Rambling on about Education

I think when it comes to education we need to go back to the basics. We have made the system needlessly complex and it has not surprisingly failed.

A few years ago, at the university, all of us in the student housing co-op were required to attend a presentation by a HIV+ man. At one point he took out a small polythene bag. It had about 70 pills and he said that he took them daily for avoiding getting sick. The pills would make a substantial snack. So why so many? Well, there was this one yellow pill which boosted his immune system. But that made him nauseous. So the red pill was to suppress that. The three green ones were to compensate for the side-effect of the red pill, though. But if you take the three green ones, you had to take the 8 white pills to give you back the vitamins that the green ones made you lose. Now the large blues pills were required for the upset stomach that the white ones gave you when you had them in combination with the yellow pill, the one that you actually needed. The story went on till about 70 pills had been accounted for.

Simplicity is beautiful, to paraphrase E. F. Shumacher. Education is a simple exercise. Basically, it is the ability to think and internalize information. There is a native intelligence that we are all born with along with a few native skills. What education does is to boost the skills we already have, and to give some direction to how we think. To take an example from the domain of language. We humans are born with a grammar engine. Non-humans lack this. We therefore can learn language, even invent one when needed. Without the grammar engine, you cannot learn nor teach a language. What can be taught is the vocabulary and the syntax of a particular language. The semantics is derived by our brains. Parrots can be taught vocabulary but they don’t have any semantics associated with the vocabulary.

What we need essentially, every child possesses natively. What we can teach is the equivalent of the “syntax and vocabulary” of the language. This bit can be taught and learnt in a relatively short time. The sequencing of this bit of instruction is important. And it is important that only this short bit be taught. The rest the child will work out on his own. If you try to teach or force into his head what he should learn on his own, he will not really learn what he needs to learn and it would just confuse the heck out of him.

Let me give you another analogy. When you start a computer, it “boots” up. That word “boot” comes from the idea of “bootstrapping.” Bootstrapping is the impossible task of lifting yourself up by pulling up on your bootstraps. Nevertheless, in computerese, they use the word for the process which starts the computer. The computer is just a bunch of electronics. It needs instructions which it can follow. These instructions when collected in a bunch is called a program. So you have to load the program. But to load the program, you have to give the computer instructions. Where does this end? It ends by keeping a very rudimentary small program resident in the memory which the hardware executes, and the execution of this little program — called the bootstrap program — loads the actual huge big program called the operating system and then the computer starts.

Education is all about loading the bootstrap program in the brain of a child. And after you have done that, the child himself is capable of loading the other bits of software required to do everything else, or what we call learning. The important point is that the bootstrap program has to be loaded first and it has to be very small and very efficient. I think that there is sufficient evidence around that the bootstrap program is very small. One only needs to know how to read and write (at least in one language), do a bit of arithmetic, and understand a bit of rudimentary logic. That is all that is needed as part of the “bootstrap” program. The rest does not have to be taught. The rest has to be learnt. To learn a subject is then just a matter of time and effort on the part of the student, given that relevant subject material is accessible.

I learnt a new subject. I had no prior training in it but I did my PhD in it. How? I knew how to read, how to do arithmetic, and how to think logically. The professors pointed me to a few books and a few papers. I pondered over them and spent some time in classrooms talking with my professors and more importantly with my peers, and I learnt the subject.

That is what I am going to do in education. First, teach a very small core set of skills: a language and some basic vocabulary, a bit of arithmetic, and logical reasoning. That is the sum total of the teaching. The next bit is learning and that is what the student will do. They will not be taught history or physics or geography. They will be pointed to the resources and they will learn what interests them by studying the material, cogitating about them and talking to others about it.

Has this happened before? Yes, numerous times and people have missed drawing the lessons. Let me take only one example. Abraham Lincoln had only a few books and had less than two years of teaching from informal teachers. No laptops, no access to the world wide web, no multimedia presentations, practically nothing. He learnt everything he needed to as he went along. Became a lawyer and then the president of the US.

Even an average person like me can do it. I estimate that I probably had in my entire schooling about 70 books — not very substantial books even. I am sure that the entire contents of those books can be put on a USB drive of about 256 MB with room to spare. Today it will cost you Rs 200 to store the entire information base that I constructed my high school education out of. I learnt not because I had gazillions of gigabytes of information at my fingertips, but rather because I had a reasonably small information set but I took the time to go through them a few times slowly, internalized them consciously, and discussed what I had learnt with my peers. I did not learn huge amounts of physics, mathematics, geography, astronomy, calculus, world history, moral science, civics, law, or whatever. I learnt only how to read, write, do sums, and think logically. But because I unhurriedly took the time to learn the small set of core skills, I was confident of my understanding of what I knew. The rest I picked up when I needed.

My method is therefore: teach the kids the basic bits in a relatively short time, perhaps two or three years. In those two or three years, give them instructions for maybe at most 3 hours a day. The rest of the time, they must not study. Then when they have mastered those basic skills — that is, the bootstrap program is loaded — let them have free access to a large set of high quality information in all subjects. And let them learn whatever interests them on their own. No teaching, only pointing to resources from this point onwards.

In software engineering, programs have bugs. To fix a bug, you put in what is called a software “patch.” When you do, the patch may cause or reveal some other bugs. So you need more patches. After a few years, the system is full of patches. Because different people have at different times patched the system, the system is hard to comprehend due to the complex set of patches. At some point, it may be better to scrap the entire heap and write an entirely new program.

Our education system has got too many patches. We need to re-write that one. The new program must be well-designed and one of the main design principles would be that it will be short. And because it will be a short and simple program, it will not have too many bugs. And if there are very few bugs, you will not have zillion patches.

The education system has become like the guy’s collection of 70 daily pills. The core problem is with the attempt to push too much insanely incoherent stuff into a child’s head. Then when the child is unable to learn – primarily because it is not appropriate for the child – more stuff is pushed at him. The pile keeps growing and the more the child struggles, the greater the burden placed on him. “Daily floggings will continue and even intensify until morale improves,” appears to be the strategy.

We need to go back to the basics because we are ruining the lives of millions of children. The teachers don’t know what it is all about and it is not surprising that they can’t help with education. Some of the most dearly held beliefs of this entirely patched system is fundamentally wrong. How many teachers actually believe that homework is good for children? About 99 percent of them, I would guess. Perhaps only one percent know that homework does no good and actually hampers learning. How many know that the less time you spend teaching, the more time the child has for learning?

Our problem is that we have lost our way. We have forgotten that education is not about competition or exams or endless hours of drudgery in classrooms and in tuitions, offline or online. It is about having an inquisitive mind, reading a little, thinking a lot and then talking with others. It is about the exercise of one’s imagination, not about rote learning. Not everything can be taught but everything can be learnt. We need to understand the futility of teaching and the desirability of learning. We need to make that distinction. In our obsession with teaching we have forgotten the core idea that it is about learning. My idea is to stop teaching them so that they can start learning.

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “Rambling on about Education”

  1. I have enjoyed reading this blog and this post in particular. Our education system emphazies memory capabilities to learning capabilities.To take one example – the way history is taught – as a bunch of facts and as black and white issue rather than to have children think about the aspects of society and life of the past.


  2. I agree with most of what you say, but the thing on Homework. I am not a proponent of life threatening amounts but, a decent amount of it gives you a better understanding of the subject than no home work at all.

    Barring that, this post has lots of sense in it


  3. Absolutely true!

    In going with the discussion on education here,
    I’ve been watching on the news today that, the Maharashtra government has decided to scrap sex-education from the curriculum in all state-run schools & maybe even centrally-run schools?! How in hell do you explain something like this? Or that our government with “great thinkers” like Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and the like, had decided to implement 27% reservation in higher-educational institutes for the “oppressed classes”, absolutely & arbitrarily, based on census data from 1931??!!

    Like you said, it’s because rather than simplifying the process, these “leaders” choose to complicate it further. With pills to help with side effects of the previous bitter pills, and also give their “followers” the false impression that they care since they have worked very hard to get this pill to them & the payment must be made in precious votes during the next election!

    Oh, and the Maharashtra government took this very wise decision since, i quote, “..it corrupts the children.” I think not educating the kids on sex, will corrupt them further!


  4. Nice article. My two cents.

    1. I think the current day education’s motto is to educate to earn a living but not to educate to earn knowledge. If the goal of education is to acquire skills to earn a living, you are no longer worried about learning, understanding and knowledge.

    2. The content of the education is such that the student is exposed only to a minute portion of the whole picture. Where is the breadth knowledge and the understanding of how the content that he/she is being taught fits into bigger picture?

    3. The idea of imparting values into the students is totally lost. I am told by many people who work in the field of rural education that by educating the kids in the village, you create an aversion in them towards their own culture, language and economic status. After being educated, they feel ashamed to remain in the villages and to follow their family occupation like farming etc. This is due to lack of bringing proper understanding towards their culture by imparting moral values.


  5. Good, pl let us know how we could participate in the programme. In fact would be more meaningful if you changed (teach the child) to (educate the child)as that is what your aim is.


  6. I think that the amount of Math we do in school, along with Sciences, and sometimes even Geography, History, etc. actually helps in developing a child’s ability to think and analyze. The manner in which these subjects are taught of course makes the difference.

    You were able to pursue a PhD because you knew how to go about reading books, analyzing their content, etc. However a child would not have developed such capabilities and needs direction, hand-holding and sometimes coercion in the educational process. If a child is left in a library and asked to go pick books of interest, she would in all probability go to the comics section, and stay there for a while.

    Point is, the current education system, as faulty as it may seem, works. It may not produce Einsteins at the rate which we want, but it more than makes up for it by keeping kids away from drugs, violence, sex and turning them into disciplined, law-abiding citizens – for the most part.


  7. An absolute gem of a piece. I plan to forward this to anyone who is re-thinking education, like the Ken Robinson talk. And let loose a breathlessly supportive rant…

    Criticisms in previous comments – about homework etc, in my opinion are second-order details. The issue is here is much bigger – the underlying mental models on which the

    education system is based.

    In my mind, all problems with education are borne out of a single fallacy – the red pill, so to speak – and that is the systemic underestimating, and misunderstanding, of the very

    nature of what a human being is.

    An obvious metaphor for the old model would be Human beings as deterministic machine systems, with finite inputs needed for finite output. Like automobiles, upon being filled

    with fuel (information etc), they perform according to the quality & quantity of fuel provided, as well as the quality of the parts that they were made with.

    Like efficient cars, at best, this system yields efficient human beings – extremely employable in existing companies & industries . Nations of clerks, colonizable subjects,

    managers and technicians. The kind of prodigious success that DOESN’T involve ‘getting a great job’ is achieved by resilient souls who never bought into the system in the first

    place, or managed in spite of it.

    We now know that human beings, specifically their brains – are not pre-designed machines, but complex adaptive systems. This is an emergent quality at every scale – from

    individual, to groups, to Cities… (thanks Atanu – my architecture thesis was an exercize in futility trying to leverage this).

    All such a system need is rules, not instructions. The prevailing model of education is like my first program in BASIC… PRINT “HELLO”. I was telling an entity to do something,

    not asking it to figure out how to talk to me, given how i communicate.

    Our system is purely focussed on teaching HOW to do stuff, and how to do it well. Not figuring out WHAT to do in the first place. Given no bounded problems to solve, we

    wouldn’t know what to solve. Anyone who does is labelled a smart-ass.

    Throughout life, with every little thing I have achieved, I have been blown away by the fact that I had no prior idea I could do it. No one told me I could. Many told me I couldn’t.

    I’m sure this is common experience, whether you are a genius, or, well… like me. My biggest epiphany, leaving my middle-class ‘educated’ environs for more capitalistic,

    entrepreneural climes – was that you don’t need to know how to do something in order to do it. You have access to people, tools, and abilities to FIGURE IT OUT as you go


    What an idiotically simple notion. Yet no small thing, considering no one told me, and i wasn’t clever enough to figure out early. 2+2 equals 4 only on paper. In real life, it’s what

    YOU make it add it up to… 3 or 5. And that’s the classic difference between societies of Clerks vs. Innovators. Creating objects, processes, services, markets… where none

    exist. Something out of nothing. Wealth creation is not a zero sum game.

    Has anyone bothered to explain that to the people of Nandigram? Before terrorizing them, that is? Isn’t this at least as valuable as the three R’s?

    At the end of the day, it’s about teaching people to do jobs for other people vs. teaching people not to be dependent on such jobs.


  8. Hi,

    Two issues not touched upon are: (a) content creation, and (b) scale of content dissemination. Technology can be a prop for these. While I agree with the excessive ‘patch work’ that our education system has had, to push the pills analogy further, we need a pharma industry to (a) create the right pill, and (b) distribute it on a large scale. Although raising money is a prerequisite, a rough back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests (possibly erroneous on my part – my assumptions may be plain wrong) that it is not as formidable a task as creation and distributions are. Distribution, for instance, involves training a sufficient number of teachers, attracting them to the profession, and retaining them – apart from the usual resources like classrooms, black boards and chalks etc.

    Your approach seems to attempt bypassing the teacher as early as possible (a student is given access to information and a free hand at learning). The success of this strategy relative to the one that has teachers can be gauged in terms of the number, and variety, of productive individuals that each strategy creates. I have no information to weigh these two against each other. Perhaps we need to actually experiment. Moreover your approach is novel while the use of a teacher is time honoured, and while that basis is ill founded, it is very likely to be used in practice to argue against your idea. The role of a true and honest teacher is to speed up learning by actually showing how ideas to pitch up against each other and then that subtle part of the whats and the hows of basis to be used to select the “best”.


  9. hi atanu,
    mostly you are right. this is similar to what most alternative schools try to do, i think, although there is some pressure to compete with others in those schools. mostly, i am told, students learn on their own motivation (pottery, gardening, weaving, maths, painting, science). teachers just guide them. i envied those kids after i heard about such schools.

    however, there are certain bits where i don’t fully agree in your post:

    Education is all about loading the bootstrap program in the brain of a child. … The important point is that the bootstrap program has to be loaded first and it has to be very small and very efficient. I think that there is sufficient evidence around that the bootstrap program is very small. One only needs to know how to read and write (at least in one language), do a bit of arithmetic, and understand a bit of rudimentary logic.

    i am not sure only “rudimentary logic” would suffice. agreed, that one does not need heaps of math, science, history and geography. i also agree, that basic set of instructions are simple, within the first seven years of schooling, most would be on their own…

    in pyramid of understanding, first steps are, of course, pure information itself. to know history and geography is important, especially in today’s world which is so well connected, and global issues have local effects and vice versa. one has to know how to analyse large amount of information, and how to retrieve important pieces for one’s own use. therefore, a student has to understand how to “discriminate” between poor information and “good enough” information.

    apart from simple logic, what one student needs to know, is how to analyse concepts, split a given large concept in multiple smaller parts and work with smaller concepts independent of the bigger concept (from where one started), and how to use those smaller concepts along with other concepts to create something new. of course, grading is to ensure that this concept of “dealing with concepts” is learnt properly. some may lag behind others, in which case, there is only a little more time given to that child.

    more later, perhaps in an email.

    — ashish


  10. “We in India have become so barbarous that we send our children to school with the grossest utilitarian motive unmixed with any disinterested desire for knowledge; but the education we receive is itself responsible for this…. The easy assumption of our educationists that we have only to supply the mind with a smattering of facts in each department of knowledge and the mind can be trusted to develop itself and take its own suitable road is contrary to science, contrary to human experience…. Much as we have lost as a nation, we have always preserved our intellectual alertness, quickness and originality; but even this last gift is threatened by our University system, and if it goes, it will be the beginning of irretrievable degradation and final extinction. The very first step in reform must therefore be to revolutionise the whole aim and method of our education.” – Sri Aurobindo



  11. It has been wholly ignored that we have a mind of our own

    All over India, there is a vague feeling of discontent in the air about our prevalent system of education.

    The mind of our educated community has been brought up within the enclosure of the modern Indian educational system. It has grown as familiar to us as our own physical body, unconsciously giving rise in our mind to the belief that it can never be changed. Our imagination dare not soar beyond its limits; we are unable to see it and judge it from outside. We neither have the courage nor the heart to say that it has to be replaced by something else….

    They [Indian students] never have intellectual courage, because they never see the process and the environment of those thoughts which they are compelled to learn ¾ and thus they lose the historical sense of all ideas, never knowing the perspective of their growth…. They not only borrow a foreign culture, but also a foreign standard of judgement; and thus, not only is the money not theirs, but not even the pocket. Their education is a chariot that does not carry them in it, but drags them behind it. The sight is pitiful and very often comic.

    The education which we receive from our universities takes it for granted that it is for cultivating a hopeless desert, and that not only the mental outlook and the knowledge, but also the whole language must bodily be imported from across the sea. And this makes our education so nebulously distant and unreal, so detached from all our associations of life, so terribly costly to us in time, health and means, and yet so meagre of results. — Rabindranath Tagore



  12. …Of all Indian problems the educational is the most difficult and most tragic…

    One of the most remarkable features of British rule in India has been the fact that the greatest injuries done to the people of India have taken the form of blessings. Of this, Education is a striking example; for no more crushing blows have ever been struck at the roots of Indian National evolution than those which have been struck, often with other, and the best intentions, in the name of Education….”

    Ananda Coomaraswamy



  13. A education system which is grinding is important, because it teaches work ethic and competitive spirit. We all know it not always the toppers who make it big but the children imbibe the strong work ethic, displine and mental strength to work under pressure and adverse conditions. The above qualities are the main objectives of education and an education system which does not impart the above qualities will produce a failure nation.


  14. Reading the post and the comments, it looks to me that we are taking an overly pessimistic view of the education system in India. While there definitely are some drawbacks, not only in the content but also in the delivery and distribution of education, there must be something good also about it as we have now, as a nation made some mark in the knowledge economy of the world. It is probably easy to say that there should not be too much emphasis on rote learning and exam clearing culture, but what do you do in a highly competitive scenario where you need to clear exams( IIT/JEE,UPSC,IIM’s,etc) to get admissions and be able to make a decent living. Do we have any other means of assessing these ? There are more people chasing lesser opportunities and unless we come out with mechanisms that can asses the child’s “true” capabilities and not just the rote skills, we should not complain if parts of the education system preach that. I do agree that there is a reform needed in the education system, but we need to start backwards(from how you are assessed for a job, how to you get admissions to colleges, etc) and not forwards.Additionally, there is absolutely gross mismanagement and inefficiency at the level of delivery of education, especially in the govt. initiated programs like SSA.
    So, basically, it looks like something is definitely working in this area, there still needs a lot to be done. We are the second largest nation in the world in terms of population and this population if educated much better can become our core competency and core strength, which not many other nations can easily replicate.


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