Ferguson¬†College here in Pune. Its quite an experience to manage the weekend teaching sessions with my day job of a software engineer, but that’s matter for different blog.

I would like to share an experience I had during the class last weekend. I had decided to start the class early that day, around 7:30 am. Now that was a first for me too because to be honest I am not used to getting up that early! I was a little preoccupied with what I was going to teach and was trying to set up the laptop and projector for the presentation slides, when suddenly all the students got up. I was initially puzzled, but thought that they might not able to see the screen clearly or wanted to move to the front benches.

But they did not move an inch! I was all the more bemused now. I asked a student as to what the matter was. Seeing my obvious predicament he replied that the national anthem was playing on the college public address system and that they were standing still as a matter of respect for it.

I was taken aback! When I tuned my ears too I could listen to the anthem being played. I now joined them. After it got over everybody sat down and we were ready to start with the business. But before I could do that, I asked myself one question, when was the last time I sung the national anthem?

In the fast paced and digital life we experience nowadays such incidences are a pleasant surprise. Reciting the national anthem used to be a everyday ritual during school days. Then¬†I used to go to the¬†Independence¬†Day celebrations on 15th August at my college for some years after I passed out of there – where I might have sung the anthem for the last time. I used to like it. But eventually life got ‘busier’ with other engagements and I stopped going. Independence Day was reduced to purchasing miniature tricolor flags available on the streets the day before and hoisting them at home, at then forgetting about them in the joy of a getting a holiday from office/work. This attitude needs serious rethinking now.

Ironically the students who stood up in the first place were of the same age group as the people we blame for being selfish and tarnishing our tradition and harmony. We say that they have no respect for elders or society in general and only indulge in the revelries of modern life by taking advantage of the easy money available to them. While this is a matter of opinion and debate, this incident was a reminder that there are exceptions and we should not stereotype someone based on personal prejudices.

Well, I don’t think I am ever going to forget that day!