Friday, March 29, 2013

Myth of SnT as Panancea: Are we Backward because we Lag Behind in Science and Technology?

The mythology that has been sold to the entire Muslim world and especially in Pakistan is that our backwardness is because of our backwardness in Science and Technology. Hence, S n T became the holy grail for progress and development. Everyone is willing to invest in Science and Technology, whether it has been Zia's government and Dr. Mahboob ul Haq's drive for S n T scholarships, or whether it is the political governments of the 90s or the Musharaff era (1999-2008) when Dr Ata ur Rahman was at the helm of S n T and HEC. Funds were lavished on S n T. The underlying assumption behind this myth was that the society would magically transform itself when we have x-thousand S n T PhDs; y-thousand professors with high impact factor; n-thousand SIS publications and z-thousand state of the arts labs spread all over the country. After spending of billions of tax payers money we find ourselves back to the starting point.

Covered Drains of Moenjodoro

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beauty is Our Business - Mathematics, Excellence and the Great Dijkstra

I remember here the lessons Dijkstra gave about beauty and excellence through personal examples. His colleagues celebrated his works with the salute: "Beauty is Our Business"[1]. Dijkstra is one of the most revered computer scientist whose footprint on the fundamental ideas in computer science is now legendary.

This was 1988-89. I was at The University of Texas at Austin, USA when my friend and colleague Mobashir R Hingorjo (who later became the founding director of TPS) came up to me and said let's take this course "Capita Selecta" by Edsgar Dijkstra. I had read about Dijkstra in computer science texts but had no idea what Capita Selecta meant. I showed my concern to Mobashir about how would this course be relevant to my direction of research, which was more towards software engineering, and less towards formal (mathematical) verification of programs. To this argument, Mobashir had a simple answer "Trust me. One day we will be telling people that we took this course by Dijkstra!" 

I had no intention of pursuing verification and mathematical correctness of programs, hence, I was less interested in the course contents and more interested in Dijkstra himself. I had taken the course on a non-credit basis to shield myself from any adverse grade that I may be awarded by this guru of computer science. We thus found ourselves in this Capita Selecta class of Dijkstra and what a memorable experience it was! This interaction with Dijkstra eventually became a profound lesson in my conception of beauty and my understanding of what it means to strive for excellence, and this I would always cherish.

I now often  share the following anecdotes with my students and to those I am trying to explain the concept of excellence. 

One day Dijkstra was writing an algorithm on the board. As he came down to the bottom end of the board, he found himself short of space. He had one line more to write and had run out of space at the bottom of the board. He had the option either to write the remaining line on the right hand side of the board which was blank or he could use the other slideable board on the right that could have slid on top of the first one. But, what did he do? He chose to rub all the lines of the algorithm that he had written, and then rewrote all the lines once again, but this time a little smaller, so that the remaining last line would also fit on a single page of the board. From top to bottom. No need for the line spilling over to another side of the board and becoming orphan. I wondered at that time what is this. Why is he wasting time. Now I know better. He was giving us a fundamental lesson in aesthetics and beauty. This effort invested in making your work proportional, balanced and visually appealing is the essence of the strive for excellence for those for whom beauty is their business. 

I remember one day his saying to us that he had never written a program that is more than a page long! I often wondered then what kind of programming he was doing. It was much later, after my software house venture failed that I learned the hard way; that any program (or function or procedure) that is more than a page long should be thrown away. On his authority, and my adverse experience of the tremendous loss that we incurred in the software house venture, I can safely say that one of the best methods of software quality assurance is that we should throw away any routine (or program) that can not be put succinctly on a page, better still half a page!

Add to this Dijkstra's conception of beautiful expression in the style and structure of the program and you have the most powerful quality control tool for programming. I think one is better off just throwing away a program that is not beautifully written with balanced and concise names. This is much easier than Fagan's Inspection Method which is a more technical implementation of the same idea. A program that can not be easily read is an expression of convoluted and imprecise thinking and should be immediately discarded. Trust me, I learned it the hard way.

I also recall the effort that Dijkstra would invest in coming up with short and very brief names of variables so that the reader can concentrate on the structure of algorithm and not get lost in the wilderness of long names. The strive for coming up with names and their prefixes would often take major amount of time. But the result of this effort was an elegant system of notation which had simplicity, brevity and directness often not witnessed in other areas of computer science. His remarks on the use of imprecise and loose language used in papers were scathing, ruthless and some of his lampooning of bad style is now legendary. See for example this analysis of Dijkstra of a document. If the imprecise and loose language used in reports and papers needs to be stringently criticised, then one can imagine what high standards are required in writing clean and neat algorithms and programs. His algorithms are supreme examples of beauty, elegance, and conciseness and so are the algorithms designed by his colleagues and students.

In another semester I was taking a class on Distributed Systems by Professor Mohammad Gouda, who was one of Dijkstra's true disciples. At the start of each class Prof Gouda would take several minutes to divide the board into three equidistant areas each separated by a vertical line drawn with chalk. He would take forever to make sure that the lines were vertical. Would rub a line many times and would draw the line again and again and would view the line from every direction until he was satisfied that his hand-drawn line was perfectly vertical, balance and dividing the board in equidistant areas. I wondered at that time, why was he wasting his time and ours. But, now I know. This must have been a lesson passed on by Dijkstra to his student and a true reflection of what is meant to have beauty as our business. Excellence is not an act but a Habit as mentioned by Aristotle, but I saw it in the example of Dijkstra and his students. Habit of excellence in every thing that we should do; whether it is making an algorithm fit on a page or whether it is drawing a line on the board. 

He was dead against the use of word processors, for the simple reason that they encourage shoddy thinking. You write first and then think later. All this ease of editing, cutting, pasting, revising and readjusting in word processors is at the expense of deep and precise thinking and should, therefore, be discouraged. I remember there was this colloquium in which the famous Donald Knuth ("Art of Computer Programming" and Tex/LaTex word processor) was making a presentation and it fell upon his old friend E W Dijkstra to introduce him. I was astounded to hear Dijkstra taking this opportunity to criticise Knuth for endangering beautiful and precise thinking with his word processing software. No wonder he was probably the only computer science researcher whose handwritten manuscripts were accepted for publications by journals for example see this wonderful paper. Just imagine the time, effort, pre-thinking and planning required in composing a handwritten page without crossing out sentences, overwriting and corrections. Think about the time we spend and the number of times we enter, cross out, revise, edit and re-edit a single line that we write using an editor/wordprocessor. Even with the help of spellers and what not, our writing is full of mistakes. There is a great deal to be learned about this maxim "think before you leap" that we have forgotten and continue to ignore when we write.

I will relate about what grade I got in this course in a later blog "Fairness in Grading: A lesson by Dijkstra"

Dijkstra Posts:


Please note that the title of this blog is taken from the following conference:

[1] Beauty is our Business: A Birthday Salute to Edsger W. Dijkstra, Texts and Monographs in Computer Science is published by Springer-Verlag, 1990, Editors: Feijen, W.H.J., A.J.M. van Gasteren, D. Gries, and Jayadev Misra.

See Also:

What is PhD?
Why PhD is Difficult: 
Starting with your PhD
Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Syllabus- Coverage is Enemy of Understanding

The operative word in conventional schools is "cover". There is a mad rush for coverage. Every one is after this elusive goal.
  • The designers develop the lesson plans keeping in view how much of the subject can be covered during one period. 
  • The teacher is now forced to cover the lesson during one period. 
  • Teacher fills out the coverage form. 
  • The administrator measures the coverage and holds the teacher to task for not being able to cover the material.
  • The test is designed to measure the coverage  of the students. 
Everyone is talking about coverageand no one seems to be worrying about the understanding. 

Coverage vs Understanding

"Greatest Enemy of Understanding is Coverage" --- Howard Gardner
My elder sons used to go to one of the schools which has a very big name. I noticed that even in junior classes, i.e. class 4th, 5th and 6th the teacher seemed to be in a mad rush to cover. When I asked why do you move to the next topic even though the students are not yet proficient in the previous concepts, their refrain was the sword of "coverage" hanging on their head because the child was being prepared for the O'Levels. When I asked  why are you worrying about the O'Levels in class 6th, they are not yet at the stage of O'Level? They used to say that unless we prepare them now how can they be up to the O'Levels!! 
I was unable to convince them that preparation of O'Level should be done at O'Level stage and preparation of 5th grade should be done at 5th grade, and preparation of 6th grade should be done at the 6th grade level. Rushing to higher level preparation when the understanding of the basic levels is not solid is counter productive. I couldn't convince them that preparation for the O'Levels will follow automatically when the child has gone through the junior clases firming up the basics. At the earlier classes stage (class 4-8), you should be worrying more about the concepts of junior classes. Why you want to move to concepts of ratio and proportion when they student has not yet mastered the understanding of fractions. 


"Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning" ---- Linda McNeil, Rice University. 
The underlying cause of this mad rush for coverage is the need to measure the outcomes. Coverage is probably the easiest things to measure. Understanding of a student, however, is difficult to measure. Hence, the emphasis on coverage. It is easy to make lesson plan, deliver a lecture according to plan, and then tick mark the parts of the plan that have been covered. Administrator finds it easy to look at the coverage and point out the deficiency. It is easy to make a question paper covering the material covered in the lesson plans. Every one is happy except the students. Students do not know what is happening. The are not allowed to find connections of the material with their experiences and things happening around them. Teacher, even when able to, does not have the time either to make these connections. She simply goes through the motions of covering for the sake of covering paying no heed to the understanding and mastery of the students on the given material.
Unlink coverage, understanding and learning does not proceed in a linear fashion. The path it may take is unpredictable. It can depend upon the particular circumstances, happening in the city, weather, political events, news of natural disasters around the world, interest of the children etc. A skilled teacher has to make all these detours to keep alive the interest and attention of the child. But, these detours, taken to their logical conclusion, may take hours or even weeks depending upon the depth and impact of the events on the society. Failure to relate the material to the active interests of the child, makes the material life-less, dull and drab. Consequently when the teacher loses the attention of the child, the child gets labeled as demotivated. Later when teh child is unable to reproduce such a dull and life less material eventual lead him to be labeled as a failure. 
Hence coverage is often considered to be the enemy of understanding. It is like Heisenberg principle, the more you try to focus on coverage , the more elusive the understanding becomes and vice versa, i.e. the more one focuses on understanding, the more elusive the measurablity of coverage becomes. 

See Also:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

School Discipline vs Prison Discipline

[Delivered as L2L Talk on 2011-05-08]

What is the prison experience?

The gate is heavily guarded. There is an eerie silence prevailing. There is a formal process of meeting the inmates or the officials. You can't go any place you want. There are strict rules for movement. There is a meeting area where you need to go, fill out an application, only then you get to meet the person you have gone there to meet. The whole meeting is conducted under watchful eye(s). Inmates are herded from one place to another under strict supervision. They are not allowed to move on their own. They are punished for any small infringement of the rules. As no one wants to be imprisoned, and deprived of his liberties to act, move, play and do what one likes, coming out of the confinement is, therefore, a day of freedom; a day of deliverance, happiness, exuberance and joy. 

Does this sound familiar? Can we connect this experience to our visit to our child's school!

Let's see what environment a supposedly good conventional school provides. A visitor must go through a formal process of taking an advance appointment, filling out a prescribed form to meet the officials or teachers or the students. You need to fill out a form stating clearly the purpose and get a prior appointment before you can meet any one. When you enter such a school, there is no sound coming out from any where. The teacher is held accountable for any noise coming out from her room and is liable to be thrown out of the school if she can not maintain silence in her class room. The environment therefore is eerily silent.  You can't just walk up to any room. There are strict rules for movement; where can one go and where one can't. Students are made to walk (if ever) from one room to another under the watchful eyes of the teachers. There are even lines on the floor of the corridors and class rooms where students may walk. Students are not allowed to go any where even to bathroom without permission. Students are are shown the rule-book for any small infringement. Students often dread going to the school (burden of tests, homeworks, dreary work). Therefore, pack up time is the most happy time, the time of deliverance, the time when there is laughter and gaiety when the students rush towards the gate as if they have been freed from the prison! 

Should not the school experience be different from a prison experience. Why is the experience similar? Is it because the students are held against their wishes? Are made to work against their wishes? 

Is there a deeper reason for holding the students every day for most of their childhood till they are 16 against their wishes in such confined places, where there is continous monitoring going on? [1] 

Is there a deeper context in the overzealous implementation of the discipline and the punishment paradigms in a school? [2]

Should not it be possible for a school to be a place where children want to go, are excited to go, where work is so interesting and engaging that they do not want to leave! The environment is happy and filled with joyful children actively and vigorously at work without being herded around and guarded [3]. Should not the children be allowed to select the learning activity they would like to select, should not they be allowed to improvise, improve, modify and replace a given activity with much more interesting and thought provoking activities? Isn't it possible for the school to have a welcoming environment that encourages the visitors to become participants of the learning environment and contribute. Why can't the management perceive the parents as their allies and supporters and why can't the parents think of the school management and teachers as their partners in the joint enterprise of the their children's future?

See Also: 

How our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) Insults the Intelligence of a Student

[Delivered as L2L Talk on 2011-03-20]

A child is naturally curious and interested in exploring about things that he does not know. Complex and unknown things are the ones that interest him (and us). We are interested in mysteries, conspiracy theories, adventure, drama, and are amused by the unexpected, stupendous, super-natural or sci-fi. We insult a child's intelligence by thinking that he can not understand complex things. We think that the only way to teach him is to progress from simple to complex. First drill in him simple concepts. He will only understand complex concepts, once he has mastered the simple things.

Monday, March 18, 2013

5 Myths of Higher Education in Pakistan

Presentation originally made at CIO Conference, March 2009 at Sheraton, Karachi.
The links and write-up below is an extended rehash of those thoughts:

Subject Compartmentalization vs Holistic Learning: How to align with natural process of learning of a child


Holistic learning, also known as global learning, is a learning style based on the principle that students will learn more effectively when all aspects of a person--mind, body and spirit--are involved in the experience. 

Source: About Holistic Learning 
When knowledge of the real-life phenomena is divided in to subjects with narrowly defined boundaries, and when each subject is decomposed into simpler and simpler concepts, the connection of a simple concept to the real-life phenomenon becomes less and less visible. The emphasis of the teacher on concepts whose connection to the real life phenomenon has been broken becomes senseless to a student. Thus, pages over pages of exercises of sums of three digit numbers and extraction of square roots no longer makes any sense to the child. Being subjected to such senseless exercises day after day turns off the student and he begins to hate the process of learning itself.  
Holistic Education

Exploration of real-life phenomenon is always interesting, full of mystery, surprises and the discoveries so made are exhilarating. By dividing such a knowledge into subjects and then down to their senseless first principles, we rob the knowledge from such adventure, make the process tedious and boring. No wonder we have to force, cajole, bribe, threaten, humiliate the child in order to coax him in to doing some thing which holds no mystery and discovery and sense for him.
See also: How our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) Insults the Intelligence of a Student
Let's focus on a real-life object such as a mobile phone. Can you divide it into neat boundaries of the subjects that we know:

  • Is there electronics? Of course yes. 
  • Is there mathematics? Yes, of course, the intricate manufacturing and fitting of the electronic components and their design was not possible without the mathematics. 
  • Is there sociology? Yes, the way we communicate, interact, meet, talk, socialize. 
  • Is there language? Of course how can you use it without the language, send text messages, read messages, emails, tag videos, store information, exchange information etc. 
  • Is there physics? Of course, the screen, casing, current, etc. 
  • Is there psychology? Of course, a lot of research goes into the psychology of how to make a user friendly phone, how to make it understand what we want to do, 
  • Is there chemistry? Of course, the materials with which it is made could not have been manufactured without the knowledge of chemistry.
  • .....

Compartmentalization vs Integration of Knowledge

Holistic education is mainly characterized by its focus on fostering learning by relating to subjects on a personal level and by its emphasis on interrelating subjects and concepts. The holistic method strives to mimic the way the brain learns information naturally; that is, with related bits of all subjects--history, science, literature--connected together. Subjects are not learned separately, but rather in relation to one another and in relation to what the student already knows. Concepts are studied from many different perspectives and rote memorization is strongly de-emphasized.

By contrast, traditional educational methods keep subjects strictly separate, with subjects and concepts compartmentalized and few connections made between them. Concepts are generally presented from one perspective and learning depends heavily on repetition and memorization.

Source: About Holistic Learning 
One can go on and on. Well, a mobile phone is a complex product. We can do a similar exercise with any other ordinary object, such as a tissue paper box. A little introspection like the one above will tell you that you can identify sociology, electronic (printing), mathematics (dimensions, cutting of paper from larger rolls), language (advertising, labelling), physics (cutting, manufacturing), chemistry (paper making, pulp, dyes, colors), ....

Objective of holistic learning is to make the student focus on the big picture and through a process of exploration and discovery using the student's natural curiosity move downwards to reach to the principles through a top-down process. This is entirely different from the classical composition of text books that typically move from simple to complex. Text books typically subscribe to the narrow subject boundaries. This is but natural. As the text books are written by experts whose take is not a learner's view of the subject but actually an expert's view of the subject. Expert looks at the field bottom up because he is an expert and in the process can foresee the connections that a concepts is going to establish with other concepts as the concepts become increasingly more and more complex. However, for a learner this view is not only unnatural but also senseless as he is just starting out and can not look at all the possibilities with which connections would be made by other concepts within the subject boundary and with other concepts in related subjects to eventually make real-life objects that are interesting, useful and studying whom makes sense.
We teach the students things that do not make sense and expect them to piece them together and derive the sense through a process of composition. Children often find it difficult to wait for some thing. The wait especially becomes tedious and more and more distant for abstract concepts that are not making sense, and therefore they lose hope and turn away from the learning process itself.
Aah ko chaheeyay ik umr asar hone takKaun jeeta hay teray zulf k ser honay tak.

Dividing the knowledge into subjects and then further dividing and decomposing them to
Experiential Learning is anti-subjects
very simple parts and only then make the education process of a child start from those simple (but yet totally senseless) concepts. This is akin to having our food divided into components such as proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins etc and each one placed on our plate in small piles. We are then asked not only to eat such tasteless piles and then expect our digestive system to digest them is not practical. Note that our digestive system is designed to decompose the whole food in to the constituent parts. It is not designed to digest concentrated dozes of fat, carbohydrates and other parts of food. Similarly, our minds have been designed to decompose complex phenomenon into simpler parts, solve mysteries, explore unknown territories. We are fascinated by riddles, UFOs, fairy tales, horror stories. They do not turn us off, but actually pique our interest and engage our interest. Similarly, real life phenomenon pique our interest. A child does not know how a toy car works, and in his curiosity will break it to find out how it works. Similarly, he would like to explore every closed (especially) locked windows, to see what is on the other side.

We need to make our subjects alive, thrilling, full of wonder, inviting, engaging and enthralling. This can only be done through holistic learning.

Thus, our curriculum should be holistic. It should be designed to engage the students, hold their attention, move them away from interesting video games, engaging facebook, and riveting programs and movies.

See also:

Structural Paradigm of Schools: Foundations and Assumptions

Current Education Paradigm [1]
Schools anywhere in the world share a common paradigm that was determined by the demands of the Industrial Revolution. In this post we identify the structural elements underlying the current paradigm. Many of the underlying assumptions of these structural elements are being questioned in the light of the transition to knowledge age of the 21st century from the industrial age of the 19-20th century. The structural elements given below are also shared by the universities, with some variations:

Why this current urgency about visions and entrepreneurship

Why this Current Urgency about Long Term Visions and Entrepreneurship -- Global Challenges and Opportunities

Information age economy will have most people working from their homes and mobiles through internet on a per project basis for different companies. They would be paid not because they have a CV containing a list of large number of degrees or diplomas, but they would be paid on the basis of their portfolio of past projects and their ability to complete the projects on time and within resource constraints. Even in Pakistan, there are already several organizations that allow their employees to work from their homes. This trend is going to explode exponentially. Very soon all services would be outsourced to off-site people or organizations. Information age requires people to be enterprising enough to find out opportunities where ever they exist after every few years or even months. This age requires people who are nimble enough and who can quickly learn new technologies and new ways of doing things. There will never be time enough go in to expensive training institutes and universities. People will have to learn quickly on their own. Therefore, self learning and intrinsic motivation is a very important part of the required skill set today.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Are you really concerned about your child's education

Worried about School Assessments (WASL) 
If you are really concerned about your child's progress in education, what you should be doing before you start running towards the school complaining and then hiring expensive tutors.

There are parents who get worked up quite frequently about their child's performance in school. Every few weeks their blood pressure builds up and they find themselves arguing with the child, then the school and the tutor and so on. Majority of such parents need to take an inventory of the things that they need to be doing before they show their concern. Here is the order of things that they need to worry about and pursue before they run to others:

  1. Is the child hungry? What is he eating? Is he getting enough food that he likes and relishes what he eats? Is there a regular time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Is the table set properly for each meal time? Is the meal time, a time for sparring, scolding, and a duel over who wins; whether the child gets up without eating or the parent is successful in thrusting the food inside the child. If every meal time is a contest. Then some thing is seriously wrong. A hungry child can not study and will not study. 
  2. What type of lunch is the child taking to schoool? If the child is taking junk food as lunch, then this is the biggest cause of concern. Leave everything and ensure that the child takes proper healthy food.
  3. Is there a time to sleep, time to wake up, time to rest? Without proper food, sleep and rest the child will be irritated, cranky and will be full of demands and would make fuss about every thing. Do the parents keep on sleeping till noon on holidays? Does the mother go to sleep after packing the kids to school? Holidays are time to explore the outdoors, parks, exhibitions, riverside or seaside. Holidays are for outdoor trips, trackings and excursions. Regular timings for sleeping and waking up provide the framework in which your child will organize his work and studies. Without the discipline of sleeping and waking up on time, expecting organization in child's homework and studies is a pipe dream.
  4. Is there a time to play, go out and have physical excursion? A growing young boy needs about six hours of physical exercise, play, running, climbing, etc. A child who is well fed and well rested will want to exert energy and play. If the child is not getting enough time to play and get the energy out of the system in the playground, he would do it at home by climbing on walls, cupboards, throwing things around, catching (and hence breaking stuff). Rowdyism of children is a sign of lack of opportunities for playground interaction with his/her peers. If a child has no time to play, then he is not mentally prepared for studies. At least one hour of competitive sports time (hockey, football, basketball, table tennis, badminton etc) will tremendously improve the grades of any student. Healthy body leads to healthy mind. 
  5. Once the regularity of meal times, sleep times, and play times are ensured, your child should not frequently be complaining of illness, infections and should be healthy. If he is excessively ill, then special attention has to be given in ensuring that the kid generally is not suffering from any ailments. 
  6. If the child is has proper meals, proper sleep time, proper play time and is generally healthy and still appear cranky and grumpy. Then the parent needs to pay attention to his emotional needs of being loved. 
  7. Once a parent has fulfilled the physical needs (proper meals, sleep, play) and emotional needs, then the parent can rightly start worrying about the studies of the child. However, studies show that parents who fulfill the primary needs of the children often have no problem with children's education because by that time they have provided a framework and a conducive environment for the growth of the children.

See Also:

  1. Do you think your child has some learning deficiency? Top 9 Questions to Answer Before You Start Worrying
  2. My child does not sit still and concentrate!
  3. How Parental Judgements can Shatter a Child - Self Fulfilled Prophecies 
  4. Are you really concerned about your child's education
  5. Bell Curve Evaluation of Students and Islamic Conception

[A workshop delivered at L2L Academy in July 2012]

Bell Curve Evaluation of Students: Islamic and Secular Perspectives

A "bell curve" is the holy grail for which the academicians force the grades of the students to be distributed in a form that resembles a bell shape as given in the figure below.

Normal Distribution of a Bell Curve
Mythical Bell Curve of Intelligence
The underlying assumption is that intelligence is distributed (genetically and empirically) in this bell curve shape which indicates that there are very few people who have very high or very low intelligence and majority of the people have intelligence that lies around the middle.