China calling

July 27, 2009

While growing up in India, particularly during my graduation course, we were constantly talking about the only other economy in the world that was growing faster than India – China. China had always fascinated me and I wanted more than anything else to get a first hand experience of working and living in China. So when given the opportunity, I was more than happy to come here with an open mind and soak in the different culture and experience.

I have been here for more than a year now and this country doesn’t cease to fascinate and amaze me. I have traveled to more than fifteen cities in China and have loved the scenic beauty, different cultures region wise, and most importantly the people – they are so nice, helpful, welcoming that I feel at home here. Traveling; both intra city and inter city is very convenient with excellent infrastructure in place. The public transport system in Shanghai is very efficient and I use the subway and buses frequently.

Work wise, it has been a great learning curve – the work environment here is extremely positive and buzzing with energy. Also it’s a very multicultural environment with a lot of respect for each other. I am learning the language and have fallen in love with it – though my Chinese is not very good – wo de zhongwen bu tai hao; wo hai zai xuexi. But whatever little of the language I can manage helps create a good bonding with the locals; specially the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. Another difference for me was experiencing four different seasons and I must say I quite enjoyed it.

I have become an unofficial ambassador of China in India and vice versa. Most people in India are surprised and some even shocked to know I work in China and have a barrage of questions. Its amazing how in spite of being neighbors we know so little about each other. It was also a bit surprising for me initially to see how there are more than 30 Indian restaurants in Shanghai (I didn’t expect so many Indian restaurants here) and one can also get all Indian groceries here. But as I got to know Shanghai more, I realized how international and cosmopolitan the city is – It’s a true melting pot of different cultures.

Having said all these; the question which most people ask me is if I would like to stay longer in China – and my answer is “of course – wo hen xihuan zhongguo”!!

The Trouble With Exams

June 9, 2008

So the five month old DU Economics post had this reasonably long comments thread which instead of discussing DU or economics itself ended up discussing the stud-fighter framework, the best sort of examination system, what it is that an examination system should actually be examining, and the difference between CBSE Boards and the JEE. I promised a followup post by Sankranti, and then promptly forgot all about it and started blogging about other things like superhero underwear. However, I do get down to things… eventually, so here’s the post. Though by delaying it as much as this, I can now justifiably claim that it’s become topical.

Right. So. Question: what purpose do exams actually serve? I can think of:

  1. Establishing a minimum level of competence or knowledge or providing a pass-mark. Examples of this are getting 33% in the CBSE Boards, or 80% in my employer’s HIV-AIDS e-learning module, or 100% in my employer’s money laundering e-learning module (we take money laundering very seriously). Also, CA certification.
  2. Creating a filter so that you can select the top – the JEE works this way
  3. As a stage-gate between two-levels of education or employment, or between education and employment – in combination with #1 or #2 – the SAT/ GRE work a bit like this – being at the top isn’t essential because there are enough available seats to ensure that you can get in a long way down.
  4. To determine how much a student has learnt independent of formally certifying competence or university admission or things like that. For example, the practice tests a tutor or a coaching centre gives so that students can know how far ahead or far behind they are. Or the sample papers which a student practices ahead of the boards.
  5. To determine how successful the teacher or the examination system has been in passing on concepts. For example, the Azim Premji Foundation conducts its own tests at Class 5 and Class 8 (I think) for students in Chambal valley and North Karnataka rural schools to measure how well they are performing and which ones deserve aid.

Which is a fabulous framework if you stick to it. In practice, though, here’s the problem in real life. Where the CBSE is concerned, the board exam is being used for purpose #1: certifying minimum competence. Delhi University, on the other hand, uses it for purpose #2: as a filter to select top-performers, which is not what the boards are designed for. The boards are supposed to be high-scoring, easily crackable if you study the entire year, and use questions with standard answers that can be checked against a template to simplify the lives of the unfortunate examiner who has to check hundreds of answer sheets. Is it any surprise that college cutoffs start hitting 97% levels?

(An associated hoopla about the boards is that everyone taking them (and their parents, and their teachers) go up in arms every time a paper is difficult. All things being equal, it doesn’t matter, because a bad paper is just going to push the cutoff down – it’s still going to be the top five hundred people who convert the top five hundred seats. To be fair, all things aren’t equal, because students can have different subject combinations. So if the mathematics exam is particularly tough, someone who’s taken psychology or physical education instead gets an advantage.)

There’s another major problem with using the boards as an entrance / selection exam. To be fair, this is a problem with all entrance exams in India. It’s a one-shot exam which happens only once a year. It doesn’t measure how you perform in the classroom, and your long-term ability to learn, which is something that the teacher on the ground is much better placed to judge. And if you mess up a one-shot examination once, you don’t get a chance to make up for it until the next year. And by mess up I don’t only mean fail, I also mean get any score low enough to prevent you from getting the course/ college you want.

So basically, college admissions boil down to this: you get one opportunity once a year to display your excellence through an exam which is designed not to test expertise but minimum competence. As processes go, this is so thoroughly broken that re-engineering consultants would throw up their hands in despair and suggest restarting from scratch.

Not only is the process broken, it’s broken in a way that disproportionately hurts the poor. Why? Well, because:

  1. In the situation described above – you mess up your exams and need to wait another year, the opportunity cost of sitting out another year is much lower. If you’re rich, or even middle class, your family has enough savings (or enough of a standard of living to cut back a little) to not worry about starting your career a year later.
  2. If you have a one-year run up to the exams, that gives rich kids a year in which to hire tutors to help them prepare for the exams. This becomes even worse when the CBSE makes papers ‘easy’, because when papers are well-designed and difficult, topping them is truly a function of how smart you are. When they’re easy, students who have time to spare and money for tutors crack the scene. When they’re difficult because they’re badly designed, the top ranks become a lottery.

Which is why the new CBSE exam design scheme, called HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills) may turn out to be one of the more sensible things the CBSE has ever done:

HOTS was the new basis of the question papers in the Class 10 exams this year. It is an analytical problem solving process, geared to assess the students’ absorption of knowledge and its application.

“The average performance and pass percentage has increased across the board but the number of perfect scorers has gone down. The new question pattern to judge students’ knowledge base could be the reason,” said Ganguly.

There is a substantial decline in the number of candidates who have bagged the ‘perfect score’ in Mathematics. “As against 5,251 students last year, this year just 2,647 students have scored 100 out of 100 in Mathematics.”

Similarly, in Social Science, only 598 students have scored a full 100 as against 1,233 last year.

(Delhi Live)

In fact, HOTS may have resulted in better government school performance too, which sort of supports my point about conceptual examinations helping the poor:

That the results in government schools have improved is evident: it shows the largest increase in pass percentage, climbing from 77.12 per cent in 2007 to 83.68 per cent. And 100 of the 900-odd schools saw a pass rate of 100 per cent, as compared with 41 schools in 2007.

But Education Minister Arvinder Singh put the improved results largely down to “better teacher training” rather than HOTS.

(Indian Express)

So is it better training or HOTS? Probably both, but I suspect more HOTS than training – the effect of training shows up slowly over time, while HOTS was a sudden change. And I haven’t gone through enough data on the new HOTS papers to judge how conceptual they actually are.

But HOTS still doesn’t fix the core issue which is that university-entrance tests and school-leaving tests should be wholly different beasts. It also doesn’t fix the one-shot problem. Wonderful though the results of putting HOTS into place appear to be, HOTS is an incremental improvement on an examination system that needs radical redesign. Just to reiterate, the pieces which are still missing are:

  1. Measuring classroom performance
  2. Separating school-leaving competence and university entrance competence for everything, not just professional courses
  3. Making examinations better at measuring conceptual skills rather than mugging skills- HOTS is supposed to do this and may actually have accomplished it, but I would like that to be subjected to rigorous testing
  4. Redesigning exams (school leaving and university entrance ones) so that taking them over and over, or the amount of time you spend on preparation has less impact on how well you do- I think HOTS is meant to accomplish this as well, as was the JEE redesign a year or so ago.
  5. Making university entrance more dependent on multiple factors like extra-curricular skills, conceptual skills, ability to be a stud and a fighter, instead of just a since exam score. But this is probably not going to happen without a massive supply-side expansion of good universities (please see Abi and Ravikiran on this).

Tragically, I have been writing this post over a month and a half, after intending to write it six months ago, and it is now much less coherent than I hoped it would be. My apologies, and I aim to clarify confusion in the comments. Have away!

This Close to Being Semi-Mainstream

April 20, 2007

Pentagram asked fans to make a music video for their single Voice. They finally went with a montage of 26 different videos. One of the videos that they liked but didn’t use was Varun Agarwal’s anti-reservations video. Why is this important? Check out the video. Specifically, check out the frame 2 minutes and 32 seconds into the video.

Woah. I took that slightly blurry picture of Lady Hardinge Medical College students back in April, when I went and photographed one of the first reservations protest marches. Check it out.

LHMC shows up

Damn. I was this close to being in a Pentagram video. Well, not exactly being in a Pentagram video, but having my intellectual property in one. Oh well. Such is life.

Getting Offended By Ads

June 10, 2006

I saw a TV commercial that enraged me. The first time I didn’t pay a great deal of attention.

A little boy, a well-fed kid, is by himself and finds his shoelace his undone. He decides then and there to learn how to tie it by himself. The camera lingers on him, on his intense look of concentration. He experiments, draws diagrams in the mud. It goes on and on; it looks inspiring. Finally the punchline of the card comes up. I thought it was going to be for a breakfast cereal or a milk additive for your children.

But then, besides his look of triumph you see a message for Surf Excel- “When kids set their mind on something, dirt gets in everywhere. So use Surf Excel to get dirt out of tough corners.” My jaw actually dropped. What was the message of this ad? That no matter what a kid’s learnings are, all that matters is that his clothes are clean? How crass, even cruel can you get?

Am I missing out on something here? I’m still angry- was it meant to be funny? Millions of boys and girls in this country spend their childhood in a school system that discourages self-learning and creative thinking- while we lucky few can write blogposts. Let’s subordinate their creativity to washing powder while we’re at it. Surf Excel is owned by Hindustan Lever. Shame on it, and on its advertising agency.

This is Appalling

June 7, 2006

I am shocked, shocked, to learn that criminals and anti-social elements have been buying SIM cards with forged documents in Haryana.

Those naughty criminals! How dare they! Don’t they know that they are supposed to provide their correct identity details so that the authorities can track them down? If they pretend to be honest people like us, the whole scheme is useless. All the effort we put into getting passport photos and photocopies of identity documents will go waste.

Three Paragraphs in Search of a Story

March 3, 2006

Out of a million women, perhaps a thousand are extraordinary in all aspects possible. They carve out their own destiny, take no shit from anyone, are extraordinarily talented in varied fields, and top it off by being pulse-alteringly beautiful.

But for every thousand such girls, only one will ever meet someone who can do justice to her description and come up with things like ‘What can you say about a twenty-four year old girl who died?’ or ‘She should have been posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts and wheeling gulls.’

This is just one of the ways in which life is unfair.

(No, this is not about anyone in particular. Just something I came up with when I was depressed with my inability to complete a short story in eighteen months, and also the fact that whatever there was of it was so cliche-laden.)

Juvenile Dramatics

October 25, 2003

There are people who are gushy about juvenile dramatics. They feel that nothing could be better for kids than to spend their evenings in the company of a couple of hundred other kids, rehearsing a play. So much better than watching TV, they say, and it helps so much in developing the childrens’ personalities. It makes them confident and well-rounded, they say.

These people are absolutely wrong. Juvenile dramatics do nothing of the sort. The effect they do have on children is to turn them into obnoxious little twerps. The effect they have on adults is far, far worse.

Of course, rehearsing plays is better than watching TV. But then, pretty much everything is better than watching TV. Reading books, to take but one example. And, at the risk of belabouring an obvious point, I would like to point out that you can read a book on a DTC bus, in your bed, or, of course, on the pot, which happens to be my preferred spot. You don’t have to do it in the company of two hundred other juvenile histrionicians, all of whom are hungry and bad tempered, and most of whom are mentally negligible to boot.

Juvenile dramatics does make the participants confident, yes. I have to agree there. The misfortune, however, is that after two or three productions of assorted plays, the confidence crosses all healthy limts, and egomania sets in. Look at Shah Rukh Khan. Look at Raghav Bhalla and Tariq Vasudeva, those two pots of histrionic poison from The Shri Ram School. From my own school, look at Avani Jain. Or Ilina and Ira Dubey. I don’t know them personally, but seniors and juniors alike assure me that they were even more bitchy than I’m being right now.

To be fair and honest, of course, I cannot claim to be free of the stain myself. I have been involved with the juvenile theatre twice. The first time was seven years ago- Class IX. A class function was scheduled. I auditioned for a part in The Taming of the Shrew, and got it. Of course, in those days, I was young and innocent, and did not know of the peril posed to me and those around me by getting myself involved in highjinks of this sort.

For two long months, we would rehearse The Taming of the Shrew after school hours. Rehearsals would begin at half past two, so that left us, the cast, about forty minutes of free time. During this period, we would injure our bodies by champing on McBurgers, and injure our souls by indulging in idle gossip. All I recall about the gossip now was that some of it was about frogs.

Our director- a bad-tempered and foul-mouthed ex-student called Radhika Gupta was prone to wild mood swings and irrationality. She fired the leading lady twice, shuffled the rest of the cast among a bewildering variety of roles, and, as a matter of course, rent the air with ear-piercing creams that made the local fauna pack its bags up and head for ITO crossing. Her one saving grace, as Baldy pointed out, was that her bottom would jiggle up and down while she walked. But of what use are bottoms when the soul is black. Skin deep, or rather adipose-layer deep only.

After two months, Radhika Gupta exhibited a mood swing to end all mood swings, and returned home to Philadelphia, leaving us quite in the lurch. Thus showing that juvenile dramatics poison the soul of directors no less than members of the cast.

The second instance of my involvement was two years after this, in Class XI. I was older and wiser, and should have known better than to get involved. On the other hand, the alternative to assitant-directing the Class IX play was either to go on the class trip to Jim Corbett National Park or watch the Chennai Test between India and Pakistan (yes, the one where Chennai gave Pakistan a standing ovation). Sunlight dappled through forest greenery gives me motion sickness, and cricket just makes me sick. Besides, at the time, I looked upon this as a golden opportunity to rise in the esteem of Arunima Sinha, who was the other assistant director, in addition to being costumier and makeup person.

My assistant-directorial responsibilities consisted mostly of shouting at the cast when they turned up late for rehearsals or fought with each other, and also of composing the plot and the script. This latter task was done by Avani asking me ‘What should happen next’ and me coming up with stuff off the top of my head. This did allow us to come up with a fifteen minute play very fast- which is a good thing, as there were only three days earmarked for rehearsals. On the other hand, this speedramatisation did lead to the plot being ineffably rotten.

Despite the rottenness of the plot, the blood feuds between the leading gentlemen and the leading ladies, and one of the leading gentleman refusing to show up for rehearsals on the grounds that he had to be playing the piano for the duet-singers at the same time, and could not be humanely expected to be in two places, and the cast speaking their lines fast and finishing in ten minutes instead of fifteen; the play was staggeringly well received by the audience- students, teachers and parents alike. I was extremely surprised.

Anyway. The reason I got started on juvenile dramatics in the first place is because of the current dramatics teacher at MSVV- a pompous old ass called Yuvraj. This bearded son-of-a-gun was the cause of much grief to me a week ago, when he insisted on having the curtain cutting the size of the stage in half, all to prevent his wonderful backdrop from being revealed to the public.

I ask you! A wonderful screen, on which text and images would have been six times as large, making it all that more convenient for the teams, and more interesting for the audience, denied to the organisers simply because of this senile old coot’s runaway ego. In addition to which, the teams were forced to sit scrunched up, practically closer to each other than ticketless travellers on the Bhatinda express, all because the old geezer refuses to compromise.

This, you see, is the result of over fifty years of involvement with the theatre and juvenile dramtics. You take yourself far too seriously. You develop a God-complex. You mumble in your beard. You become a rigid old menace to society. The small children who have been entrusted to you to learn dramatics fear and loathe you. Their attention wanders and they become delinquent. A world that could have been better and sweeter becomes toxic. All because children are spending time that could have been much better utilised getting in some healthy exercise, or reading improving books, pandering to the fancies of a long-dead playwright (or worse, one who is still alive).

That pretty much sums up what I had to say. Now that I have worked the vitriol out of my system, I shall go back to spreading sweetness and light. Have a nice day.

Mixed Feelings

August 20, 2003

Life is terrible.

Everybody’s going back to college abroad, and I haven’t been able to see them off. The weather is terrible in Patiala. The air is laden with moisture and hangs still over the ground. I desperately need a nailcutter and bathroom slippers.

I have to prepare two project reports in twentyfour hours. The deadline is 4 pm on Thursday. Each one is expected to be fifty to seventyfive pages long. Aargh.

My performance in the last FLT (Full length test- the sample CAT I give every Sunday for practice) was painful. The Quant section was terrible.

On the other hand, life is beautiful.

Everybody else in my batch has also been a lazy procrastinator, and they, too, have to prepare their report in twentyfour hours. We’re all in the same boat, which takes a little bit of the bite out.

There’s a holiday tomorrow for Janamashtami- so I actually have twentyfour hours to prepare the reports. Whee! Things are looking up.

I have money, and buying the nailcutter and bathroom slippers is hardly a ten minutes job.

Sure, everybody else is leaving or has left, but Vikram is back in Delhi. And he’s been promising to do ‘ek saal ki masti ek mahine mein’. The imagination boggles.

As for the FLT- even with a performance as disastrous as I thought, I’m still in the 99th percentile, and clearing the cutoffs. So there.

There’s always a silver lining. The trick is to appreciate it.

And yes, I will start writing something more interesting than status reports as soon as I have the time.