An East Delhi Citizen's Blog

general riff about politics, education, media, society, cricket..


How rote-learning is maiming the natural ability of a generation
For the umpteenth time, the annual “spelling bee” competition in  the US was won by a student of Indian origin. Why am I “underwhelmed”? And, what does it tell us about us, Indians, and the way we approach education and learning?

Our generation of urban middle class Indians grew up with a drive to “get somewhere”. And, thus was born the culture of competitive examinations. Faced with an “eliminative” rather than “selective” process of making it past the portals of engineering and medical colleges (the only pathway to heaven in our times), we huffed and puffed our way through class 12, groaning under the stress of qualifying for the JEE (IIT entrance) and also, doing sufficciently well in the “boards” so that if all else failed, we could join a Science Hons (the really adventurous ones went and did Eco Hons too!) course in the University.

About 80% of my engineering class batchmates landed up abroad pursuing higher education, better life and opportunities and a green card. Hardly anyone came back. Those that have nominally become Americans, have remained moored to the cultural ethos and learning styles that got them to US in the first place. Fiercely competitive, always looking for outside source of approval/ corroboration of your learning standards.

Today, IIT and medical school aspirants start studying from class -9. And, have a regular 12 hour a day regimen for 4 years. Think about it. At the age when your counterparts in other parts of the world are growing up, discovering themselves, having their first dates, beefing up on social skills, our children are sacrificing the four best years of their lives towards chasing the dream of being IIT students.

Murmurs of discontent have been heard. The Director of IIT Chennai recently was quoted as saying the JEE is failing to select the truly bright, those that will potentially do groundbreaking work.  
Quote: “I am looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes only help students in mastering (question paper) pattern recognizing skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence,” said IIT-Madras director, M S Ananth. : Unquote

Literature and social sciences courses do not attract talent in sufficient measure. If this continues, in a few years, who will teach these courses? And, those that do English Lit, do so to gravitate to Mass Comm. Who wants to teach or research the language? Those who study sociology, are IAS hopefuls. As are those who study History.
Scoring high marks in an exams is all that matters. This is ingrained in us so early in life, that reading for pleasure and for “happy discoveries” is now a threatened pursuit.

So, today’s products will perhaps know many words. Will that equip them with the ability to produce great literature or be a really pursuasive speaker? Why burden your mind with spellings of words that you are never likely to use?

Now look at the bottom of the pyramid
We have a maid who has studied till the 9th standard; all in Bengali. But, when we ask her to recite a book of nursery rhymes, in Bengali to our young 5 year old, she does so extremely haltingly, with no feel for the words, let alone the humour.
What price this education? How will she get ahead on this basis? How much of this will be useful to her when she has her own family?

Yeoman work being done by Pratham, an NGO I respect a lot for both the intellectual rigour as well as the hard work that goes behind their initiatives, has resulted in measurable data regarding the basic literacy levels. To quote from their study: (for access to their full version, click here)

ASER is usually done in October and November each year. In most states, the school year is at least half over. For states where the new session starts in January, the school year is almost finished. For rural India, the ASER 2006 results show that:
· In Std 1, close to 40% children cannot as yet recognize letters
· In Std 3, over 50% children cannot yet read text at Std 1 level
· In Std 5, close to 60% children cannot yet read text at Std 2 level
School enrollment in today’s India is well over 90% in most states. Thus India is close to reaching the enrollment targets set by the international MDG goals and the national goals set by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But the data on basic learning indicates that there is still a long way to go before we can say that children in India are learning well.

Our education system is dysfunctional and learning is incidental. Not only are our children losing out on “life-skills”, even the so called rote-learning is not impacting a large percentage of our children in a positive way. Those who theorize about the demographic dividend that India is likely to reap from the burgeoning young population will do well to ponder if a nation of barely educated people will get us to where we want to go.


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3 thoughts on “Education

  1. Pingback: Education: random musings « An East Delhi Citizen's Blog

  2. anindyac on said:

    Hi Onkar,
    It’s a matter of opinion. The director of IIT-Chennai does not think so and has voiced his concern.
    It matters to me, father of two growing kids, how students learn. Our culture in India is so geared towards passing “cracking” exams, that real learning is ignored. And, this I say from practical experience, overseeing homework, and having lived in two other countries and having had a chance to compare the education systems and curricula and the way they approach the business of teaching.
    JEE coaching is not rote learning and is a coaching on fundamentals? All I can say is that it is your opinion and you are entitled to it. As is of course the director of IIT-Chennai. I suspect his views will get rather more notice than yours, though. And, as someone who passed the exams many years ago, I can truthfully say that thousands, hundreds even tens of books is an exaggeration.
    My post was not on individual choices regarding a “better life”. I however continue to question the standards of an education system which fail to produce world class research or where a standard 9 student fails to read but haltingly.

  3. The whole IIT JEE example is fucked up. JEE as of date still manages to capture the best students in the country. JEE training has nothing to with rote learning and how does it matter the way in which a student understands and applies the fundamentals principles of science. He can either sit with thousands of books and study for years to crack the exam or get a proficient teacher who can speed up the process. I reiterate myself very strongly, JEE coaching has absolutely nothing to do with ‘rote learning’. There is no such thing as raw intelligence. People who get better opportunities, better schooling and have a sense of discipline and tenacity tend to have a higher IQ. The entire post becomes completely retarded junk when you consider this line ‘About 80% of my engineering class batchmates landed up abroad pursuing higher education, better life and opportunities and a green card. Hardly anyone came back.’ People are looking for a better life and if rote learning gets them that then so be it.

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