Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A (partial) response to Viplav Baxi's "The Outcomes of our Educational Systems"

I'm responding to Viplav Baxi's post, The outcomes of our educational systems where he ponders over the relationships between educational systems, outcomes and the larger social/cultural contexts in which these systems and learners are embedded.  He asks:
Does a particular type of education system tend to produce the same outcome irrespective of the underlying environment?
Or is it that the underlying social, economic and political environment will cause pretty much any educational system to tend to produce the same outcomes?
Or is it that the outcomes emerge as a result of the interplay between the educational system and the components of the ecosystem it lives in?
The simple answer, of course, is 'yes' - in other words, 'all of the above - and more'. First, the one about, from General Systems Theory, the concepts of Equifinality and Multifinality: in complex, non-deterministic systems, the same antecedents can produce different consequences; also, the same the result can stem from different causes.  Second, while different societies might use similar terms for the problems their educational systems might be facing, they might, in fact, actually be referring to somewhat or significantly different problems. My experience is with K-12 as well as university ed in India and the US. The problems that are similar are because human beings are involved in both cases, and fundamental human behavior and needs are context invariant. Where the problems are different it is because the educational systems as well as the socio-cultural contexts are different.

Modern educational systems employed throughout the world bear a similarity - they are based on a paradigm that evolved in Europe in response to rapid industrialization over the past 200 years. The systems replaced learning paradigms that were developed natively and in context in all cultures. The ideal form learning process is one that is tuned to needs of each individual but such a system is unaffordable and not scalable for masses of learners. Hence modern educational systems are inherently compromised by design. An even more insidious problem with these systems is that were designed for largely stable learning environments where societal needs and structures did not change rapidly. We are are faced with a context where an inherently compromised educational system operates in a context that changes far more rapidly than the educational system is capable of adapting.

In a situation where an education system is out-of-sync with its context, the outcomes are naturally going to be determined by environmental forces. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The purpose of a broad education: Models and metaphors

One repeatedly hears complaints about the irrelevance of certain courses in an academic program. That the course added no value; and besides, one never will apply that knowledge to one's life, and so why bother.

Why bother?

Why, indeed. One purpose of education is to learn "facts". Facts are important, of course. It is important to know that there are ten millimetres in a centimetre. And a hundred of those in a metre. That the earth is approximately spherical and goes around the sun; and who is the current leader of the nation, and so on. But education has an even more important purpose. One thing that everyone will require to do throughout his or her life is to understand issues and solve problems. Education offers, above all, models, and theories. Models, in abstraction are metaphors, and metaphors are essential to understanding. For everything, ultimately is understood in terms of something else. The larger and more varied one's cache of metaphors, the better one can understand the world in all its complexity, and hence more effectively solve problems. You may never need to construct a chemical process flow involving osmosis, but you almost certainly will find many opportunities to apply the metaphor of osmosis to numerous situations in life.

Yes, a broad education does make you much smarter than a narrow one, because of the rich variety of metaphors it grants you.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Don't get that college degree!"

The New York Post is not exactly a fount of intellectual discourse. Still, it's never a mistake to see what the "other side" has to say. Thought provoking article here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tenth std. Board Exams to go away? Will pigs fly?

As the father of a boy who just got done with his 10th std. board exams, I cannot but jump for joy upon hearing that the government may scrap 10th standard board exams. I couldn't believe my eyes, but the link came up just above my Gmail messages and I had to go check it out immediately. If this actually happens, I am ready to forgive Kapil Sibal -- a person I don't particularly like -- for all of his real and imagined trespasses. This will be the single most important and radical transformation in the Indian school system in a long time.

I don't particularly care for the current system of education, view board exams with deep distaste, and am absolutely furious with the deranged idiots that inflicted two sets of board exams in quick succession - the 10th and the 12th - on a hapless Indian youth population. I would happily apply just about every vile term in every language every spoken, used to describe people one doesn't like, to the people -- nay, misanthropic cretins -- that created the current system. From the Indian Express article,
“I am thinking of relooking at the necessity of having a Board examination for Class 10,” he said. “A child moves up from Class 9 to Class 10 in the same school and there is no reason for either the student or the parents to get traumatised by the 10th Board exam,” he said. As a first step, the HRD Ministry will consult state governments and state education boards, Sibal said. “I hope to move forward very soon and set up an alternative system of evaluation of students that is based on percentiles rather than percentages.”
Yessss! Kapil -- or is it Mr. Sibal, Esq. or some such silly thing? -- I am prepared to launch a movement to name a holiday in your honor if you push this through quickly. I wish you had done this last year before my son had to suffer it, but there are a lot of kids in the country who would gladly replace every picture and bust of Gandhiji with yours when this is over. This is a watershed moment in Indian history. Finally, it appears, we are ready to hang up the ghost of the British Empire that has hung over us like a dark, threatening cloud for the past six decades. It is from the British that some of our India's great cargo-cult intellectuals learned to create two separate board examinations, separated by just two years. The British do it in the 11th and the 13th, but we decided to make it a total of 12 just to be in sync with the rest of the world. We ended up with a grotesque monster that has driven numerous Indian children to suicide, with the so-called 'intellectuals' looking on with smug expressions on their faces from their lofty perches.

I don't know if the percentile system of evaluation is going to be superior means of evalution. I think we need a clean break and construct a radically different means of promoting learning and building productive citizens. But we have to start somewhere, and getting rid of some of the detritus from our foolish socialistic past will do us a lot of good.

So, Ave, Kapil Sibal, all hail thee!

Monday, June 22, 2009

American education, Indian price?

Nobody will argue that Indian families place a premium on formal, institutional education. A big part of it is because getting a college degree is highly correlated with (relatively) decently paying employment. But a very significant part of it is because education is considered intrinsically valuable -- education is viewed as something that makes one more cultured, more informed, and a better human being. I'm not sure that what passes for formal education in India actually accomplishes much of that; my own memory is of learning a lot of stuff despite having to suffer formal education -- the real learning happened on the margins. Not because the content of formal education was lacking, but certainly the manner of its delivery, the process. And the ethos, the environment, and a whole lot of other things. And this was at purportedly reputed institutions -- which the majority of institutions today, are certainly not.

What abounds in India is what one might call cargo-cult education: it imitates a certain form of education that was prevalent in decades bygone, and believes it emulates British or American education, but all it really does is to go through the motions, and that too not particularly well. The result: bad education, badly executed. Those who learn anything at all, and even excel in life, do so despite, not because of their so-called education.

The roots of the problem go back to the British Raj when the colonizers asphyxiated traditional Indian institutionalized education and created a very few institutions based on British model to produce graduates that would serve the Empire. But the Indian governments that succeeded them did little to improve the situation; if anything, they exacerbated the problem. Young people who had the means or the talent or both, left India at the earliest opportunity for Western lands, usually English speaking ones, and most never returned, for their talents, skills and experience were neither appreciated nor accommodated.

After 60 years of despoiling the educational landscape, the newly re-elected Indian government seems to want to improve the situation, by inviting Western universities to set up shop right here in India. Now, I'm a little wary of this, but as long as it does not drain Indian resources, I can't see where this initiative could go wrong. After all, every year, hundreds of thousands of young Indians, their academic ambitions blocked by either the lack of available slots or the low quality of Indian education seek to escape to foreign universities, often suffering racism and other indignities as well as going deep into debt to fund their dreams. According the WSJ article,
Only 9% of college-age Indians have college educations, far lower than in China and many other Asian countries, according to a 2006 study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a New Delhi think tank. About 160,000 students a year leave India to study abroad, according to the National Knowledge Commission, an advisory group to the prime minister.
If the same universities had branches in India where they could deliver the same education at the same level of quality for a much lower price - that would keep a lot of that money in India and help preserve the honor and dignity of these ambitious young people.

More importantly, the presence of such institutions on Indian soil would raise the aspirations of Indians and send a wake up call to other Indian institutions -- as occurred when the Maruti Suzuki 800 automobile was introduced into an Indian market dominated by the ancient Ambassador and Premier Padmini cars -- and force them to raise their standards.

As often happens, however, there is a slight problem: it appears that the universities want the Indian government to subsidize their entry into the country.
But, he said, given the U.S. economy and shrinking endowments, colleges may need incentives from the government of India to be able to afford to open.
Whoever calls the shots in the government ought to ensure that:
  • any incentive provided to universities doesn't exceed the benefits it might generate
  • the foreign institutions create a curriculum and androgogy that is suited to the needs of India and Indians even while it breaks away from the stale and obsolete patterns that have been used in India for perhaps a century or more
  • the institutions share their knowledge and expertise with Indian institutions and help raise the standards of Indian higher education; this is not too much to ask: with a population of over a billion and steadily growing, not even all the universities in the US can satisfy the Indian thirst for education, and so there is room for everybody

Thursday, June 11, 2009



Donald Norman, the distinguished interaction design researcher and former university professor turned Apple fellow turned consultant, received his PhD in psychology from Stanford University. Prior to this, he received an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from MIT. Hang on to this data point for just a bit.

I was waiting for my son to finish up his exam at his school and happened upon the physics teacher. This pleasant and intelligent man is working on a Master's degree in physics by correspondence through some remote university that agreed to take him. He has a major problem. Turns out that he has an undergraduate degree in engineering. He knocked on the doors of many universities, but none would let him enroll in a master's program in physics. The reason? His undergraduate degree was in engineering for gosh's sake! Imagine that! He didn't have a bachelor's degree in physics.

Now how harebrained is that? Physics is the mother discipline for practically every field of engineering. Here is a man over the age of 40, a physics teacher, entirely out of his own interest, wishing to pursue a master's degree in physics and university administrators with brains smaller than a fruit fly refuse him admission. What kinds of idiots set academic policy in India? What is this thing called the University Grants Commission? Is its primary purpose to ensure that the bulk of Indians remain without college degrees and those that do are subjected to the most intense torture during the process? Does the UGC have any understanding of the nature, purpose and process of education? Why are Indian universities so bad that hundreds of thousands of Indians are willing to incur the crushing burden of loads to send their children to third rate universities in Australia -- a nation well-stocked with racists who revel in maiming and killing Indians?

Idiots! And these people have the gall to refer to themselves as 'intellectuals'. It seems that in India, a deep understanding of Marxist theory is sufficient to turn one into an 'intellectual'.

Nothing short of a complete overhaul of education - free of any ideology and focused entirely on REAL EDUCATION - essential and urgent today in India