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YOUNG GIRL WITH VIOLIN

I took music lessons from age six to fourteen, but had no luck with my teachers, for whom music did not transcend mechanical practicing. I really began to learn after I had fallen in love with Mozart’s sonatas. The attempt to reproduce their singular grace compelled me to improve my technique. I believe, on the whole, that love is a better teacher than sense of duty.

– Albert Einstein

Image Courtesy: Bill Viccaro

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I came across this in the Economic Times this morning:

 

The government has been asked by a parliamentary panel to consider the possibility of levying an ‘exit tax’ on graduates from the “premier institutions which are run on massive state subsidies”

The panel is of the view that money spent on those who work outside the country doesn’t benefit India. Hence they should be taxed for the same.

 

The report states that experts who appeared before the committee felt that when Indian students go overseas to work after receiving education at leading institutes, which are subsidised by the exchequer, the country gets no return for the expenditure incurred on these students. “The committee is of the view that students passing out from premier government institutions get the best education on payment of nominal fees. In the event of their leaving the country for good, imposition of exit tax on them must be considered,” it said.

But how will they impose this tax? If I am working in the UK and paying tax there, the government would find it difficult to get me to repatriate tax back to India unless it worked out a policy with other countries- a sticky proposition. An alternative method It could to tax my employer at the time of hiring (the employer may in turn deduct it from my salary) or make all entrants to institutes sign bonds that should they get a dollar job, they would repay their fees (with interest?) over time.

 

I want to take this argument further and argue that the government should consider removing subsidies from higher education.

 

The government in India today subsidises university education to a great extent. I remember paying Rs. 1500 (under $40) a year in annual fees at college- I spent more commuting to and fro from college to home.

 

During my MBA at an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), I paid Rs. 1,20,000 ($3,000) in annual fees when the actual spend for the government may have been higher by a factor of three of four.

 

The average salary for a graduate from an IIM is over Rs. 7,00,000 (nearly 6 times the annual fees paid by him for his degree). Similar proportions may be appropriate for colleges across the country.

 

Reading Atanu’s blog a few months ago, I learnt about 3 kinds of losses relevant to this scenario:

 

When an educated person leaves India, there is a first-order loss to the economy if the education was publicly funded. There is no comparable first-order loss if private resources were involved in the training. But in either case, the economy loses the life-time stream of economic contributions that the migrant would have made. This is a second-order loss. There is what can be considered a third-order loss that is harder to estimate but whose impact may be the most damaging in the long run. This arises from publicly subsidizing higher education at the expense of primary education.

Think of it. For every student subsidised at an IIM (a subsidy of 4-5 lakhs a year) over 25 -50 students can be comfortably educated in a government primary school. These students may not be able to pay the few hundred rupees as fees every month and in absence of government funding, may never go to primary school.

 

The Higher-education student, on the other hand can pay for himself. The most efficient way to make him do so is:

 

1. Give him a government loan to study at University

 

2. Upon Graduation and employment, tax him at a higher rate depending on salary and area of work. So, an Individual employed in a private sector firm earning in the top quartile of country’s income may be taxed at the prevailing tax rate + 5%. Another individual who earns the median wage may be taxed at base rate + 2%. These taxes hold till the student pay off the government loan + accrued interest. The idea behind the higher slabs for higher earners is improving the cash-flow of the government higher education subsidy kitty. A student employed in the civil services, government organisations, non-profit or development sector organisations may receive a fee-waiver.

 

In this manner student who have the capability to pay do so while government expenditure becomes more equitable and efficient. Incidentally, s similar taxation scheme is prevalent in Australia and a similar loan programme can be availed at leading US universities, most notably at Stanford.

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With only ten days to go before I head to the United States, I’ve been bust typing up odds and ends leaving me with little time in which to think about writing a thoughtful post.

Between all the assembling, wrapping and packing however a series of thoughts, some coherent, others less so; some connected others as different as the quiet of assembly to the ruckus of recess.

I’m going to jot down thoughts in random order. Here we go!

How can we improve our Knowledge Management?

Schools, as institutions for learning and knowledge-creation often do little to archive the creativity and potency of the materials that our teachers create. There are two primary gaps in our management of knowledge:

a) In accessing organisational knowledge and

b) In archiving accessed knowledge

– It surprises me how few of the teachers in schools visit other classrooms or other schools. There is so much to be gained by having two teachers collaborate on observing each other (maybe to solve a particular problem identified earlier while sitting in on a pre-determined session) or even by observing how other schools get their basics right. I would like to see Principals set a policy where every school year every teacher collaborates with another teacher for at least two half-days on peer observation.

– Rookie teachers routinely flounder through teething troubles that a well-organised experienced-teacher-written wiki could easily solve, as could a mentor at school.

– As a newbie teacher, I spent several hours designing experiments, crafting props to use in the classroom and making sure I got my hand-outs spot on. It took a lot of my time. It was easier back then without a wife to come back home to, with more energy and maybe more nerves. Sure, all of us would love to have children immerse into practical hands-on learning, we would love to wipe the dust of teacher resource books and create new materials- but if you are teaching a large number of classes (or worse, large number of students) even the best intentions can go awry. Moreover, many activities-for-teachers books are well-intentioned but often carry programs that are not-pilot tested, causing demonstrations to blooper and learning to falter.Some of us give a few classes our best, disadvantaging the others – the best of us try and give all classes our best and are forever running to catch up with own own schedules. Several of our classes then become ‘chalk and talk.’ It would be nice if schools kept teaching materials, curricular samples, worksheets from year-to year as a one-stop-resource for teachers looking for a handy resource. It would help the dull teacher make his classroom more exciting and help the reflective teacher think about improving student success rather than with cutting chart paper.

 

What makes a good teacher?

I spent some time crafting a personal vision for myself. At the very top of this assignment, I wanted help!

What kind of teacher did I want to be? Obviously the kind that motivates students towards a love for learning, that makes class fun. What did that mean? What traits would embody a teacher of that kind?

I reflected on my own days as a schoolboy and found myself remembering teachers who were as different as chalk from cheese; from the tough booming-voice Mr. Sharma who was soft on the inside, who set us dry assignments and made us read textbooks in class as a way of learning, yet who loved each of us dearly to Mr. Bhagat whose classes were an intellectual adventure like no other but who outside the classroom was unapproachable. Also Ms. Singh, who would feed us (I went to a residential school) cookies in the evenings and run an efficient classsroom in the mornings- yet who wasn’t even a trained teacher (she was a teacher’s wife subbing for a regular on leave). Why did each of them endear themself to us?

I realised that my year at Harvard would do nothing to make me a better teacher. It could probably make me a more aware teacher and a better-equipped one, but not a better teacher because teaching rises above what we are and comes alive in the moments when we reach out to a student and focus on him, not on ourselves.

Which is why most we had less hiring mistakes with those we hired post a Classroom demonstration compared to others hired through more conventional recruiting procedures.

I wonder if you could help me with this? What do you think makes a good teacher?

 

 

Who does the Principal learn from?

In this country, most Principals are captains of their own ships. Yes there are board meetings with experienced educators. Yes, there are workshops. But that happens one one or two occasions a year. A principal is coming from a context where as a recent teacher he has had a Principal/Administrator to guide him, workshops in collegial environments to share and learn from. With the elevation to Head, he moves from being to counselled to being the counsellor.

I know many people who find it rough. It can be difficult to provide all the answers when you are at sea yourself.

I call for a Learning Circle where Principals of a few nearby schools visit each other, observe, evaluate, comment, critique, learn and share. Apart from making the Principal a more able leader it would also send a strong signal to the staff about personal development and collaborative growth.

 

 

Better Writing and Better Assessment

This one could interest all you bloggers and creative writing teachers. I came across Creative Writing 101- tips on better writing by Kurt Vonnegut in the introduction to his excellent collection, Bogambo Snuff Box. I have included 4 of the 8 tips here:

1. Use the time of the reader in such a way that he will not feel that the time was wasted.

2. Every sentence must do two things- reveal character or advance the plot.

3. Write to please just one person. If you make love to the world, your writing will get pneumonia.

4. To heck with suspense, give your readers as much information as possible.

I found this interesting because I love to write and have penned several short stories. But his tips, especially point #2- every sentence must either reveal character or advance the plot, is relevant to every writing situation, be it blogging or even teaching- whether in class or while setting questions for student assessments.

1. Use the time of the reader in such a way that he will not feel that the time was wasted. Students know when the unexpected assessment in class means that you have not prepared your material and being unable to teach, are using the assessment as a diversion. Don’t waste their time. Ditto with asking them to read pages and pages of hand-outs that have little relevance to the learning objective, simply because as a teacher, its been difficult to find appropriate passages and reading material.

2. Every sentence must do two things- reveal character or advance the plot. Now wouldn’t that make for great teaching even if we were lecturing?

3. Write to please just one person. If you make love to the world, your writing will get pneumonia. A call to action for those differentiated instruction and differented assessment designed to meet the needs of individual students.

4. To heck with suspense, give your readers as much information as possible. Very often we either expect students to guess what we want in response to a question on an assessment. It tickles our ego, provides us with the thrill that beseiges a creator of a good puzzle, but it does nothing to advance student learning.

 

Other Random Thoughts

– One way to promote classroom collegiality may be to shift seating plans in classes around every few weeks. It will make students more comfortable with each other. The next time there is a problem, the student in question, will have several other to consult with rather than just one trusted friend; a situation that most teachers crave.

– If there is one thing I would like to do at the start of every school year it would be meeting every student of mine for a one-on-one chat where I learnt more about him as a person, as a member of a family and community, as a young man with hopes and dreams for his future. That would probably help me shorten the learning curve and understand him better than I could even after several conventional assessments or classroom sessions.

Reading five blog posts and offering thoughtful comments and engaging in dialogue is better than reading twenty without doing any of these. Holds true for any kind of reading. I plan to stick to this principle even when new carnivals and my Google Reader conspire to seduce me into reading several blogs at a go.

 

 

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Today, India celebrated 60 years of Independence from the British Raj. We still have a long way to go on various measures on socio-economic development, but we will leave that discussion for another day.

I wanted to share a few pictures I clicked this morning of children from the the Anjuman Islam High School in Mumbai celebrating Independence Day.

The school is housed in a row of slum-dwellings just off the main highway that connects Mumbai to Pune. As I sped along toward the high-way I noticed school children (their pink uniforms dirty by the muck propelled by fleeting cars) standing in clean rows and singing a song celebrating the Himalayas. They were perilously close to the cars speeding by but seem unfazed by either the guttural engine sounds or the possibility that they might be hit by an errant vehicle.

I jumped at the opportunity to get out and take a few photographs and speak to the children who were all bright and excited to participate in this demonstration of national pride and solidarity.

Have a look!

 

flag at anjuman islam

Above: Parents and the community members of the School participate in hoisting of the flag. In the background you can see boards that show affiliation to a quasi-political organisation (that funds the school) and a board (in Urdu and English) displaying the name of the school. The classrooms are housed behind the grill door in the picture.

child getting eclair at independence day

Above: Reward for the patient wait. A Cadbury’s Eclair for every child.

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Above: The students (drenched in sweat from the 1 hour wait before the proceedings got underway) respond to my slogan of Jai Hind (Hail, India the Victorious). You can see the speeding truck and car on the far side.

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Above: The boy in the foreground, Mazhar, is the son of the teacher distributing the eclairs. He was thrilled by the prospect of modelling for my camera-phone and offered me his precious eclair when I showed him the image after clicking it.

 

I had a fantastic few minutes in the company of these children, none of whom, unfortunately spoke English (They don’t teach it in their school till Class 5). Many educators in India differ with me in this view bit I am convinced about the need to make every child learn English. I don’t decry the vernacular languages, indeed there is a wealth of literature and learning in regional texts; I only propose that they be taught alongwith English- probably the key to the path with the greatest opportunities for self-advancement and an improvement in quality of life.

I hope that in the next few decades of Independent India we can get many boys like Mazhar into schools that are safe and provide a relevant education.

Jai Hind!

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The three-day hiatus in blogging owes in large part to several visits to Doctors (the medical kind). It’s depressing business, sitting in hospitals for hours waiting in grubby offices, but I now know more about the Heart than I care to.

I visited a leading cardiologist two days ago. He sat my Mother down and checked her blood pressure. 140/90. He scribbled it down on a small paper (not on his diagnosis sheet). He proceeded to check her breathing and then, two minutes later, asked her to put her other arm forward and again wrapped the Blood Pressure sensor around it. The blood pressure this time? 130/85.

I frowned. How could the readings be different?

The Doctor smiled. He think took out his fancy pen from its holder and made a note on the diagnosis sheet. He saw the look of bewilderment on my face.

I asked him to explain.

It’s simple, really,” he began. “Most patients come into my chamber for the first time feeling anxious. This accounts for a higher first reading. After a couple of minutes when they’ve warmed up to me, they relax, and I get a lower and correct reading.

I pondered his statement. It did make sense. My Mother was quite the picture of nervousness when she stepped into his chamber, now she had settled down to a healthy chatter about her symptoms.

He pointed out that this pattern repeated itself for almost every patient who consulted him for the first time.

Now as I sit here writing this, I wonder about what he said and what it could mean for us. We, who have been told by psychologists and researchers that in a hiring process, most decisions are made within the first few minutes of the interview. We, who evaluate students (often many more student and very little time) in a hurry, quizzing the student in a viva-voce rapidly about his topic as we thumb through his project.

Is it possible that we may be making Type-II Errors?

If we are indeed choosing in the first few minutes, is there a possibility that we may be rejecting as unsuitable, candidates who may indeed be fit for the job?

Is it possible that the low grade on that project on the Incas was because the student was a first-timer to this kind of evaluation? Because he was nervous coming in? Maybe he really did know Inti from Pachamama?

Or does Malcolm Gladwell and his ‘Thin Slicing’ Theory hold true? In his seminal Blink (a book I loved, successor to Tipping Point which again, I devoured) points out that we make judgements about people within a few seconds of meeting them.

Let me give you an examples from his writing – it’s one from Teaching that you’ll love (and that may make you shudder!).

“Some years ago, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University, Nalini Ambady, together with Robert Rosenthal, set out to examine the nonverbal aspects of good teaching. She used videotapes of teaching fellows which had been made during a training program at Harvard. Her plan was to have outside observers look at the tapes with the sound off and rate the effectiveness of the teachers by their expressions and physical cues…. She showed her raters just two seconds of videotape and took ratings.

She compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations made, after a full semester of classes, by students of the same teachers. The correlation between the two, she found, was astoundingly high. A person watching a two-second silent video clip of a teacher he has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who sits in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.”

Gladwell mentions that in his view, any footage longer than the two seconds is superfluous: anything beyond the first flash of insight is unnecessary.

Clearly the students had decided, by the facial expressions and the body language how effective the teacher may be. It sounds uber-cool, the kind of research we’d all love to lap up. I love Gladwell and his work (he goes on to give other examples of snap judgements, even in interview situations), so would be inclined to agree.

But somewhere it doesn’t agree with me.

If fifteen of us were to sit together and watch footage a few seconds of footage of a potential teacher in the classroom (or in the interviewee’s chair) would any of us be comfortable making the decision to hire based on our median vote?

Ditto for grading a student on a viva-voce?

The fictional Severus Snape doesn’t have great body language. Nor did some of my most inspiring teachers. I would vote (my lowly teacher voice against that of the great Psychologists) in favour of the theory hinted at by the cardiologist – our recruits, our students, indeed all of us are anxious in new situations.

When evaluating, give these folks time to prove themselves.

I wonder what you have to say on this? I’m all ears.

 

Further Reading (as always, click on numbers to follow links):

#1: The New Boy Network (from the New Yorker) – the article that led to the writing of Blink, and the article excerpted above.

#2: Keen on Higher Ed? Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on the Social Logic of Ivy-League Admissions. You should read it to get a handle on what went on behind the heavy oak doors of Admissions Departments.

#3: Fun Aside! Will you be happily married or divorced? Predicted marriage-success in 60 seconds at the Love Lab (referenced in Blink)

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Two months ago I saw An Inconvenient Truth. It has been parodied and pilloried several times in the press, but it left me a message. Global warming is a reality and the ozone depletion is a cause for concern.

Today I finished reading Jeffrey Sachs’The End of Poverty as We Know It.” Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, ex-Adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is probably best known as the dapper economist who accompanies rocker Bono around the world trying to spread the message of fighting AIDS. His central message if “Extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time.” He argues that Poverty can be eradicated in 20 years.

I’m not an economist, but the book left me with many unanswered questions. The book starts of with promise. Sachs’ tells personal stories and weaves narratives about several countries together wonderfully as he explains how Globalisation and Interconnectedness are key and how economies are linked to Topography and Natural Resources. He makes a forceful case for Technology as the killer app for development economics and surprises you with some tidbits (African Governments being no more corrupt than others, the US being amongst the lowers contributors (as % of GDP) to Foreign Aid etc. He fashions a hypothesis that 0.7% of Annual National Incomes of the 22 wealthiest countries would eradicate poverty and tries valiantly but failingly to convince you.

In the end a nice book with a lot of information, some oft-mentioned plans, but no pathbreaking ideas.

But this post is not about Messers Gore and Sachs. When I think back about the ideas presented in these two books and films, I realise it’s not about government, corporations or non-profits. It is about you and me. It is about what we can do to make our world live longer, be happier, brighter and better. It is about making a small difference, one thing at a time, and the results will begin to show.

I sat down to make my list of 10 ways I would try and make a small difference to the world and its inhabitants:

1. I will try and Pay it Forward: You may have seen the movie (Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt). It’s about doing good for someone anonymously and starting a potential series of good deeds as receivers of anonymous good actions Pay it Forward by helping others in turn. I’ll let Trevor, the hero of the book and movie explain:

Trevor, 12-year-old hero, explains his idea to his mother and teacher: “You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven.” He turns on the calculator, punches in a few numbers. “Then it sort of spreads out, see. To eighty-one. Then two hundred forty-three. Then seven hundred twenty-nine. Then two thousand, one hundred eighty-seven. See how big it gets?”

On the way back home this evening, I passed a toll plaza. I paid for the next three cars behind me. My first conscious attempt at Paying it Forward.

2. I will volunteer: I plan to devote one month of my time every two years. The last time I volunteered was in 2004 when I worked in Tsunami Affected Areas for 7 weeks- first on relief and then on rehabilitation. It was also the last time when I felt ‘connected to the Earth.’ The last time I saw ‘all of us as one’ for weeks at a stretch. I don’t know if these words will mean much, but anyone who has experienced trauma and calamity from this close will know what I am talking about.

Getting one month off in a block is difficult, so I will try and do this over several days in the 2 years, investing evenings and weekends.

3. I will Give to Soup Kitchens: Next time I am having a get-together at home, good food left over goes to feed the needy. (dial 1098 from a PNT line in India)

4. I will Conserve Electricity: My laptop is almost always on. My Television is always on Standby. I leave the geyser running for hours to have a 5-minute shower. I forget (sometimes) to turn off the lights after I leave a room. My bedroom is wired to put on 3 halogens at a time (no single bulb switches at all). My Air Conditioner consumes energy inefficiently (yes there is a comfortable, yet energy efficient temperature for ACs). All these actions make cost more money and spend more of the limited energy resources that we have. BTW if you were wondering: leaving appliances on standby consume 5% of maximum power.

I don’t know if I am prepared yet to be carbon-neural, but many schools, and all new Government funded schools in the UK are.

5. I will Avoid the Car if I Can Manage it: Good for health and good for the trees too!

6. I will Re-commit to the reason I became an Educator: Education is the way out of global poverty and out of global violence. Everyone from Adam Smith (“An instructed and intelligent people ..are more disposed to examine, and are more capable of seeing through the interested complaints of faction and sedition. The whole society is at risk when any segment of the population is poorly educated” – from his seminal “Wealth of Nations”) and my eight year old student Harleen (I feel happy when I am at school. If everyone went to school, they would be more smiley and a lot happier)

As Teachers we can help shape the world in brighter hues than we find it today. Every day, every class, every moment spent with a child can be used to fill in him a zest of life, a joy for living, a passion for learning.

I have decided to keep a regular journal, think, reflect and recommit every day to this profession.

7. I will Smile a Lot more: I am sure there is some Psychology paper somewhere that mentions a smiling person as being more attractive, happier, more confident and a delight to be around. I know when I see a smiling person on the street, I break into the biggest smile possible. I’d like to be that way most of the day.

8. I will be more Empathetic: I want to – Say Thank you more often. Send more cards (when was the last time you did?). Say Good Morning. Good Night too. Listen with Genuine Interest. Smile at the newsboy every morning. Buy flowers for home. Call an old teacher. Call an old friend. Answer and help anonymous people who make they way to my inbox I have the time. Give more pats on the back. Say well-done more often. Criticise less. Provide more support.

9. I will Vote: I am ashamed to say that I, like more than half of my countrymen in every election, do not vote. I plan to put this right the next time and only then criticise the government for the ills we find ourselves in.

10. I will revisit this list: Ideas that are written and not implemented are soon forgotten. I am going to tack this to my softboard to make sure I see (if even from the corner of my eye), this everyday. I will try and stick to this. Try not promise, for as Amitabh Bachchan, Indian movie superstar says in his film Sharaabi (The Alcoholic): “Vaade toot jaatein hain, Koshishein Kamiyaab ho Jaati hain” (Promises are broken but efforts often become successful).

I hope that by following this (and some other little things I have jotted down) I can make a small but significant change in my immediate environment and in the World (remember the Hummingbird effect?) I believe that “When we Change the World Changes” and that all of us should attempt to make, in our own little and special ways, this world a nicer place to be in. When that happens, transformation will take place.

As Lennon said, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Robert Kennedy said this in an impassioned speech in Africa (these are also the last lines of Sachs’ book):

“Let no one be discouraged by the belief that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence…. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”

Do you want to help? (click on the numbers to read)

#1. Visit the Earth Institute’s “How you Can Help” page

#2. Read about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; a report on Universal Primary Education

#3. Tips on Global Warming in the Classroom – educator resources from the Inconvenient Truth website (lesson plans, classroom activities, project ideas et al)

#4. More Educator Resources (including student grants of $500) by the Pay it Forward Foundation

#5. Listen to Imagine, by John Lennon (turn up those speakers!)

#6. How Happy is the World? A map of the world with different shades for countries based on their Happiness Index (UN Data)

#7. Try Blackle.com – It’s the Old Google in New Black Clothes. Apparently booting white pages takes more out of your PC, a black Google page would save the world 750 MW of power. (Thanks Krishnan!)

#8. This one is my favourite: If you haven’t read Desiderata, read it. The best advice on a happier, more fulfilling life I’ve come across.

 

10 things to do

This image above is from the Inconvenient Truth Website (but you knew that!)

How will you change the world? Let me know! I would love to hear what you think.

Are you an Educator? Maybe you use a similar discussion in your classroom?

Read our latests posts here or leave a comment!

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number-of-students-beaten-in-school.jpg

Data from India. Source: The Telegraph

Think of it another way. If you have two kids, it is highly probable that one of them will be beaten while at school.

I don’t know whether the numbers looked at all strata of society and whether the percentage represents number of school going children beaten every school-year or number of children beaten over the course of their school going years.

I don’t think I care. These numbers are terrible in either event.

Further reading:

#1. School children electrocuted in Hyderabad as punishment

 

#2. Factbook on Corporal Education in India (snippet from Delhi School Education Rules, 1973: Rules for caning in schools in the Delhi area of India – if a cane is used, it is supposed to be applied to the palm of the hand, max. 10 strokes)

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