Archive for September, 2011

It takes two to tango

September.18. 2011

This is a continuation of my previous post, and expands on one of the points I raised in that post.

In a perfect world, learning occurs when a teacher imparts knowledge and a student receives that knowledge.

That’s all there is to it.

For years, this was the unwritten contract between teacher and student.

And teachers were especially wary of students who were not ready for instructions.

Martial arts lore is replete with stories of masters who would not accept students until they knew the student was ready.

I read about a martial arts teacher in Beijing who made a student exercise every day with him for three years (at a distance) before he would accept him as a student.

The great piano pedagogue Leschetitzky almost made Paderewski jump off a second story building to test his sincerity and eagerness to learn before he would accept him as a student.

But we live in a very imperfect world.

Being a teacher these days means many other things.

Now, we’re expected to become cheerleader, counselor, entertainer, babysitter, magician, parent, mentor, on top of our duties as ‘teacher.’

And the minute we assume the teacher mantle, we also become miracle workers – we’re expected to make students learn, no matter what.

And if students show no interest in learning, it’s our fault.

If they don’t do their homework, it’s our fault.

If they have low test scores, it’s our fault.

In other words, we teachers are one hundred percent guilty of any failings in the student’s education.

The student is blameless, the parents are blameless. The student bears no responsibility towards his own learning. The parents bear no responsibility towards their children’s education.

I’m not sure how and when this shift in perception of the teacher’s duties took place.

But suddenly we’re not just charged with imparting knowledge, we’re also charged with changing mindsets, we’re charged with making student receptive to our teaching.

And this is the crux of the problem.

That’s really not our job description.

That’s the parent’s job. That’s the parent’s responsibility.

It’s the job of parents to show an active interest in their child’s education, to make sure that homework is done, to provide a good learning environment at home, to encourage them, motivate them, fire up their ambitions.

In other words, it’s the job of parents to mentor their own children and make them receptive to learning.

If parents do this and step up to their responsibilities as parents, I guarantee test scores will go up across the board.

This is not rocket science, it’s just common sense.

Here’s a little anecdotal example from my own experience.

I went to school in a third world country. Classroom size was, on the average, 40 students per class.

And I remember some of the teachers were not the most enthusiastic and inspiring of teachers.

There was the science teacher whose idea of teaching was to copy endless notes on the chalkboard and we had to copy them down by hand. During tests, we had to memorize all these notes and regurgitate them.

There was the history teacher whose idea of teaching was to read from the textbook. He was so lazy, he didn’t even bother to read the book himself. Instead he would get one student after another to read it for him.

Not the most inspiring of situations. No fancy teaching techniques, no smart boards.

Just teacher, student, textbook, and chalkboard.

But did we learn?

As one famous politician is fond of saying, you betcha!

Because we were all fired up to learn. Yes, we still clowned around in class, but when the time came for testing and exams, we all knew we had to get serious.

The secret was expectations. Expectations from parents mostly.

If you didn’t do well, the shame you experience was enough to force you to study harder the next time. I remember having to show my ‘report card’ to my parents every term end. If the test scores were bad, it was more a matter of personal shame than any reprimand you could get from them.

Modern educators might shudder at the description I just gave.

But the proof is in the pudding.

Where are all these extremely ‘disadvantaged’ students now? Flung all across the globe, from New Zealand to Australia to Malaysia to Canada to the USA.

Engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, accountants, bankers, teachers, real estate developers, and yes, even a guitar professor in South Texas.

As I wrote earlier, teaching is a two way street.

For the transfer of knowledge to take place, the teacher must be willing and able to impart knowledge and the student to receive it.

And if the student is ready and receptive, learning will take place, even under the most adverse conditions.

A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS

September.16. 2011

Being a teacher is a thankless task.

Students have little respect for you, administration thinks you’re shirking your duties and are constantly evaluating you, and politicians use you as a punching bag.

Take the recent appearance of Michelle Rhee on Tavis Smiley.

Her basic message was simple:

If students are not doing well, blame the teachers (and their unions).

It’s the same old refrain that bureaucrats have been making for years. As a teacher, I’m frankly sick and tired of hearing it.

In all these debates about education, one point seems to be consistently missed.

Learning is a two way street between teacher and student.

It can only occur when the teacher is ready to impart knowledge and  the student receptive to that knowledge.

The great Bruce Lee used to tell a story about a learned man who went to a Zen teacher to learn about Zen. As the teacher began to explain things, the man interrupted him frequently with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…”

Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured tea until the cup was full, and then kept pouring until it overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man interrupted, “The cup is full. No more can go into it!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher, “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

That sums up the teachers’ quandary.

To be able to impart knowledge to students, the student must be empty and open.

If the student has already closed his/her mind, no amount of coaxing, cajoling, and teaching gimmicks will make the student learn.

But these days, it’s fashionable to blame teachers for all the failings in our school systems.

When schools fail and test scores are low, blame the teachers. Fire them, make them jump through more hoops, subject them to endless evaluations, require them to keep copious records of students’ progress.

Most educators in the trenches know that this is just so much smoke and mirrors. Mere posturing and theater. Administrators trying to look busy and engaged in their jobs.

Because despite these fancy measures, standards have continued to decline.

I say it’s time for a new approach.

And that approach is to work on the receiving side – to open up students and make them more receptive to learning.  To take the lids off their cups so teachers can pour more tea of knowledge into them again.

Let me qualify that by saying that no, I’m not suggesting that all teachers are blameless. Good teachers are few and far in between, just as good doctors are few and far in between, just as good pastors are few and far in between. (Is there any profession or vocation that does not have their share of deadwood?)

But learning can take place even when the quality of the knowledge that is being poured into the cups is sub par (I can attest to that, having had my share of disengaged and disinterested teachers in my life), just as healing can take place even under mediocre doctors, perhaps just not as fast.

Andrei Aleinikov is a leading learning and creativity expert. In his book, Mega Creativity, he devoted a whole chapter on finding out the essence of things. Luckily for us, he’s helped us define the essence of learning.

Here’re the questions he asked to arrive at his definition. (I’m paraphrasing a little here.)

Will learning take place if we take away politicians and bureaucrats? The answer is yes, we don’t need bureaucrats and politicians for learning to tale place.

Will learning take place if we take away school buildings? The answer is yes, we don’t need buildings for learning to take place.

Will learning take place if we take away textbooks? The answer is yes, we don’t need textbooks for learning to take place.

Will learning take place if we take away computers and smart boards? The answer is yes, learning will take place without computers and other modern gadgetry.

Will learning take place if we take away teachers? The answer is no, learning will not take place if we take away teachers.

Will learning take place if we take away students? The answer is no, learning will not take place if we take away students.

So the essence of learning can be reduced to two things – students and teachers. Everything else is dispensable.

It’s time we get back to the basics of learning.

We don’t need more politicians to tell us what to do. We don’t need more bureaucrats to tell us how to teach. And yes, we don’t even need more computers and smart boards to help students learn better.

All we need are receptive students and for that, the responsibility lies squarely on the parents.

Parents have to get involved. They have to take an active interest in their children’s education. They have to encourage and motivate their children to learn, and provide a good environment at home for that learning to take place.

Until that happens, students will continue to be disinterested in learning and test scores will continue to be low.

To quote another old saying, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” You can bring a child to school but you can’t make him/her learn.

Back to the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview.

Until October of 2010, Ms. Rhee was the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Soon after she left the school district, she formed a new student advocacy group, Students First.

One of the stated goals of the organization is to recruit one million members and raise $1 billion dollars in five years. (Yes, that’s $1 billion.)

This is an inordinately large amount which Tavis Smiley was quick to point out.

He asked her, does this amount suggest that she believes that lack of money is the problem for our schools?

To which Rhee provided a rather startling answer, the money is not going to schools or students. Instead, it will be used to pay lobbyists.

According to her, teachers’ unions and the AFT are spending $500 million a year on lobbyists, so if Students First wants to counteract their efforts, it has to spend at least $200 million a year on lobbyists too.

Brilliant solution! Only in America.

To put students first, pay $1 billion to lobbyists.

I’m sure test scores across the country will skyrocket with that bold and visionary move.

People Can Count

September.5. 2011

When I first discovered Choon Seng coffee shop in Sibu a few years ago, I was astonished. (*Please see update below.)

It was full almost every time I went there. In fact, most of the time, you had to wait around for people to leave to find a table.

And Sunday mornings? Forget it, you wouldn’t be able to find a table at all.

It got me thinking.

Coffee shops are a dime a dozen in Sibu, and if you were to look around, most of them only have a few customers at any one time.

What’s the secret to Choon Seng’s success?

To me it’s obvious –  it’s their coffee.

But there’s no secret to coffee making. All you have to do is mix some coffee powder with hot water (and for me, condensed milk) and you have a good cup of coffee.

What’s so special abut Choon Seng’s coffee?

It comes down to four words.

Generous helpings of ingredients.

They don’t stinge on their coffee, nor do they stinge on their milk. You can see them making it right in front of you. Generous scoops of coffee powder and generous spoonfuls of milk.

And so I guess the next question is.

So why don’t others do the same? Why can’t they see that there’s no secret to a good thriving coffee business? All you have to do is be generous with your ingredients and people will keep on coming back.

I have a good friend in Kuala Lumpur. We’ll call him Lee. Lee is a superb businessman but more than that, he’s one of the most genuine people I know. He owns a thriving music business and every time I meet him in Kuala Lumpur, he seems to have bought a new car. (No, this is not to suggest he’s a spend drift, it’s to underscore his business success.)

So one day, I asked him his secret.

And his answer was simple: “People can count.”

This means, don’t try to cheat your customers or your workers. They’re not stupid; they know when they’re being taken. (Is there a lesson here somewhere for our friends at Air Asia?)

If they’re customers, they won’t come back, and if they’re workers, they’ll be looking around for another job.

Coming back to coffee making again, I was at a Thai restaurant here once, in Corpus Christi, Texas, and as usual, I had to order my iced coffee.

When it came, it was the worst coffee I’d ever tasted. Just a faint hint of coffee and milk, that was it. It was mostly just water and ice.

So I asked the waitress, “Who made this coffee?”

When she said she did it herself, I was flabbergasted, I asked her again, “Do you drink coffee?”

She said no.

So I said something to this effect (something that I know my good friend Lee probably would never say), I said. “How can you make coffee if you don’t drink it yourself?” (Implying, how are you supposed to know what coffee should taste like if you don’t drink it yourself?)

Almost immediately, I was sorry I said that, from the expression on her face.

And needless to say, I never went back to the place.

Back to Choon Seng’s coffee. You can feel the effort, the passion behind the coffee. You can feel the love, the care. You know that the people making it obviously drink coffee and they know what it should taste like.

And that’s why people keep on going back.

So I guess if I were to identify one key element in building a good coffee shop business, it’s to paraphrase Lee: “People can taste.”


*Update July 28, 2015

As they say, all good things must come to an end. About two years ago, the coffee at Choon Seng started going south, more out of neglect than anything else. So nothing extraordinary about Choon Seng coffee anymore, sad to say. In fact, I’ve given up on finding good coffee in Sibu. These days, I only ask for barley water.