Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Why is Elon Musk important to the world?

If you came to this page without knowing who is Elon Musk, you are either living under a rock or are just really inquisitive. 

Elon Musk is an entrepreneur to say the least. He has his set of dreams. He wants to make humans a multi-planetary species. He is CEO of SpaceX which is working relentlessly to make rockets which can go all the way to Mars. They have already made rockets which can land back safely and hence be reused. Elon is the CEO of Tesla Motors. The fastest growing electric car company in the world right now. Elon is also the chairman of Solar City. He wants to build a Hyperloop. These are just some of the things he has done or wants to do. 

Elon Musk is the closest we have to a real life Tony Stark [aka Iron Man]. 

I am a big fan of Musk. I have carefully chosen the word 'fan'. I find him immensely inspirational and someone whom I deeply admire. 


He dreams big. I mean, really really big. A decade ago or even five years ago, if you had publicly announced that you wanted humans to settle on Mars, you would have been sent to an asylum. Dreaming big is just one part of the process. He has started working and made progress towards his dream.

He is a man possessed. A man on a mission. It seems like literally nothing can come in between him and his dream. It is rare to see someone do that on such a big scale. He has faced so many challenges in his life already but he has fought them all and kept pushing himself. 

He cares about the rest of the world as well. I know that the only thing that drives him are his own dreams but the nature of the dreams is such that the entire world can benefit from it. The Solar City project, the reusable rockets and the Hyperloop will all benefit the world. He even made all of Tesla's patent free for anyone to use. He looks like the kind of person who genuinely wants the world to move away from fossil fuels. 

The most important thing that Musk bring is 'HOPE'. 

Hope that one day we will be able to travel and live on two different planets. Hope that one day we won't have to rely on fossil fuels and will be able to repair some of the damage we have had on our planet. Hope that everything is possible if you try hard enough and learn fast enough. Hope that dreams can become reality. 

I can only imagine but I guess this is how people felt when the first manned mission to the moon was successful. It is not the information we got from it that was important. It was the fact that someone had done what a lot of people thought was impossible. 

Maybe it will inspire someone to work towards ending world hunger or poverty or might inspire someone to find the cure for diseases that we currently think are incurable or might inspire someone to make something which none of us have imagined. 

Hope and Inspiration are two rare commodities and Elon Musk brings both of them in abundance.  

I am a fan and I know that he inspires me to do the things that I do everyday without losing hope. For me, Elon Musk and other people like him are what the world desperately needs right now. 

I wish I could meet Elon Musk someday and thank him for everything. I also wish I could travel to Mars and die there. I don't think I had ever imagined that I would ever say this. 

Thank you Mr Elon Musk! 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Of Pani Puri stalls and Laissez Faire Economics

I absolutely love Pani Puri and given that its not easy to make it at home everyday, I am a regular at Pani Puri stalls around my house. I am sure this is the case with a lot of people. I can infer this from the crowd that I see around Pani Puri stalls everyday. 

I can assure you that I take my Pani Puri very seriously. I even have  my ideal Pani Puri vendor to Pani Puri Consumer ratio (it is 1:4). I love other variants of chaat which are available at the Pani Puri stall as well. I don't discriminate. I love them all. 

One day, I saw a post on Facebook around government regulation and how it is necessary. A friend of mine, who I assume is a laissez faire supporter, posted a one line comment on that post about how Pani Puri stalls are an amazing example of how laissez faire system works when implemented perfectly. It got me thinking and I thought why not spell out the details. After all, Pani Puri is a product and it does have a market. 

Here are some of my observations: 

  • There are no licensing requirements for Pani Puri Stall. Literally anyone who has a little money can start a Pani Puri stall. 
  • There is no minimum or maximum size for the Pani Puri stall which is mandated. Every individual owner is free to decide the shape and size of their stall. 
  • There are no restrictions in terms of the recipe. Everyone gets to make it the way they want to make it. This has led to a lot of innovation in the Pani Puri field. There are different flavors that are available now. There are atleast three-four variants of fillings. 
  • Owners of Pani Puri stalls can set their own price and very often, they change based on popularity of the stall. This hasn't resulted in rapid increase in prices of Pani Puri. 
  • There is so much competition that almost every street corner now has a Pani Puri stall and yet they continue to grow in number. 
  • Some stalls have their USP. They might have a bigger range of products. They might have a healthier variety of Puri. They might sell it for cheap. They might have the highest variety in terms of flavors. There is innovation happening in the sector. 
  • Customer needs in terms of variety, location, value for money and hygiene are all being catered to easily. 
  • There is stall loyalty to an extent but that doesn't mean that customers don't shift if they find a better stall. Customers shift stalls if they feel like any of their needs are not being met or more of their needs are being met by some other stall. It is because of this reason that you will see stalls either adapting quickly or shutting down shop. 
  • There is amazing ease of entry and exit. There are literally no restrictions to enter the Pani Puri market and no consequences or rules for closing down your stall. 
  • Over time, rich people who are bored and have a penchant for the adventurous have also pushed the Pani Puri industry to introduce Vodka Pani Puri. I think checking this google image link can give you an idea of how far people have pushed the Pani Puri boundary. 
  • If a Pani Puri stall sells sub standard food or adulterated food or stale food, customers will shift immediately and that will lead to the closing down of the stall. Beware the invisible hand of the market. 
I have a feeling the Pani Puri example can be used as an example of all parts of the Laissez Faire concept. 

It makes me wonder how different would the world be if we adopted this method for everything. I am still learning more about the free market economy but I can tell you that I have been mighty impressed with the logic and the results so far. 

I could explain the various ways in which this concept might benefit market for other products but I will let you make that connection yourself. 

I have Pani Puris to eat. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Secret to being nice to customers? Permission!

I love Starbucks. Its not their coffee that takes me there frequently. It is not the choices they offer and it is not the location of their shop. It is the staff there and their customer service that they provide. I am a big fan of how much Starbucks cares about its customers. Sure, it charges a lot of money for coffee but so do a lot of other brands. 

I have sat and worked in a Starbucks for long hours on multiple occasions. It could have been because I was working out of that place or just wanted a place to hangout with friends. The thing I like the most about Starbucks is the fact that they let you sit there without any questions or disturbances. The fact that they have great ambiance, nice decor and free wifi helps too. They tweak your coffee till you think it is perfect. They make any customization that you ask for and even let you sample a coffee if you are not sure what to buy. I could keep writing about how I feel 'cared for' when I go to a Starbucks. There might be more coffee shops which do some or all of these things as well. 

The question is, why don't so many other coffee shops don't do all this? 

The short answer is : because their staff doesn't have permission to do all this. 

Take this example: 

We have a Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) near our office. One day, for a team building activity, we needed 3-4 straws. One of my team members went to the CCD to ask them if she could get or buy 3-4 straws. The person behind the counter asked her to come to a different end of the coffee shop which was away from the ordering desk. My team mate obliged. He then gave her the straws for free. When she asked him why he had called her there, he said "Madam, udhar to camera laga hai na." [Madam, there is a camera there.]

I am assuming from this that it was company policy to not give straws to anyone unless they are buying a drink. I am also assuming that the person behind the counter was reprimanded for giving away straws to someone and that's why he was taking this precaution. 

The point is, he knew that giving away a couple of straws was not a big loss economically and that the person who got this favor would feel like the coffee shop did her a big favor. This might also result in that person choosing to come to this coffee shop more often. It was a simple way of earning brownie points. 

But, he couldn't do it legitimately. Company policy forbade him from accruing a tiny economic loss to win a customer or to make a customer happy. 

The thing is, this is not a loss. This is marketing cost. It will be recovered the next time the customer chooses to come to your coffee shop instead of the hundred other options customers have now. Businesses should see it as an investment rather than a cost or a loss. 

There are so many such examples. One thing that stands out is, be it a franchise or a direct branch, as companies become bigger, they make policies for everything and that leads to curtailing the freedom of its employees to be nice to the customers. 

I don't know if there is a conscious choice that business owners are making or if it is something that businesses haven't realized yet (I highly doubt that). 

If you are selling a product or a service to customers, give your employees the permission to be nice to them. It will almost always result in better profits and also build a likeable brand. 

P.S. - I know that paying 250+ on a coffee is an irrational decision. I still make it because I feel valued there. That's the power of being a likeable brand. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

Be a seconds hand on the clock

It is around 8:45pm in Ahmedabad.

I am driving back from work and I am about to reach a crossroads which has functional street lights. I see from far that none of the four sides are following the street lights. It is not unusual to see this in Ahmedabad.

I decide that I will probably jump the signal as well given that even if I wait, no one else will. [I am still working on becoming a better follower of traffic rules.]

At almost the left most part of the lane, I see two people riding on a bike and they are slowing down at the signal just before the zebra crossing. I notice them and stop as well. This was more out of solidarity with the bike rider more than anything else.

So its the two of us standing before the zebra crossing. Another bike rider and a car move past us. We look at each other and nod. I don't know why we did that. Right after that, three two wheelers stop between us. Now we had the entire lane covered. All of us waiting for the signal to change. We were a group now.

A SUV came behind the first bike rider and began to honk. The guy just moved his helmet glass up and pointed at the red light. The car stopped honking after two times. I was waiting there, observing all of this. All the other three lanes were in utter chaos. Everyone was going everywhere. No one waiting and following traffic rules. Our lane stood out.

Suddenly, the vehicles in the lane to our right also stopped before the zebra crossing. They are all looking towards us. I smile.

Within a matter of a few seconds, the vehicles in the lane right opposite ours also stop. Only the lane to our left, the one which is legally allowed to go is moving. All of us are standing and following the rules. There is no traffic police. There is no one managing traffic.

Our light turns green. We all go ahead. I don't think anyone realizes how that one bike rider changed so much. I don't think the rider would have imagined when he stopped that he would do all this.

The bike rider situation today reminded me of a 5 minute TED Talk that I had once seen called 'How to start a movement'

I have always learned something new when I watch this TED Talk.

But today was about something else. Today's situation made me realize something about change.

It always starts small. You sometimes don't see the impact of that small change but if you keep doing it consistently for a while, it shows results. I don't know how many times this bike rider has stopped at a signal and then no one has stopped with him. It did not stop him from stopping at the signal today.

He did it and people followed.

The analogy that came to my mind was that of a clock. It has a seconds hand, a minutes hand and an hours hand. It generally also has a spot which shows the date. Now, every small thing we do is like moving the seconds hand one step ahead. That's all we need to do.

If we do it for a while, we would have moved the minutes hand. If we continue doing it for a long time, we would have moved the hours hand. If we continue to do this even longer, we would have changed the date.

All this and it starts with moving the seconds hand forward by one and to keep moving it forward. That's all.

Similarly in the bike rider's situation, him stopping at the signal was the seconds hand movement. All of us in that lane who stopped because of him is the minutes hand movement. All four lanes following the traffic rules is the hours hand movement. Maybe someday everyone in Ahmedabad will learn how to follow traffic rules and that will be the change of date.

I have thought of the clock analogy many times before but I think this was the time when I could see it in action and truly understand it.

All I am taking away from this is to keep doing work however insignificant the impact may seem. It will someday lead to something big. I have to be like the seconds hand on the clock. The date will change on its own.

Dear Bike Rider,
I will never drive through a signal irrespective of where I am and what I driving. I promise. That's all because of you.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

How not to report a story

This article is a response to another article. So before you read any further, please make sure that you read 'Teach for America has gone global and its board has strange ideas about what poor kids need' by Mr George Joseph. 

I am a Teach for India staff member and I was a fellow before that. All the views/opinions in this post are my personal views and do not represent the views of the organisation. Although I might use 'we' multiple times in the article, the views are still personal. 

I felt it was necessary to write something after I read the article because it hurt me and I thought it was only fair that an article which maligns people and organisations gets a thorough fact check. 

Mr George Joseph, hereinafter mentioned as 'the author', wrote the article which was published on July 1 and it went viral across the education sector social media space in India pretty soon. Albeit it is slightly small group so I can't say it went viral. 

I got it as a part of my Google Alert in the morning. I read it while getting ready for the day and was shocked to say the least. I have been associated with Teach for India for a little more than 3 years now having spent two years as a fellow and one year on staff. I could not believe the number of unsubstantiated claims and pot shots that the author had pulled in one article. 

Teach for India is a 7-8 year old organisation and over the years, there have been really sweeping changes in the way the organisation works. This has happened because of the organisations commitment to continuously improve. The organisation never claims to be perfect and neither does it ever say that we have all the answers. The changes and the growth of the organisation has been possible due to the constructive criticism it has received from everyone in the education sector and even outside it. 

The organisations approach towards teaching and leadership development have undergone tremendous changes over the last few years which the author would have found out if he had researched and asked proper questions. 

I am now going to pin point different parts of the article which I personally did not appreciate:

  • The start of the article paints a rather unattractive picture of a fellow's fellowship experience. I believe that Ms Alisa Currimjee might have wanted to say something about Ms Hemangi Joshi's opinion of her teaching technique. I also believe that even if Ms Hemangi's opinion was correct, it is unfair to judge a teacher based on one observation. I don't know how Ms Hemangi concluded that sticking to the textbook amounts to rote learning. The author writes about how the place where Ms Alisa is from stops her from being an effective teacher because she doesn't know the local language. How the author reached the conclusion about Ms Currimjee's competence in such a short span of time is something that surprises me. I believe that author should watch this video on the danger of a single story
  • The author mentions that Teach for India is a sister organisation of Teach for America but fails to mention about Teach for All which is the main umbrella which coordinates between 40 odd such networks until later on in the article. The author fails to write about how 'Theory of Change' of different organisations are different based on their circumstances and ground realities. Just because there is similarity in the model, doesn't mean that they are 'one size fits all'. I would even go to the extent of saying that if a model works effectively in different countries, what's the harm in replicating?
  • The author's description of Ms Wendy Kopp's and Shaheen's education seems very sarcastic to me. In my opinion, the author is trying to hint, not so subtly, that Ms Kopp and Ms Shaheen went to elite schools and somehow that's a bad thing. The quotes are taken from Ms Shaheen's book and seem disjointed and out of context at best. 
  • The five line summary of 'why' Teach for India came into being does absolutely no justice to the effort and thought that so many people put in at the start of the organisation. If the author had read the book more thoroughly and interviewed people, he would have found out. 
  • "Despite this intensive work, however, the blueprint they came up with was almost identical to Teach for America's: Teach for India would recruit elite students, train them for five weeks, and then send them out to teach the urban poor." I believe the author's definition of 'almost identical' is very different from any dictionary definition. There are quite a few things similar between Teach for America's model and Teach for India's model but there are also a LOT of differences. Also, throughout the article, the author harps on the fact that the teachers get five weeks of training but fails to mention the ongoing training and support that fellows receive throughout the two years of the fellowship. 
  • "If deemed successful, this model will be poised to deliver large portions of India’s education system—and, indeed, others all over the world—into the control of the private sector on a for-profit basis." There is absolutely no evidence or data provided on how the author reached a conclusion that Teach for India is trying to privatize education or is even campaigning for a ‘for profit’ solution to the education crisis. The author does talk about Mr Ashish Dhawan funding organisations that are advocating for privatisation but there is no evidence provided to substantiate the author’s claim that Teach for India is trying to do it.
  • The author’s description of Ms Meghna Rakshit is nauseating and unneccesary. I don’t know why the author needs to write about Ms Rakshit’s clothes and the way she speaks. I don’t know if the quotes in the article were all that Ms Rakshit had to say about the education crisis. I have a feeling they were not.
  • By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character.” I don’t know how the author concluded that Teach for India or Teach for All don’t consider material deficits as a problem. Yet another unsubstantiated claim.
  • The author then describes another teachers class whom the author addresses as Ms D. I don’t know why the author choose to use Ms Alisa Currimjee’s full name and even go into details of her native place. I hope that proper permissions were taken before using Ms Alisa’s name and other details.
  • The author goes on to talk about how Narendra Modi government’s funding cuts have affected classrooms. There is also a line about how Teach for India’s patrons are friends with the Prime Minister. If this is the author’s attempt of giving this some political colour then I think the author should also have found out that Teach for India no political allegiances and that the organisation has an alum who works for the Congress party and also had Mr Arvind Kejriwal as a chief guest in one of its event a couple of years back. All this would have come out if the author had researched but it is not as easy as throwing allegations.
  • The author claims that only people who are ‘global citizens’ and don’t speak English in a ‘thick Indian accent’ are likely to become Teach for India fellows. I believe that the author again has no idea of the different places from where Teach for India recruits and has probably never interacted with more than a handful of fellows.
  • Also, ‘occasionally swatting’ students is illegal in the country. I am glad you did not mention Ms D’s real identity. I would urge you to talk to her about this ‘swatting’ and explain to her the mental trauma it causes students.
  • Another sentence which shows the complete lack of research from the author’s part is the author’s belief that all Teach for India classrooms have a ‘Coteacher’ and that there are less than 40 students in Teach for India classrooms. The author himself, in the beginning of the article, talks about how student teacher ratio in the country is very extreme. Ms D or any other Teach for India classroom is no different. I think it would be a good idea to go visit some Teach for India classrooms to see the numbers.
  • Ms D is not the only one doing three jobs. All fellows who work in government or private schools are required to do all that the other school teachers are required to do save election duty and census. So well, everyone is doing multiple jobs.
  • Author claims that Teach for India often describes its movement as the second freedom struggle yet provides not even one instance where it has done so. If it happened so ‘often’, should a reporter share those instances?
  • Author links budget cuts to economic liberalization. A link that has no logical connection. It is my opinion that the author does not understand economic liberalization.  Moving the focus from inputs to student outcomes is a decision state government get to make independently. Neither the central government and definitely not Teach for India has any say in it. Right to Education gives the states the power to do this.
  • Some teachers are trying to resist the relentless expansion of Teach for India and the education-reform movement in general  First of all, Teach for India never has and can never force any school or teacher to do anything. Expansion happens when both parties are willing and see value in the relationship. Also, is the author trying to suggest that there are teachers who are trying to resist education reform movement? Wow.
  • We are quite afraid they are going to use early screening and labeling to screen [students] into vocational courses… purely economic schooling. This is not just Modi, but they are obviously more aggressive. And this not just in India. How is one person’s fear backed by no proff at all being considered as a threat? Just to clarify, Teach for India never labels children or screens them into vocational courses at any point of time. Maybe Mr Firoz Ahmed needs to talk to someone and find out more about what is really happening.
  • It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector NO ONE IS HANDING OFF STUDENTS TO ANYONE!!!
  • The author talks about how there are charts with dire consequences plans. It would be great if he would have mentioned one of them. Fellows are taught how to manage classroom behaviour in such a way that student dignity is maintained and still behaviour of the class is conducive to learning. This is done because traditionally, ‘swatting students’ like Ms D was the method used. Given Teach for India’s commitment towards Child Protection Policy, fellows are trained to use techniques which involve rewarding good behaviour with stars and tokens and there are consequences for bad behaviour which are generally taking away those stars and tokens. The most dire consequences are staying back for some time after school and having a conversation with the teacher so that the student understands the value of behaving in class and the importance of it in their education. Apparently trying to instil a work oriented culture is a crime. All this the author would have known if the author had not climbed the Ladder of Inference so fast.
  • The article ends with the author talking to three fellows about their community engagement techniques to which the fellows respond by saying that it is decided top down and that communities treat them as outsiders. [Update: fellows who are quoted in the article have informed others who reached out to them that they have been misquoted.] It is true that this happens when fellows aren’t able to build those relations with the community members. If the author had researched about the different community projects that fellows in Mumbai have undertaken, he would have gotten a second opinion. There are community centres which are started by fellows and are now run by community members. The trust that fellows share with the community is different for different fellows because the effort put in and the results achieved by different fellows are different. To judge an entire organisation’s community relations effort based on what 3 out of the 1000 fellows had to say is not right.
  • About the fellowship being marketable enough. I think the author would love to know that we maintain a 7-8% acceptance rate for fellows and an even lower rate for staff members. The organisation attracts top talent already and marketing is done to spread more awareness about the education equity gap more than anything else. There are reasons for why it is a two year fellowship. Also, there are fellows who are selected to do a third year of the fellowship and there are quite a few fellows who live in the community that they work in.

In my personal opinion, the author’s article is more of a rant rather than an article. The indiscriminate use of quotes out of context and judgemental sentences prove that this was not an article written in good faith. I believe the author owes Ms Rakshit and Ms Currimjee an apology. 

The author has no flow in the article and keeps shifting focus. The article’s title is about Teach for America’s board but it talks about about one Teach for India fellow and one Teach for India staff member in not so polite way, Teach for India’s beginning and Teach for India’s purpose. The article goes on to talk about Mumbai’s education crisis and problems with the RTE, Mr Ashish Dhawan’s quotes from different interviews and his investments, allegations about Teach for India’s forced expansion and fear of screening and labelling. It also claims that Teach for India is advocating for privatisation, it is not doing community engagement well and it struggling to market the fellowship. I personally did not find any common theme or a flow in the way the author communicated. 

As I mentioned before, constructive criticism is what the organisation thrives on. I agree that there are different ways of doing different things and that there might be idealogical differences that the author has with the way the organisation works. If the author had communicated it that way, I have full faith that someone from the organisation would have brought it up in a meeting and would have given the suggestions some thought. I would urge anyone who has any idea to share with the organisation on what is should it should not do should reach out to the organisation. I can guarantee that there will always be someone who will listen to you patiently and intently.

But this article is not constructive criticism. This is not even criticism. This is a really sad attempt to malign the reputation of an organisation and some of its employees. I don’t think the author even understand the situation or the organisation properly. The author is so busy making sensational claims that he forgets to fact check them or even ask someone to back it up. I respect the fact that the author has the right to free speech but to be very frank he is abusing that right here.

The title of the article states that this article is about Teach for America’s board but in the entire article, the only person mentioned who is associated to Teach for America is Ms Wendy Kopp. Also, nowhere has the author talked about how anyone is claiming to know what poor kids need. Hence I don’t know why the article is titled this way.

I took time out of my schedule to write this reply because I care. I care about the people mentioned in the article. I care because the education sector already has a lot of challenges and can do without fear mongering ‘reporters’ who write articles with sensational claims without substantiating any of them. 

It is my humble request to Mr George Joseph to get in touch with me or any Teach for India staff member to better understand the work that we do. I am sure he will be pleasantly surprised. Mr George, I know that you, like us, want the best for the children of our country. Let us work towards it rather spend your time in manufacturing conspiracies and spreading negativity. 

Thank you,

Your friend in the fight against education inequity

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Whose culture is it anyway?

Yesterday I heard the advertisement for a 'Tomatina festival in Ahmedabad' I had to double check to make sure that this was what I thought it was.

A tomatina festival? In India? In Ahmedabad? How did anyone come up with it? 

On discussion with a few friends, I found out that this happens at a lot of places in India. I honestly could not fathom it. 

The amount of wastage from a Tomatina festival is huge! I don't mean just the tomatoes that are used (which itself is a lot btw) but also the resources that will be spent on a single event. 

India is a country which is almost always on the brink of a drought. If the rains are not regular, a lot of areas in the country suffer from severe water shortages. Drinking water is hard to find for some people. Ground water levels have fallen to worrying levels. 

So what do we do in this time of intense water shortage?

That's right. Lets organize a Tomatina festival. 

I oppose this event based on these reasons:

1. The purpose of a tomatina festival in Spain is very different. Its a cultural event there and that's why its slightly more understandable for them to celebrate it. How does it have any cultural relevance to residents of Ahmedabad? 

2. The tomatoes which are going to be used in this 'festival' could have been used in a hundred better ways. In a country where food inflation is always high, why this wastage of food? 

3. Water used during this 'Rain dance + Tomatina' festival is water which can save a lot of lives. I am not talking about lives in some different country or even some different state. Gujarat faces a drought like situation in its northern cities almost every year. There are people who have to live on very limited water. Crops fail because of water scarcity. 

How do you justify wasting water and other resources for a stupid festival which is not even culturally connected to the city? 

I understand that Narayani Heights, the resort organizing this, is a private company and has the right to do this. I am not saying this is illegal or that it should be forcibly stopped. 

This might not be illegal but it is definitely immoral. 

Also, while we are on the topic, can we please stop adapting random things from different cultures? 

I understand that we should always learn from other cultures but can we please think about what we are adapting?

If you want to, learn how different cultures use public space, learn how they follow the law, learn how they teach their children, learn how they treat their fellow countrymen, learn how they are proud of their culture and most importantly, learn how and what they learn from other cultures.

BBC recently published an article about how India might be facing its worst water crisis yet.

Do we still want to celebrate Holi next year? Let alone go to a Tomatina festival.

I repeat, I don't think its legally wrong but I definitely think its morally wrong. 

Monday, 29 February 2016

Lets leave the kids alone!

There are a lot of things that we are told when we are kids. It's by parents as well as by other people around us. Almost everyone told us something. And rightfully so. We were just kids. We had to learn everything. We were knew to this world. I mean, we are super curious and everyone around is super excited to teach us stuff.

But have you ever wondered, did the teach us the right thing [What is the right thing?] or did they just enforce their prejudices on us? Shouldn't we teach children how to make decisions on their own? Shouldn't we teach them to decide what is good and what is bad for them?

The hardest part about being a parent is deciding which mistakes you let you children make and which ones do you help them avoid. 

Let's make a list of things that a lot of kids in India are told:

1. Mahatma Gandhi is the best example of a human being. Questioning his actions, even for the sake of understanding, amounts to blasphemy. 
2. Politics is what people engage in when they have nothing else to do. Don't even think about joining it. 
3. If you are a naughty boy/girl, police will come and take you away. Police is corrupt too. Stay away from them. 
4. Everyone elder to you is always right about everything. That's the end of discussion. 
5. Marks in school are everything. Its the yardstick with which we will measure your success in life.
6. Government system is always going to be slow and bribing is the only way to make it work faster. 
7. Respect your teachers. Don't ask why. But no, you can't become a teacher. That's what losers do. 
8. Poor people don't have a lot of values. They steal/fight/get addicted to harmful substances more easily than rich people. 

Ofcourse this is non-exhaustive list. There are a lot more from where that came from. Lets take them one by one.

History books will tell everyone how Gandhiji was a great man. He struggled hard to get India Independence. But hey, wouldn't it be nice if we let the kids decide on whether they like him or not? Everyone doesn't have to do something just because Gandhiji did it. He was not universally loved when he was alive so lets not force everyone to love him now. Even he wouldn't approve it.  

Politics is bad. It's like a sewer line. A quick sand kind of a thing. I am sure everyone has heard that. I am also sure that most of us looked down upon all our elected representatives. But let me ask you one thing, if good people don't join politics, how will it improve? Its a cliched line but it still asks the most important question. Engaging with the politicians and the political system is what keeps them accountable and efficient. 

Police are public servants. They are meant to protect us. They put their lives on the line. They don't take a lot of holidays. They try to see to it that you are safe. Don't they deserve a more positive introduction in front of young impressionable minds? If we plant the seed of disdain towards them in our child's mind, it will only grow over time. Anyways the media around them will highlight all the problems that the police creates more than the good things that they do. 

Ah. The 'elders are always right' card. This had been used on all of us once in a while. Guess what, inexperience is awesome. It helps think of newer and better ideas. It helps us innovate because we aren't bound by the mental restrictions that previous generation is bound by. It helps finds new solutions to old problems. Experience doesn't always mean wisdom. 

I am curious, smart and have amazing thirst for knowledge but it won't matter unless I get good marks. It is going to be the one major yardstick for measuring my success in life. It starts with marks and then as you grow older, it changes to the amount of money I earn. It doesn't matter if you enjoy studying or working unless you get marks or salary. 

Government departments face the same problem as the police. Everyone tells you that bribing is the only way the government department works. Everyone in the department is lazy and not competent to do the job. Most of them love the job security and that's why they take up this job. No one none of the youngsters ever want to get government jobs if they can get private jobs. No one even hopes to get work done fast if a government office is involved. 

Teachers are supposed to be respected as much as parents. All elders will ask you to respect teachers and listen to them. But as soon as you tell them you want to become a teacher, their stand on teachers will change immediately. I don't think I need to explain this further.

The poor- rich divide is made so apparent right from the start that I am not surprised that children grow up to being isolated from children from other economic strata of the society. Rich kids will almost always play with and hang out with rich kids and poor kids with other poor kids. It build in children the mindset that rich people are very different from poor people. This is good for neither the rich kid or the poor kid. Poor people are also always portrayed as people who would commit crimes easily or more likely to be addicted to harmful substances. So rich kids are taught to always keep their distance. Just to be safe. 

The entire point of the post is that, we are teaching kids how to do things instead of teaching them how to learn how to do things. Parents should teach their children how to think for themselves. Sure, the kids will make mistakes from time to time but that's a part of the learning process. 

Don't force your ideas upon them. Leave them free. Teach them how to think independently and you won't have to teach them anything else. 

Most of the prejudices in this world are because of stereotypes that are put into our heads when we are kids. If we stop that then we can get rid of a lot of problems from this world.

Lets leave our kids alone.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Make it easier to start schools in India

India is the youngest country in the world. Its population is second only to China and given the current growth rate of population, that's going to change soon as well.

The necessity for every country with a population as high as India's is to first make sure that younger generation is well nourished and well educated.

Nourishment is something which the government hasn't been able to do much. The Food Security Act, however crazy it may be, is one way the government is trying to deal with the nourishment issue. The other way is to try and reduce absolute poverty. Overall economic development help reduce it. So there are some efforts the government is making in trying to get nourishment sorted.

Education is one field which is a lot more controversial than nourishment. This is because of the massive number of people involved in the field. The number of citizens employed in education in India is massive. There are close to 2.5 crore teachers in government schools alone. India doesn't even have enough teachers even at the primary school level. Reports suggest that India needs close to 7 Lakh teachers in primary!

Right to Education was thrown into this already messy mix. There are some reports which suggest that it is forcing schools to shut down and causing problems to the students while other reports suggest that that is not happening.

The problem with teacher shortages and school shortages all comes down to the fact that the government mechanism hasn't been able to keep up with the speed at which the demand for schools. This has led to over crowding in schools.

The government mechanism for starting a school is very cumbersome and also takes very long. Just to give you an idea, look at the examples of Delhi and Poona. It is easier to start a company in the country than a school. The regulatory and financial requirement have made sure that people are repulsed from starting schools inspite of the demand.

It is beyond comprehension why a country which needs more schools has such tough requirements for starting schools. Shouldn't we make it easier to start schools for everyone? The government is clearly not equipped to start so many new schools so why not let others do it?

Anyways the government doesn't allow organisations to 'profit' from schools. So the only ones who are trying to start schools are supposedly doing it for social good. Private players have the resources and the skill to do the job in a much better way. The ASER survey found out that government spends three times the money private school spends per student and both of them get the same student outcomes. The rise of small school specifically for low income communities shows that there is demand.

The RTE has already set parameters which the government wants everyone to follow. The government can focus its energy and resources on evaluating schools and making sure that they meet all the standards.

Private players should be given a chance to run schools. The idea is to slowly and gradually make government a regulatory body instead of an administrator.

Dear Government,
Please make it easier to start schools in India.
Thank you

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Life Skills vs Self Awareness

The modern day education system is very complex. 

There are very few areas where there is strong consensus among different groups of people. The most  contentious issue that has come up in recent times is : 'What should teachers teach?' 

In an extremely competitive world where education is a big differentiator between people, what we teach our children becomes even more important. Everyone agrees that our children need to have exposure to different things happening in the world. Everyone choose relevant content to teach and that's a slightly settled topic among educators. 

The major bone of contention comes when educators have to make a choice between real life skills and self awareness skills. 

Real life skills are like writing stories, coding, debating, drawing and such. Self awareness skills are having the ability to understand our strengths and areas of development. It also includes skills which make us more aware about our community. 

Now ideally, you would want to give both these skills to our children but given the scarcity of resources, sometimes we might have to make a difficult choice and we might have to choose one of them. 

So what would you choose? 

On the one hand you have real life skills which make you more employable. Something that every employer looks for in a potential employee. They are always specific and also keep changing with the times. For eg, there was a time when knowing how to use a computer would give you a leg up on your competitors when there was a job opening. We can compare it to say, coding, in our current time as something similar to that. It would be very difficult to choose not to teach our children skills like these. 

On the other hand we have self awareness skills. They are skills which would make us reflect on our actions and our behavior and make us more aware about ourself and our actions. These are things which have stood the test of time. A self aware person was appreciated a decade ago and we can safely predict that this person will be appreciated even in the next decade. 

I agree that self awareness is also a big life skill but it is not something which will directly help you get a job and hence aid your survival. It just means a company making software would love to have an employee who is very self aware but they would definitely want the employee to know a computer language that's essential for their work. Self awareness is currently a good to have and not a must have for most companies. 

So we can see that there are clear benefits of both life skills and self awareness skills. In most cases we would like to focus on both but in case there is need to make a choice, it will depend on the teacher. 

A good question that can help the teacher decide is "What do my students need?"

It goes back to the context. 

I believe that if there is an urgent need to know skills for survival, then life skills should be taught but if the student doesn't need to worry about survival for a few years, then self awareness skills should be taught first and then the focus should shift on life skills. Again, that's just my opinion. 

Teachers will always have the last say and I believe that they can make it that choice for the students after consulting the parents of the students. 

Is there a way do teach the children self awareness and life skills? 


But the question is if you had to choose, what would you choose? 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What I learned from a conversation with a Grade 1 Student

This post is about Arkam. He is a Grade 1 student of a government school in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. 


Context: I had gone to his school to observe a Grade 2 classroom. All Grade 1 students were at the back of this classroom because their teacher was absent. Grade 1 children had been given some work while the Grade 2 teacher was teaching the Grade 2 students.  


I was silently taking notes about the class that I was observing. I was sitting at the end of the class. Arkam comes and sits next to me. I notice that his uniform is torn and that his bag is very old and the white sweater he is wearing had turned almost brown because of the dirt. He was looking over the notes I was writing and probably wondering why a non-teaching adult was in the class. 

Arkam asked me about fifty questions in the 20 minutes that I was around him in the class. I told him my name is Salman Khan. This is something I usually do to make students more comfortable around me. He asked me where I lived and what did I do. He also asked me if I had been to school and college. He then went ahead and told me where he lived. He told me who all were there in his family and also informed me that this was his first year in the school. He had gone to a different school before this. 

He asked me if I owned a car and when I said no he asked me to save money and buy a good one soon. I had an iPad in my hand and he was very curious to check it out. He asked me if it had games that he could check out. When I said no he asked if the iPad could record videos. He wanted to see a few videos that I had recorded but I politely declined.

After this there was like a minute of silence. He went and got his bag which had a fancy buckle. He asked me if I could try and open it. I opened it. He seemed very surprised that I could do it so easily. He asked me if I had used this kind of a bag before to which I said yes. He inferred and thought out loud that maybe that was the reason I could do this successfully in the first attempt. 

He very proudly told me that his mother made Dosa yesterday night. He said he loves Dosas especially the ones that his mother makes. 

At this time, a couple of other Grade 1 students had come near us to see what the conversation was about. Arkam did not stop. He kept asking questions about my life and kept telling me about his. It was a very effortless conversation for the both of us. Please remember that I had never seen or talked to Arkam in my life. 

Arkam asked me if I had flown kites during Uttrayan (Makar Sankranti). When I told him I did, he asked me if I was able to do it well or did my kite get cut very easily. He told me how he had managed to catch a lot of kites. The conversation then moved on to the lanterns that people attach to kites. I would like to quote this part of the conversation word by word.

Me: Yes, I know about those lanterns. 

Arkam: Kya aapne uddai koi tukkal? [Did you release any of those lanterns in the air?]

Me: Yes. I did. 

Arkam: Aree. Narendra Modi ne mana kiya tha!! Kyun kiya apne? [Oh Narendra Modi had asked us not to use them. Why did you do it?]

[At this point I could not control my laughter and Arkam gave me a look which was like 'Why would you release the lanterns when Narendra Modi asked you not to?']

Me: Why should I not release the lanterns?

Arkam: Jab wo niche aati hai to usse kapde jal jaate hain! [When the lantern comes down, clothes which are put out to dry get burnt.]

At this point, I was in awe of Arkam and did not know what to say to him. I started talking to the two three other students who had dared to venture close. Arkam was listening intently to everyone and would occasionally smile if someone said something funny.  

One of the kids who had recently joined school was crying and sitting with his bag. I went to him to ask him what had happened and maybe convince him to start doing the work that was assigned to his group. The boy kept crying and did not say anything.

Arkam, who saw this boy cry, came close and gave the boy a water bottle asking him to drink some water. I was very surprised. He had found a way to make the boy feel better in the simplest of ways. The water idea had not even occurred to me. Now that I think about it, it seems so simple and obvious. 

The recess bell rang a little after that and I gave Arkam a high five a left. He went on his merry way and left with a story I would cherish for a long time. 

What did I learn:

1. Children are curious when they are born and even when they enter school. Unfortunately, we somehow manage to reduce that curiosity by calling their questions 'irrelevant' or 'stupid'. 

2. Empathy and love are two things which don't need to be taught. Children exemplify them everyday in everything they do. Also, children love to give advice and are pretty good at it too. 

3. Kids are amazing at conversations as long as they feel comfortable. They usually have really amazing views about things and they don't hesitate to share them. They are very authentic and straightforward.

4. Happiness doesn't need a lot. A simple Dosa cooked by your mother can make you feel happy and loved even though you might not have a lot of other material comforts. We should celebrate what we have rather than be sad about the things we don't. 

5. Happiness can come from the most surprising of sources. Some people look for it. Some people don't see it. The happiest are those who create happiness for themselves and for people around them. 

In the end, all I would want to say is: Be like Arkam. 


Arkam's fan!

P.S. - If you want to give Arkam and thousand's of other kids like him, access to an excellent education, please consider applying to the Teach for India fellowship. You can access the application form here.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Why should you do the Teach for India fellowship

We like to complain a lot. 

All of us complain multiple times in a day and if we look at what all we complain about, there are trends to it. We complain about the traffic, how insensitive people have become, how corrupt our society has become or how our education system is completely screwed. 

I was someone who kept complaining about the education system because when I joined college, I felt like my schooling had done nothing to prepare me for the real world. Unfortunately neither does college. We are just a bunch of machines which our factories churn out. Quality education, if I can call it that, has become more and more exclusive instead of being inclusive. 

The percentage of our children who get access to a quality education is reducing everyday. My definition of quality education is unfortunately very very basic and we still miss the mark by a lot. Quality education, at a minimum, would entail, being taught something new by a teacher everyday and learning how to use those knowledge and skills in real life. 

Majority of our children don't get it even this basic education. I am not even going into the quality of teachers or the infrastructure of the school or the extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately for our country, those things are a luxury. 

So yes, I complained about how the education system, which according to me is the corner stone of everyday society which wants to prosper, is well and truly screwed. 

On day, one of my teachers or someone I worked with, shared a photo which read "What are you doing about it?

That question hit me really hard. I couldn't figure why this question bothered me so much. I then related it to my complains about the education system and that's when my journey began. I started looking around for things that would give me an opportunity to contribute in some way to improving or atleast trying to improve the quality of education. I interned with the education department of my state and then one day, by chance met Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach for India. She is inspirational to say the least. 

I was intrigued by the proposition of the fellowship and surprised at how no one else had tried this before. Two years after that meeting, I became eligible to apply for the fellowship and I was on my way to being a Teach for India fellow. 

I did not fully understand what that meant at that time. I read a lot about the fellowship, visited classrooms run by TFI fellows and ended up doing the fellowship. 

I am not exaggerating when I say, it was one of the best decision of my life and those two years have been the most satisfying years of my life. 

I taught an amazing bunch of 90 students in their 7th and 8th grade. I think I learned more I taught. I became a lot more aware about the challenges that the education sector faces. I got on the ground updates of different aspects of the sector. I got a chance to get my hands dirty and got amazing guidance while I was doing it. 

I realized a few things over the two years of the fellowship:

1. Every child has potential to do great things. Every. Single. Child. 
2. The assumptions we have about education sector are sometimes way off for eg, government teachers are lazy, infrastructure solves most problems . 
3. Income inequality and societal equality can only be reduced if we reduce the inequality in opportunities that are accessible to the student. 
4. Never to go in with the assumption that everything needs to be changed.
5. Understand others before trying to make them understand. 
6. Empathy is my best friend. 
7. Every child deserves unconditional love. 
8. Everything is possible.

These are eight random points that come to my mind when I think about the things I have learned. I am sure I have learned a lot more. It keeps coming to me when I dealing with different kind of situations in life. Its funny how teaching a bunch of kids in class can teach you so much and have such a great impact on your life. 

All of this and you get to put your own small dent in the education sector. Teach for India is one of the only organized, well planned and structured way to get involved in the education space in the country. 

Do it only if you want to. No one should push you to do something like this. The fellowship is very hard and will take a lot out of you. It will make you cry and make you laugh at the same time. It will break you emotionally but will end up making you stronger. You can't go through all this just because someone convinced you to do it. You must want to do the fellowship. 

The next time someone asks me,"Why should I do the Teach for India fellowship?" 

My answer to them would be,

 "Why not?"


The fellowship application form can be accessed here.

I am running the Mumbai Marathon to raise funds for Teach for India, please consider donating. The money will go straight to the Teach for India account and you will get a tax exemption certificate for the donation. To donate, go to the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon page.