Month: January 2011

School should be like this

I watched a Hindi movie this afternoon that was pretty inspiring despite being guilty of the usual sins: dragging on past its logical ending and forcing the viewer to make huge leaps of logic. As with most Indian movies that have a message, this one had to be viewed in the context of its objective. In this case, to get people to value education even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Particularly relevant in a country where large numbers of people still can’t read or write.

One scene in particular stood out for me. A motley group of villagers attends a night class in basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Among the elderly men there is a little boy (it is telling that there are no girls, but I may have missed the part where that was explained, so no judgment from me yet. At least the teacher is a woman) who takes some time to be convinced about the value of attending the classes.

The teacher set a test for the students that required them to write out the Hindi alphabet. When she announced that time was up they queued up at her desk to receive instant feedback. The little boy’s test paper was blank, and the teacher expressed disappointment in his lack of learning. But then he showed her an envelope on which he had written not the decontextualised string of letters he had been instructed to write, but a real message that actually meant something.

In the modern school context this would have meant that he’d failed the test, since he did not do what he had been told to do. But the teacher in the movie recognised that real learning had taken place, and since it was her school, she had the power to decide to reward him for that learning. Assessment became a flexible tool that worked FOR the teacher and student, rather than a rigid wall that determined what counted as learning in a very limited way.

There must be a way to work this flexibility back into our schools. Thinking caps, everyone!

The end of an era

United Square.

Those of you who are my Facebook friends or Twitter followers would have come across this place before in my posts, mainly because I used to rant about it on a regular basis. My children were a part of the tuition machine there, attending Math and Science classes at one of those highly priced places that parents queue up to get their kids into, and that we could barely afford, but felt it was necessary in the last two years of our kids’ primary school stint so that they at least had a fighting chance of clearing the dreaded national examination. Despite my training and experience as a teacher, I had no patience with the rote learning and low level testing that the exam involves, and I confess that the machinations of the syllabus leading up to the exam were completely beyond my comprehension. And so when my kids suggested that they could attend these classes because their schoolmates had been doing so for years, I caved, even though I had serious misgivings about throwing my hat into the ring of  educational commodification.

But this post is not about the tuition centre or the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination). It’s about United Square. A place where I had to spend hours over the last few years while waiting for one kid or the other to exit a class, and sometimes to enter the next one. What does one do when one has to wait for so long? Like other parents, I was sucked into spending money in stores (Esprit has GREAT clothes, by the way), restaurants (Bakerzinn serves a mean latte) and personal service establishments (I have never been able to resist a good foot massage. Now you know the way to my heart).

Then I discovered Nail Addiction. And after that, I had regular manicures and pedicures- once every two weeks. My perfectly groomed nails were symbols of my homemaker status, flashing at me as I drove my kids around, protected in gloves as I did dishes and made beds. When I started teaching again, there were observant students who noticed the nails. One even commented on them on my Facebook page! Nail Addiction – an establishment where they provide the most wonderful nail services I have ever experienced – became my escape away from the noisy music, raucous kids and uncomfortable seats in the mall. The manicurists (nail therapists? I have no idea what they are called) are professional, polite and friendly. They really seem to know what they are doing. Such attention to detail! And the manicures last ages because of the careful way in which they are done. I was very quickly persuaded into buying a package, and it was only on alternate weeks that I had to brave the sensory attacks of United Square. I would have had a manicure every week if the good ladies there had not been worried enough about my nails to point out that weekly manicures were not healthy for them!

But it’s over now. No more United Square (at least not with the same regularity and frequency as before). No more dodging badly behaved kids (other people’s. Of course!), no more horribly blaring mall music or deafening kids’ shows in the atrium. My kids have outgrown not only tuition classes, but the need for me to ferry them around and wait for them as well. Nail Addiction still has $30 of my last package with them, and are probably waiting for me to come in again so that they can convince me to top it up. But I have decided that they deserve to keep that money. I have no need to camp out in that horrid mall, and no time to go there just for the sake of vanity.

It’s the end of an era, my friends, and my nails will just have to suffer in silence.

Necessity and affordances: the things that make us “tech”

There are things that make us tick when it comes to choosing the devices that we include in our lives. The criteria, if you will, which we apply when deciding whether to add yet another machine to the long list of appliances that we already have to learn to use and keep track of. I am sure there is a whole typography of criteria that exists in the literature, but my musings have produced two which seem to stand out: necessity, and affordances. These feature so significantly as themes in discussions about device choices that they are almost like two paradigms of selection processes.

The example that comes to mind is one that occupied a lot of my time in the last few months- choosing a phone. According to the necessity paradigm, one chooses the type of phone one needs, based on one’s current lifestyle. So let’s say you have been using a POFCP (Plain Old Fashioned Cell Phone). You check your e-mail once a day on your computer, and if you receive an e-mail while you’re out and about, it’s too bad- it will have to wait till you’re back in front of your computer. You’re quite happy with this lifestyle. So when someone suggests you get a smartphone, the first question that comes to mind is: “Do I need a smartphone?” You ask yourself if, given your lifestyle, the smartphone is a necessity. After all, you have that time in front of your computer, no one’s life depends on your responding immediately to an e-mail, and so what if you have no idea what all your friends are up to on your Facebook page until you find the time to login? Within the necessity paradigm, the choice seems clear. No smartphone.

Enter the affordances paradigm: it’s not so much whether you need the smartphone, but what the smartphone can do for you. While the necessity paradigm involves fitting the device with the lifestyle, the affordances paradigm upgrades the lifestyle to match the features that the device offers. So the question here is: “What does this smartphone allow me to do?” You examine the device. It allows you to receive and respond to e-mail on the go, thus freeing you from the need to sit in front of the computer for a set length of time everyday. You realise that you don’t have to save up all your observations on life and your surroundings. You can access Twitter or Facebook from your smartphone the moment your little epiphanies strike. Sure, you didn’t tweet much before. But now you CAN. And therefore you WILL. Within the affordances paradigm, the choice leans towards the purchase of the device.

It’s not just with phones that these paradigms apply. It seems logical that they potentially accompany any sort of game-changing, cheese-moving innovation. When fridges were first invented, it’s possible that there were some people who thought it was not necessary to buy one. After all, they could go to the market everyday to buy fresh vegetables and meat, they could cook just enough so that there was no excess food to store, and in some countries water was kept in special earthenware pots to keep it cool even in the summer. But as fridges came to pervade the modern lifestyle, their affordances must have come to the forefront. Why shop everyday when you can do it once a week and still have fresh food? Why worry about avoiding leftovers and cooking everyday when you can freeze cooked food and heat it up for dinner the following day?

And so as smartphones move towards near ubiquity, it is likely that more and more people will switch over to the affordances paradigm, and thus doom the POFCP to obsolescence. It is perhaps also likely that this post is two years too late!