Thursday, April 12, 2012

It is all about the processor

What should an education system deliver? As parents, what do we want our kids to learn? These are broad, profound questions, and I am sure the answers will cover the whole range -  good overall behavior, strong value system, a set of good friends, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, grand all-round development (this is the holy grail these days) will all feature in the wish-list. Given my preference for discussing things within a specific framework, I am going to think about what an education system gives a child from a purely academic point of view. I Want to think about what should kids learn.

I am going to classify learning into three sub-headings - Processor, Hard-drive and Apps. I am sure most guys are familiar with these terms, but a little bit of elaboration never hurts.

  1. Processor would be a proxy for raw processing-power - a proxy for how well a brain can sort data, process that and arrive at conclusions.
  2. Hard-drive is proxy for storage space/memory. How well and how much information can the brain store? How well this information can be accessed and cross-tabulated will depend on the processor again, but let us come to that later
  3. Apps are simple layers that are added on top that rest on some part of processor and hard-drive and simplify the data processing and execution. Just to give an example, learning how to use Tally or how to use log tables is an app.
Now, it is clear that we need all three - but the relative importance of the three and the ages when we should focus on each is what should determine the education system. In my mind, easily the most important component of the three is the processor. Especially for kids below the age of 15, processor is going to be the key. Every school should obsess over just one question - How is my course going to improve the processing power of these kids?

The way the world is going, the value of hard-drive is dropping by the day. Anything that needs to be stored away is going to be made accessible. Our parents had to remember telephone codes, we had to remember log 2, these kids wont have to "remember" much. Instead of saying the kids of the current era dont have patience, bandwidth, we should be thinking - Now, that the hard-drive is less important, I need to crank up the processor even more.

Now, there is a critical difference between the computer analogy that we have chosen and the way the human brain works. Our computer analogy somewhat makes these three bits as separate silos, whereas in the human mind, these three are very inter-linked. In a computer framework, we will be sacrificing one of the three for gaining the other two. On the contrary, for the human brain, best way to improve processor might be through working on a memory-building app. Some apps can be very very processor-enhancing.

Schools need to go for the best approaches that target the processor. Schools should obsess over the processor. 10-year olds should be given very challenging questions that build on their analytical capability. This is where the original frameworks are very helpful - the 3R's - Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. One focuses on comprehension, one on articulation and one on analytical frameworks. If these are drilled in, then loading apps will be a piece of cake.

There are plenty of apps that can be used to enhance the processor, especially for critical skill sets. Schools should use these, but they should keep in mind that these apps are there for a purpose - to improve processor. And not get carried away about the app itself. So, if you are teaching kids excel sheets, convey how it can sort, rank, manipulate numbers easily. Give kids 10 numbers and ask them to write something in excel that will find the average of the 4 largest numbers. But, do not get an excel tutor and teach them vlookup. If they can do the former, they can figure out the latter. In almost all jobs, we want guys who can figure out, there are very few jobs where we need guys who know.

App-loading is a process that can be done from the age of 18 upwards. There are a number of professions that will require specific apps. But the first 18 years should be spent obsessing over processor speed.

I have moaned about how Chennai's education system has become poor and discussed the some of the reasons behind it. My specific peeve is that the system does a good job on the hard-drive and a decent job on apps. But processor sucks. Most of the students I interact with have a range of apps, heavy hard-drive but a processor that is only a few MHz strong. The more you load this with apps, the weaker the system gets. Learning-fatigue sets in within 20 minutes and system craves for more apps to fill the gap. In math, the mind wants short-cuts, in English the mind wants plug-and-play rules.

The best minds I interact with are the ones that think of a counter-example the moment you state a rule, and the ones that want to figure out why a short-cut works and when it would not work. The more unsure minds are always ready to load up on apps that the processor cannot really figure out. It is like playing Age of Empires on a PC 486. I would rather play Minesweeper on a dual core.

Will give some more practical examples on how we can work on the processor in future posts. In my mind, the most important part of the jigsaw lies in not underestimating the processor that a 10-year old has (they are brilliant by the way). And taking the liberty to push that brain as hard as possible. I am sure kids will love it if it is done right.