Archive for » May, 2013 «

Teaching and examining


A specialist group conducted recently a critical discussion on improving its ways of training and examining candidates who wanted to become members of their profession. Being part of these deliberations was good for me, for it provided insights into the grand enterprise called education. The aim of the discussion was to make our examinations less of a lottery and more a test of whether the successful candidates will perform adequately as ‘specialists’ in our field.

The right approach is of course for change to be experimental rather than dogma-driven.  We should check whether our examination results can be made to better predict future performance as a specialist.  Our discussion last week did not lead to a consensus on criteria to judge specialist performance, in order to check whether any of our proposed improvements better delivered the goods.

If we found it so hard to define the features of the specialist we wished to produce, how much harder must it be for those educating primary school children? Can we define the objectives for primary schools? If not, we cannot consider how the education of 7-year-olds can be made better through appropriate experimentation.

Even to suggest that child education could be improved through experimentation is to invite wrath: ‘You want to experiment with the future of my child!?’  (Hostility of experienced teachers would probably surpass that of parents. )  Hardly anybody notices that the enforced schooling and examination scheme foisted on children now is one massive experiment – justified only by precedent.

Might you, I and the rest have all been happy, kind, fulfilled, healthy, prosperous, fit, honest and attractive had we not been forced as kids through this mill? The gigantic globally-standardized nightmare continues, with the only prospect for change being some tinkering at the fringe (thanks to some unknown Finns).

Is it good for a child to be forced (week-)day in, day out, to a place that we think good because we went through it too? Should a child balk, a psychiatric diagnosis waits: ‘School refusal’ or some other inane label. The textbook treatment is (you may not believe this) to force the child back to school – forthwith! It’s no surprise that when child(ish) psychiatrists morph into adult psychiatrists their first impulse too is to force their client to conform. I do not know how many million of the world’s population are of school going age. But psychiatrists have decided that any among them who refuse to trudge obediently to school must be mentally ill – and need treatment. The recommended therapy is called force. It is likely soon to be replaced by pills.

What schools deliver is often decided by education specialists – many of whom are university professors. At a fair guess we could say that they are probably quite out of touch with today’s world and needs, other than in their narrow field of expertise.  The difficult business of what schools should deliver must now be taken off the hands of the ignorant. The percentage of students who will, or want to, become university professors is too small for the education of all children to be decided by the said professors and a few other ‘educationists’. The current cruel experiment could at least be replaced by a system whereby children (and to the appropriate degree, parents) are given a say in what they should be taught at school. Nobody can claim to know better, so why not ask the consumer?


No climate worries, Maldivian brother?

It is not funny that many people alive today will see their homes submerge in seas rising with climate change. Some nations, possibly including our neighbour, the Maldives, will be totally inundated within the century. We in Sri Lanka too will have a fair amount of trouble. But the whole country is unlikely to go under.

I do not recall whether it was on frogs or fish that the nasty experiment of heating gradually in a container of water, versus dropping suddenly into it, was conducted. But I do know that when dropped into water warmer than a given temperature they’d try instantly to jump or splash out, but would accept gradual heating way beyond that point – and swim around calmly until death. Climate change creeps up like the slow heating pot and we don’t notice. We will continue to accept over years, change that would be considered intolerable if imposed suddenly. And we’d slowly boil, wither or starve to death, unknowing and unworried.

The inexorable march towards disaster passed a milestone this month.  The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere quietly crossed the figure of 400 parts per million (ppm). Never before the ‘Industrial revolution’ have we had over 300 ppm according to some fancy measurements (of CO2 in air bubbles trapped in glaciers). The last time CO2 was regularly above 400ppm was three to five million years ago – before modern humans existed, the BBC calmly reports. (

Casual predictions of what is in store include not only scattered massive floods, droughts, desertification, sea level rise and starvation. Most predictions include scenes where people start attacking each other as resources dwindle. I do not see why this should necessarily be the case unless we are programmed to enjoy increased suffering. Banding together in solidarity, at times of difficulty, may be just as natural a response as going for each other. But for some individuals, the reflex response to any denial or deprivation is to grab from the neighbour. Such people predominate among technical people making predictions, it appears.

What is the response of solidarity when confronted with the reality, say, that a friendly neighbour will drown unless we do something soon? That fate is most likely what our neighbour, the Maldives, will face before this century passes.  Do we say we don’t care? Or should we join them in trying to nudge the world to take the known ameliorative action? The proper response, most of us would agree, is to join them in their fight to stop the world from pushing their nation below sea level.

What can an ant do when it inhabits a playground of elephants? One is to try to prick the conscience of the elephants – such as by holding their cabinet meetings underwater, to make the point. This we know the then Maldivian government tried (and provoked a post from me here – 30 October 2012). Did any elephant notice? Quite likely not, we’d guess. But the Maldivian government that tried appears to have got attention of the wrong kind. The people of the Maldives, we were told, rose in anger against that president, and threw him out without waiting for the next election! Now they are again cool, not witness to futile struggles to stay above sea level, and able to swim unperturbed in their, and our, steadily heating pot.

‘Let greenhouse gases go to pot!’ they appear to say. Emit, emit in ever larger doses for we like these showy war games. We have no warplanes or other means to spray the stratosphere with carbon dioxide. So come, big guys, build your military bases on our threatened soil and do your polluting exercises – and help us go under sooner, if you please. It is already too late, so we might as well get it over and done with faster.

What is the humane response to suicidal neighbours?

Freedom at work

Workers’ Day or the 1st of May is probably auspicious to start a move for freedom at work. Large numbers of workers have in the last decades moved out of sweatshops and into cooler prisons. An accompaniment of the move of jobs to more plush settings, creating mental instead of physical restrictions, is that workers now desire their impositions – however tedious and soul destroying.

Menaka is proud of her job. But preparing to leave for office every morning is never easy. She is no more enthused, starting the morning grind setting out to work, than her son is, readying to leave for school. But mother and son both switch to a different frame of mind as soon as they hit the road. Any slight delay in traffic is intolerable – and not only because they’ll miss the dreaded deadline but also because they look forward to office or school from the moment they do manage to get out of the house. Maybe we’d all find our workplace or school more appealing if we weren’t obliged to reach it by a specified time every morning? Why can’t workplaces allow us to start work any time we want?

Not all workplaces (let’s leave out schools for the moment) can run on total flexible-time. Some actually produce things or provide real services that require a whole team in place, together. They’d have to have quite a few extra staff to enable everyone to breeze in to work at any time they choose.

A workplace that ran 24 hours a day, with everyone coming to work whenever she or he wished, is one that I’d like to set up. Agriculture comes to mind as a good sector in which to conduct the test. Fortunately, I do not have what it takes to indulge such fancies. But the world may be a better place if everybody did have the option of reporting to work any time they found convenient on the given day.  Who knows, creating heaven on earth may require only this simple step.

Menaka’s boss is a man (no big surprise there). He, Martin, is highly flexible (which is a surprise). He could easily give our flexi-time arrangement a test run.  Martin’s office is one that only ‘manages’ several production plants, while producing nothing – apart, that is, from some crucial numbers and words. These too could well have been produced faster and more accurately at their various factories, at no extra cost, but that would have rendered everybody at Menaka’s office, other than Martin, redundant. And he too would have had only about three to four hours’ work a day. So we have a happy arrangement where forty people in Menaka’s office who’d otherwise be jobless are now jobful. Martin’s task is to keep creating new routines and occasional crises so that he may not ever notice that his entire office staff is workless, though mercifully jobful. He does this pretty effectively for he is MBA qualified.

This is the ideal kind of office in which to try our total-freedom-to-start-work-at-any-time-you-please experiment. Martin’s far-flung enterprise would anyway run as smoothly (or more so) if the central establishment worked fewer hours. An MBA is needed to keep hidden the fact that the factories were obliged to submit needless added stuff simply to make staff at the head office imagine they were working – and to enable Martin to rub shoulders with other CEOs, also similarly engaged in creating the right aura around their establishments and themselves.

Our flexi-time experiment could evolve into an even better arrangement. Menaka and ambitious others could be allowed flexible work too. They could, for instance, be asked to compete with their mates for promotion through results of more entertaining struggles than those now used to appraise performance. Beating each other at scrabble, or video games, could be included under a new concept of flexi-work. Since office work is intended mostly to make employees compete for promotion, through mindless games created for the purpose, all we need is designate video-games or scrabble as work.

These idle ruminations of mine are just too fanciful. The MBA cartel anyway closes ranks instantly to squash even a hint of awareness emerging among the various zombified ‘executives’ and other underlings.  We’d need help from a higher power to swing this one. Trainers of MBAs may possibly have enough clout. But who and where are they, these trainers, who promote the ideology that enterprises run more effectively the more managers they have? Executives are spawned at various levels, to click away eagerly inside boxes of different sizes, in the hope of out-clicking their mates. Ironically, these trapped aspirants to bigger boxes to ‘work’ in are expected to show out-of-box capabilities, while physically restricted to their cubicles.

We need an audit sometime. A simple content analysis of what is taught in management would be a good start. Is any of it relevant to improving what the actual producers in the establishment do – the engineers, technicians and other real workers? But the engineers and others doing productive work aren’t likely to support an effort to call the ‘management’ bluff for they too are preoccupied, trying to join the admired unproductive classes.

We have to work out a means to smuggle insight into the system. To improve chances of success, we could test the idea in offices that do only ‘managing’. Staff in a few experimental offices may be allowed to come in to work any time they pleased and spend most of their time practicing for promotion through periodic scrabble competitions. We check regularly whether the bottom line dips (or does worse than traditionally run offices selected as controls). The secretary to the CEO can in the meantime attend to all of the real work needed to keep the enterprise running smoothly – and, of course, growing.  She (it would have to be a woman, wouldn’t it, if real work needed to be done?) too could have a fair measure of flexi-time, given that only four or five hours of her time would be needed in a day to make even a huge multinational conglomerate prosper. The rest is all price fixing. 

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