Our Education System

What is wrong with our education system? Is anything wrong at all? These are questions that some people are asking now. Let me try to explain what I think about this, as it is a very important subject and everyone has to spend some thought on it. I was not, and am not, a teacher. But I have had relationship with school education for a long time. For one, a colleague of mine and I did a study on “how to improve education in government schools without investing a lot of money” in the late 1990s, which was very much appreciated by the evaluation committee. Then, I took the lead in organising a programme for talented students called “Discovery Trek” for three years from the academic year 2000-2001 to 2003-04. Moreover, I have been associated with the IT@School project almost from the time of its inception and have had the opportunity to interact with several teachers.
Our education system, as that in most countries now, is designed for the “average” student. This is assuming a “normal” distribution of learning ability among all children (see figure 1). Let us assume for the time being that this is the case, though this doesn’t seem to be based on any study and no one seems to bother about what is the parameter used here or what the standard deviation is when they talk about the mean. Only statisticians seem to bother about standard deviations, which is always essential when you talk about a mean, as the mean alone doesn’t give any idea about the distribution.


Figure 1: The normal distribution curve showing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd standard deviations. (credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Standard_deviation_diagram.svg.png)

Now, a large number of students (64.2% if you take one standard deviation) naturally belong to this “average” group. Yet, there are a significant number of children outside this “mean” and how many are there depends on the “standard deviation” about which no one seems to be bothered. Some of those who lie outside this “mean” could have less ability than the mean, while others are more talented. So, obviously, what our education attempts is to pull everyone into the “mean” space.
In this process, the less able students get support in the form of extra teaching within the school system itself, or outside it in the form of personal tuition classes. Many of them struggle, but are eventually “pulled up” into the “average” group (in terms of scores or marks). Whether they do really learn as much as the others remains unknown. And now that there are no examinations, or exams don’t really test the children, as they anyway pass through, there is no way to find out too.
On the other hand, the more talented children (let us say, those who fall beyond 2 standard deviations on the higher side), often find the classes boring and become inattentive because it is easy for them. Eventually, as education psychologists say, they lose interest and their performance also suffers. This is sad, because these are the ones that should be growing up and contributing significantly to society in the form of creative work in fine arts or scientific research or just intellectual thought. Our school system has no way to help such students to grow at the pace that is comfortable to them. And they face no challenge till they grow up and start working.
Actually, there is no challenge in the education system now, as every child knows that it doesn’t matter how (s)he performs, until they reach class 10. Even there, the system makes it easy for everyone to get through, pushing through those who are behind by freely giving extra marks. The children are then somehow put into higher secondary classes, where also they naturally expect to be pushed through. This can go on until they enter higher education where they face real challenge for the first time in their lives. Again the children who are born bright get through without problem, but the “average” students, who were brought up by the school system, start failing because they had never faced such challenge and they expect the system to take care of them.One can imagine what happens when they are employed. They continue to expect the system to take care of them. The result is that they don’t try their best to do a good job of whatever they are doing–which one can see all over the country today.

I know that there are people who won’t agree with what I have written. I request them to post their views as comments. Let us make this a debate on an important subject.


Quest for the right education for the new world

Everyone almost everywhere seems to agree that the education system, especially, the higher education system, is in a mess. And employers seem to agree that the kind of people they need are not at all available. In India, it is a constant complaint that those who come out with degrees from universities are largely unemployable. They simply don’t have the skills that are needed for the jobs — often, even the skills to live properly in a society! It is in no way happy to learn that the problem is not unique to India, though it may be a sort of relief that we are not all alone and that rest of the world is also struggling with the same problem. But that is not much of a solace. In this context, I would like  to quote from an article by David J. Helfand, President & Vice Chancellor, Quest University Canada. He writes,

“Our educational system is stultified by an answer-based curriculum. What we need in order to produce creative problem solvers for this new millennium is a process-based curriculum….

“In my Quest class this year I adopted a different approach. I divided the class into teams of five and gave them a sophisticated computer simulation of planets orbiting their parent stars. The simulation had a dozen free parameters, including the number of observations one could make and the size of the telescope used (and thus the noisiness of the data collected). I also gave each group a dozen suggestions as to how to play with the simulation. Three hours and thirty minutes later, with everyone was still there, one group got up and wrote out Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion. They had derived them empirically, just as Kepler did, from noisy data….

“Later in the course, there were more simulations and paper models – and fewer hints were required. My students were comfortable jumping into the mess, arguing with each other, pursuing dead ends, failing…they were engaged in process-based learning, not seeking an answer they could find on their phones. This is the kind of education our students require to support a lifetime of creativity.”

Isn’t this the whole problem in a nutshell? Our universities also ask their students to cram stuff without understanding (to be most efficient), so that they can reproduce everything on the answer sheets. I recently met a young electrical engineer who couldn’t tell me what kind of batteries are used in torches! Or for that matter, what causes electric current to flow! He later explained to me that they were told only to learn by heart. And, to my utter shock, they were told not to touch anything during practical examinations! All this happens, in my view, because the most important thing in education is the final score. It really doesn’t matter whether the student has understood anything or not. Why do we run educational institutions like this? They are just a waste of money, time and resources. It is long past the time when our higher education also followed our schools and adopted social constructivism as its philosophy. I am sure that our university teachers are going to protest, and probably go on strike too, if this happens. I would suggest that it would be more beneficial to our country if those teachers are given golden handshakes and sent off for perpetuity, if that happens. The loss can be made up pretty quickly.