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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

 

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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Back during my MBA, I learned about network effects. Simply put, a service (for us, a blog) becomes more valuable as more and more people use it, mainly because every user functions as a switchboard connecting many (until then) unknown people together.

 

Think of it like this.

 

I have a Telephone. Noone else does. Who can I call? Noone.

 

You have a Telephone, so do I. You can call me, I can call you. That’s one call (Talk combinations possible- 1 – You and I).

 

John (J) gets a phone. You(Y) and John don’t know each other. Now you can call John, I can call John, and he can call both of us. Or three of us can be on the phone together. (Talk combinations possible – 4 – IY, IJ, YJ, IJY)

 

Priyanka gets a phone. Now John can Call Priyanka, me and you. Same for Priyanka. Also for me and you. One of us could choose to call two others on conference but not the third. (Talk combinations possible – 11 – IY, IJ, IP, YJ, YP, JP, IYP, IYJ, IJP, JPY, IYJP)

 

So now with 4 phones in the network, the number of conversations possible has increased in a proportion exponentially greater than the number of people added to the network.

 

This diagram exposes 1-1 connections :

 

Network effect

 

In fact, network effects are the magic ingredients that make sites like FlickR, MySpace, Orkut, Friendster so appealing. Every time a person joins Facebook, the number of connections he can make and every other person who has a Facebook Account can make goes up exponentially.

 

Same is true of the local mall. Every time a vacant spot in the mall is taken by a new retailer, the value of the mall goes up exponentially, the value of being in that mall for the other shopkeepers goes up exponentially.

 

Or of the local stock exchange.

 

Or of your rail or bus network.

 

In fact, it is also true of most social spaces that thrive on collaboration.

 

So, when I read Scott’s post on Top Edublogs, I started thinking of the Long Tail– the hundreds of thousands of brilliant bloggers with exciting ideas on education that have got themselves the tools to belong to a network, but still haven’t logged on. They have a blog but know of no tools to connect to the EduBlog network or have had less time/patience/energy to do so. We are missing out on voices what are yearning to think thoughts and inject ideas you and I would love to think and collaborate on.

 

Every one of these voices would exponentially improve the conversation in the blogosphere.

 

 

collaboration

 

So starting today I am going to, every two weeks, introduce a less read EduBlogger to you through this blog. My three criteria for identifying a less read and definitely-readable EduBlogger?

 

a) A Technorati Authority of 10 25 or less- this would, according to Scott’s analysis, be all blogs outside the top 500 320.

 

b) The blog should have have had one post in the last 10 days and at least 5 in the last two months (this would give me a large enough sample of posts to decide on whether the writing appeals to me as also to exclude bloggers who write sporadically).

 

c) Focus on personal, opinion-driven writing, rather than on posts linking to other writing without comments by the writer himself.

 

Look out for the first of the New Blogger Introductions today.

Update: Click right here to see our first featured Ebublogger in this series.

Also: Click here to see our latest EduPosts.

 

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I blogged a few days ago about the Tintin racism row and commented that “it was much a do about nothing” since this ‘concern’ by the racism watchdog dug up an affair done and dusted earlier.

I wondered whether this would bring this comic into the hands of thousands (especially kids) who may have never read it otherwise.

This morning as I checked my blog stats, I saw a 350% spike in readership, almost all towards my Tintin post- found by people who Googled “tinin racism” or “Tintin in the Congo.” This got me wondering about an increase in sales of the printed comic book.

Indeed, it seems the comic has seen a 3800% jump in sales and is now number 8 on the Amazon Bestseller List!

Ironic, given that a part-intention was ro make the comic book a little less accessible.

You can read the news story here.

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One of my biggest learnings of 2004 was understanding Reading levels. I knew, earlier than 2004, that there are reading levels, age-appropriate bands of text complexity, determined by research for classroom settings.

This meant that in your classroom you would want to use text:

a) That was at the reading level of the children in your class or just slightly above

b) That there was the possibility that some there may be a range of reading levels in your class: some students may be reading ahead their age-appropriate reading level and some behind

c) That you would have to make allowances for this spectrum of reading levels, especially in Individual reading classes or Sustained Silent Reading Lessons, else you may end of frustrating the reader (should there we a dissonace between his reading level and that of the text he is offered)

I used reading cards and books in the class that came with the publisher’s recommended reading level guidelines. Else, by scanning the material I made an educated guess on what the reading level could be.

That’s when I stumbled upon stuff like the Gunning Fog Index and the Fleisch Kincaid Reading Ease.These are tools to determine the reading levels of any piece of text.

 

The Gunning Fog index can be calculated with the following alogritm (courtesy wikipedia). Don’t get bothered by the computation; towards the end of the post I will provide links to sites that can compute this stuff in seconds for you:

  1. Take a full passage that is around 100 words (do not omit any sentences).
  2. Find the average sentence length (divide the number of words by the number of sentences).
  3. Count words with three or more syllables (complex words), not including proper nouns (for example, Djibouti), compound words, or common suffixes such as -es, -ed, or -ing as a syllable, or familiar jargon.
  4. Add the average sentence length and the percentage of complex words (ex., +13.37%, not simply + 0.1337)
  5. Multiply the result by 0.4

 

gunning fog index

 

 

 

 

The Fleisch Kincaid Reading Ease can be calculated like this:

flesich kincaid reading ease

 

The Gunning Fog Index gives you a number that corresponds with the number of years of schooling one would need top understand the text. A number of 6, for example, would mean that a 6th grader could understand the text.

The Fleisch Kincaid Reading Ease would return a number between 0-100 with numbers closer to 0 being meaning easier text.

The alogrithms look complicated in their computation, but simplistic in the number of variables they take into account. The shortcomings of this approach may be that the formula cannot account for

  • account for writing style or genre
  • usage of passive/active voice
  • redundancy of expression
  • use of language that is simple or familiar
  • complexity in ordering of logical thought,

all of which are important in making text readable and determining what grade they could be appropriate for.
Here is a look at some popular texts and what their readability is like (GF: Gunning Fog, FRRE: Flesh-Kincaid Reading Ease)

New York Times (webpage at http://www.nytimes.com), GF 9.04 FRRE 60.09

Wall Street Journal (webpage at http://www.wsj.com), GF 9.18 FRRE 59.33

Walt Disney Company (webpage in the site disney.go.com), GF 7.13 FREE 54.02

The Bible has a GF of 6, Reader’s Digest of 8, Time Magazine of 10. A GF of 16 or above means readibility suitable at a post-graduate level.

I ran tests on the first page of my blog and came up with this:

Total sentences – 455

Total words – 4936

Average words per Sentence – 10.8

Words with 1 Syllable – 3298

Words with 2 Syllables – 963

Words with 3 Syllables – 410

Words with 4 or more Syllables – 265

Percentage of word with three or more syllables – 13.68%

Average Syllables per Word – 1.52

Gunning Fog Index – 9.81

Flesch Reading Ease – 67.04

Flesch-Kincaid Grade – 6.60

 

This seems to suggest that my blog is readable by some 9th graders and most 10th graders: given the directionality of the content on this site, I am happy with that. Ideally, I would recommend a readability between 8 – 10 on the Gunning Fog Index.

How does one use this in the classroom? Here are instructions on calculating readability statistics for Webpages, Word Documents and Texts:

Word Document: Fortunately MS Word has an inbuild functionality for this- for many years I was just ignorant of it!

1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
2. Select the Check grammar with spelling check box.
3. Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
4. Click Spelling and Grammar on the Standard toolbar.

Now every time you spell check a document, Word will give you data on Reading grade and Level. As a bonus, it will also tell you how many of your sentences are passive!

Web Page: I recommend Juicy Studio– thats where I ran the stats for my blog shown above.

Text: There are several on the web, I love Jack Daniel’s is one.

The good news: It has its limitations, but can be handy for a quick check of readability and hence a great help in the classroom. Also, it unfortunately it won’t make you a great writer, but it can stop you from being an ordinary one!

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In India there is a saying “Naya Maulvi zyada Allah, Allah karta hai;” the new priest invokes and proclaims God’s name much more than do the older ones.

 

First-Time Principals, especially if they have been appointed at a youngish age and/or have come from another school, could fit this description. I talk from experience, I was asked to head a school at 25. Some observations and advice:

 

Top Ten Things I would Do (when you reach the end don’t forget to download the inspirational story by Chinua Achebe)

 

1) Start by meeting every member of staff: Yes, every member. Teacher to Administrator to Janitor. Ask them what they like about school and what they didn’t. What could improve? What made them come to work here every morning. Make it personal– if you strike a rapport ask after their families. Its nice to be cared for.

 

2) Talk to at least 10% of the kids: Make sure you cover every age-group, have an good mix of boys and girls, of the studious ones and of the jocks.

 

Doing A & B above may take you 3 months or more. The information you gain from these conversations will give you years of vicarious learning.

 

3) If you haven’t done already, find out what your school board expects from you and the school. if you disagree on something, NOW is the time to tell them. Meet the parents council. Write to the rest of the parents. Tell them about yourself. Tell them you want to listen. Ask them to write. When they do, respond politely, but don’t rush action.

 

4) Reflect. If you’ve been keeping a journal as a teacher, read it. Find out what bugged you about Principals and administrators and resolve not to do any of those things.

 

5) Dream. Make a plan for what the school will look like 6 months from now. 12 months from now. 5 years from now.

 

6) Dream. Make a plan for what the school will feel like 6 months from now. 12 months from now. 5 years from now. Is it a place radiating with happiness? Smiling faces? Interested parents? Committed teachers?

 

7) Sweat the small stuff. Get into the details. Make a note of every little thing you want to see at the school. Every change you want to make, every practice you want followed, every value you would like cherish, every attitude you’d like honoured. Write it. Flesh it out. If it takes 50 pages or even a 100 to express- Do it.

 

8 ) Communicate your 10, 20, 50 page vision in One Page. Yes 1 Page. Then Distribute it to every member of your school.

 

9) Track your vision document. See how you are doing. If you don’t track it, you won’t achieve it.

 

10) Smile! You can enjoy anything you aren’t having fun doing!

 

Some other things to keep in mind

 

a) Don’t re-invent the wheel: You aren’t the first ones facing the challenges you are facing. Find support- ask other Principals. Read. Research. The answers are out there.

 

b) Don’t be in a hurry to Change: We may find things that are not working as we think they should. We believe there is a better way. But don’t brandish your diktat on the school in your early days. Schools are delicate ecosystems. Understand them before you begin tweaking.

 

c) Make every interaction and opportunity to convey your vision, your plan. Use every interaction to make sure you leave people better than you found them.

 

d) Don’t always take their word for it. Apply judgement. New Principals are often told they don’t know ‘how it works around here’ or worse ‘how it always has worked around here.’ Before you create negative perceptions about anything on anyone based on this information try and find out more.

 

e) Its OK not to know everything. Nobody does. I didn’t, but in the initial days I pretended to. Then I realised it was better to accept, learn from others and in sum, come up with a better idea.

 

If you have made it thus far, congratulations. As a young Principal, I could never have listened to someone else so patiently. After all, I did think I knew everything and was going to change the world!

 

However, if there is one thing you must take away from this post, it should be the story “Dead Man’s Path” by Chinua Achebe. You can download that story here. It is the story of a Young Principal, his over-inflated sense of self, his disenchantment with the ‘old ways of teaching’ and a disregard for tradition that leads to a sad end. The best work of fiction on school administration I have ever read.

 

Love for all of you to add to this post with comments and tips!

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