Friday, May 15, 2009


Here's a public confession I have been waiting for years to make, with a view to cleansing myself: During my final year of undergraduate engineering education, more than three decades ago, I attended less than a week of class. Well, it's worse than that: I attended a sum total of three days of class, and even worse, I was proud of it. Used to be that one wore such feats like a badge of honor to be shown off in the company of one's peers. This is akin to potential gang members committing violent acts in order to be admitted into one's favorite gang.

I am no longer proud of what I did; indeed, I am rather ashamed: I wasted my parents' hard-earned savings for which they made innumerable personal sacrifices. And I wasted the opportunity to improve myself in significant ways. As one who has committed his life to education, I feel personally slighted when students skip my classes -- so I offer my sincerest apologies to all of my undergraduate professors whose faces I never saw that entire year. Perhaps I have atoned for my sins by returning to the scene of the crime so to speak and working to make amends.

That having been said, I had become terribly bored with class. It couldn't be the material itself, since it continues to fascinate me decades after I graduated. It probably is the context and manner in which the putative educational process occurred -- the How, the Where, and the When. For the person I was then, the process held no charm at all; and I wasn't the only one thus disaffected. Except for a few doggedly determined students, the majority had significantly slacked off by the final year. It was not only the backbenchers who stayed away from class -- there were many bright, even brilliant ones who didn't. Some, of course, were not suited for that particular program of education -- engineering -- but went through the motions anyway since the culture and economy offered few options in that era for personal advancement. But many of those who showed little interest in attending classes went on to become successful practicing engineers, even pursuing graduate studies in the subject, with a few obtaining doctorates and becoming distinguished researchers and professors.

The pedagogical process in place then (which is pretty much intact even now) involved placing rows upon rows of students in an enclosed space and inflicting structured information on them, mostly verbally but often with the accompaniment of visuals. Attendance (spotty) was taken, and used as a surrogate for Attention (which frequently drifted); and Attention was treated as a surrogate for Retention of knowledge (which decayed exponentially); and Retention in turn was considered as the key measure of Learning (which was marginal at best). This was further evaluated through examinations, which were mostly founded on Retention and some degree of Application -- although methods of Application were also learned by rote, and so the learning didn't go very deep. The fact that I -- and most other students -- graduated with a first division despite a Lack of Attendance suggests to me that the pedagogical and evaluative process is seriously broken. And most students who got away in this fashion have done fairly well for themselves in life. My conclusion is that their success is far more a consequence of the selection and admission process into the institution which admits students who were going to be quite successful regardless of their circumstances. The educational system itself -- apart from affixing on the graduate the label of a reputed institution -- contributed precious little. Now, it can, and should do better than this. And I believe that the entire existing pedagogical framework needs to be thrown away and entirely new ones constructed.

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