Month: September 2012

Know Your Basics

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As I’ve talked about this month, children in Dubai nowadays have the opportunity to live their dream job for one day in Kadzania and see if they’re up for it. I also discussed about Fordism of Education and how the academic experience would be better if it were more personalized. I also spoke about gadgets and their use in academic institutions nowadays. There was a post on how parents need to motivate children to excel and not expect the teachers to do everything. I also wrote about the case when failure is seen as a success.

So today I’m going to wrap up this topic with something very important. Given that the academic system will stay the same for a while – based on standardized syllabi and testing – children need to be taught the importance of developing a strong foundation for their knowledge; i.e. being pros at the basics.

Today in class, the professor spoke about someone who calculated the size of a heat exchanger in their design project, and the answer? 36 km.

He brought it up when he was talking about how it is still important at the 500-and-600-level courses to keep using consistent units while making calculations. It’s incredible to think how many engineering mistakes take place in the real world because somebody didn’t bother to check if the units were consistent or not.

The seven SI base units and their interdepende...
The seven SI base units and their interdependency. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And to think that people get introduced to units in Freshman year of high school, or Form 1. Eight years later, they’ll still need to work with it if they were engineers. Same thing with doctors and Anatomy.

Once a professor was talking to us about how his friends disapproved of him when he made his kid repeat a year because his foundation wasn’t strong enough – even though he passed the year. I remember thinking I wouldn’t like to have my father do that, but in the end, maybe it was to the kids’ main benefit, or he’d end up reporting a heat exchanger with a length of 36 km.

When Failure Is A Success

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When F means "Flying Colors" not "Failure"
When F means “Flying Colors” not “Failure”

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill

I’ve written about this before, but today I would like to focus more on how students are conditioned to hate the crosses on their exam papers. From a young age, the smiley faces and the golden stars and the “Excellents” are associated with full marks or something close. We learn to fear mistakes, we learn to fear failure, and as we go from one rung of the ladder to the next, we eventually reach the real world, and suddenly discover that failure is what makes us learn.

Most of the successful entrepreneurs will talk about how many businesses they failed in before they started. If you read the biographies of some bestselling authors, they talk about the number of novels that were rejected before they got a script accepted. So failure is an important step in learning, and yet schools do not tolerate it at all.

In Creating Tomorrow’s Schools, the authors cite that “a press release published in 2008 by The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors found that in a survey of 2,000 adults, 77 per cent felt that their exam results did not reflect their true abilities and that 90 per cent of teachers do not believe that exams are the best indicator of their pupils’ abilities. I remember being told as a child that your ability to pass exams and eventually gain a degree demonstrated to future employers your ability to stick to a task, your resilience.”

People have defined success and failure in black-and-white terms; high GPA students are successful and low GPA students are not. But there are many aspects of a human being that make him successful in some things and failures in others. In engineering, there were people who were more practical than others. I remember once a lab instructor was talking about how engineers, we need to be able to look at the distance from his desk to the door and be able to estimate in our heads how many meters those are. You’ll be shocked to discover how some people memorize one formula after another, but when the pipes leak under the sink, they have no clue what to do.

Then there are people who do a better job at the field under stress. Others perform better in exams under stress. Some make the mistake of assuming that just because a person can perform better in exams under stress then they can work in the field under stress. However, the two situations are totally different. In one, the mistake could lead to a paper filled with red crosses, while the other could end up with a building collapsing and people dying. So yeah, the stakes are higher, and the stress gets redefined.

That’s why I like how companies nowadays don’t just look at CV’s but have all sorts of personality tests, and assessment days where they simulate the work environment for the candidate to study soft skills like his presentation skills, ability to stay cool under pressure, and other character traits necessary for the job.

That means that students need to relax a bit and not obsess over their GPA’s. It’s true that grades are important as they take the student up the academic ladder, and some companies do the initial screening of people based on their GPA’s, but students need to understand that they are not their GPA’s. I might have quoted this before but as my advisor at AUS used to say, “I don’t grade you as a person, but I grade the paper you gave me.”

In other words, one failed experience shouldn’t put a hole in their self-esteem, and their motivation levels. Failures should be seen as temporary obstacles that need to be overcome, not as a dead-end in itself. I agree with what the authors in “Creating Tomorrow’s Schools” say about how you learn nothing new from getting everything right, and that you only learn when you make a mistake.

Mistakes help you create a different approach towards solving a certain problem, and as Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” Also another interesting quote by him is, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

It’s interesting to note that people are becoming increasingly aware about the benefits of failure that there’s actually a conference called “FailCon” in the US, where technology entrepreneurs, investors and designers come together to talk openly about their failures and prepare for success.

So to make failure a success you need to do the following:

1) Accept the failure as a temporary setback. You can rephrase the word “failure” in your mind by saying, “I didn’t fail, I’m just preparing for success.”

2) Learn from the failed experience. a failure is a true failure only if you haven’t received any lesson from it.

3) Move on to the next approach you can take towards your goal. Adjusting your approach is important as Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

4) Don’t quit. Keep on persevering until you make it bi ithn Allah.

Finally, I close with an interesting idea where one of the authors of the book say that if they find out that their child keeps on getting 100 %, then they ask the teacher how to change things in order to challenge the kid more. The idea is that getting mistakes are the main way to understand that the child is being challenged enough, that he’s moving out of his comfort zone and that his true potential is being tested.

Motivating Children To Excel

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Many parents have unreasonable expectations of their children’s teachers. They think that just because they pay the teachers’ salaries, then they have hired a  personal coach.  They want the teachers to discover their children’s hidden talents and help develop them. But at the end of the day teachers fulfill their part of the deal by conveying material from the syllabus to the students, ensuring that students understand the material, and additionally making sure that they go home without getting hurt by other students physically or verbally.  But when it comes to discovering and developing children’s talents, the parents need to invest some time on that.

It’s sad how some parents involvement with their children is limited to paying fees, arranging vacations and checking their report at the end of the semester with a nod or a shake of the head. If the kids are lucky, their parents might distractedly sign off their diary every once in a while. I once heard a story where some children didn’t perform well in school, and their parents started to lecture them on the importance of education, and how reading would help them strengthen their English so they would understand the problems.

“We buy you books but you don’t read,” the parents complained.

Then a third person sat and read with them on the kindle and they got so excited that the next day they wanted to read again, which made this person wonder, “Maybe all that those kids needed was someone to read with them.” (Or maybe they just liked the idea of a kindle instead of a physical book). The thing is, parents would buy the books and shelve them, hoping their highly-aware three year old would pick them up and read.

Then you have parents who expect all their children to be identical. If the first-born is good with sports, then the second-born should be good with sports as well, and they show their disappointment when the second-born never wins a running race. Maybe the second-born is an artist who would rather sit with their coloring crayons. It’s true schools try as much as they can to expose children to different extra-curricular activities so that talents would emerge, but some parents seem to think that extra-curricular activities always need to stay there…outside the curriculum.

“You could color during kindergarten? That’s so nice honey. But art will get you nowhere. Now you should now focus on your understanding these math formulae.”

But what if they want to be an architect? Or an interior designer?

Children need to be continuously motivated. They also need the extra investment in terms of money and effort from their parents to develop their talents. In his TED talk about the Secrets of Success in 3 minutes, Richard John said something like; it’s not always easy to push yourself to success and that’s what mothers are for. Parents could do this by paying more attention to their children instead of just hoping for nannies or teachers to take their place, they could take them to Kidzania and have them experience the different occupations there are, or they could just be there with wise advise whenever the child needs them.

I personally started taking pictures of some of my cousin’s coloring books to keep a record in case they would turn into the next Picasso, in which case I could remind them of the time when they colored ‘Snow White’ black.

Redefining Art; why should snow white be white?

Fordism of Education

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Books to be returned...
(Photo credit: flickr/hashmil)

In 1913, Henry Ford rolled out affordable cars after he installed a moving assembly line and used it for mass production. Until then, cars were expensive because they were tailor-made.When we think about our academic system, it works on principles similar to those of the assembly line.Children going through the system are molded to fit the specifications of universities and/or the workplace. They are taught to take on special qualities and to think a certain way, and if a person does not satisfy the desired specifications by not getting the correct grades in the correct courses, he is stamped with the ‘Reject’ label.

The sad thing is while that is the way things have always been, students still ask the question, ‘Why are we in school?Steve Jobs never graduated from college and he made people think of apple as more than just a fruit.’

Besides the obvious answer – to give parents a break – our elders drill into us the statement, “Get an education. Get a good job. Get married. Get kids. Send them through the same path. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are an exception to the rule that you need an education to succeed in the world.”

However, the goal of institutions go beyond the ‘get an education ==> get a job’ road. An ideal school would build a well-rounded individual on the mental and social front. In addition to that, since students spend at least 8 hours in school 5 days a week for 12 years, the responsibility of building the person’s moral basis is dumped onto the shoulders of teachers.

Now of course, reality is very far from the ideal.

Think about the hierarchy that’s portrayed in pop culture where jocks are at the top of the pyramid and the nerds are at the bottom. So even though some people might have naturally high intellectual capacities, but peer pressure might smother their nerdy talents. Students cheat in exams, copy homework, lie to teachers, skip class – so even if they did have a good moral foundation from home, it would crumble under the weight of social pressure. And the sad thing is that many students go to school because of the social life. They don’t understand how knowledge of Pythagoras’ theorem would help them in real life so the social life makes school worth wasting time on.

Children’s natural curiosity is restrained when they are forced into a seat for eight hours per day, staring at a blackboard. They would rather be at home playing video games and watching TV. There is something about the system that stifles their creativity and switches off their interests because of the forced schedules and sylabbi. Yet we have to stick to the current school system because systemization works for people within one (or two) standard deviation of the mean on the bell’s curve.

Can you imagine a school where individual students are asked, ‘What are you interested in?’ Then tailor-making a syllabus that focuses on their individual talents and interests. It would be ideal, but extremely expensive in a school setting because the student-to-teacher ratio would decrease. Fusion Academy is one example which boasts a highly personalized curriculum and a 1:1 student:teacher ratio. But the tuition? 40,000$ per year.

Homeschooling is a cheaper way of helping children get a more personalized education, but it normally happens outside the realm of a classroom. The idea of homeschooling is becoming popular as more families join the Abu Dhabi Homeschoolers association and Northern Emirates Homeschool Associations. Some families have no other option as schools are really expensive in the region. Take for example, Al Yasmina School next door where parents have to pay 41,580 dirhams per year for their children in KG. 41,580?!!! That’s 11,000 US dollars or 952,101 Kenya shillings (KES). Nearly a million KES to pay for one year of a KG1 student.

Another reason some parents might go for homeschooling is the increasing incidents of bullying in schools. I’ve written about Lujain’s story earlier in April; the girl who suffered a brain haemorrhage after getting beaten by four boys in the school playground. The incident left Lujain in a coma for around three weeks at Shaikh Khalifa Medical City and she had permanent damage to the left-field vision in both her eyes. The school refused her entry on the first day of the term this month claiming they would be unable to take responsibility for her. The latest news shows that there’s a meeting with ADEC (Abu Dhabi Educational Council) to decide on whether she would return to the same school. 

The main arguments against homeschooling is that the child will not be able to face and learn from the challenges they face when they befriend other people but families can avoid that by joining other homeschooling families and arrange picnics or sporting events so that their children don’t become too isolated.

Moving on to the syllabus used by homeschoolers, according to the FAQ section of AD Homeschoolers Association, “parents can follow criteria provided by a ministry of education in their home country, or use a curriculum such as K12 accredited by the Ministry of Education in the UAE as well as in other countries.” They also cite the lack of a proper library as a big challenge for them.

Then you have ‘unschooling’ another controversial educational philosophy where students don’t even stick a particular syllabus, but instead learn whatever they want whenever they want. You can imagine such a system won’t exactly work if a person is seeking a degree in the real world, though it might work for freelancers and entrepreneurs.

At the end of the day, people will talk about how the current system needs serious reforms, but until something in the way the real world changes radically, they’ll stick with it because it is what gets one the degree, the good job…
So far.
However don’t be surprised if somebody grows up to say, ‘I was born smart but education ruined me.’

Abu Dhabi Homeschoolers Association,
Northern Emirates Homeschool Association, go to,