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cover of tin tin in congoIt seems Tintin is a racist.

That’s what the Commission for Racial Equality, a government watchdog, has declared after thumbing through Tintin In Congo. They were referring to the following:

1. The portrayal of the Congo people and monkeys are facially indistinguishable.

2. The Deifying of Tintin and Snowy by the people of Congo.

3. They also objected to the way he treats animals (older versions showed him stuffing a stick of dynamite into an ox)

The exact quote from their spokeswoman: “This book contains imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the “savage natives” look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles.”

tintin in the congo

Have a look at the photos below: you can see clearly that the natives are portrayed as rather comical and monkey-like. I tried to find a caricature of a monkey from the book, but couldn’t find it.

It seems that this book has a historical context– Congo was a Belgian Colony (the creator of Tintin, Herge was a Belgian citizen). The comic tried to glorify the name of Belgium, deliberately set in a region the colonial power was eager to hang on to. This story showed the dual face of colonialism, an exploitation of the natives and also the benevolence of Belgium through provision of infrastructure, utilities, health services and education.

This fact has been documented and denounced publicly earlier. In fact, Herge himself admitted to regretting certain caricatures in this volume.

My question to you as an educator is this:

1) Should we be shielding our children from comics like these? If yes, how far can you go?

2) Is there a possibility to use these comics as a tool to explain the zeitgeist back in Colonial Europe as many of the Imperialistic powers scrounged to hold on to their fiefdoms?

I am not in favour of racism, but nor am I in favour of mollycoddling our children. Comics are an evocative, visually-rich media and reactions like this will happen. That shouldn’t drive us to pull them off children books shelf. What will be next – puritans questioning the Batman-Robin relationship or the relative absence of clothing on various comic heroines like Teela and Sheeba?

The comic may have been moved from the kids section to the adult section (action by Borders post the watchdog comments) but this publicity would only drive more kids to it. Unlike with alcohol, you can’t stop a child from buying it from there.

As always, I look forward to hear what you want to say. Have a good weekend!

Update:  See an update to this post here

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OLPC laptop in Ghana“It’s not a Technology Project. It’s an Education Project.” I didn’t say that. Nicholas Negroponte did. You know who he his, we blogged about him 2 days ago that also had a YouTube film and an overview of his workht here.

 

In case you missed it, Negroponte is ex-Director of the MIT Media Lab and chief evangelist for the One Laptop Per Child Project- a plan to provide $100 laptops to the children of the world. The OLPC Foundation believes that using these laptops will lead to learning. This post will tell you what are the pedagogical principles behind the OLPC, how making a $100 laptop is possible, what the current state of the project is and what could go wrong. I will use information from the Hole in the Wall experiment, first started in India in ’99, do explain why the idea may work.

 

What are the pedagogical principles behind the OLPC ?

 

Learning is our main goal; we do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. Children—especially young children—do not need to learn about IT and certainly do not need to be fluent users of WORD, EXCEL and POWERPOINT—They are not office workers. However, picking up these skills, having grown up with a laptop, will be readily accomplished.

 

Learning some math facts while learning to hate math is far from ideal. Learning about things that are personally meaningful while constructing knowledge—especially where children realize that they had to extend themselves beyond what they believed they were capable of doing—is both natural and liberating.

 

Children need to learn learning, which is primarily acquired through the passion that comes from access, the ability to make things, to communicate and to express. Writing a computer program, while seemingly esoteric, is in fact the closest a child can come to thinking about thinking. Likewise, debugging a program is the closest one can come to learning learning.

 

It goes without saying that Internet access and tools for expression (text, music, video, graphics) are the contemporary “toys” for learning. Every child of any means in the developed world has access to a computer at home and usually his or her own, with music, DVD, plus interactive and rich media to do anything from learning languages to play games. Making these same resources available to the roughly one-billion other children, who do not have such access, has seemed ridiculously daunting, but is no longer. This is simply because the high costs of laptops has been artificial and perpetuated, not innate. It is fair to say that OLPC has broken this spell.”

 

The extract above was taken from the wiki site of the OLPC Project. You can access the entire wiki here.

 

The paragraph above tried hard to make a compelling case for the use of laptops, but fails. Yes, we don’t need to teach kids MS Office. Agreed. What do we need to teach them? Not articulated.

 

I think Laptops can help- indeed may studies have proven that they do (more on one such later). This is predominantly due to the ability of the machine to invoke curiosity and to provide rich visual imagery of a world unknown to the children until then. Also, interactive software and peer-to-peer sharing over wireless lan networks may being critical thinking, manipulation with data and collaborative skills in children.

 

But numeracy and literacy still need to happen- children need to learn how to write and talk in a language what the computer understands (or wants to make them learn).That and many other objectives need a teacher.

 

To my mind, the laptop is a useful tool but can only supplement not replace the teacher.

 

Lets look at what one group of experimenters found:

 

One of India’s leading IT Training companies participated in the “Hole in the Wall” experiment a few years earlier. A Latop was installed in the wall of a Delhi slum and then left unattended. It was observed through a telephoto lens from afar. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own. This prompted Dr. Sugata Mitra of NIIT who led the experiment to propose the following hpothesis:

 

The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

 

The acquisition of these basic computing skills having been achieved. more traditional curricula can be pushed through the machine. In experiments with these computers (called learning stations) the NIIT team found the following:

 

data from the Hole-in-the-Wall Foundation

 

 

 

data from the Hole-in-the-Wall Foundation

 

The data above shows increasing achievement levels. Even though it does not mention control groups and their achievement levels, my experience with rural education suggests that the Learning-Station abled children would have come out ahead. So, on this evidence, the idea of a ‘minimally-invasive education’ (as defined by the Hole in the Wall Team) is worth suporting.

 

Ok, I get all this. But how are they managing to make Laptops for $100?

 

Over 50% of laptop costs are towards Sales & Distribution and Margins. As a not-for-profit, OLPC will lose this completely.

 

The screen is a large component of cost, with every extra diagonal inch adding $ 10. The OLPC laptops will be smaller.

 

The Laptop body will be smaller and of more inexpensive materials.

 

These 3 major costs bring the cost per laptop to $135. With economies of scale the OLPC team hopes to drop the cost to $60 or thereabouts.

 

 

So, the OLPC will donate laptops?

 

Yes and no. While some Laptops will be donated, I understand that the majority will have to be purchased by the government and distributed to the children. The OLPC recommends every child have one.

 

What is the current status?

 

Governments around the world are signing up. Rwanda was the latest to do so. India, which was invited to join has refused- apparently its a medical risk (for the eyes- overexposure to screens). Plus the government feels it does not have the cash to spend on this project.

 

On the technological side, experiments are on to perfect mesh networks (almost perfected) that will allow kids to connect to each other over a local LAN, school servers and even a portable yo-yo microgenerator that will allow kids to crank up on battery power. I am glad they cracked the last one- most other designs, including a hand shaft, solar power etc have either proven inadequate or too expensive.

 

Pilot programs continue around the world and results are encouraging- I understand that early next year the show should hit the road.

 

So, will it work?

 

I hope so. It’s an idea that has the power to make a difference (even if it doesn’t change the world, as it promises to), However, I couln’t help thinking of some shortcomings. I hope I’m proven wrong.

 

a) How does new software (new learning for the kids) reach them? It would have to created or underwritten by the not-for-profits or big corporations doing pro-bono work. Unless of course the OLPC team wants governments to have a recurring outlay on software (which does seem wishful)

 

b) What about laptop security: I am not talking about virus attacks, but security of the physical systems. The only way, probably, to do so would be to treat them as school aids- give them to kids every morning and take them back after school (though given that many schools dont have cupboards, finding storage spaces for laptops would be difficult- and another item of expenditure). But this beats one of the planks of the OLPC learning system- kids using & playing (learning) with these things at home, every day, even on holidays.

 

Moreover, since the laptops will run basic software programmes, they would have a market outside the school and the village.Why would an impoverished family, in the possession of a $100 object not sell it for food and amenities? Maybe the government should have a pay-as-you-go model in place to build ownership amongst families.

 

c) Wear-and-tear: How long will kids use these laptops. When they get slow and irritating, will the government buy them shiny new ones? Or does learning end with the laptop? Also there are costs to maintenance and use- in terms of resource time and materials used. What about repairs? I understand that they expects kids to conduct minor repairs- but seriously, wouldn’t that be too much to ask? Still, what about the major repairs?

 

d) What about Teachers? This still doesn’t resolve that problem: Pratham’s ASER survey found that in many schools there is gross absence of teachers (apart from when they arent on official non-teaching duties) and basic classroom materials like chalk and paper were absent. Most schools have student teacher ratios that make it impossible to teach with a modicum of success. I assume the same fate belies underdeveloped countries in other parts of the world. With money being diverted to the OLPC project, this will only worsen.

 

If this idea has to be implemented, governments are best advised to share computers between children and use any saved outlay money to put more teachers in the classroom, without whom learning through these machines will be hampered.

 

My concerns then are twinfold: it makes poor economic and logistical sense. I wonder what you think?

 

Let me stop here now. There is much more to be said and written about the OLPC project, I will do so if this entry creates enough interest. I hope this post has been of help. One caveat: I have read a little about the OLPC project but not significantly. If there’s anything that I’ve said that is error or if you can resolve the questions I worry about- click the comments link below and write in. I’m on my $15,000 laptop, listening in 🙂

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I came across an piece of news that struck me as very odd. This one is from Qatar.

Education Minister Nouriya Al-Sabeeh said yesterday the ministry wished to establish an educational TV station within the next three years to keep parents informed on their children’s education and limit illegal private tutoring.

I could not find any details on what the TV Station will drive into homes by way of content, but I’m assuming that it will have 2 purposes:

i) To educate parents on what happens at school- presumably the government has a curriculum thats standard across the country, with all schools teaching the same thing any given day.

ii) To educate children – through video lessons, Concept-building Tips and maybe even a Dr. Maths kind of Agony-uncle or aunt;hence limiting illegal tutoring by reducing the need for it.

I found 3 elements strange:

a) Why would one want to make tutoring illegal? Unless you have improved your schools, tutoring offers important scaffolding.

b) How would a TV Station help. Given the assumption that there are 12 year groups and kids have 10 hours of non-sleep, non-school time per day available, it still translates to under 45 minutes per call for all 8 subjects daily. Ridiculous.

c) I won’t even go into the lack of feedback to students or the lack of personalised instruction – both quintessential elements of the tutoring system

But I guess the Qatar Government has it’s reasons. If you would like to read more about Education in Qatar, this post over at Pilka that has links to a few articles from the education blogosphere may be a good place to start. I would encourage you to spend some time surfing their other articles as well, especially if you are interested in interesting education tidbits from around the world.

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There has been a lot of talk about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project. Haven’t heard of it? It’s the ambitious plan to educated the world’s children by providing many of them, mostly in the undeserved communities, with a laptop that costs $100. It’s headquartered at the MIT Media Lab and the chief evangelist is Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Professor and ex-Director of the Lab. How will it work? Will it work? What’s the latest? I will attempt to answer these questions tomorrow. In the meanwhile, have a look at a 18 minute clip (this is worth the time) on Negroponte’s blueprint for the OLPC project.

 

For those of you already wondering what this may mean for India – last year India, a preferred pilot country, backed out of the OLPC project with the HRD Ministry saying “India must not allow itself to be used for experimentation with children” and “It would be impossible to justify when public funds continue to be inadequate.”

 

(watch the clip – plays in the same window)

 

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Doug Johnson, Director of Media and Technology for the Mankato Public Schools since 1991 (among many other things, read full bio), runs the wonderful Blue Skunk blog on learning. His latest piece, on what he calls Techno Parenting, immediately caught my eye. I recommend you read it and send your child’s school a copy.

He asks: How can schools use Technology to make vital teacher and student links? He offers some suggestions and notes on practice-

Email: It’s quick, rarely get’s lost (or misplaced 🙂 ) and inexpensive. They can also be easily indexed, stored, and rapidly retrieved.

The Telephone: It’s personal and hence the best way to communicate.

Teacher Webpages: With student information for ready access and password protected grades, notice of assignments etc to keep the parents wired. Literally.

School webpages: With information on parent meetinfs, menus, discussions, policies, course descriptions etc.

Webcams: In classrooms so parent’s or even the granny in another corner of the world can watch.

I love it. Especially the last one. I can imagine it would be great for the family too.

Daddy couldn’t be there for your recitation sweetheart, but he saw you on his mobile from Sweden.”

That ought to make the child feel better.

Some other initiatives that could be taken:

1. Create wikis: Let the teachers, parents & students collaborate on a school policy thats up for revision. Or on a school building design. Start conversations- get people involved.

2. Text messages: A short message in the morning to inform you that your child missed school. Followed up by a call after school to check if all was well.

3. E-newsletters: To supplement the paper-based ones. Richer in content. Cooler in presentation. With video clips from the school play or an downloads of interesting presentations/artworks made by children. Of course, instantaneous feedback from parents.

4. Activities for parents to do with kids at home: Illustrated and easy – to – understand activities that parents can do with their children and in the process teach them.

Penetration of technology is increasing. More and more people are logging on. Initiative like these that link school to parents on the fly at almost no cost should be encouraged. If you are reading this and think it could work, copy these points from Doug’s website and mine and send it to your school. Make the change happen.

Caveat: In Informational Technology, there is something called the Mom Test. It says: if our mom can use this software, then its user friendly. Engineers use it before releasing new products or updates. I hope all the Moms’ reading this pass their school’s tests!

In case you are interested, here’s the (quite amusing) anecdote between Steve Ballmer (CEO of Microsoft) and his mom:

“According to an industry legend, [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer conducted a mom test before the launch of Windows 95, using his own mother as the guinea pig. He started her off by asking her to Click the Start button. When she had finished trying it out, Ms Ballmer asked, ‘How do I turn it off?’ Her son, somewhat irked by this question, pointed to the start button. ‘I have to go to the start button again to stop?’ asked his mother, quite perplexed.”

Sure sounds like my mom! 🙂 And, I’d have to agree with her!

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I’ve learnt a lot from Sanjiv Bawa over several meetings, both formal and informal, over the last year and a half – especially about business. He reminded me, in his comment on Arts at the Core, an earlier post that comics can be a very useful tool of learning.

I couldn’t agree more. Comics have a potential to be a great tool for teachers in the classroom, if used intelligently and innovatively. I was introduced to Amar Chitra Katha comics- popular work for children that centred around mythology and ancient literature as a child. I learnt about the Ramayana through Comics. They made Ram and Sita (part of the Hindu pantheon of Deities) cool for a six-year old kid. It laid the foundation for my understanding of Religion.

Given their immense popularity with children and adults, a well-meaning class with comics as teacher’s aids can go downhill if either the content is not age-appropriate or if the teacher is not able to channel the enthusiasm of the kids. I would be nervous before handing out Garfield and Peanuts or Holy Textbook- the Batman Series to the kids.

Some suggestions on how comics could be used in the classroom:

1. With Struggling English Learners or Readers: A child who is struggling to read has to be scaffolded. Have you ever tried learning a new language? You know reading can be difficult enough, without it being made dull.

a) Comics have pictures. The pictures often have quirky characters. That makes reading more interesting.

b) Comics reduce the amount of text on a given page. At the same time, comics lessen the amount of text in a complete story to a manageable level. Moreover, they often use similar terms, ensuring that students keep connecting the dots. Hence, students are able to read and complete whole stories in a reasonable amount of time. This means that a student has followed a narrative from start to end and created used his knowledge to link panels to each other and string together meaning all within a short time. That is a big plus.

c) Pictures go beyond making things interesting. They provide visual clues to the struggling reader, specially when he is reading independently, allowing him to keep persevering with reading.

d) At a later stage, comics provide a bridge between the struggling – but – becoming – slightly-confident reader and more complex material. e.g. A student reading about TinTin and Snoopy in Alaska may be keen to know about the Arctic Circle in greater depth. This can lead him to non-comic reading with more complex sentence structure at a higher grade level.

2. As a tool in other classes:

a) Comics can also be used in Creative Writing Classes in various activities: E.g. Remove the last panel of a 10 panel comic strip. Let the children give their recommendations. Or, remove the text from the voice balloons, let the children fill it in based on the story they see developing.

 

b) Remember doing character sketches you did as a child? Write a character sketch of Uriah Heep. Yikes! Write a Character Sketch of Sinbad the Sailor. Wow! As a teacher i’m interest in the quality, depth and complexity of your analysis, not who you are analysing. At least not in Upper Primaries.

c) As hinted at earlier, they can be used as bridge texts for more complex subjects in the Social Sciences.

d) Art class- there are several opportunities in this domain.

Comics can also help to cultivate a general interest in reading. Research in the US has shown that 60% of children read comics outside of school. Only 12-15% of them read any other kind of literature. I would posit that comics and its older cousin the graphic novel (type of comic book, usually with a lengthy and complex storyline similar to those of novels, often aimed at mature audiences. The term is commonly used to disassociate works from the juvenile or humorous connotations of the terms “comics” and “comic book”, implying that the work is more serious, mature, or literary than traditional comics) with its theme borrowed from classic literature & contemporary children’s novels, could be used to push up reading levels in children even while keeping them entertained with their brand of reading.

In finality, I would say that comics and their use in classrooms should, initially for a teacher, be with the lower forms and struggling readers. As teachers become more versed with the nuances of comics as teaching tools and the school more comfortable with this brand of teaching, they could graduate to senior and more advanced classes and to more developed themes. As i noted, one can do a MA or PhD in Comics (called Sequential Art in the academic circles) too, nowadays!

Lessons in History for readers of the blog: Comics, that were more popular in America and Japan before they were in India, went into the Dark Ages in the 1950s. After World War II, comics in America tended to have more blood and gore than ever, prompting psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham’s infamous book, “The Seduction of the Innocent.” The book criticized crime, superhero and horror comics genres, in particular those by William Gaines (who later started and ran MAD magazine). The book claimed that comics glorified sex, violence and drugs – and that these texts were one of the prime causes of juvenile delinquency. Read more about this here.

Coming to India: This country has a more recent history of Comics. The staple fare for children in India was Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and Chacha Chaudhary, though the new generation is unlikely to recognise most of these titles. Archie and his friends from Riverdale rule here now. In fact most of India’s comic heroes are American imports, it has very few of its own creations. Branson’s Virgin in association with Gotham Comics released India’s first attempt at a Manga-type comic- lush illustration and a more-real superhero. Meet- Devi a striking superheroine but sadly one who still has to catch the fancy of the masses. Maybe an Anglican name would help.

Teachers who are keen to know more and find activities for their classroom can follow download a free chapter from Stephen Cary’s new book Going Graphic- Comics at work in the Multilingual Classroom right here.

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