Friday, January 2, 2015

Unlearning to be a Paper Tiger

PK has seen hordes vandalising movie halls and most hots-shots look the other way. At one end is rule of law and at the other is the quality and nature of our education.

pa·per ti·ger
  1. a person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual.

If you really want to test a person's character give him power, said Abraham Lincoln. Actually it's a pretty good indicator of capability too - the best and worst you can do. Claims and complaints must melt away and morph to action (or lack of it) which in turn reveals your true colours, or stripes shall we say.

It is true of the suddenly powerful PK-haters that are vandalising cinema halls, burning posters of actor Aamir Khan, and have forced director Raju Hirani to issue a near-apology. It is also true of the in-power central government that has mostly looked the other way. The shriek-able media that has been cautiously reprimanding, and the mostly ambivalent literati. Shekhar Kapur tweeted "I found #PK very entertaining. But I still admire the amazing selfless work some of our spiritual leaders r doing for our people". Hmm. And where are you Arvind "DiMaggio" Kejriwal?

Nonetheless PK proceeds. Onwards towards the record breaking 400 crore mark making courageous, even if fleeting, dents in millennia old stupors. As my driver, who took his three kids to watch the film, said to me thoughtfully: "Haan, yeh sab insaan ke banaeye hue farak hain" (These are all man-made differences). Or as I overheard a helper girl at the hairdresser's say: "Sachmuch acchi hai, sab soch rage hain" (Truly, its a good movie, everyone is thinking..). Even before PK it was amply clear what the likes of Mr Khan and Mr Hirani, are capable of -  boldly and creatively attacking socially relevant themes of education, idealism, inclusion etc - and arguably doing good while doing well. What about the others?

Beyond enforcing the law, which we must, its worthwhile is to try and figure out how do you get people to execute their potential - or already existing - abilities in more constructive and impactful ways.

How do you get folks who's capability seems to peak at stone-throwing to do more with themselves ? And perhaps even more importantly, how to get obviously capable people do stuff thats more transformative and not just safeguard their own narrow interest?

The heart of matter is the quality and nature of our education. There is fair bit of evidence from around the world on what quality formal elementary education can do. Not only it boosts productivity and economic prospects, but can also progress culture, attitudes, and create a minimum civilian code of conduct. Homes and neighbourhoods will take longer to change, schools (institutions) can be the positive catalyst. However, just "sending people to school" is obviously not the answer - most pelters are school educated and many crooks are degree holders! An education that captures the needs of time and solves the present problems of the given society is what will work. Rest is a "waste of time".

The schooling "system"  needs to move from recalling what others have said, to figuring out yourself what to do. That can be done if children everyday have a "real problem to solve", put their mind(s) to figuring out a worthwhile solution, ON THEIR OWN. 

How to fit multi-shaped blocks in to box perfectly in pre-school?  How to use concepts of area, volume, money and calculate what it would cost repaint the school corridor?  How to build simple models (carts,boats,planes, even submarines)  with ordinary materials to understand basic properties of nature - air, water,earth? How to conduct a self-government election in class and caste your vote to elect the "best" leader? How to write a program to capture weekly news about your city or state on the internet? How to read any text critically and write creatively "in your own words"? How to build an argument and debate on reservation for women in the workplace and on deforestation for development? A million things like that. Not just blindly  copy stuff from the board or memorise entire tomes (or poems) by heart. 

Over the past decade, my colleagues and I are doing their bit to make this change at scale. We run into this PK-hater wall everyday. You could also call it the  lets-preserve-tradition-at-any-cost wallTeacher' s don't want to change their "traditional" radio station ways of lecturing for 45 minutes non-stop, even at 6 year olds. Parents are suspicious of anything different from what was done "in our times". Regulatory authorities are caught up with fee, infrastructure, and fiddling with the syllabus to reflect altered political power. Consequentially, school managements - even enlightened ones to know kids are not learning what they need to - do not want to mess with any change that would hurt "sentiments" (as also their cash-flow!). And so children continue to be prepared for the past, not the future.

The real problem, however, is neither sentiments nor resources. As PK finally figures out : It is fear. 

Fear is a childhood habit that is hard to undo for anyone. It becomes that much harder if you have grown-up in a sequestered, insular, authoritarian patriarchy being terrified of and hiding things from "Papaji", "Abbaji" or "Appa". And then to have zero formal training or batting-practice at thinking for yourself, making mistakes, and acquiring the confidence to learn from them. So the "system" at school and at home are pretty much the same. Later, you may acquire the sheen of a "sahib" with degrees, mechanistic but fancy titled jobs, and a A-lister wardrobe - but inside you remain a bit of a scared child looking for a cue from what others are doing or saying. And when you follow the crowd, you feel the crowd is following you. You feel powerful like a tiger - a paper tiger.

So while there is rightfully a lot of din around the move from "knowledge" to 'skills" in education, it misses a fundamental point. You could have skills, but no agency.The ability and willingness to act on the knowledge or skill you may possess. A sense of agency is what psychologists call the subjective awareness and belief that it is I who control my actions in the world. New York Times writers David brooks calls it the "confidence to control your destiny" that comes from an "engraved inner criteria to guide action". The absence of which, he says, creates reactionaries amongst the disadvantaged   or approval-seeking machines amongst the privileged. 

Where does this sense of agency come from? 

By constantly engaging with the outside world and figuring things out for oneself. A century ago psychologist Vygostsky and others transformed the world's understanding of learning of how knowledge is "socially constructed" - yet we persist with the imposition model. An interesting University of Melbourne research on conflict amongst pre-schoolers points to how a "teacher positioning herself as a non-participant" facilitates the children owning up responsibility for their behaviour and developing a sense of agency. If children (or adults for that matter) are deprived of authentic real engagement with things,situations,people and  never given the chance to figure them out for themselves, it's unlikely that any robust sense of agency will ever develop. 

This stepping aside and occasionally letting the kids do the thinking and talking is at the heart of our society relearning to create agency in its citizenry. Thereby unlearning old ways. Perhaps the BIG people in our lives -  parents, teachers, authorities - need to do less, not more, so that our sense of agency truly develops. Hold back, say less, bite their tongue, let go, let us make mistakes and face the consequences, see how we bounce back, watch us grow, and growl. Like a tiger.

And like PK in the end they must go away.


  1. Excellent read, Ashish! This quite hits the nail on the head!
    May I suggest you use LinkedIn's publishing platform to share this post as well ... I'm sure the network would help in making your voice reach a much larger audience! Let me know if I can help :)

    1. Thanks Shamalee .. Yes sure…should we connect over email ? I am at

  2. A lot of the habits that we have developed , even the language we use, the way we articulate I believe is conditioned by the exposure we receive. In the book Malala she talks about how her father changed from being a potential suicide bomber to a relatively liberal thinker purely because he met people who influenced him more powerfully. Skills are learnable but providing different viewpoints to our kids and even young adults to help them shape their own thinking provides a genuine respect for others. Some of the basics we as adults as well as younger learners need to learn are listening skills and articulation skills. How many institutions practice these and therefore by demonstration teach this!!!
    Great article Ashish...sets the rusty Grey cells thinking again.