Thursday, November 10, 2005

SYSTEMS OF INSTRUCTION

It’s been two and a half years since I came here, and I think that now would be an appropriate time to compare the education systems in the two countries; at least those parts of the systems that I have been able to purview. Of course, these would simply be personal and limited observations, and two and a half years would hardly be enough for comparing such sprawling systems with all their glories and follies. But I was tempted to do this because I have always had a personal interest in teaching and someday, I hope to be a teacher in the most general sense of the term. I have always respected teachers, especially because I have been brought up by two of them, and as I grew up, I learnt a lot about teaching, largely due to the dedicated efforts of non-teachers, who set an example of how not to teach. I have never been much of a studious person or formal classroom or exam enthusiast (I have narrated some of the agonies I suffered during my education here), but I will always remember the memorable spiels delivered by the few wonderful teachers I have met. I will never forget them. But now, for the observations:

1. Contrary to what I and most of the people I knew believed, the culture of higher education in the US is not as shamelessly informal as hearsay would suggest. Of course, it’s still orders of magnitude more informal than our educational culture. But in general, deference is valued here too. In my department for example, I know only one professor who is addressed by his first name. That destroyed the first major illusion I had. Even my American friends confessed that they would not be very comfortable calling most professors on a first name basis. As far as the classroom culture is concerned, yes, it is much more informal than ours, and there is a gargantuan gap between the consequent efficiency of knowledge dissemination that is observed here. All through my school, college, and university years in India, asking questions in class was largely forbidden. If not official, it was a reverently followed unspoken rule. Breaking this rule would not only cast you as an upstart brat in the eyes of your classmates, but would very likely jeopardize your formal existence in the institution. Once you ask a question to which the professor does not know the answer, it would be very likely that he would give you a bad grade and reduce your marks, especially in the practical exams. In fact, this became a piece of student wisdom of sorts that was faithfully passed down from one generation of students to the next. When you asked your seniors about the professors, one of the first things they would say, would be ‘Please be in the good books of XYZ if you want your performance in the practical exams to stay secure.’ Being in the good books means not to ask ‘obvious’ or ‘stupid’ questions, the real value of which you learn only many years, and practical exams, later. Naturally, the real reason why nobody wants to be asked questions is because he does not know the answers and wants to hide his ignorance from the students. In India, since not asking questions is not yet an official rule in the handbook, professors deter students from doing this by the institution of unofficial terror. If one were to ask them a question, not only would his performance in the practical exams be permanently altered, but the professor would also cast so many aspersions on him by way of obvious and subtle ridicule, that the student would be silenced into submission after that. Of course, what I am saying does not happen all the time, but I have witnessed it in many classes, and on many levels of education. I am sure that my friends in other branches would definitely corroborate my observations. Over the years, totalitarian professors have become experts in the art of informal intimidation of students. Giving low grades or even failing students in exams, making sure that the ‘external examiner’ intimidates and asks the student tough questions, and last but not the least, asking the student to rewrite an experiment in his or her journal countless times, even though there is no evident fault with it (In 12th standard, I had to once draw the human heart perfectly so many times in my journal, that I fear my own heart became deformed in the process); all these are standard practices to make the student ‘know his place’. There is a weird Orwellian flavour to many aspects of our academic existence.

In the US, all this is largely absent. Here, professors are much more forthcoming and honest, questions are largely encouraged, and you are actually allowed to disagree with the professor. Since many professors here are actually well-qualified, a blanket case where the student is right and the professor is wrong usually does not arise, whereas in India, it arises so many times, that the student finally gives up trying to say anything in class, especially given the fate he will suffer. Interestingly, even here, the art of unofficial intimidation is not lost to professors’ sensibilities. I do have witnessed the rare cases where the professor beat the student (and on some occasions it was me) into submission by ridicule. The ridicule was not blatant, but it happened a sufficient number of times for the students to prefer shutting up from the next time onwards- even though it wouldn’t have led to the professor hampering the students’ performance in the exam, it was not worth it due to the sheer time spent and the futility of it.

In the US, informal communication crucially hinges on making yourself heard. If you have an appointment with anyone, and if you want the conversation to be nice and informal, one cardinal rule is- speak up. Be frank. Don’t be overtly enthusiastic and obsequious obviously, but in general, make your thoughts known, and they will be appreciated. Sit excessively quietly, and the situation can well become uncomfortable and formal. If you talk, even an otherwise thorny discussion can be mitigated to a large extent. Even if someone wants to fire you, it will likely happen in such a way that both of you will part on good terms. I think that communication is an integral element of informality in the American academic culture. Whether it is negotiating a cease-fire, making a diplomatic move to reduce global nuclear proliferation, or asking for leave to go to India in December, dialogue always helps.

The formality in our system basically stems from our fundamental attitude of deference towards elders, which is not bad in itself. But things have to change with times, and most importantly, we have got to come to terms with the fact that asking questions has nothing to do with deference to elders. For some reason, in many cultures, including ours, deference is equated with silence. The two are certainly not necessarily equivalent. From the same illusion of equivalence also rose a culture where women could not have their say and had to keep quiet because they were supposed to show deference, and where students could not ask questions, because somehow, it had been grilled into their heads that asking too many questions was the same as being rude or irreverent. This silence kept the questions in their minds unanswered. This quota of unanswered questions keeps on building and finally results in professional incompetence sometimes.
We really need to change this attitude. Keeping excessively silent in front of anyone- elders, parents, grandparents, teachers- is not automatically a mark of respect, and can well stifle communication and freedom of expression, and similarly, speaking up does not automatically mean not respecting them.

On the other hand, one outstanding component that is lacking in the American system, is the personal relationship that develops between a student and a teacher. In our country, this of course goes back to the old ages, to the 'Gurukul' system, where a student would go and live in his Guru's 'Ashram'. In such a setting, even if life was tough, a special bond always developed between the teacher and the student, the teacher almost becoming a substitute parent of the student, the excessive deference of the student notwithstanding. In recent times too, the bond can develop. That's how the teacher becomes a mentor. The few great teachers I have had have become outstanding mentors of mine. The personal touch which they imparted to our interaction has ensured that I will always have the utmost respect for them, and will be in touch with them all my life. However, my parents and these teachers also tell me that this bond is weakening somewhat on a general scale, and it is the students who are to blame. They have made a manifest observation, that over the years of their career, they are meeting fewer and fewer students who are warm towards them, acknowledge them, and most importantly, keep in touch with them after they have left college or university. I believe that is a sad scenario, because these few sincere upholders of the scholarly tradition need to be constantly appreciated. Maybe this trend is increasing because of the increasing business like nature of our educational system- and especially with the number of private management and engineering schools springing up like grass everywhere. With this comes an attitude to treat the students more like customers; another facet of the American system, but unfortunately sans the high quality in this case. But in general the bottom line is that I cannot think of a personal and enduring interaction in the American system because of its professional nature. That is a very good thing with our system, but again one that may lose its benefit because of undue reverence and respect.

2. This was about people. Now about the system. Again, contrary to my belief, the American system of higher education is, in general, not necessarily of ‘higher quality’ at least as far as the theoretical quality of education is concerned. In fact, it is now a fact of growing awareness that American educators are lamenting the decline of quality in American higher education, from about high school onwards. So as far as quality per se is concerned, this system is as good, or even a tad worse, than our system. What’s strikingly different is the element of awareness, and the lack of red tape, that enables decisions to be taken fast, so that any gap in quality can be filled up as fast as possible. There is a short, efficient way for registering almost any kind of complaint about almost anything here, and some kind of action will usually be taken about it. There is a number to call, or a short, easily reachable email address. Admittedly, these features mark many other systems in the US. But they are a relief especially in the educational system. I won’t expostulate on how all the details are different, because it would probably be known to most people. But what’s different in these two systems is not raw materials, but processing. Without processing, the raw material, no matter how good, will never make it to the market.

3. Most importantly, the American system does not largely suffer from the single most pernicious and devastating element that has riddled our bureaucracy and educational scenario- the culture of antiquity and decadence that we seem not only to tolerate, but to actually encourage. Whether it is laws to deal with road repair, or experiments that students do, everything seems to date back to Isaac Newton's age. The word ‘amendment’ is simple a theoretical figurehead in our culture. This culture rapidly transforms itself into mediocrity, mediocrity in terms of employees and individuals, mediocrity in terms of facilities and materials, and mediocrity in terms of every facet of the system.
Consider the faculty appointments in our educational system. Although some hope is now emerging on the horizon, the fact remains that for many years, the concept of tenure and peer review has been simply absent in our system. Once an individual joins a government academic institute, he is essentially a life member of it. There is no annual evaluation of performance, and even if there is, it is tenuous and never too strict. The level of evaluation would be fairly good in the IITs and IISc., but in Universities, an individual generally gets promoted purely on the basis of age! The existence of the reservation quota simply exacerbates the situation to a great extent. There are three levels of rank in our universities- lecturer, reader, and professor. Many ‘professors’ I know have attained that particular rank purely on the basis of seniority. In American universities, becoming a full, tenured, professor is an incredibly challenging and demanding goal. One has to write grants and show repeated credibility of performance and research ability. Only after demonstrated erudition in his area is he considered for a promotion to a tenured post. Of course, the real reason why no such evaluation really exists in many of our universities is because ‘professors’ are not supposed to be productive researchers in the first place at all! As long as they do the mandatory teaching and publish some numbers of papers in some journals, it’s completely ok for them to stay. Again, reservation further lowers the standard to almost negative levels. This will never be seen in American universities of reasonable repute.

4. However, in our system, where the culture of decadence manifests itself the most, is in the complete lack of progressive attitudes in the small things that matter; because after all, that’s where God/the Devil is- in the details. For years, we have been churning out the same syllabus, a syllabus that has always been radically in need of progress, a syllabus that has elements of instruction dating back to antiquity, and a syllabus that essentially is simply because it is easy to teach the same things every year for thirty years, so that nobody has to lift a finger to change things. Claims that the syllabus has been ‘revised’ usually refer to the replacement of one dated concept by another, or more frequently, the deletion of some already dying concept. Sure, there have been some improvements. But mostly, under the name of progressive thinking and revision, all that our educators do, is start ostentatious and fancy sounding new courses and degrees like ‘Information Technology’ and ‘Communication skills’, along with entire new institutes aimed towards giving students a so-called ‘modern’ education, thereby further deluding them (and their parents) who are already getting biased and inordinately swayed by peer pressure and glitzy talk about what exactly has ‘scope’.

To instantly know how dated things are, all one has to do is to take a look at the list of ancient experiments (not to mention the apparatus) that are prescribed for the BSc. Course, or to take a look at the inane torture of ‘submissions’ that engineering students have to endure every year. The experiments in the journals bear scant resemblance to what is actually happening in the field. Year after year, like the farmers who used to pay tax to the British by doing back-breaking toil, the students have to churn out journals, working on dated concepts. The excuse of including those experiments for decades, is always that, ‘Students should learn the basics’. No matter if those basics are presented in a way that would beat the will and interest of the average student to death. In these mandatory pursuits, students spend an enormous amount of otherwise valuable time. That’s because the educators never want to take the time to actually think about what the students are learning. In this attitude also is inherent, a basic lack of respect for the minds of students, as well as for higher education itself. As long as professors can make the students repeat the standardized experiments year after year for decades, and as far as they can make the unfortunate souls repeat the write-ups of the experiments hundreds of times, they can always reflect satisfyingly on a day well spent. Actually now, there can be no excuse for not modifying the syllabi. Because of the Internet and the relatively quick access to so many resources, it should not be difficult at all for educators to spend their time productively in lively debates about improvisation and betterment of the syllabus. But unfortunately, that is only if they want to. Flexibility is another characteristic of a modern academic system, a facet that is completely lost to our system. It was only after much argument that I could study both Biology and Maths during my first year of BSc.; apparently according to the esteemed educators in our college, they had at most tenous connections with each other. Any scientist or modern educator would die laughing if he witnessed this scenario today. Others would actually cry, because it is depriving eager students of a balanced education. Especially in today's multidisciplinary world, success can depend on having acquired a wide and diverse intellectual and practical skill set. It's far from that in our system. At every level of education, Indian students are bound in a straitjacket of what gray-haired educators have defined as ridiculously and inconsequentially strict rules of enrollment years ago. If somebody complains why there are so few polymaths and renaissance men in our country, my silly sounding but long thought about reply would be, "Because they did not allow them to study chemistry and philosophy at the same time in college"...

This is, in general, emphatically absent here. The syllabus is constantly revised, and new experiments are added. The academic freedom that students have here is well-known. The students can flexibly choose almost any combination of courses. Exams are usually not based on rote learning, and short and interesting assignments make things easier as well as more productive for the students. I mentioned above that at least in theory (literally too), there is no difference in our system and theirs. But in an age that increasingly equates quality with novelty and keeping up with the times, we will instantly fall behind. Most importantly, the emphasis on practice is nowhere near to the sorry state that our system is. Practical applications of ideas abound in the lab, and instill a sense of exciting reality in the students’ minds. Armchair speculation, no matter how profound it may seem, gets converted into practical tools here. As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is…In my department for example, the single individual who is in charge of the chemistry practicals, does the job better and more creatively than the combined faculty of the chemistry department of my college. References are always provided…and are acknowledged. Basic safety procedures are taught and followed. All this is not difficult at all. It only depends on attitude.
At the heart of all this is a genuine desire to improve and raise the standard of education. Also, actually implementing measures is much more easy due to almost total lack of bureaucracy at the local levels. It’s all about will. It is easy to harp about the availability of better resources in the Western world, but more often than not, it sounds like an apology for complacence. The real question is that of motivation, not of resources. Given the kinds of resources that are available, we can do much better now, if not as well as in American universities. The single most damning thing about our system is academic decadence. This is the same kind of paradigm that exists in our excessive praise of our ‘glorious culture that has stemmed from a glorious past’. This is the present. And that, is the future. Unless we acknowledge this, things will stay the way they are.

I am neither trying to excessively praise the American system, nor act as an apologist, nor am I trying to say that our system is hopeless beyond improvement and repair. But these days, it is almost a fashion to point out problems with our systems, and then to say that things are going to improve because there is hope on the horizon. Globalization, economic reforms, outsourcing- all are quoted by some as instant and automatic fixes for all our problems.
Yes, there is hope. But I am not an idealist, and I don’t think anybody should be. The other thing that is fashionable these days, is for many to point out the evils of ‘Western culture’, and deride almost everything to do with it. That does not obfuscate reality. The American system of education has always stood as a model in many ways. It is has nothing to do with ‘Western culture’, and definitely nothing to do with the negative connotations of it that are constantly pounced upon by nationalist opportunists. The point is not to emulate, but to learn and improvise. The point is to be constantly aware, and to constantly keep thinking and doing. Hope itself won’t change the state of affairs ever. Because after all, there are always many ways to make a mess of things.

9 Comments:

Blogger Tejaswi said...

Thats a detailed comparison. There are a few points worthy of notice, far in between though.

1 - After tenure, I have heard that some of the professors in the US cool off to bad bad levels.

2 - The tenure race is so bad in the US, that many young faculty members rarely spend quality time on courses. Its grants, research, and more research which matters. Whatever happened to good old-school type teaching? Inspiring?

3 - I have spent the last 1.5 years in IIT-Bombay. Here, I think there is the informality that you talk about, the freedom, and also, the Indian-Teacher-Concern, which I have begun to respect tremendously. If you feel that there, great.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for the reminder. I have put in a paragraph above. I had forgotten about the personal touch that our teachers have.

As for research, yes, in graduate school, many professors are engaged constantly in grant writing. Even so, those who are interested in teaching usually do the job fairly well. Another thing is that having good teachers is more important in the formative high-school and college years. In graduate school (especially at PhD. level), to be frank, even though good teachers are appreciated, the students themselves are waiting for courses to get done so that they can plunge into research. So it probably does not matter too much for them. On the other hand, in colleges, the emphasis is always on teaching and securing grants is not a salient feature for most teachers. Some of the teachers in the small community colleges in the US are really outstanding I hear. And I am glad that you enjoy similar bon-homie, freedom, and informality in IIT-Bombay. :)

7:19 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

This is an excellent post, you should send it to some indian magazine or newspaper.

You say that situation may be better in "top quality" institutions like IIT or IISc. I can't say anything about IISc, however about standards of teaching at IITs I find that they have a lot to learn from american system. There are some excellent teachers/educators/researchers in IITs but the majority is quite pedestrian. As is the case in other government colleges in India, the IIT job is also permanent resulting in the usual problems that come with this socialist system. I remember during my time at IITB, a particularly talented former IITB student joined the faculty after doing his PhD from a top US institution. He was the best teacher I ever studied under at IIT. However, he was soon fed up with IIT's internal politics and low standards( at least thats what I hear) and soon left for US for good. No wonder IITs are having a huge faculty crunch as the best and the brightest former students choose to look towards US for challenging and fulfilling work.

I believe that single most important reason for US excellence in higher education is the same which is the reason for their highly successful economy- competition and free markets. In US, universities compete for the best students, best faculties and research money. Institutions are ranked by US news and their likes on different parameters which fosters a competitive culture resulting in overall rise in the standards. Free markets and competition , more often than not, work:).

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Siddharth said...

Ashutosh,
I think one other aspect, you did not mention, that separates the two systems is competition. The Indian system has too much of it and the american system too little. I have had a first hand experience of this. In IIT, although on paper they followed the american grade system, most profs gave so few AA and AB grades that usually one had to compete like crazy and almost top the class to get those grades. This led to a extreme competitive atmosphere, which basically meant you did not co-operate with the other people in the class competing for the same grades. Most co-operation was only between friends.
When I transferred to university here, the atmosphere was markedly different. With only 4 grades, a good 15 to 20% of the class was given the top grade. Hence I found that here the top students in a class, instead of mindlessly trying to sabotage each other, would instead co-operate, do homeworks and projects together. I think I learnt much more by studying in the company of some really bright student that from the profs.
My point is that competition is great at high school level. The indian system and the much hated HSC, IIT-JEE, CET etc etc entrance exams are in my mind actually good because they force young and immature minds to really get down and hit the books. So at 16-17 when american students are doing nothing much, we are studyiing our pants off. But once in engineering college, the student has the requisite maturity and the mindless compition should be reduced. Team work, solving homeworks together, doing group projects etc should be encouraged. Otherwise, as my american friend used to tell me (and the poor chap meant it as a complement), we indians end up as professional exam takers!!

10:47 AM  
Blogger Saket said...

I don't know where you got that "don't ask questions in class" bit in India. No one ever told me something like that. I did it all through my 22 years of education in India and I didn't do all that bad. We tend to underestimate the abilities of some of our teachers. I have in fact noticed that most teachers who communicate enough to raise questions, also have answers to them. Everything we study as undergraduates is fairly elementary anyways. One also knows the teachers who arent even making an attempt to teach and you just never attend their classes.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Siddharth: Yes, you raise a very valid point here, that is absolutely true. The mindless competition in our system especially in 10th and 12th standard, really stifles the laid-back creative streak that would have developed in the minds of many. Even if you don't want to do it, you have to go through the whole routine of rote memorization etc. to get into a decent institute. So it's a double sorry state. Firstly, you have to study largely mindlessly in 12th std to get 96% marks, and even when you get them, you still are not guaranteed admission in the 'top' engineering college. You are sort of forced to become a slave of the system. I am not saying everyone becomes a zombie, because so many of us are independent thinkers and can shine and be different inspite of the system, but the system does not spare any efforts in making us that. In American universities, you are right; competition is less, too less, and it is relatively easy to be on top. At the same time, the syllabus us structured in a way that you aren't always buried in mindless mugging. Even when you are facing tight deadlines and lots of study load, it usually has a direction and a focused goal towards productivity. As you also rightly noted, once we are in college, team work should be encouraged, but because of more mindless competition, yes, it gets stifled again.

Saket: I am glad that you never had that problem :) Many of my friends did. I am not saying that you simply cannot ask questions, just that very few professors actually encourage constant and active participation from the audience. In fact, if I remember right, you used to go to the Exploratory, just as I did later. One of the reasons the Exploratory was started was precisely this; that students could participate in uninhibited questioning during lectures and experiment demonstrations. I am sure many isolated cases exist, but in general, it is not very easy to have an untrammeled existence of skepticism and constant questioning in our system.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I don't think I ever had trouble with asking questions in India too. Of course it wasn't encouraged given the class sizes, but I don't recall anyone discouraging it. And I certainly never heard of anyone being docked points on an exam because of it.

By the way, are you sure you meant to use the word decadence?

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

Good post, Ashu. I'd say that Saket and Chris have been lucky in their education. I've suffered too, buddy, so I can empathise.

1:34 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks Anirudh. Chris and Saket seem to have experienced their own versions. I am not saying asking questions is forbidden or so, but I never came across a situation where it was actively and consistently encouraged. And in some cases, it was discouraged.

2:27 PM  

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