Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Teacher’s New Clothes

Everyone agrees that there is something wrong with India’s education system. But sometimes, it takes an outside view to understand just how low we have fallen.

In 2007, Brown University student Thane Richards came to India as an exchange student. Thane spent 7 months at St Stephen’s College, one of India’s crown jewels in education. While he had rich and varied experiences outside the classroom, the value addition inside the classroom was close to nothing.

In Thane’s own words:

In one economic history class the professor would enter the room, take attendance, open his notebook, and begin reading. He would read his notes word for word while we, his students, copied these notes word for word until the bell sounded… If it were not for the fact that attendance counted towards my marks, I would have never showed up at all.

This was not an isolated incident but typical of the teaching pattern. Another pattern was classes being cancelled because teachers failed to show up. The students worked out a system to inform each other about which professor is bunking today, via sms.

Similar stories can be heard from students across colleges and universities in India. Everyone clamours to get into the ‘best’ institutions but it’s got nothing to do with the quality of education. It’s for the right branding and the company of highly driven, intelligent and interesting peers.

Occasionally, individual professors rise above the system. Driven by passion, motivated by some deep internal reservoir, they stimulate, challenge and nurture young minds. They give knowledge and they give of themselves.

Every one of us has had teachers like this. Just one or two of them but they have made all the difference.

Maybe they are born with the right temperament and attitude. The question is – can we create more?

First of all – and let me be blunt about it – a teacher must be a psychologically sound person. Far too many teachers I have seen and experienced have terrible issues related to self-esteem, anger management and deep insecurity. No doubt such issues are common and therefore would be seen in any industry.

However I single out teaching because, teachers are in supreme position, a position of power. A teacher rules over his or her class of 30, 60 or 100 students. There is no question (in the Indian system) of who must listen to whom. And that’s where the problem starts.

You are not happy within yourself – what do you do? Take it out in class. The children cannot protest. They cannot ‘quit’. All they can do is switch off. And let out their frustration by giggling and making jokes behind your back.

The lower you rank in students’ eyes as a human being, the worse you are as a teacher – no matter how proficient you may be in your subject.

This, I think, applies more strongly in school, when children are young and more impressionable. But it stands good at university level as well. Apart from sound academic knowledge, a professor must have a desire to share that knowledge. With young bodies warming the benches - even if they are looking sullen, sleepy and bored.

The professor with low self esteem will see such faces and see a giant problem. He will say to himself, “These useless young people today – they are not interested. Why should I put in efforts!”

This professor will do the bare minimum and justify this as the ‘right approach’.

But a professor with high self esteem will see the class as a challenge and an opportunity. He will think, “I know these are all bright young minds. If I put in my best effort and teach them well, they will get interested in my subject.”

Right intention achieves right results. The proactive professor’s classes are always full, and full of energy. These are the ‘living legends’ on every campus.

The professors who go the distance in the classroom are also - invariably - the ones available to students, outside the classroom. A student can walk up to such a teacher with a personal issue or an academic issue and get a patient hearing. And some sound advice.

I do not know how and when the entire education system will get fixed. But if we can create more procative and self-motivated teachers, it will start getting fixed - from within.

I would go so far as to call such teachers as ‘entrepreneurs’ because with the same limited resources and raw material to work with, they are able to ‘solve’ a problem. Which is, how to transfer both knowledge and wisdom to young people.

The least we can do is to celebrate such teacher-entrepreneurs. If you have experienced such a teacher, who has altered your mind and spirit, do write in with the details as follows:
- name of teacher/ professor & school/ college
- period you were taught
- what was different or unique about him/ her in the classroom
- what impact he/ she made outside the classroom
- any specific personal experience or encounter which impacted you for life
- a picture of this teacher if possible (either alone or with you or with entire class)
- is he/ she still in service
- contact email id/ facebook page of the teacher (so that more past students can be in touch).

You can email the information to rashmi_b at yahoo.com and I promise to feature them in this space over the next few days.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Amar Management Katha

Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management
(this review first appeared in The Asian Age on 21st April 2013)

After 3 weeks with Devdutt Pattanaik ‘Business Sutra’ as my reading companion, I have reached page 185 (the book is 400 plus). And yet I venture to write this review because i) I am way past my deadline and ii) that is the nature of this book.

‘Business Sutra’ is simply brilliant. So different from any other book on business or management that you cannot digest it all at once. Each morsel has to be broken off, chewed and savoured. Often, I find myself going back to an earlier section to reabsorb what is being said.

At the crux of this book lies this argument: “Despite the veneer of objectivity and logic, management science is itself firmly rooted in a cultural truth, the subjective truth of the West, indicated by its obsession with goals.” The author attributes this to the fact that the purveyors of management science are mostly engineers, bankers and soldiers from twentieth century North America, which is deeply entrenched in the ‘Protestant work ethic’ – a unique blend of Greek and Biblical beliefs.

Devdutt’s contention is that “as is belief, so is behavior, so is business.” And that India’s belief system is very different from the West. A simple example is that India celebrates both the rule-following Ram and the rule-breaking Krishna. Indian thought yearns for accommodation and inclusion – there is room for multiple beliefs.

All this is well and good (and known to us) but hey – what’s the application to business? Devdutt’s real skill lies in linking up philosophy and abstract ideas to concrete day-to-day management issues. For example, he explains the difference between a karta (a proactive decisionmaker) and a karyakarta (one who simply follows decisions taken by others). To do this, he uses a mythological story which goes like this:

One day, the sage Narad asked Vishnu, “Why do you insist that the image of Garud be placed before you in your temples? Why not me? Am I not your greatest devotee?”

Just then, a crash is heard outside the main gate of Vaikuntha. Vishnu asks Narad to investigate. Narad reports that a milkmaid has tripped and fallen.

“What is her name?” asks Vishnu.

Narad runs out again to ask.

“Where was she going?” asks the Lord.

Each time Vishnu wants some further detail and Narad dutifully goes to find out. Then, Garud walks in and when he is questioned, he already has the complete details. In fact, he has even anticipated that Vishnu would want to buy the remaining pot of milk and knows the price the milkmaid is expecting.

Garud always anticipates situations and takes calls accordingly without checking with his boss – this makes him a ‘karta’. Narad has the same freedom but does not make use of it, making him a follower or karyakarta. Finally Vishnu – who allows Garud to be a karta is a ‘yajaman’.

This entire mythic sequence is followed by a six-eight line modern business ‘case’ – this one involves Arindam (Vishnu), Meena (Garud) and Ralph (Narad). Almost every page has beautiful line drawing (by the author himself) which depicts the idea in visual form and also breaks the monotony of text.

And yet, let me reiterate – it’s not an easy read. Terms like yagna, yajaman, tathastu and svaha in the context of business take some getting used to. But they are necessary, as the English word ‘leader’ does not bring out the subtle difference between a yajaman and a karta (both leaders in their own way). A glossary is provided at the end of the book with the conventional context and business context of every non-English word.

Devdutt has astounding depth and breadth of knowledge as well as clarity of thought. He does not have any formal qualification either in management science or Indian mythology and that’s probably a good thing. He did grow up listening to stories of sales and marketing from his father, who did his MBA from New York University in 1960. The passion for mythology was something Devdutt discovered when he was studying at Grant Medical College.

As a qualified doctor, he chose the unusual path, joining the pharmaceutical industry rather than clinical practice. This was in order to give himself the time and the funds to pursue his study of mythology. Having worked with big pharma, a dotcom, a cultural organization and Ernst & Young, Devdutt finally came into his own as ‘Chief Belief Officer’ at Kishore Biyani’s Future Group. A role and designation which helped him flesh out the ideas that resulted in this book.

What I take away from ‘Business Sutra’ is that there is no objective reality or ‘truth’. Every individual sees the world according to his or her own imagination. The most important quality a human being can develop is the ‘gaze’ or ability to ‘see’ others as they see themselves. ‘Growth’ happen when we include those whom we once excluded and stop seeing people as villains.

The duty of every yajaman is to create more yajamans within the organization. Yes – talent management, but when you look at it the business sutra way, you understand that by helping others grow, we grow ourselves. Whether or not you believe in physical rebirth, you cannot argue with the idea of mental rebirth which is most possible and desirable for us all.

The last line of the book states: “When the mind expands, Lakshmi follows.” Expand your mind by reading the book and see what happens. You owe it to yourself.

The book will also look great on your bookshelf - it has excellent design and printing quality. The only issue is the size and weight (not the kind of book you carry to read on a flight). I hope an abridged and simplified paperback edition is released soon to solve that issue and also, to help these ideas reach a much larger audience.

Business Sutra - published by Aleph
Rs 695

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