Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guest Post: Bhagwad Jal Park on Schools, Rote Learning and Rocket Science

Today we are happy to have a guest post from Bhagwad Jal Park of Expressions, a blog about lot of things, including the environment.  I've linked to many of his excellent posts in the past, including, "Why poor people must die first-says an Economist", "Want to Pollute? Pay for it" and "Going Vegetarian". Bhagwad has been kind enough to give us a post on the Indian education system.  As we've said before, schools matter to environmentalists, because the job of schools is to teach young people how to solve problems; and if things keep going they way they are, young people will have a lot of problems to solve!

Just the other day I read in the papers that the latest Person of Indian Origin who won the Nobel prize for Chemistry said that he failed his IIT and Medical entrance tests. It reminded me of how the Indian education system is structured in such a way as to only churn out factory pieces of mostly Engineers and Doctors with little or no variation. I haven't seen Aamir Khan's "Three Idiots" but I did see one scene in which he gets kicked out of class for answering questions in a simple and accurate manner from his own understanding instead of rote learning.

Some of the "elite" schools in India are worse than others simply because they have to maintain their elite status. They can do that only by consistently getting their students into the best engineering or medical colleges, which in turn means that they must ensure their students conform to a set standard.

Now I don't claim to be a Nobel Laureate, or a genius, but the episode reminded me of my own experiences in my school in Chennai, namely the well known Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) which at the time was known for its ability to get students into IIT. Perhaps because of this special focus, unusual pursuits were actively discouraged - and occasionally, pertinent questions were ruthlessly put down to cover up the teacher's own lack of knowledge.

In one instance I remember the teacher was explaining Newton's third law of action and reaction and how it causes a rocket to go up. She explained (perhaps incorrectly) that the rocket pushes against the ground and therefore gets an upward thrust. So I innocently stood up and asked what kept the rocket in the air when it was miles above the ground when there was nothing to push against? Instead of answering my question, she told the class that I knew the answer and was merely trying to create a nuisance! She then told me in an offhand way that the initial thrust was enough to push the rocket up forever...

In another instance, a guest lecturer was extolling the virtues of being a vegetarian to the whole school. He made a number of points as to how a vegetarian diet was good for our health. During question time, I wanted to ask him what was wrong if someone ate vegetables along with meat - after all, no one is exclusively a non vegetarian. As soon as I asked the question, he began to dither and I was immediately hushed up by the surrounding teachers and told to sit down!

It's obvious that even famous schools like the one above emphasize rote learning above all else. The students even mug up the solutions to math problems and physics derivations. If you have a good memory, school will be a breeze for you. God forbid you actually understand what's happening and try out your own solutions in class or in the exams. I used to regularly fail in at least two subjects in each exam set. In fact, the only subject I never failed in was English.

When I went to St. Stephen's college for my B.Sc however, things changed dramatically. I began to do well academically and came into contact with good teachers who didn't care much about rote learning and exams. For the first time in my life I got a certificate of academic excellence - something that shocked my parents after my pathetic performance in school. And finally I came into my own during my MBA in ICFAI where I got a scholarship throughout the two year course.

So it's not all bad. There are still some institutions in this country where understanding and original thinking are valued. It's these institutions that give me hope. If they can do it, then so can others. I can only pray that the number of such institutions increase with time and become the rule rather than the exception.


  1. It's OK for me to comment first if it's a guest post, right? Thanks for this, Bhagwad! Well said. We need to encourage original thinking everywhere--especially in schools. Do go see Three Idiots. I think a lot of people are talking about schools because of that film.

  2. You make so much sense. Excellent post.

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