Exams as memory test

Untitled-1

This pic is from one of my student’s facebook status. After reading this, I felt pretty bad about it. Almost guilty because I know that at the end of the semester, these students will be judged by a final standardized examination and their papers will be evaluated by some outsiders who don’t even know these students.

And I am very skeptic about external examiners who check the answer papers.

One, the general mentality in these externals is to be very strict while giving marks. As if being generous while marking is a cardinal sin. (They also go after hand-writings and length of the answers.)

Second, they are not liable. There has been a lot of cases of ‘re-totaling’ and ‘re-checking’ but there has never been a case of holding the externals responsible for being careless and even biased while checking the answer papers.

So, to make the matter worse, most of the time it depends on the externals whether a student will pass or fail the exam or will pass with good grades or a very low grades.

Therefore the double-trouble for students: if your memory isn’t that good, you are doomed. And even if you did well in the exams, your external might turn out to be a grumpy miser who is worse than stingy Scrooge McDuck.

Teach students to be rebels

Right from the pre-school, teachers tell the kids to confirm and abide. In the school, teachers feed the students with standard answers and drill those into their head. If you write ‘in your own words’, you are in trouble (even though the question paper always starts with – Write in your own words – instruction).

We have been a part of this system for so long that we think it’s normal to follow the predictable route. Everyone knows 2+2=4, and if you get the answer, you score.

Being predictable is safe. Once you cram up the formula, you are fine. Everyone else comes up with the same answer, going through the same steps, using the same formula. There’s no risk in it. There’s no pressure to break away from the chains we feel comfortable to be bound with.

Schools are conditioning centers.

For over a decade, schools and teachers mold students’ belief that into accepting that being different is risky. The whole class has to speak aloud the same words, the same sentences and the same thought. Ram eats rice. Ram is eating rice. Ram has eaten rice. Ram has been eating rice. Students may not know exactly what ‘gravitation’ means but they memorize the definition to perfection. They may never know why we need to study algebra, but they can spit out the formula (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2.

Schools have conditioned students and teachers into becoming normal, obedient and boring. Teachers don’t want to take risk. There’s the result to worry about. The SLC pass percentage is the yardstick. Schools won’t let teachers take risk. Schools are just following the trend because the education policy demands it.

Students are clueless. The schools want them to get distinctions and want to print their photos on hoarding boards. It’s a matter of pride. Students aspire to be the winner of the rat race. They remain clueless and conditioned.

Parents, please start questioning.

Teachers, please start questioning.

Teachers are the hope.

Teachers, please start taking risk.

Teach the students to be different. Teach the students to be rebels – not the ones who destroy school property or assault teachers. But teach them to be critical, compassionate and caring. Teach them to question everything: the authors, the books and the system. Teach them to speak up and not to hold back in silence.

Teach them to hope, to preserve that hope and to fight for it.

In the meantime, this video is just a slap on the face !

“In just 30 years, Finland transformed its school system from one that was mediocre and inequitable, to one that consistently produces some of the world’s best students, while virtually eliminating an achievement gap. And they do it without standardized testing.

Public Speaking Guideline #3

If you think about it, all the rules of communication are just a rule of thumb. Sometimes being confident works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Being vulnerable seems to work as well. There is no way of finding out which works – being confident or being vulnerable – unless we know about our audience and the context.

These two videos have a lot of validity under their belt and probe into the neglected part of the science of communication and human connection.

The power of powerless communication: Adam Grant at TEDxEast

The power of vulnerability: Brene Brown

Public Speaking Guideline # 2

tamariz-eyes

I really enjoy looking into the eyes of the audience when I’m giving a talk or doing a presentation. I love getting their non-verbal feedbacks. There’s a saying – eyes are the window to the soul. Therefore, while looking into their eyes, I feel more connected, intimate and real with them. This just boosts my self-confidence into a higher level and makes me feel right at home.

This is very important not only for the public speakers, but also for teachers or any leaders. Teachers are essentially public speakers inside the classroom among the students. By looking into the eyes of the students while teaching or doing a presentation, teachers can connect better, teach better and influence better.

Imagine that you are talking to your friend and she doesn’t even look you in your eyes. It gets awkward after a few seconds. You start feeling uncomfortable. You might also suspect that something is certainly wrong with your friend. May be she is lying. May be she is not feeling well. It could be any reasons.

But this is a very scary thing to do when we start out. During my initial days as a public speaker, looking into the eyes of the audience was a very daunting job for me. I vividly remember fleetingly looking into their faces, gazing toward the ceiling or scanning on the floor. I lacked confidence. I lacked conviction. As a result, I lacked any effect. 

So, desperate to improve my speaking and gain confidence, I started going through toastmasters’ videos and public speaking tutorials on youtube. I went through several hours of Tedtalk videos studying the art of public speaking and learning the psychology behind eye contact. I learnt how to look into their eyes so as to make them feel cared and respected. I also learnt that if our eyes are giving away anxiety or nervousness, our audiences will simply reflect anxiety and nervousness.

Now I don’t get scared to look into their eyes and communicate effectively. I just feel I’m on a different level when our eyes get connected.

So here’s my take on this. 

  1. Look them in their eyes, but not for more than two seconds.
    Connect with them but don’t stare at them. If you look into them longer, they might get uncomfortable, and as a result they might just tune you out.
  2. Also, look for “positive non-verbal feedback”. Head nods. Friendly facial expression. Open body language.
  3. Remember: non-verbal signals are contagious.
    If you have energy, the audience also shows interest in you. If you smile, the audience also becomes friendly with you. But if your body language is slumped and slouching, the audience starts snoring in a while.

And, please watch this TED video of Amy Cuddy. It’s not overtly about ‘eye contact’ but it’s about the power of mind and body language. If you’ve already watched it, give it a one more shot. :)

Public Speaking Guideline # 1

public-speaking-guideline-1

We learn by making mistakes. It is also true that we learn by seeing others make mistakes.

Recently, I took part in a public speaking session organized a club of a college. Everything went well until the final guest speaker ruined it for me and for everybody. He would not just stop talking. He kept on rambling about his school, his career, his work, his projects for over 45 minutes. I felt like he deliberately victimized us by throwing his frustrations and anger towards us.

How could he not see the impatient eyes and slumped body language of the audience! He eventually realized that he had been talking for a long time and said, “I will end my speech soon” and went on to talk for 15 more minutes. Before closing his speech (thankfully), he also managed to give a few tips on public speaking. How weird is that!

I wanted to sneak out of the hall but I was right in front of him and didn’t want to act rude. So I sat on my chair and listened to his entire speech, just for courtesy and learnt a valuable lesson. I promised myself – “I will never put my audience through such verbal ordeal”.

Now this is not a criticism thrown towards him but just a reflection of a super bored member of the audience. As an aspiring public speaker, I am writing this guideline for me as well as for others who want to be a truly amazing speaker. 

Guideline # 1: Respect your audience’s time

As a public speaker, you must respect your audience’s time in order to gain their respect. You have to feel privileged that they are allowing you their time to listen to your talk. When you show that you care about their time, it will help build trust and warmth between you and the audience.

Even if the organizer or the concerned person did not tell you your allocated time, it’s a good idea to ask them how many minutes you have. Then, tell this to your audience too as you begin your talk.

Here’s one way of doing it:

Hello everyone. Today I’m going to share with you some tips on becoming an effective public speaker. This talk will last around for 15 minutes and hopefully at the end, you will learn how to structure your speech, how to start and how to end your speech. So let’s begin.

There are many effective ways to start your speech (by asking a question, by presenting a startling fact, by jumping right into your story, and so on) but make sure you also give them some sort of hints about how long your talk is going to be. This way, your audience knows how long you will be talking and accordingly they will prepare themselves mentally and physically. Because, common knowledge says – sitting on a chair and listening to someone attentively takes a lot of hard work.

I think rambling and not caring about audience’s need is a verbal disease people contracted from Nepali politicians who talk in circles and never end their speech on time. Once, I was listening to a speech by UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal in a hall. I still remember how he said “aba antya ma”, meaning “in conclusion” at least seven times before ending his speech for real. Listening to him for that long was like a harsh punishment. 

Many politicians think that the longer and louder they speak (even when there’s a microphone in front of their mouth), the better their communicating. However contrary to their misguided belief, no audience enjoys an incoherent long winding speech (unless the hall is full of party cadres). But sadly, this twisted concept has crept into so many public speakers also.

This disease can be cured though.

So, give your speech and make a point. And end it in time. Just end it. Don’t give in to your urge to say more, share more and talk more. Don’t feed your audience with too many information because, chances are, they will not remember anything. Even worse, chances are your audience may not remember you.

Published: Monetary incentives to government teachers – a big waste!

Article published on the Kathmandu Post daily on August 8, 2014. I had to squeeze the article down to around 1200 words but here’s the full article with citations.

Kathmandu Post - Money for Nothing

Monetary incentives to government teachers – a big waste!

Umes Shrestha

How much money do you think the government has allocated for education this fiscal year? According the recent budget announcement, it’s a massive 86.3 billion rupees. And here’s what surprised me the most. Out of the total educational budget, almost 70% goes for government teachers’ salary only. This is mind boggling!

Government school teachers have a pretty good salary scale. As per the latest adjustment, it starts from Rs. 15,940 for primary level teachers to around Rs. 36,720 for secondary level teachers. That’s a pretty good salary scale if you compare those figures to what teachers in most private schools get.

In a few ‘rich’ private schools, the salary might be really really good, however most of the private schools are “B” or “C” and even “D” grade schools, and the salary for teachers in those schools is really miserable. In many of these schools, the salary range of teachers is Rs. 6500 in the pre-primary to around Rs. 15000 in the secondary level. These schools employ part-time teachers as well, mainly in the secondary level and their salary range is around Rs. 3500 to Rs. 4500 per class.

Now, one doesn’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure out that government school teachers are paid very well compared to most of the teachers in private schools. In addition, government school teachers get allowances, paid leaves, and facilities like incentive for Teachers’ Professional Development (TPD) trainings. They enjoy comfortable, safe and secured life similar to other government employees.

Now, here’s what I don’t get:

a) Why can’t most of the government school teachers teach as effectively as their counterparts in private schools who work for almost half of their salaries?

b) What’s stopping them from being effective, professional and committed to their work?

Let’s take this year’s SLC result as the barometer of quality education. The community schools are almost on the bottom of the pit with staggering 72% students failing the exam. We know there are other issues too related to the degrading quality of education, like our stupid SLC examination system, lack of course books, lack of teaching materials, lack of infrastructure, plus a multitude of social and cultural dynamics – which are basically out of a teacher’s control. That should not however make teachers come up with ninety nine different excuses.

Year in and year out, private schools have far better results in SLC than the community schools. Is it only because they have good infrastructure? Is it only because the ‘Medium of Instruction’ in private schools is English? Is it only because they have extracurricular activities? I don’t think so.

We know that teachers play a major role in students’ learning success. And it doesn’t have to be about the salary, infrastructure, or materials to play that role. It’s about, first and foremost, the teacher’s attitude, motivation and professional integrity. They should be teachers first, and then government employees – but it seems that their major motivation was just to get a ‘sarkaari jaagir’ and get settled for life. And when it comes to professional development, just like Sharma (2007) wrote, they would say: “Training? I think that’s for technicians. I am already educated and I can teach.” Many sulk away from training programs. And when they do attend such programs, many do it only for the monetary incentives.

In this article, my focus is not on trying to change attitude and behavior of government teachers but my contention is with the monetary incentives given to motivate the teachers to attend trainings. In simple words, monetary incentives don’t work and here’s why.

Presenting hard evidences from social science, American author Dan Pink (during his Ted Talk titled – The Puzzle of Motivation) screams out loud that incentives work well only for routine mechanistic jobs. And that rewards and incentives by their very nature narrow our focus and restrict possibility. Thus monetary rewards and bonuses might motivate bus drivers or waiters or manual laborers but not innovators or teachers or leaders.

Pink cites an experiment conducted by Harvard economist Dan Ariely in which a number of MIT students were offered three levels of rewards according to their performance. The experimented found that “as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance”. And here’s the most revealing finding of the experiment – “but once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance”. This experiment has been replicated over and over again in different contexts and the results have always been similar.

Let’s connect this revelation with teaching. Naturally, teaching is not a mechanical job. Some part of it may look mechanical (take attendance, wipe the board, conduct exam, etc) but real teaching is beyond that. Real teaching requires a teacher to be creative, innovative and to possess social and cognitive skill. Thus essentially, giving monetary incentives to teachers so that they get motivated to work better usually does not work.

Here’s another report on the correlation between teacher incentives and student achievements. After conducting a study in the public schools of New York, USA, Fryer (2011) emphatically concludes, “I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior”. He further argues that teacher incentive is one of the reasons for decreasing student performance.

So, here’s my argument.

There is a huge mismatch between what the government says it is doing to uplift the education and what the years of SLC results say. (I know that exam result does not truly reflect one’s learning but just to be aligned with the government’s policy, let’s say SLC result is the yardstick for quality education.) It’s written in the wall with big bold letters – most of the government teachers have not been effective at all. This implies that the trainings and TPD programs have not been effective. But the government still insists on committing the classic mistake by trying to entice its teachers for trainings by offering them monetary compensation. The government is simply dumping a huge amount of money down the drain.

And here’s one more ugly side of government’s training programs. Ram Abadhesh Ray, an English teacher from Birgunj expresses his disgust over the trend among the government teachers to participate in trainings only when there is “a handsome allowance”. Or if it’s in a star-hotel, with good food and drink. And when there is less allowance or no allowance, the teachers don’t even talk about attending training (Ray, 2012). This is hypocrisy at its best! On one hand, these reluctant, change-resisting teachers are only throwing dust into everyone’s eyes by exploiting trainings as milking cows rather than professional development opportunities. On the other hand, the government is deliberately squandering the money knowing that the desired change is not happening.

Monetary incentive and allowance, which are a form of external motivation, don’t work at all because if they did, the teachers in community schools would be very effective; the schools would be thriving and beating the private schools by a long shot. But, as we can see, the reality is quite depressing. Behaviorial economists, like Dan Ariely, say that extrinsic motivations – money, bonuses, reward, threats, punishment – only boost performance for a short burst of time and then it quickly dissipates. Incentives hence have only made most of the government teachers less effective, less creative, and probably very selfish.

Therefore the government needs to cut down all monetary incentives, especially the allowance for TPD programs, and invest the money on infrastructures or building toilets in the government schools. The government teachers already have a ‘convenient’ pay scale. (I believe that the primary teachers should get paid more; but that’s another issue.) Plus, there are tons of literatures and reports claiming that the TPD program hasn’t been effective. Even the Ministry of Education’s National Center for Educational Development (NCED) acknowledges this fact on its website.

What should the government do then?

The trainings should not be mandatory at all. There’s a saying – you can drag a horse to a pond, but you can’t make it drink the water. Adults are like that. The ‘mandatory’ system coupled with monetary incentive just kills the drive because it somehow feels forced upon. Social science tells us that adults learn or change only when they want to, not when they are forced to. Therefore the trainings should be ‘voluntary’.

But what about the haajir-garera-taap-diney culture? Well, here’s a solution.

The government should make its teachers PAY for the trainings because if the teachers invest on trainings, they will definitely take it seriously. Yes. Make them pay for the trainings. This idea sounds outright blasphemous and there will be a huge uproar initially. But that’s the only way to make the teachers assume ownership of the training and fight the haa-taa culture. As a result, they will show some trace of ethics, integrity, and responsibility.

Next, the government should invest in ‘training follow up’ programs to bridge the gap between the training sessions and classroom teaching, and monitor those programs. A trainee teacher should also, for instance, submit a report of implementation to the ministry within three months. And the policy should favor only these teachers for, let’s say, promotion or salary raise.

Even better, teachers and school districts should compete for government funding with which they can organize professional development events. Such funding should be based on the progress report submitted by teachers and experts from local education offices, and student evaluation. If rewards should be given, they should be given for producing results, such as higher pass percentage in SLC and other forms of evaluation.

Lastly, this is what the policy makers, MoE and other authorities should provide the teachers: autonomy. Autonomy in teaching, in method, in syllabus, in assessment and in deciding how to develop professionally. Only then may the government teachers discover deep intrinsic motivations to get out of the rut, find a purpose and stretch their wings towards professionalism. Intrinsic motivation is the only key. May be… just may be, the teachers then transfer some part of trainings into the classroom and the government education becomes more effective.

References:

Fryer, R. G. (2011). Teacher incentives and student achievement: evidence from New York City Public Schools. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/teacher_incentives_and_student_achievement_evidence_from_new_york_city_public_schools.pdf

NCED. (n.d.). Effectiveness Study of Teacher Professional Development, 2070. Retrieved from http://www.nced.gov.np/download.php

Ray, R. A. (2012). Teacher training: for money or for professionalism? ELT Choutari. Retrieved from http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/are-our-teachers-professional-at-all/

Sharma, S. (2007). Professionalism in Nepal. Retrieved from http://shyamsharma.net/professionalism-in-nepal/

TED. (2009). Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y