South Asia Wired Rotating Header Image

He may just be the key to a new thinking on teaching

Maths was always my Achilles heel. Hell, it was my Achilles foot, femur, and hip. And even now, the most basic maths problems can reduce me to a confused gibbering wreck. So it was with great relief when I finally reached the school age where i could choose to stop maths and concentrate on the Arts.

But these days, I’m regretting not paying more attention in school. Because now I have school age kids who also aren’t good at maths, and my job as a parent is to help them with their homework.

And I’ve got double trouble because not only do I have to find a lucid way of explaining maths but I have to do it in English, and then repeat it in Dutch to make sure they’ve got it.  Yikes.

So when I stumbled upon The Khan Academy, I saw a ray of light that’s been growing into a veritable golden globe of excitement as I watched the You Tube videos and then heard his TED talk. My kids aren’t exactly bilingual, but can understand pretty well, and I know one thing – that anything on a video is going to hold their attention more than me blahhing on.

And the proof is in the numbers. 1 million students watching 100-200,000 videos a day from all subjects ranging from basic maths (1+1=) to calculus, history, politics and economics.

Salman Khan used to be an analyst with a hedge fund in the US. He started helping his cousins at the other end of the country by loading simple lessons on video and seeing no reason to keep it private, he did it on You Tube. A steady stream or comments and responses from strangers around the world turned into an avalanche and pretty soon, Bill Gates was saying publicly that he watched Khan Academy videos with his kids, and The Khan Academy went viral.

The key to the success of the videos as a learning tool is that Salman Khan is personable and funny and is totally non threatening in his teaching methods. And its geared to each child (or adult) learning in their own way at their own pace. When they get one problem, they move on to the next at their own pace.

Salman Khan has since given up his job for the project, now an official not for profit organization, has a team behind him working on the jet powered technics of it, is in talks with schools about incorporating the videos as part of a different kind of learning curriculum and has ambitions of turning The Khan Academy into a global e-learning school where a street boy in Calcutta may one day be able to tutor a middle class kid in the US

It’s the first time I’ve heard someone talk about maths education in a way that’s moved me to tears.

Sinterklaas is here

Its’s that time of year again. Sinterklaas is back in town.

Non Dutchies should under no circumstances confuse Sinterklaas with Santa Claus.  The two may share a few physical resemblances for sure: they both favour the snow white beard and red suit look, but while Santa is a cuddly (fat), symbol (who started off as a Coca Cola marketing tool) and is happy to restrict himself conversationally to little more than the occasional ho-ho-ho, the Dutch Sinterklaas is generally trimmer, was a real Bishop and is known to spout poetry and inspire others to write it.  Also whereas Santa has elves and reindeer, Sinterklaas has Zwarte Piets and Amerigo.

So it goes something like this.

Around the end of November, the Holy Man as he’s known, sails into most towns, cities and villages in The Netherlands, greeted by ecstatic children and enthusiastic parents.  He comes by boat, because he’s sailed here from Spain.  In Amsterdam, a whole day is organized to celebrate his arrival - the mayor himself welcomes him at the port, and then the Sint, mounted on his trusty white horse, Amerigo,  leads a giant parade throughout the city.

And because he’s just sailed here from Spain, it’s only natural that he has with him, several “Moorish” helpers.  These are the Zwarte Pieten - Black Peters - dressed in colourful velvet knickerbocker sets that must have been all the rage in medieval times.   He rides through the town or city on his white horse, holding his Bishop’s crook, while the Zwarte Pieten throw sweets and small spice cookies into the cheering crowds. The Sint is beloved here to an extent that can baffle the foreign visitor, and children and adults sing traditional Sinterklaas songs as he rides past, cheering and desperately trying to get his attention - its a great honour if you manage to shake his hand, or even to pat Amerigo.

But it’s also not unusual to see small children bursting into tears at the sight of  the Zwarte Pieten.  Before the age of PC, these guys were the bogeymen who had the authority to beat or kidnap naughty children; but these days they’re only really licenced to distribute sweets, and get up to all sorts of antics on unicycles or stilts, or join in the parade in brass bands and floats.

Once the Sint officially arrives in Holland, every night kids around the country leave their shoes hopefully by the hearth, occasionally accompanied by a letter for the Sint (usually including a present wishlist) or a carrot for his horse.  Imagine the thrill in the morning then, of finding a small present in your shoe while the letter of carrot have mysteriously disappeared.

On the night of 5 December, families gather to read funny, sometimes mildly insulting poems they’ve written for each other.  Then suddenly there will be a loud rap on the door.  When my two girls were little, this was the moment they both dived under a blanket on the sofa, refusing under any condition to come out to see the Sint delivering their presents.  But I would go outside to pick up the sack he’d left, calling out to the kids, “come quickly, you may just catch the sight of Amerigo galloping off with the Sint as he goes to the next house.”  Eventually they could be co-erced to take a peep around the door, but of course it was always too late to get that glimpse.  But their disappointment was allayed at the sight of a full sack of presents.

The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas has not escaped the kind of commercialism that’s made a mockery of Christmas, at least in the western world.  The shops are in full gear with Sinterklaas sales already in October, and for about a week or two, the Sint is ubiquitous, making appearances in schools, offices, at gas stations, and in shopping centres.  Chocolate letters are the usual gift and kids with well placed relatives can stock up on enough of these things to keep them in chocolate for months.

But there’s still something very special about this festival here.  For many Dutch people, it s still more important than Christmas, and the children’s excitement is contagious.  But for the working mother, it can be an exhauting time - there are “surprises” to be bought not just for kids to take to their school, but also to their gym lessons, their music lessons, their sports trainings. And after the day shift at the office and the evening shift at home, the comatose parent has to still remember that the kids will be expecting something in their shoe the next morning.  So woe betide the parent who hasn’t got themselves organized into making sure that the Sint hasn’t forgotten to visit your kids in his busy rounds that day.

But still, its a small price to pay for the fun of it all.  Radio Netherlands had a visit from Sinterklaas today.  I was in a meeting but we called a short break to go downstairs to join dozens of our colleagues to see the Sint reading the poem he’d composed for us.  As we were filing out to get back to the meeting a Zwarte Piete handed me a giant chocolate letter.  It’s sitting on my desk as I type this, but I’m trying to ignore it calling out to me.

The Burma Watchers: a club soon extinct?

There’s a peculiar club – its members are spread around the world, but they all pretty much know each other, or at least they know of each other. They don’t really have a name, but let’s call them “The Burma Watchers.”

People who know or claim to know about Burma (currently officially called Myanmar, except for those in the know who prefer the old name because its not affiliated with the junta).

A lot of The Burma Watchers are activists or NGO workers, some are journalists and writers who’ve been following events in the region for years, there are a few politicians, a few academics, and then there are the insiders on the outside if you know what I mean – a scattering of Burmese who either live outside the country, or who can come and go with an ease denied to most ordinary Burmese citizens.

It’s hard to say exactly how many members there are in this club, but there are different tiers of membership. Those with the highest status would be those who are acquainted with Aung San Suu Kyi, who have met or worked with her; the closer the claimed connection to this icon, the higher the status. There are the ones who have spent years studying the country, writing papers or articles, lobbying for political sanctions against Burma or agitating for more international attention to the area.

Burma has, for years, been one of those issues where it seemed so easy to be on the side of Good and against Evil. It’s a narrowing category, along with Darfur, Tibet and North Korea left as the other major contenders.

For years, The State Law and Order Commission (with its sinister abbreviation of SLORC) seemed so obviously the bad guy that every Slorc-ian may as well have been handed out a cape and vampire mask as part of their career starter kit. It’s later avatar, the State Peace and Development Council was no better, with their version of peace being mainly to kill, rape and rob as many defenceless ethnic civilians as possible.

And in this struggle against a repressive regime terrorizing their own citizens, there grew an attending army of NGO’s and lobby groups around the world. Burma Watching became not just a calling but a profession on which an avalance of dollars and euros were spent by Western governments keen being seen to make a stand on international human rights.

Then came the “first democratic” elections in Burma in 2010 - an affair easy to mock when the all-powerful junta reserved 75% of all seats. The government that hatched out of those elections was encrusted with some of the biggest power brokers of the last regime.

Then came the first tentative steps at reform. The Lady was released and her movements were not curtailed, she gave interviews, she even wrote articles for the local papers – unthinkable just a year previously. In September and October of 2011, a run of events caused great consternation and even tentative rejoicing: Prime Minister Thein Sein met Aung San Suu Kyi at his home, under a portrait of her father, the revolutionary icon, Aung San; construction was halted on the Myitsone Dam, a major government project, because of public pressure; a couple of hundred political prisoners were released.

What did all this mean? It had to be a sham right? Nothing good could possibly come out of the government of Burma?

But anyone who’s paying attention, will see the words “constructive dialogue” on everyone’s lips these days. The US State Department has been holding high level talks, ASEAN may well agree to Burma taking over the chairmanship in 2014, and there are talks of sanctions being lifted if the Myanmar leadership continues along the path of reform. But all this activity does raise a question about the Burma Watchers: what will happen to them if the goverment of Burma stops being a black and white kind of Baddie?

Let’s put on those rose tinted specs for a second. If Burma does start making a transition to a normal peaceful democratic society – oh Praise the Lord – and if say within a decade or so looks like one of its neighbours looks now - a growing economic powerhouse, what place will there be for the Burma Watchers?

Will they become redundant relics, historians of a lost age? I mean what’s happened to the the Cold War specialists of another age? Where are they now?

Rose coloured spectacles off and the whole thing mirage of a peaceful, democratic and increasingly wealthy Burma melts into the sands again. But history has a way of taking sudden lurches into a future no one could have forseen. Maybe the Burma Watchers need to look around for a Career Plan B.

Forced to refuse a well deserved prize for a technicality

It’s a saddening experience to read Dr Binayak Sen’s letter to the Gandhi Peace Foundation refusing the Gandhi International Peace Award for 2011.

The furore the nomination caused was more becuase of a technicality in the wording of the award announcement than the fact that it was being bequeathed to a man who has proved his dedication to India’s rural poor beyond any measure of doubt; to the rural poor including the adhivasi community.  The Gandhi Peace Foundation, critisized for adding in the award announcement that Dr Sen was being celebrated as a “representative of the adhivasi” community, later changed the wording to tailor the award specifically to Dr Sen and Bulu Imam, a joint winner for the prize.  This only made matters worse, with certain adhivasi activists reacting angrily to the fact that the award wasn’t awarded to lesser known but equally deserving adhivasi activists and leaders.

The pressure was enough for Dr Sen to pen a letter of refusal to the Gandhi Peace Foundaion, a typically gracious response …

“The level of debate is now such that the paramount issues outlined above threaten to be replaced by a palimpsest of ethnic fundamentalism. Under the circumstances, the really important task of delineating and combating the tragedy being enacted before our eyes gets pushed to the background.
Accordingly, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that at the present juncture it will not be appropriate for me to receive this award….”

There is certainly a point to be made for adhivasi people often being represented by “outsider” spokesmen.  They are right in claiming that they should be recognized for their own efforts at self development and creating a more just and democratic society.  However,  I do believe that the quarreling about the wording of the award, and the insistent pressure on Dr Sen to refuse it, was mean spirited, and in the end, self defeating for the adhivasi community.

A friend of mine in Mumbai said the whole “adhivasi issue” - which encompasses a range of ills from the exploitation of the region’s resources, the Central Government’s neglect of its people, the abuses perpetrated on ordinary people by the special forces and para military groups and the general voicelessness of all of India’s 100,000 tribals - is so far off the urban agenda, as to be virtually invisible to the Indian middle class.

So as far as I can see, any attention brought to the region is a good thing.  Whether its a Dr Binayak Sen, or an Arundhati Roy who chooses to speak out about abuses in this hidden corner of the globe, we should be honouring them for their committment to what remains an unfashionable and all but invisible cause.  This award would have brought the international gaze on India’s adhivasi community, and who knows what kind of pressure that would have translated into on the Indian government to do something about the abysmal human rights record in the region.  Maybe it could even have provided some sense to the all powerful mining co-orporations that the world was watching over their shoulder and forced them to improve their treatment of the indiginous communities living in the lands they were so busy tearing apart.

Dr Sen and his family have paid a heavy price for their belief that ethnic indiginous people are also the sons and daughters of India.  He’s spent two years in jail, with a sentence of life imprisonment hanging over his head. He could have given his family all the considerable comforts of an urban life, but they chose to go and live in a deprived community and work to bring development to a region that had precious little.  His award nomination was strongly supported by several parts of the fractured ethnic community itself, who know more than most what he has done for them.

The Jharkand Indiginous People’s Forum, Gladstone Dungdung et al who formed the pressure group and claim to be speaking for all the adhivasis of India have not done their community a service by this gesture.  You can read their response to Dr Sen’s official refusal here.

Music is a joy, not a religious crime

I just finished putting the final mixing touches on a report from our Pakistan correspondent on the Sachal Studio Orchestra, and I l loved doing it.  I’ve seen the video about 40 times I think and still haven’t tired of it. It was such a relief to report on something that’s happening in Pakistan that is not negative - it’s got nothing to do with terrorism or abuse of women, it doesn’t mention illiteracy, ethnic conflict, Islamic fundamentalism.  This is just about musicians who were once lost - or at least disbanded - and now have an opportunity to come together again to play on the instruments they loved.

One of those interviewed, a cello player called Umer Draz said that he learned the cello - not a standard instrument for the normal Pakistani musical palate - from his father who used to play in the Lollywood film industry.  But he didn’t want his son Umer to be stuck in an uncertain profession so at first he refused to teach him, but Umer finally had his way and persuaded his father, learned the cello, and ended up also playing in the orchestras making the soundtracks for Pakistani movies.

But then came Zia ul-Haq and his singularly humourless regime and deemed that music was un-Islamic and the movies, the soundtracks and the people making them went whooosh.  Desperate to feed his family, Umer Draz bought a garment shop and stopped playing.  When his kids pestered him to teach them cello, he refused.  He was sure that there was no life anymore in Pakistan for musicians and despite the fact that he of all people should have understood their longing, he refused to teach them to play.

The formation of the Sachal Studio Orchestra brought Umer Draz and several other musicians out into the light again.  And after I’d heard Umer Draz’s story, I felt an added layer of emotion watching these guys play. They all look like any number of Pakistani uncles I’ve seen, all sitting there so staidly in their shalwar kameez looking so serious, but what they’re producing is magic - all light and wonder - and we the audience, are entranced.

My friends sometimes tease me for being a Tiger Mother (though I think that I’m just a Tired Mother) because I insist that my girls learn an instrument.  The older one is on the piano, the younger on violin.  I have dreams that they will grow to be accomplished musicians who perhaps will play togehter.  But my friends misunderstand if they think that I’m doing all this to see my girls in Carnegie Hall one day.  Not that I’d object, but that was never the goal.

To be able to play music alone, or with others,  is a gift that cannot be measured.  Most adults can never really learn an instrument the way a child can, and knowing how to produce music, the joy of hearing it, playing it, creating it, adds a dimension to your life that nothing can replace.

So watch this video, then maybe like me, you’ll be inspired to go back to the original recording of Dave Brubeck’s group playing Take Five, and you’ll have given yourself a treat that’s going to make you feel good for the rest of the day.