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The Education Problem: Raj Reddy (Part 1)

Posted on Friday, Mar 9th 2007

Recently I talked with Raj Reddy (wiki bio here) about his thoughts in applying technology to education. To begin this series we review the theoretical foundation for his current work.

SM: Raj, I am really looking forward to having a discussion on what I would call strategy and policy in terms of broader use of technology to solve some of the open problems of humanity today, and you are one of the people who has thought endlessly about this over an incredible career. So, tell us, what are some of the nuggets of your thinking, particularly on education.

RR: There are many aspects of education that we need to think about, a lot that has been studied … millions of reports. One thing, about 20 years ago, that struck me dramatically, is an experiment that one of my senior colleagues, Herbert Simon did. He is not only a Nobel Prize winner (in economics), but he is one of the founders of artificial intelligence. He did an interesting experiment.

He says “as a teacher the first principle of learning is that learning has to occur in the students. You can do anything you like in the classroom or elsewhere, you can stand on your head if you want, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference unless it causes a change in the behavior of your students. Learning takes place in the minds of the students, and nowhere else. The effectiveness of teachers and what they can induce the students to learn”.

People have been studying these issues for 30 years, and they came to the conclusion that the conventional method of teaching, where a teacher lectures and then goes away and gives some assignments, is probably not an efficient way of teaching or an effective method of learning.

So they have come up with some phrases like “learning by doing”, “learning by discovery”, and “learning by example”. Simon did some experiments to prove his point. He went to China and worked with the National Academy in the early 1980’s. They were not even using computers, it was a paper based experiment.

They created a set of books, content, where they would go into a class and say “here is Algebra, here is an example, look at the example and do the same thing on the other problems”. There was no lecture, they just told them to learn from the examples. If the student gets stuck they can raise their hand and say “What do I do here, I don’t understand?”, and then the teacher can ask “Did you do this? Did you do that?”

You never answer a question with an answer, rather you answer a question with a question; the Socratic method.

The bottom line was, ultimately, he was able to show after three years of experimentation, that you learn the material in half to two-thirds of the time. You can learn the methods faster by learning by example and by learning by doing, and not only that but you remember more afterwards.

I said to him, “If that is the case why don’t we do it everywhere?” So he gave me this assignment, he gave me a stack of hand-written notes in Chinese. If you can have it translated then you can run it in US schools. So I am finally getting around to doing that now, because I was busy doing my own research and so on. I think in education we are completely broken, this No Child Left Behind Act and things, really don’t help. Unfortunately, it is just threatening the teachers and the schools that “we are going to yank your funding”. Since I cannot impact education here, I have been trying to do some things in India, and I will tell you about those.

(to be continued)

This segment is part 1 in the series : The Education Problem: Raj Reddy
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New models of education are gaining momentum with MIT and Yale providing free material from select programs.

Some sites are using this material and providing services like


Senith Tuesday, December 18, 2007 at 4:20 AM PT

Meaningful discussion on the most interesting and useful topic.

dr. yakaiah Thursday, February 7, 2008 at 2:15 AM PT

I thought the focus article has made things complex and vague. First question opens in a wrong way of looking at the things. Am sure, Dr Reddy would take a leaf out from the visionary called Dr. Kalam.

Many think, problem with the education is with the technology. Nopes! The real problem is how the technology should be enabled to roll out the education, augmenting life and human intelligence! This includes innovative teaching methods. Doesn’t mean only Ivy League schools.

CMU & MIT alumni

Sukhoi Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 1:57 PM PT

I am one of the people who have been through the mentorship program of Raj Reddy, and I have first hand experience of what goes on.

The students love it. Most of them become very deeply motivated. One of the main reasons is the consistent interaction they have with the alumni of the program. I frequently get emails from my past students enquiring about how they can discover better career paths, so that they can put all their skills to the best possible use. Some of the alumni continue to work as mentors.

Hope is a key element in motivation, and this is the reason why most students put their 100% of their effort. The job-guarentee-scheme of Dr Reddy is an important element in providing hope.

Kiran Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 7:57 AM PT

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