Random Thoughts

A necessary dose of Minimalism - Why I prescribed Scholastic Textbooks for our Primary School

posted Feb 8, 2018, 7:03 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Feb 8, 2018, 7:49 PM ]

I have written in the past about how India's rote learning culture is largely a consequence of our textbooks. There is an unnecessary level of detail in most of our textbooks and this is generally for the sole purpose of expanding the number of pages and using that as an avenue to charge more. There is a whole cartel of players with vested interests in this game which makes it very hard to find compact textbooks, simply because they can't be priced at outlandish levels. Paying Rs. 350 for a class 3 Science textbook with nothing beyond the usual Indian curriculum, does not make any sense when the Scholastic series is excellent and is priced in the range of Rs. 150-250.  We'll be prescribing the "Mastering Science" series for ~500 kids between class 1 and 5 and the "Exploring Social Studies" series for ~275 kids between class 1 and class 3.

A little bit of minimalism will go a long way in helping the Indian education system. A little less detail will throw open a lot more time for casual reading and practical activities. 
One does not need ten pages of detail when ten gigabytes of information on any topic, are a few Google searches away. If anything, excessively thick textbooks do a great disservice in the primary years because they steal time required for far more critical language, math and spatial skills - and even playtime. 

Our little Primary School will be switching over to the Scholastic series for Social Studies and Science. 
There are several things I liked about them 
- Compactness. They cover all the required topics, but they do so within 100-130 pages. Many other textbooks have 200 plus pages. One wonders how much of that a 10 year old will retain. 
- Excellent visuals. Diagrams, pictures and figures make learning a lot more efficient and enjoyable. Each image is worth a thousand words. What can be learnt via a picture does not need a two page description.
- A reasonable number of questions at the end of each chapter. One does not need 50 questions for a 5 page chapter. Many other books have forcefully tried to insert questions and exercises. 
- Reasonable pricing. About 50-70% of the price of books used by good schools (for no real reason). 
- Will leave enough time for hands-on activities such as making posters or projects or practical tasks. 
- Chapters are covered in a manner which is concise without skipping any essential details. The mental clutter created by including a ton of trivia for kids to memorize, is something we can do without. 
- Some fun activities like crossword puzzles: kids enjoy these things a lot. 
- Scholastic also has a lot of affordably priced casual reading books for different age groups. Their Clifford series is exceptionally good for kids under 8 years of age. 

Mastering Science and Exploring Social Studies are the two series and we'll be using them for classes 1 to 5 and from classes 3 to 5 respectively. 
We hope to have an efficient curriculum which reduces the time spent on rote learning and opens up enough time slots for effective hands-on and practical activities. 
We will also help parents save up money which can instead be spent on storybooks, toys, puzzles and encyclopaedias. 

It's Nursery Admission Time in the Capital - The Mess. Once Again

posted Jan 27, 2018, 7:37 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 28, 2018, 8:30 PM ]

This is the state of the most basic form of education right in the national capital. There are hardly any worthwhile schools, even for those who can afford to pay. The Delhi Nursery Admission mess. Now that this cake has baked once again (like it does every year, with the regularity of Christmas cakes) - the numbers I had estimated last year.

"2.5 lakh students appeared for the CBSE class 12 exams in Delhi in 2016. And there are barely 5000 odd seats in what may be considered "good or okay schools" (judging on class average > 75% which is hardly a criteria). "
Takes something like 25-28 Cr to setup a Shri Ram like school in Delhi (and 15-18 Cr in a town in UP). And then, if someone has to run it as a non-profit with the RTE quota, is it any surprise that the last time some okay schools came up in the capital was in the mid nineties? And then the hassles for an NOC + affiliation. Might as well setup a warehouse or an onion storage center. Capacity first regulations later. That of course will come with its own share of problems like Mumbai or Hyderabad-style fees going into lakhs, but at least there's capacity. It is distressing to see parents come and literally plead to us to add more sections/classes in our small primary school but the risks and hassles are simply not worth it - and how does one monitor quality.

Learning Resources - Wonderful, affordable teaching aids for Primary Schools

posted Jan 15, 2018, 8:40 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 15, 2018, 11:15 PM ]

Our family runs a small primary school in Meerut, UP (India). 
We have a lot of laptops but not enough space for a full fledged computer room, so I wanted a different way to introduce computational thinking. 

And then I discovered this little programmable mouse by Learning Resources! 
It has 6 buttons on it. The mouse is "programmed" to follow a path by entering a sequence of instructions via the buttons, which correspond to start, forward, backwards, left, right. stop. 

There is also a very nice maze which can be setup - and the mouse can be programmed to follow a path which leads it to a piece of cheese. 

YouTube Video

The iBlocks programmable robot is another very useful medium to introduce computational thinking and the basics of loops, conditionals and sensor-handling. 
This requires the installation of mobile or tablet apps which have their own toy programming language for specifying steps, loops, conditions. 
For instance - a robot can be programmed to respond in a specific way if it touches something like a wall. 

Kids thrilled with the iBlocks Robot

Learning Resources has also made it possible for us to purchase spinners, packets of dice as well as two-counters. 
These are useful tools for teaching Mathematics in a hands on way - and introducing topics like probability and fractions. 

Tangrams are another great way to improve spatial and geometric skills of kids in a hands on manner. 
Kids right from class 1 to 5 had a great time with these. 

All said and done, Learning Resources was a great way to aquire material for hands on activities. The bulk of the things we purchased were from there. 
Sometimes, there are shipping delays as the items are shipped to India from abroad. But that is fine. There is no tearing hurry. 

Launching a New Data Series: Data with Python

posted Jan 14, 2018, 7:48 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 14, 2018, 7:49 PM ]

These tutorials have been very kindly contributed by Niraj Dev Pandey, a graduate student from India, currently studying in Germany. 
Hopefully, these will get you started with the very basics of statistical learning, or machine learning. 
These are a basic set of tutorials and they cover classification, regresion and regularization. We hope that this will be a gentle onboarding to the world of data. 
Python is a simple and popular language and will hopefully help you understand the basics of machine learning logic. 

His contact details are as follows: 

NCPCR proposes committee to study impact of exemptions to minority schools under RTE Act

posted Jan 12, 2018, 6:05 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji

Excellent news. Though it is still a bit of a pie in the sky, once the exemption evaporates so will all the laws. I can't see the Catholic Church tolerate RTE like interference with their institutions. It is no secret that the top Catholic schools and Anglo Indian schools have a student body which primarily draws from the marwaris, business community and the better educated classes and the % of Chrisitians seldom exceeds 5% in such schools. So the whole exemption was always on very shaky grounds and primarily to stay away from the ire of peskly NGO workers.

CISCE Reduces the Passing Marks for ICSE and ISC Examinations (2018 and onwards)

posted Jan 10, 2018, 11:09 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 10, 2018, 11:09 PM ]

Interesting. My guess: They are slashing the cut-off for "passing" because they know that they're under the scanner and can't inflate scores from the coming year and if they leave the pass mark unchanged it'll mean that at least 40% of their students will fail in some subject or the other.

This is the power of the internet and open data. It's amazing how just a couple of us with blogs gone viral (and a total of < 100 hours of time) became the gatekeepers who get to have such a massive say in who exits class 12 and who doesn't (for a batch size of 15-18 million students). The histograms of the scores in ICSE and ISC Examinations suggested that the board was awarding as much as 15-20 marks in "grace" to bump up candidates to make them attain the pass mark.

It will be interesting to scrutinize the scores as well as pass rates of both the CBSE and the ISC board examinations in 2018.

Politically Incorrect truths about the quotas at IIT

posted Jan 10, 2018, 8:11 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 11, 2018, 12:31 AM ]

There tale cannot be discussed without going into the "politically incorrect" aspects of this saga. You simply cannot keep a huge reserved quota (with practically no lower bound on the cut-off, depending on the category) and expect them to remain psychologically stable while surrounded by a good number of hyper-competitive folk (10-20% of a batch) who will go to any extent (stay up all night for days, not eat, not sleep) to get into the [university/B-School/Job/internship/department/conference] of their choice.

Even more bizarre is to allow candidates to take the entrance examination in Hindi. There is little academic and non-academic support in the IITs, for those who are not familiar and fluent in English. IITs can be stressful enough for those familiar in the language, who entered the system with no relaxation.

This is not to suggest that removing all relaxations and quotas will magically solve the depression issue at IIT. The point is that IITs are often stressful places for the best of students. So one needs to be aware that significant relaxations (and compromises) in the admission cut-off will bring in students who will find it a brutal experience.

Stanford wasn't always a Tech School: Majors are changing at Harvard and Stanford. What this implies for Indian students.

posted Jan 8, 2018, 9:04 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 11, 2018, 12:25 AM ]

Interesting. Stanford wasn't always the "tech school" as it is now assumed to be. 4 decades ago the most popular major was History. At this point something less than 7% of Stanford undergrads major in non-STEM/business courses. Harvard seems to be going the same way. The ratio of English majors: CS majors (10 years ago) was 7:5. That ratio is now 1:5.

With automation decimating the lower end of IT jobs and a more competitive cohort of STEM majors from Ivy Leagues, I strongly suspect that the average product of
arbitrary private engineering colleges in India, will be almost completely unemployable within a few years. The bar for meaningful and well-paid software careers is rising with time.

Indian students assuming that just a namesake Computer Science degree will do them any good, are in for a shock and a very tough time, unless they have some other core skills and competencies.
Language skills, specially in English, might make them far more employable, even if the pool of jobs opened merely by English skills is not at the top end of the economic spectrum.

For too long, many students in their late teens and early twenties in India, assumed that namesake Computer Science degrees from shady colleges would, at the very least, get them onto the payroll of IT service companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro. These degrees were often attained by writing memorized and trivial computer programs on paper. The focus was on a crude introduction to specific technologies like Java or C#. There was no focus on the general principles of Computer Science and Logic. With the more mundane tasks in IT now being eliminated the fate of the Indian IT services companies hangs in balance. Indian techies getting laid off should take some time off with the sole agenda of studying - right from language skills, to public speaking, logic and tech skills. There is no short cut to jobs. Wonder what'll be the "hot/fad course" in twenty years from now. Something Bio related I guess.
The trend in US Universities seem to be quite similar to the the popularity of CS, EE, maths&computing, Economics, Business at IITs/BITs/IIITs and US universities (for those who can afford it) - for high-school students in India.

The Partitioning of India: Interpreting the location distribution of IITB Alumni

posted Nov 10, 2017, 10:27 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Nov 10, 2017, 10:28 PM ]

An interesting, data-driven post by Insight, the wallpaper of IIT Bombay.  They have marked the percentage of Indian-resident alumni in different cities of India. No surprises to see how they congregate in very limited and specific pockets. 

Interesting bubble chart, though I wish such numbers were available for more universities and institutes (cities where non-NRI IITB alumni are based) . The Mumbai/Pune proportion is somewhat amplified because it is for IITB alumni but for most known business or tech schools, the distribution will see Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi/NCR, Pune (roughly in that order) account for >85%. 
Coming to the bigger picture independent of this small sample set. The centre of gravity for this set will lie somewhere between Mumbai and Hyderabad. 

India is rapidly partitioning into [West + South] and [North + East] with very distinct characteristics .. with the former (Relatively) educated/urban/older/low-TFR/higher-per-capita income. Will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term, for the stability of the country. The biggest partitioning is that the demographic hump ended in many of the Southern states, at least a couple of years ago. The batch-size in class 1 is far less than that in class 10, and so on. That point will only happen after 20-25+ years in the northern belt though it happens in 2027 for the country as a whole.

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Puzzles, Books and Toys for 7-11 year olds

posted Nov 9, 2017, 12:10 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Nov 9, 2017, 12:20 AM ]

This is a notice which we put up in our primary school to encourage parents to purchase books, toys and movies to create a good learning environment for young kids at an age where they can imbibe a lot of new ideas. Parents looking for ideas to educate their young ones might find some of these ideas. 

Books, Movies, Toys and Learning Kits are very important!

Dear Parents

A child spends only about 6 hours in school, for 175-200 days a year. Much of the learning happens at home.

So it is very necessary to create a good environment at home, where the child can learn a lot without the supervision of teachers or parents.

Books and movies are extremely important, both for exposure and for improving English speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

Having the right toys and kits is also extremely important, to help develop important spatial, logic, mathematical and scientific skills.

We are recommending some books, movies and toys on a class-by-class basis. You do not have to buy all of them together - the aim is, to buy or watch or read a few books/movies/toys at a time, but to use them well, and to learn something from them.

The minds of young kids need to be stimulated in many different ways. An appropriate collection of books, toys, movies and board games can expose a kid to a world of new ideas and thoughts.

Experiential learning, experimental learning and learning via play are all things which can happen within the home - these are not necessarily experiences which can be catered to by academic pedagogy of the school which a child attends.

The rubix cube is something which can trigger logical, spatial and visualization skills apart from just keeping a kid hooked constructively.

Tangrams can provide a structured way for young kids to understand geometry and see it come to life in a practical way.

Mechanix sets can bring out the creator and next car-designer!

For students of Class 1 and 2

  • Noddy Stories (with plenty of illustrations)  

  • The Ladybird Read Aloud Series  

  • Panchatantra Tales/ Karadi Tales  

  • Jataka Tales  

  • Adventures of Pinocchio  

  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter  

For students of Class 3

Image result for "Amar Chitra Katha" stock photo

  • Graphic novels: Amar Chitra Katha (To explore the world of historical and Mythological stories)  

  • Stories by Ruskin Bond e.g. The Blue Umbrella, Grandfather’s Private Zoo  

  • The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum  

  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton  

  • The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley  

  • Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

  • The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Graham  

  • Roald Dahl’s Children’s Books (e.g. The Witches, Matilda etc.)  

  • Heidi – Johanna Spyri  

  • Star stuff – Carl Sagan – Stephanie Suss Rison  

  • Truckers: The First Book of the Nomoes – Terry Pratchett

For Children of Class IV  

Image result for Alice in Wonderland stock photo

  • Ruskin Bond’s Children’s Books  

  • Feluda Stories – Satyajit Ray  

  • Black Beauty – Anna Sewell  

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll  

  • The Adventures of Robin hood  

  • Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling  

  • The Railway Children – Edith Nesbit  

  • Roald Dahl’s Children’s Books- (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc.)  

  • Black Beauty- Anna Sewell  

  • Graphic novels: Amar Chitra Katha (To explore the world of historical and Mythological stories)

For Children of Class V

Image result for Tagore Stock Photos

  • Rabindranath Tagore’s stories/poems such as Kabuliwala

  • Ruskin Bond Omnibus/ Stories for Children  

  • Gulliver’s Travels – Swift (Abridged)

  • Peter and Wendy (Peter Pan) – J. M. Barrie  

  • Adventures of Don Quixote (Abridged) – Miguel D Cervantes  

  • A Little Princess/ The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Bennett  

  • Little Women – Louisa M. Alcott (Abridged)  

  • Treasure Island – RL Stevenson  

  • The call of the Wild – Jack London  

  • Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens (Abridged)  

  • David Copperfield – Charles Dickens (Abridged)  

  • Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe  

  • The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas  

  • Graphic novels/ comics: Tin Tin  

  • Graphic novels: Amar Chitra Katha (To explore the world of historical and Mythological stories)  

  • Auto/biographies of great men such as Gandhi Ji, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela  The diary of Anne Frank/Zalata

Recommended Toys for Class 3, 4, 5 students

Rubix Cube

Image result for rubix cube stock photo


Mechanix Sets

Student Microscope

Telescope for Children

Electromagnetic Set for Children

Good Movies for Children of Class 1 and 2

Charlotte's Web (2006)

Finding Nemo


Lilo and Stitch

My Neighbor Totoro

Toy Story (1995)


Beauty and the Beast

The Iron Giant

The Lego Movie

The Lion King

The Sound of Music

The Wizard of Oz

Good Movies for Children of Class 3, 4, 5

Charlotte's Web (2006)

Finding Nemo


Lilo and Stitch

My Neighbor Totoro

Toy Story (1995)


Beauty and the Beast

The Iron Giant

The Lego Movie

The Lion King

The Sound of Music

The Wizard of Oz

Whale Rider


Sense and Sensibility

Remember the Titans

October Sky

Hidden Figures

Superman: The Movie

It's a Wonderful Life

Mad Hot Ballroom

Fly Away Home

Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope

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