Thursday, February 22, 2007

Did you know that ...

An international group, which drafted a manifesto for the future of education in Seoul in early 2000, was unanimous on one point: physical infrastructure-based universities have outlived their utility.

You didn't know this, did you? The last I heard, universities are known not for their terminal illness, but for making education more expensive at a rate faster than inflation!

Anyways, the quote is from this ToI column by Kirti Trivedi of IIT-B's Industrial Design Centre. The column is great fun -- in a surreal sense -- because it's just a series of complaints about our present education system (and the column seems to be shifting back and forth between schools and colleges, so it's not clear which one is being blamed for what). It's one long and incessant rant! Look at this, for example:

Teaching and learning are two different phenomena, and should not be confused with each other. Though projected as centres for learning, most schools and colleges are actually institutions for teaching.

Nearly all of the current educational system has been designed according to the convenience of teaching, and not of learning.

The syllabi are prescribed, textbooks written, courses taught so that one can give tests and assignments and conduct exami-nations, to allow the teachers to grade easily.

Learning is straitjacketed into programmed teaching, with the expectation that knowledge would flow from blackboards into the blank minds of pupils.

For an article that's so critical of the present state of affairs, there is very little by way of practical alternatives that would work for large numbers of people in a reasonably inexpensive way. Coming from a professor of design, this is very disappointing.

"Large numbers" and "reasonably inexpensive" are the key phrases. One can always design an individually paced curriculum that can be pursued in a wonderful learning environment -- Gurukul! Home Education! Private Tutors! But such fancy and expensive options are not -- and cannot be -- for everyone.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not arguing here for status quo. Our education system can certainly do with some fresh ideas for making learning more fun, and for allowing each student to feel a sense of freedom, flexibility and control. It is certainly possible to strive for, and achieve, these worthy goals within our present-day colleges and universities (particularly when you throw in the possibility of distance education).

However, when I saw Trivedi going all teary-eyed on stuff like "interdisciplinary teams working together on common problems, with team members not necessarily required to be in the same physical location", my BS antenna just went crazy with overload. I am yet to hear of someone who learnt calculus in internet chat rooms.


  1. Anonymous said...

    too funny........

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    Most of Kirti Trivedi's article seems to make sense to me. After high chool, most of mathematics that I learnt, including calculus,I learnt myself. I remember taking a calculus book which no teacher suggested and struggling through it during holidays. There was one very good teacher in my university days but I missed most of his classes too since other teachers were getting upset if I attended his classes and not theirs. Finally I had to leave and go to a different city and college where attendence was not necessary. It is possible that things might have changed since my days but if my experience in average western universities is any guide, I think that many teachers do not understand calculus well.
    I may be a bit peculiar but for me main use of universities was providing libraries ( and city life provided outside libraries and book shops) some fellow students to talk to and time (many of those mindless courses, one could pass by studting a few days before exams). Teachers generally tried to stifle curiosity by saying that I was looking at too many books and confusing myself and them (one quantum mechanics teacher said that there was only one product for vector spaces when I enquired about the so called tensor product). I find that it is not much better now. Our students do not know about real numbers and we do not have time even to indicate their construction. Good ones learn in spite of the system by ignoring what is done and just getting through the exams.
    After all this I was so disgusted that I did not want a guide for my Ph.D and luckily got in to a place where I needed only a formal advisor and could do whatever I liked.
    This has been my experience but it may not be typical.

  3. Anonymous said...

    You are right.

    I have been thinking a lot on these lines lately. After at least class 10, the emphasis should be on learning rather than on teaching.

    Moreover, the current evaluation system is highly inefficient.

    My take on the aspect of learning and evaluation can be found here.

  4. gaddeswarup said...

    I do not want to overemphasize my experience. After all, I was not able to pursue my interests (mathematics) at home and finally had to go to college and go through the system somehow. My guess is that these institutions have evoved as holding places for the young when their hormones are raging and direct them to some 'productive' activities. And the young learn from various sources, their parents, friends, teachers, books etc. ( A famous study by Judith Harris, mentioned in various books by Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Frakonomics and others, says that parents have less influence than they think). The more intense and rigid the system is, there is a a tendency to backfire in some cases like me. We do not have the resources to really take in to account all the needs of the young people. After the basic reading and writing skills, perhaps some flexibility to allow children to learn, think and grow is desirable.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Not particularly related to the post as such, tangential at best -

    I would suppose that part of the problems associated with learning, are that most of the subjects, to be taught, are designed in a manner such as to stay true to benchmarks / yardsticks of what all should have been taught, by a certain age / grade.

    The second issue, which I feel to be more important, is that there is a dire absence of wit and humour, in prescribed texts and teaching methods.

    Given the two considerations above, I am not in the least surprised at what we have, in terms of the quality of learning / learners.

    Allow me to link to a post of mine, linking to three little discussions, which would not have been as devastatingly effective as they are, had it not been for the sense of humour embedded therein.


  6. Abi said...

    Swarup, KK, Alex: As I said in my post, we should certainly work towards improving our colleges to make learning more fun, and to give the students a lot of flexibility and freedom to pursue their interests at a pace they are comfortable with. But all this is within a tried and tested system -- colleges.

    Trivedi's column, on the other hand, suggests doing away with colleges and universities. To be replaced by what? A Gurukul? It is this glib complaining (without suggesting a viable alternative) that I ranted against.

  7. Naveen said...

    When you say the whole article by Prof. Kirti Trivedi was just a long rant and glib complaining, I wonder whether you have actually read it! quoting directly from the article, "They will be replaced by interdisciplinary teams working together on common problems, with team members not necessarily
    required to be in the same physical location.

    The networking and sharing possibilities provided by information and communication technologies, as well as free and abundant access to information everywhere, now presents the exciting possibility that individuals would be able to plan their own learning, according to their interests and needs."
    This is for sure what Prof Trivedi thinks could be a solution of this education nexus. I hope you stand corrected.