Sunday, November 16, 2014

Teachers, not tyrants

Recently there was a case of alleged malpractice in one of the undergrad classes. The TA brought the student to my office when I was in the midst of a research meeting with some other research students. The student was distraught and was vehemently denying any wrongdoing and there was high drama. Not only did this incident interrupt an important meeting, it was not possible for me to arrive at any conclusion even after questioning him for a while.

So, I did what is expected in such cases: prudence. I gave him the benefit of doubt and asked him to formally submit a statement giving his side of the story that can be filed along with his exam papers.

Unfortunately, I did sense in some circles that my decision seems to have been interpreted as "going soft" and "compromising" -- which is alarming to say the least.

So, here is what I'd like to say and provide as guidelines to my teaching assistants on dealing with students.

First, treat them as students, not as suspects or criminals. Our primary duty towards them is teaching, not testing or certifying, Those are secondary goals. As teachers, we have to care for their development and show that we care. Even when we catch them doing something wrong, we have to deal with it not like policemen pursuing criminals, but like parents correcting their children.

Second, do not make certification (grading) dependent on one or a small number of tests administered in sanitized settings. They give us no insight about how the student is likely to perform in the noisy and chaotic professional world, where challenges are hardly in the form of sanitized tests with a predetermined syllabus. Our certification process (grading) should be based on several data points, each of which observe a different kind of activity pertinent to the course. It is difficult, if not impossible for someone to cheat and get ahead in every form of activity.

Third, don't ever forget prudence -- people are innocent unless proven guilty. Assuming that students will indulge in some mischief if they are not under surveillance, is the worst possible and most damaging strategy towards teaching. We have to develop an environment where students look up to us for our profundity and are driven by curiosity.

Believe me, most of the students -- even the so-called back-benchers -- genuinely want to learn. Even those who want to game the system are basically indulging in such behaviours because of deep-rooted distrust about the system. Which in turn was developed because they were treated and accused unfairly by the system.

Remember the movie, Do Aankhen, Barah Haath? Even criminals are people, most of whom deserve to be reformed, rather than just punished. And we are talking about students here who are looking up to us for our purported wisdom.

And as the saying goes -- when you think you know nothing, you get a PhD. Doubting our decisions and not enforcing rules with an iron fist is the hallmark of wisdom, not of a compromise.

None of the above mean that it is okay to compromise on integrity. If malpractice is established -- and only after it is established, we have to take suitable reformative (not just punitive) action. But in the process of establishing the malpractice, we have to be mindful of the intimidation we may be creating, and the damage it may be causing on one's sense of personal integrity. We should always remember that our primary duty is to teach and reform, not pass judgements or administer punishments.

It is always good to remember that there is a knowledge imbalance between us and the students. They don't know what they don't know -- just like us. They may not even know that they don't know what they don't know. And hopefully that is where we are better off, as long as we are aware of our own ignorance.

They do not understand our concerns because they have never been in our shoes. They will interpret our actions according to their mental framework, not according to our intended framework.

If we do something that unfairly violates an individual's sense of personal integrity, we have basically damaged them and their sense of self worth. Which can have long reaching negative consequences. And the thing is, with undergrads who are just fresh off school with no experience to harden them up, violating their sense of integrity happens very easily.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Ownership as identity

There are some characteristic differences between the (20th century forms of the) West and the East in the basic approach to interacting with the external world.

The Western worldview places emphasis on taking charge and being in control of our lives by suitably modifying the environment around us, if necessary. The ultimate objective of being in charge of life is self-actualization -- or emancipation of our free will, to express itself.

In contrast, the Eastern worldview, places emphasis on harmony between us and the environment. It advocates a "hands-off" approach towards the environment urging us to not meddle or interfere with anything in the environment unless absolutely necessary to do so for restoring a sense of balance and harmony. The ultimate objective here is the collective harmony that results from prudent interactions between free-willed individuals and the environment.

These differences result in some curious disparities about our understanding of certain normative concepts. One such concept is that of "ownership."

The Western concept of ownership, historically referred to absolute privileges to impose our free will over something that is owned. For instance, kings were overlords of their kingdoms and enjoyed paramount privileges over everything in their kingdom.

Later on, such absolute privileges were diluted at different levels and the ownership itself was set inside a larger framework in which it is deemed valid. In more recent times, ownership (like that of software) is increasingly taking the form of "licenses" that provides certain limited privileges over the property, bounded by a contractual framework.

Despite all these changes, ownership is still about privileges. Owning property is considered a virtue because it provides us the platform for our free will to express itself.

In contrast, we who have been brought up to value a sense of harmony with the environment, have developed a slightly different definition of the concept of ownership.

In this worldview, rather than self-actualization, the collective synergy resulting from several free-willed individuals interacting harmoniously with one another and with the environment, is the final objective. Emancipation of one's free will per se, is not the goal. People are expected to restrain their free-will if necessary, for achieving a larger harmony.

This is not as bad as it sounds. By restraining our free will, we are actually in a disharmonious state ourselves, which in turn contributes to overall disharmony. If everyone were to live in a restrained fashion, there will be no collective harmony either. So, even though the culture emphasizes on collective interest, individual and collective interests are not necessarily at loggerheads with one another.

Only in specific cases where they conflict, an individual is expected to think of the collective interest first and of one's own interest next.

In such a system, the concept of ownership (as privileges) is somewhat sloppy -- on purpose.

In fact, conventionally it is considered distasteful and arrogant to assert one's exclusive rights on one's property. In movies as recent as the 1990s, the villains usually were depicted with an extremely calculating and hair-splitting personality, while the heroes were depicted with a magnanimous personality.

Indeed, possessing something for the sole purpose of imposing one's free will over it, is not called "ownership" at all -- it is called "indulgence." This thinking permeates even today among the young and old alike -- where technology and gadgets are seen not as tools that make us efficient, but as elements of indulgence that promotes laziness and decadence.

There is however, another definition of "ownership" in this worldview that comes with positive connotations. This basically equates ownership to a sense of identity.

If we "own" something, it means that we associate ourselves with it. What we consider as our own, defines who we are.

We "buy" houses but "own" our homes -- because our sense of identity extends beyond us to our homes. Till the time we don't associate our identity with our house, it is just a place where we live, and not a home. In this sense, ownership is not a formal construct, but an emotional construct.

This kind of emotional ownership is evident when we see how celebrities are treated. Often times we see people demanding certain things from celebrities. More than one celebrity have found themselves in the line of fire from their fans, simply because they voiced their opinion on something that was not the popular opinion on the issue. One of them had famously said that in our country, if you are a celebrity, you need to know the "right" answer to every question on every subject, regardless of what you are famous for. Tennis stars should know what is the correct answer when asked about marriage values. Software czars should know what is the right answer to say when asked about a controversy over river water sharing. And so on..

So what makes people make such demands from celebrities whom they actually idolize? In their minds, people actually "own" the celebrities they idolize, because they associate their own sense of identity with the celebrity.

Some time ago, I was seeing this movie where a poor student is supported by a rich joint family who gives him a room to stay and provides him food. As the story proceeds, the family members fight and the family splits. Seeing the grandmother of the family distraught and crying, the student who is staying at the house goes to console her and says, "I've always thought of this as my own home.." and succeeds eventually in pacifying the grandmother.

Of course, the boy does not mean that he was eyeing privileges over the property, which is what it would mean in the legal definition of considering oneself as owning the home.. :)

What he meant was that his sense of identity extended to the family that supported him. Which in turn means that, he would rejoice in their happiness and would feel sad at their sadness. He considers the family's problems as his problems too. Because they are part of his identity, their ups and downs are his own ups and downs too.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How ceremonies kept us sane..

The culture in which I was born in, is full of ceremonies. There are ceremonies for everything. Ceremonies begin even before one is born, and continue well after they are dead and gone. In between, there is a ceremony for just about any event -- happy or sad, and for any day.

Ceremonies are rife with symbolic interpretations and these often get into huge complications. Many times in the past, when I had been stressed out by some thing like an exam or a paper deadline and had not participated in a ceremony in the intended fashion, it had usually let to a lot of hurt feelings and complications in social equations.

I've often been vocal about my criticism about such "meaningless symbolism" and such superstition that has kept us locked in a state of fear.

But then, this post is about another side of this story.

I've often wondered how did our society become so ceremonial in the first place. Ordinarily, individuals I encounter around me are immensely smart, talented and kind-hearted. So, why did we develop such levels of collective mediocrity? Why were we not able to translate our individual intelligence into collective intelligence?

A little peek into history tells us a very different story. We did in fact have high levels of collective intelligence several centuries ago. We had one of the first and the largest set of universities in the world. We developed some of the best number systems that made modern mathematics possible. Our astronomical calculations, even though based on a geo-centric model, were quite precise. Our languages reflected principles of "universal grammar" and had developed sophisticated methods of phonetic representation (without a need for spellings and spelling rules). We knew how to build ships and had established huge trade zones. Three of the five major Asian religions were born here. And so on..

There is no dearth of evidence for collective intelligence.

So how and why did our society become ceremonial and superstitious? Here is my theory.

Rather than representing collective mediocrity, ceremonies were pretty much the only thing that preserved our sanity over several centuries.

For the last several centuries much of our society lived in a subjugated fashion. Which meant that there were always limits beyond which our worlds were driven by arbitrariness of someone's whims and fancies. Much of pre-independence codified law for example, was based on the principle of "paramountcy" of the colonial rulers. Which meant that notwithstanding whatever the law said about anything, they could do whatever they want, however they want, without assigning any reasons whatsoever.

At a psychological level, the human mind has a pressing need for a consistent and predictable worldview. Some seminal work on prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky show several instances where our minds seek closure and consistency in what we experience and observe. Cognitive consistency theory is a related theory on this issue. Without consistency, we stand the risk of falling apart mentally and entering into a sub-human state.

And this is where rituals and ceremonies played a central role. Ceremonies created hypothetical logical structures that were consistent and complete to the extent that they were positively elegant (but not necessarily rooted in reality). For an individual, who had to put up with nonsense on a daily basis, the elegance of a ceremonial life was not only a soothing factor, but also perhaps the only recourse to maintain some semblance of sanity.

It is also one of the reasons why people still advocate ceremonial activity in response to discontinuities in one's life, like the loss of a close family member or the breakdown of a marriage. The idea is that the mental dissonance created by the event can be soothed by artificially bringing a semblance of closure and parity by performing symbolic activities. However, this is true only if the discontinuity is creating a sense of semantic dissonance in our minds.

Ceremonies also helped to bring people together in times of adversity. While each one suffered subjugation in different ways, they connected with one another through the common language of ceremonies.

Ceremonies also helped in keeping alive some echoes of past glory and gave some faint ideas into how life must have been in those days.

Therefore, far from collective mediocrity, a ceremonial lifestyle was in fact a manifestation of collective intelligence. It was the "best response" function by the society, given the realities of its subjugated existence and hostility and arbitrariness from the top.

However, in today's changed reality, the ceremonial lifestyle is no longer the best response to our collective challenges. We still approach collective challenges as though they were all manifested by a powerful and hostile adversary. We still attach ourselves emotionally to symbolic interpretations that are not rooted in reality. We have serious problems with conceptual modeling, argumentation and critical thinking.

We know how to build symbolic structures, but we have trouble in appreciating the fact that these symbolic structures have to be rooted in reality, and that that in itself is a very non-trivial problem. As the saying goes: You cannot reach truth by logic -- you can only communicate truth using logic. This is precisely the difference between a ceremonial and a formal activity. A formal activity is structured and grounded in reality, while a ceremonial activity is merely structured (and grounded in hypothetical or symbolic interpretations). Grounding the logic in truth is where much of the pain and complexity lies.

While old problems like arbitrariness and subjugation have reduced tremendously (even though they continue to vaguely persist in some form or the other), we are now faced with new kinds of challenges. We are suddenly faced with a large, young, angry and hungry population who are only exposed to symbolic ceremonialism, and lack required abilities in scientific thinking and problem-solving.

Our "best response" functions from the past will not be enough to address problems of the future. So while we understand and appreciate the ceremonial nature of our past, we still should spare no effort in figuring out what should be our strategic best response to future challenges.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The "lever" to unleash our potential

I've often wondered what would be a "lever" that would unleash the creative potential latent in our society. And here is the answer I've arrived at:

People in this society, for most of their lives, live inside a "social bubble." Their thinking is rooted in axioms that are based on social considerations. A social consideration is any assertion that involves interaction between two or more people. If we "re-root" these axioms in the physical world, we will unleash a creative potential at a level that perhaps the world has never seen since the dawn of the Age of Reason in medieval Europe.

Here is an example.

Recently I was delivering a talk on how the web is shaping our world, and to make my point, I used some inputs from social sciences. One of the members in the audience pointed to me that I am missing out on the most "fundamental element" of social interaction -- power. Apparently, all social interactions are fundamentally about power. Whatever question we are pursuing about society -- be it about governance, economics, education, justice, labour, etc. we should first understand the dynamics of social power to be able to make any headway. Indeed, the axiom of power is taken even to the level of an individual. An individual either dominates his/her environment, or is dominated by the environment.

Well yes, understanding power dynamics is very important, but is that really the axiomatic basis for all social interactions? I beg to differ on that.

Social power becomes relevant only when there is more than one person in the picture, contending for a limited resource that all of them are interested in. When there is only one person in the picture, or there is no contention over a resource, social dynamics are not really driven by a sense of power.

As humans, we are rooted in the physical world and are driven by physical needs at different levels -- exemplified by Maslow's hierarchy for example. From physical survival to self-actualization, we are driven by this innate need. This driving force is rooted in the evolutionary forces that have shaped us. Foraging, creating, socializing, dominating, submitting, implementing, and all of the stuff we do in the social world can be fundamentally traced down to the evolutionary forces that are driving us.

Power dynamics is just one manifestation of the social interplay driven by these evolutionary forces. Rather than being the axiomatic basis for all kinds of social interactions, power dynamics are seen only in pretty limited settings. There are ample examples of other social dynamics, like people going on a picnic, or sharing photos on Pinterest, or forwarding jokes on Whatsapp, or meeting up with old friends, etc. that are not necessarily driven by power considerations.

Social axioms lead us to rather superficial theories and inferences and often fail to capture the deeper underlying spirit behind a phenomenon.

For instance, we often see huge debates on questions about how men feel about working for a woman boss (while there are enough examples of women working for a male boss) and so on.

The problem with the above question again is the "social assumption" -- that people work for other people. Well no. People (should) work for the organization -- which is a conceptual entity, an abstraction -- and not for other people. Bosses are meant to do a job of managing activities of others so that the interests of the organization are upheld. The boss could well be a transgender person, a cyborg or a robot in the future. And it is irrelevant.

Social assumptions like that are everywhere. Students make decisions about taking up a PhD depending on who their adviser is, and not based on what they are curious about. People vote for political parties based on who the leader is, not what is the party's stance on different pressing issues. And so on..

From what I have seen, in our society there is no dearth of ability to think and reason -- the problem is where we ground our axioms.

Building our lives on social assumptions is analogous to growing a vegetable plant in a pot on the kitchen window sill. It may give some results, but plants are really meant to be grown on the earth directly.

If we can somehow take these roots that are floating around in these social pots and plant them in the physical world, we will leapfrog into the future with our capacity to create, reason and solve problems. The question of course is, who and how will we bell this axiomatic cat?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Think before you read..

Here is a piece of advice that I often give my research students:

Augment thinking with reading, rather than reading with thinking.. 

The idea here is that research has to be fundamentally driven by meaningful questions that we personally care about and that we are curious about and that we have understood from first principles; rather than something that is induced by what others are saying. As researchers, we should be exploring questions that we can relate to, rather than whatever is "hot" in the marketplace (because by the time we finish the thesis, the hot would have become cold anyway).

I think the above applies equally as a life skill, rather than just a research skill.

Our thinking is fundamentally driven by who we are as a person -- our desires, our hopes, our delusions, our fears, etc. The more we think the more we understand the depths of who we are. Augmenting our thinking with reading helps us relate who we are with the rest of the world. We can apply ourselves passionately to some larger thought shaping the world.

But generally, I see that we are taught to read first and think next. Our thinking is mostly an augmentation to what we read. There are all kinds of intellectual posturing games that people play based on what we read, rather than what we think.

It is strange that we define an "intellectual" as someone who reads a lot. Well, an intellectual is someone who thinks a lot. I've seen intellectual activity like conceptualizing, argument building, strategizing, empathizing, etc. coming from even illiterate people who don't even know how to read. And I've also seen copious dearth of intellectual activity coming from research labs and "think tanks" who revel in just citing stuff or quoting people or in sporting a permanently disinterested expression like, "Oh you won't understand me anyway, why bother arguing with you.." rather than building a sound argument.

When I state the above, I've heard people conclude that I'm advocating not reading at all. Really? Far from it. Rather than advocating against reading, I'm advocating for thinking. It is our thinking that defines who we are and shapes our destiny, and our reading augments and strengthens us in this process.

My advisor used to give an analogy, which I'll paraphrase here. Reading a lot is like putting a lot of zeros in a sequence. If they are augmenting thinking, which is a '1' then they will collectively form a big number -- 1 followed by a lot of zeros. On the other hand, if the thinking follows the reading, then it would just be a lot of zeros followed by 1 -- a much smaller number.

It is also easy to detect from one's writing, whether the author puts thinking first or reading first. Someone who puts thinking first would write in an "abstractive" fashion. This means that the writing strives to bring out the essence of some idea that the author wishes to convey.

On the other hand, someone who puts reading before thinking tends to write in a "transcriptive" fashion. Such writing aims to report something from somewhere that the author found interesting. The writing itself would be in the form of a transcription of whatever the author had read, rather than trying to make a point about something. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the social psychology of teasing and sarcasm

Some time ago, I found an interesting article on Quora about the differences in a "sense of humour" between India and the US (specifically, the east coast where the author was situated).

In India, the concept of teasing is quite common among family members, friends and even professional colleagues. It is quite common for instance, among college students, that someone looking rather happy, or wearing new clothes, or showing any other signs of something brewing in their personal lives, would be subject to a variety of tease. Similarly in family circles, teasing is quite commonly seen among siblings, cousins and even across generational lines. Bollywood movies showing scenes of "joint family" often show ample amounts of teasing as a way of depicting how "happy" the family is.

On the other hand, what really gets the Indians' goat is sarcasm. A sarcastic remark will almost always be interpreted in an offensive manner. In the TV serials of today for example, the vile and vengeful mother-in-law almost always speaks in sarcastic taunts.

Quite interestingly, as the Quora author noted, and as I've been observing myself subsequently, quite the opposite is true in the US east coast culture.

A tease is almost always taken as an unnecessary intrusion into one's personal space. While a sarcastic remark is quite the norm, and is even used as a "coolness" statement. A sarcastic perspective on something is often seen as asset -- an indicator of how "differently" the person thinks and how "witty" they are.

This one piece of insight that I encountered on the web, has helped me tide through several situations of cultural gaps when interacting with folks from across the world. I can now understand why some friendly teasing remark from an Indian can blow things out of proportion, and put them into serious trouble. Similarly, I can understand why some folks here are extremely offended by the "witty put-downs" of the Americans (which are usually witty sarcasms).


As always, my understanding is complete only after I can build a model to explain this discrepancy in preferences. 

A quick search on the net did not reveal any convincing theory explaining the psychology behind teasing and sarcasm and for when a population prefers one over the other. Perhaps a more exhaustive search will turn up something, but then it is more fun to build hypotheses ourselves. So here goes: 

American east coast culture has some significant differences from the Indian cultural worldview, in that it places much more emphasis on objectivity and impersonal discussions. Specifically, there is emphasis on the issue being discussed and separating the people from the issue. 

Given this, a sarcastic remark is almost always a humorous perspective on the issue being talked about. It has nothing to do with the people involved in the discussion. While a teasing remark is violating the focus on the issue and is targeting the person instead. This can explain why a tease causes offence, while sarcasm doesn't. 

As an example, I remember some years ago, there were a few students visiting us from Boston. One of them, during our lunch together, was remarking about the practice of arranged marriages in India. While another made a witty remark about arranged marriages, comparing it with slave trade. And I could see how this was instantly taken as offensive by some of the Indians. On the other hand, one of the Indian hosts teased the guy who had started the discussion about how his parents would now be worried about his marriage. And the instant look of disapproval on his face was revealing about how this was considered a totally inappropriate thing to say. 

To explain the Indian perspective of things, it helps to remember that Indian society is extremely focused on people. When someone is talking, it is that someone who is the focus of attention, rather than the contents of what is being talked. When something is being said, the contents of what is being said is just one of the several things that is being processed by the listener. Other things that are being processed are the tone of the message, the choice of words, supposed intention behind the message, supposed people behind the person giving the message, etc. 

In addition, the contents of the message are also interpreted in terms of what is expected of us and what they are trying to say about us, rather than simply what the message is trying to say. 

So, a sarcastic remark in this context, is a direct "put-down" of the other person's intelligence, rather than a witty perspective on the issue. So, the witty perspective of slave trade as applied to arranged marriages, is seen as an insult to the intelligence of the people who practice arranged marriages. Given that, arranged marriages are common even among highly educated families, surely, it is not exactly identical to slave trade. 

While the people-centric worldview can explain why sarcasm is seen as offensive, there is still this question about teasing. Surely, a tease, that is directly targeted at the person, ought to be seen as even more offensive? 

Well, it is, actually. A tease can elicit vastly different reactions depending on how the teaser and the one who is being teased, view each other. Among close friends and family, a tease is seen as a sign of fondness. If the fondness is reciprocated by all the parties involved, a tease party is seen as fun and frolic. Watch a group of close friends from college having dinner at a restaurant, and it is common to see just about everyone, "pulling the leg" (slang for teasing) of everyone else. It is just a way for the group to express its fondness towards one another. 

However, teasing in a setting where there is no mutual fondness is treated as even more offensive than sarcasm. And it is easy to see why. A tease is a witty put-down directed at a person. When tempered with fondness, the witty put-down actually means the opposite of what is being said. When a close friend teases another saying, "Oh God! I have to put up with you!" and is smiling fondly, it actually means the opposite of what is being said. But when the fondness is missing, this can be a recipe for a disastrous interaction. 

So using teasing as a strategy for "ice breaking" can be really risky -- its success depends on how much mutual fondness existed prior to the ice breaking, and a failure could have negative consequences. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The four pillars of great learning environments

Recently, my facebook timeline was abuzz with some news feature saying that the environment in our schools are worse than prisons. Apparently the annual suicide rate in our schools are several times more than the annual suicide rate in our prisons.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising at all. Being an academician by choice in a society that I love and care about, I am deeply pained about our approach towards education. My own educational experience (especially, primary education) was traumatic leaving me with several emotional scars. So much so, that one of my great curiosity these days is to understand the concept of slavery -- because at a fundamental level, I think that was what our schooling was about. We were conditioned to value certain things and think of ourselves in a particular manner, which I now understand, is the typical self-image of a slave. Basically, we were encouraged to be compliant workers, rather than thinkers and problem-solvers. I do not know whether this was by design or whether this was just the way the society as a whole was in those days (I suspect it is the latter). This has made me curious about its psychological, emotional, and social dimensions, and recognize how it continues to thrive in its various forms even today. According to, our country has the highest number of people living in a visible state of slavery in the world! And several invisible forms of slavery still permeate throughout our domestic and professional lives.


Two of the most abused terms I see today in educational environments are discipline and integrity. Both of them are basically used as excuses to enforce compliance and obedience to ill-thought out or ill-explained rules. I've even seen arguments like "fear is a great motivator" used in educational environments. Using fear as a deterrent is one thing, but using fear as a motivator says a lot about the underlying paradigm.

Behaviourism seems to be the predominant model for imparting education, which involves conditioning and molding the student's behaviour by mechanisms of reward and punishment. There seems to be a copious lack of understanding of other models of learning or even about how behaviour conditioning can go horribly wrong.

After the IT revolution, while several sectors underwent fundamental reforms, there was just some small changes in the educational sector. And in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

There were these viewpoints about education as a business or a service. Students were seen as "customers" and learning was seen as a "process." Recently, I had argued that production, service and learning are three different things. A learning environment cannot be modeled as a production or a service environment.

This set me thinking about what are the essential elements of a great learning environment. And I've cornered on these four: Objectivity, Participation, Immersiveness, Positivity.

And I would like to argue that these four elements are essential for all kinds of learning environments. Be they primary education or higher education, be they science education, arts education or professional training. Let me elaborate on the four pillars below.


Objectivity in learning environments means separating ideas from people and keeping the focus on the ideas or the object of inquiry. This is a discipline that needs to be built over time with deliberate effort. And of course, to build this discipline, we cannot be using conditioning based on rewards and punishments -- we should be using objective and dispassionate argumentation.

Just about every idea should be subject to inquiry. Students have to be taught how to question an idea without sounding arrogant or sarcastic. Teachers have to be trained on how to manage questions and keep debates objective.

Even notions of integrity and discipline should be questioned by the students. They need to understand why they have to do whatever it is that they are expected to do. Ideally, there should be no rule imposed by the educational institution that does not come with an explanation of the "why" behind the rule. Students should be allowed to suggest alternate forms of complying with the spirit of the rule, which may or may not be implemented because of practical considerations. The important thing is that they should be allowed to give alternate ideas, which should be publicly discussed.


Any good learning environment has to be participatory in nature. Students should actively do something and synthesize some output, as part of their learning. Even theoretical studies can be participatory. Students can propose their own hypotheses, build their own theoretical models, or try and attempt to prove a long-standing theorem.

Their activities may not be perfect and indeed may even be deeply flawed. But combine a participatory environment with objectivity, it becomes easy to evaluate one's own participation and understand the complexity of actually doing something.

A participatory environment would have elements of cooperation, competition and individual participation. None of the above would be any more important than the other. The focus is on objective results of the participation and not on the mode of participation.

Our current models of passive and bookish learning have instilled a strange overconfidence in our students who believe that the biggest challenge in the world is to pass exams with well-defined syllabi. Our current model of punishing mistakes have also made students deny or hide their mistakes -- even to themselves, rather than face them head long.


In a good learning environment, learning is "in the air" and not just in books and classrooms. Much of our learning happens by osmosis. This is not to say that classrooms are not important. Classrooms are necessary, but not sufficient to impart deep-rooted learning.

Several great universities across the world spend a lot of effort in designing their physical spaces. Just a walk down their corridors would be like a visit to a museum. There are universities that embed puzzles and intriguing questions in their public spaces. Other approaches include designing spaces like cafeterias, lounges and sitting areas towards encouraging academic discussion and debate. For instance, having whiteboards in corridor seating areas, having a small library in the cafeteria, etc.

In great universities, immersiveness is actively practiced by the faculty members too. Great academicians view academics as a lifestyle, not as a job. It is a lifestyle driven by a burning curiosity and unending thirst. It is a lifestyle that refuses to "settle down" in life. It is a lifestyle that strives to get to the bottom of things to understand them deeply, rather than get on top of things to control them.


The last and certainly not the least trait of good educational institutions is a culture of positivity. This means that positive emotions like compassion, empathy, trust, happiness, joy, etc. are actively discussed, advocated and pursued in daily affairs.

The pursuit of knowledge is a very unsettling process. As the saying goes -- the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge or the ignorance of ignorance. Breaking through this comforting illusion of knowledge is an emotionally unsettling experience. To counter this, educational environments should actively promote positive emotions, while at the at the same time keeping the environment immersive, objective and participatory.