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?
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.