Keeping Afloat in a WWW-world

I received an SMS just moments ago: “A thirteen-year old’s day in Surat: school 7 to 2. Daily tuitions 4:30 to 7:30. Saw ICSE standard 8th textbooks. Detailed and depressing. What a state!”

No surprise to me as I have observed the same sort of insanity in the case of the children of friends and family.

Kids are pretty much forced to do school related activities nearly 14 hours of the day. They go to school for classes, and then go to “tuitions,” and then come back to get homework done, and . . . By the time they are done for the day, they have had no free time. They don’t have time ever to just sit and stare. There is no time for self-reflection. They are becoming narrowly focussed and self-absorbed through all the constant doing of required things.

The textbooks are horrors.

I saw the economics textbook of a kid in the 10th grade. He goes to an IB school in Mumbai. It is a fat tome of about 600 pages long and has within its covers every conceivable topic on economics. It is dense with information. If I had to read that book for comprehension, it would be work for me. I only have a PhD in economics and I would find it hard going.

The kid was struggling with “effect of expansionist monetary policy on aggregate demand” or some such nonsense. Dear god in heaven. What the hell was wrong with these idiots who try to teach macro to 14-year olds? I read the relevant pages and I could not make too much sense of it. The kid of course was so out of his depths that he didn’t know even the most basic of concepts, forget “aggregate demand.” I asked him to explain to me what a demand curve was and got a look of helplessness and worry. He tried in vain to recall from memory some definition of a demand curve.

It was a pitiable situation. I explained that I was not looking for a definition. What I wanted was an explanation of what it was. Then I took a few minutes to explain what it was. By starting at the beginning, I said that it’s an observed relationship between this and that. What do we mean when we say that two things are related? It was a series of questions and answers, slowly building up to the concept. It took so little time but at the end he got the concept so thoroughly that you could shake him up from deep sleep and he will be able to explain to you what a demand curve is and not have to struggle for a definition which he could parrot without comprehension.

I felt that all that his economics course and the book had achieved so far was demonstrate to him that the subject was incomprehensible and that he was inadequate. It had turned him off the subject.

Schools are turning the kids into uninteresting and uninterested people. Their learning so shallow that it all evaporates at the slightest disturbance. In all the furious teaching, what is lost is learning.

What’s the way out? I think there’s a need for a “back to the basics movement.” One of the things that needs to be done is to reduce the amount that is force-fed to the kids. It may appear paradoxical but I believe that school curricula have become obscenely obese.

They say that perfection in a work is achieved not when you have nothing more to add to it but rather when you have nothing more to subtract. The irreducible core is what matters. And one needs all the time in the world to understand that core.

There was a time when it was easy to keep the focus of teaching and learning to that irreducible core. We did not have fat tomes with excruciating details on every conceivable topic. Neither we nor the system could afford fat books. We did not have access to a gazillion web pages with dancing doo-daahs on every topic in the known universe. We were not under the constant pressure of learning new stuff every single day. We did not feel overwhelmed by it all. It was really a very relaxed time. Sit in a few classes every day and when school was over, just run around the neighborhood. Maybe do a bit of homework every now and then but not every day.

We could just sit around and not feel that we were not going anywhere. These days they have designed the Alice-in-Wonderland school system where kids have to run as fast as they can just to stay in the same place.

I think I know what the problem is: people with pre-www mindsets have wandered into a www-world and are totally lost. Their pre-www mindset says that you must commit to memory whatever information you have access to; in the www-world, memorizing available information is not only impossible but it is also totally unnecessary.

Technological change is rapid and is accelerating at an accelerating pace. That’s a function which is differentiable at least twice. Humans adapt to change much more gradually. Human institutions are even slower than humans in adapting to change. The education system is perhaps the slowest human institution when it comes to adapting to change.

Information technology has created an ocean where previously there used to be at most a small deep well. The educational system, a heavy concrete structure anchored to the ground, was designed for a world where water was limited and precious and could only be drawn from a small well. That all changed without much warning. Now the ocean of information has drowned that building since it cannot float. What we need are boats, not buildings. Where previously one had to work at drawing water out of the well, now the task is to keep afloat in the ocean and keep the water out of the boat. Take in too much water and you are sunk.

So here’s an opportunity. Forget the submerged huge buildings. You cannot uproot them from the ground, and even if you did, they will be impossible to float. Those who are stuck in the buildings — the people from the ministry of education mainly — are beyond rescue anyway. Instead, build boats that can float on the ocean of information.

Rebuilding education is perhaps the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity the world has had in a long time. Technology matters of course and it is easy to note that the most important and innovative technology companies are located in the developed world. That’s so because they co-evolved. Since technology will be at the core of the rebuilding of the education system, it is quite likely that the best new education system will also be created in the developed world. But the real need for a new education system is in the developing countries because they have the populations and the demand is huge.

India could be the home of the new education revolution. India passed up an opportunity for becoming a manufacturing giant; China got that one. I just hope and pray that it does not pass up on this one. The large corporations in India could do it but the government of India will not allow that to happen. Why? The Congress government has not allowed Indians to become fully literate. It cannot afford an educated citizenry because it depends on the poor and illiterate to vote for it.

It’s all karma, neh?

Related posts:

1. The World is (Information) Fat. June 2005.

2. The Age of Superfluous Information. Oct 2005.

3. The High-tech Puzzle. July 2007.

4. Infinite Information, Infinite Ignorance. March 2008.

Author: Atanu Dey


8 thoughts on “Keeping Afloat in a WWW-world”

  1. ICSE is a joke – or atleast it was as I remember it. Afaik, CBSE was a bit better – don’t know how it is these days.

    I remember bunking 90% of my classes from class 8th onwards. We would go in, get our attendance marked and leave to play cricket and often we had been playing cricket between tuition early in the morning and school!! I didn’t even open the class XI and XII organic chemistry book since it differed too much from the organic chemistry I had to study for the IIT JEE so I skipped that subject altogether on the XII ICSE exams.

    We realized that getting good marks in class X, XII was not going to get us anywhere by itself and it was not all that important as long as we took care of our undergrad entrance exams, olympiads, etc some of which btw required a lot more work and understanding but was more fun also.


  2. Dear Atanu,

    School life after 8th standard is horrible. Here is a brief summary of what I see in Tamil Nadu.
    a) Schools do not teach 9th and 11th standard syllabus and instead teach 10th and 12th standard syllabus for two years and review twice, to make students score maximum. Top students score 496/500 in 10th and 1195/1200 in 12th. To summarise, incentives matter (irrespective of whether it is right or wrong incentive). As students need to apply for Professional courses (BE,MBBS, etc.) based on the marks scored in 12th, there is mad competition to score highest mark somehow. (Schools want to show 100% pass)

    b) This has interesting trends. Most students studying in CBSE upto 10th switchover to state board as it is easier and one could score higher percentage (around 5-10%) which matters a lot. Many schools have decided not to offer 11th and 12th in CBSE due to low demand.

    c) After 12th, most students get into BE in ECE or EEE with a dream to work in IT industry. However they donot want to take CS as they feel it is too risky (thinking that ECE will offer them job in telecom or other industry if the demand falls in IT industry). The moment they get into Engineering, they start relaxing for the next four years. They put less than half of the effort the spend in 12th. Result is for all to see in the campus interviews. (adding to the woes is the stupidity of IT companies offering jobs at fifth semester and the students then think they are already arrived and reduce their academic effort further)

    d) Last year we had an interesting trend in MBBS admission. Out of the 2000 top ranking students who were offered MBBS admission, over 1000 declined and preferred BE as they could get good starting salaries. Whereas it takes minimum of 10 years to reach good position in MBBS. (That is another big story of disincentives)

    e) As you had pointed out earlier, parents add a lot to this mess.

    Education quality takes a big hit and is moving from bad to worse.
    A set of wrong incentives and priorities get the whole thing wrong.

    When scoring mark is the only priority, even a small part of the basic core does not get into the student’s brain as they tend to mug-up, vomit in the exam and forget completely.

    Hope the new HRD minister does something about this.


  3. Insightful article on how we need to focus more on learning concepts than merely amass facts. Technology with the rapid changes it brings is bewildering indeed. How to not get lost in it should also be taught.

    I disagree with Viveksh. I feel ICSE provided an ‘all-round’ education without bias towards any one subject. Whereas, CBSE focuses less on literature and more on the Sciences.


  4. Prateeksha, good point about literature. I was indeed thinking only about science. ICSE was pretty good with literature – Julius Caeser, poetry, short stories, etc – would not have been good to miss out on those!


  5. Just heard from my alma mater after the CBSE X results today. Was apalled to see the number of 90%+ students and wrote about it on my blog… Will paste the part of my opinion…

    CBSE started off with a good initiative of declaring the grade and not rank. I feel that should be extended to doing away with scores at all. When 90% = 95% (I really feel it is), the kid will probably try to understand more because he anyways can’t get better than an A+. If not that, at least he’ll spend his time not cramming up question banks but for some other interest or hobby.

    High time students, parents and the boards realised that the grades and marks are all but one and must I say, unimportant part of the education the child receives. More important is what he learnt from it. Anyone can identify pictures of different strokes in swimming and score a cent percent but when at sea, the only stroke that’ll work is what can make you survive till help is at hand.


  6. You are so right.

    I shudder at the thought of being a student again in a school.

    One school or system I have found which teaches the basics is the Waldorf school system. They work on various “intelligence” of the child including farming, brick building, language and culture etc.

    They think of colours, rhythms, time of day and other things which effect a child. They believe in comprehension and not just definitions.

    For example, I sat in a Waldorf school class in Adelaide to experience their education.

    In Maths, they were teaching Probability and the first assignment was understanding the life and story of Pascal. From there the teaching went about how Pascal thought about the ideas he got and how he developed the theory.

    In Physics, the summer course was based on building a computer starting from understanding the binary system.

    All children would learn painting and I think in class 12 do some self portraits.

    Good thing is that they are spread across the world following the same system. A lot of them are in Hyderabad.

    BTW, there are no exams as such and marks, grades etc till 9th or 10th standard. Even then it is not the kind we are used to.

    Curriculum is flexible and is based on how much a student can adsorb.

    The best part is that they teach topics in large chunks. For example: Electricity is taught every day for 2.5 hrs as a main topic for 3 months. Children at the end of 3 months create their own textbook based on their understanding. You have to see it to believe it.

    I have decided my daughter will go to that school system.

    It is we, parents, who need to be strong to deal with the ‘society’ when our children go to these schools.



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