Thursday, September 06, 2007

Choice and Specialization in schools, contd.

Reference : We're fisking this article

Context : We've already seen why the economic logic is rather contrived.

Now, we move on to the empirical. Witness this paragraph.

Now comes the other reason why I think children should be allowed to settle into subjects and activities that they are good at. We often ask each other why there is such a weak correlation between those who top the board exams and those who actually succeed in life. Most of us have also gone through the almost mandatory shock of being told at a school reunion that the class duffer is now a famous doctor or a CEO. My friend Avinash was a known troublemaker in school. Later, he struggled through junior college before dropping out. He is today one of the most successful photographers in the Hindi film industry.

The old technique of singular anecdote as evidence. Actually, sir, we don't ask why there is a weak correlation between those who top board exams and those who succeed later in life because in our experience, there is a rather strong correlation between those who top board exams and those who later succeed in life, assuming that we're both measuring the same parameters of success - money, power and prestige (in any order that you want it). You see, if someone tops board exams, it implies certain things. One, that she is no stranger to hard work. Two, that she probably managers her time well. Three, that she has learnt and has imbibed atleast something from her formal education. All three will go a long long way in ensuring success as we perceive it publicly. The class duffer will not really become a famous doctor. To do that, he will have to get into a decent medical college. To secure this admission, he would have to either maximise performance in the board exams, or maximise performance in an entrance test. To do either one of those two things, he can't really afford to be the class duffer. Top notch CEOs will typically come from one of the better B-schools. To get into one of these schools, one has to maintain good academic performance throughout. It is reasonable to assume that many of my batchmates here at IIM-A will go on to occupy several top positions in firms around the world - very successful by the public defintion of the word (which is what we're discussing anyway). If he took a look at the number of board toppers/school toppers in this place, Mr Rajadhyaksha would have had to eat his words. If your class duffer made it conventionally big, I would have to conclude that you did not have a good idea of what the word 'duffer' means when you were in school.

And as for the photographer friend, what kind of evidence is that? What formal education system at the school level will ever be able to measure how talented a student is at photgraphy? How many students even develop an interest in photography when they are in school? How will a student figure out in school itself that he/she has a comparative advantage in photography? Photography workshops are definitely organised in the bigger cities and lots of people enrol and learn from them - why at school? What would be the curriculum of a 'photography' subject at school? What would be the evaluation system? Sachin Tendulkar failed at his 10th standard board exams. Are we to conclude that the Indian education sytem needs a dose of Ricardo and 'comparative advantage'?

Then, there are the practical issues involved. Mr Rajadhyaksha has argued for choice and specialization. More choice is a better scenario than less choice - this is almost a truism. But how does one provide more choice in subjects at school? By offering electives. A school will then need to have teachers, infratsructure, pedagogy etc. for each of the electives that it offers. How many schools, even well-heeled ones, will be able to manage to find and/or fnance these resources? At the 12th boards level, that much hated government body called CBSE actually offers 600+ subjects, and allows a student to choose a combination of any 5. Most schools still teach only 5-7 and have well defined science, commerce and arts streams. If you blame the education 'system', you're basically ignoring the prevalent constraints of a non-ideal reality.

Of course, Mr Rajadhyaksha realizes the absurdity of a school education that is very specialized from the very begining. Witness this

So, does this mean that our children should be allowed to do just as they please? That would be another extreme. Clearly, we send them to school to develop certain basic language and numeric skills. That (to draw yet another analogy from economics) is the basic infrastructure that the school system must provide so that students can make the most of life’s opportunities, just as public provision of good roads or legal protection is a building block of economic success.

and this

Given the basic intellectual infrastructure of the three Rs—reading, writing and arithtmetic—our children should be allowed to seek their comparative advantage.

The 3R funda is one of most shallow and outdated formulations to ever grip academic imagination. First, is it really three R's? Is it possible that someone who is taught how to read will eventually not figure out how to write? In my book, numerical and verbal skills are just 2 dimensions, not 3. Second, I am completely convinced that a fixation with these two dimensions of human intelligence has stunted development along a very important third one. There's a reason why an aptitude for mechanics does not translate into a natural flair for mechanical engineering, and that reason is a little something called the ability to think in three dimensions. I would argue that developing a basic level of capability or familiarity in 3-D thought, through some courses in the visual arts, is just as important to this "basic intellectual infrastructure".

More importantly, by saying 'arithmetic' do we mean to say that the other mathematics taught in school till the compulsory (10th standard) level is not essential? Can a "basic intellectual infrastructure" be devoid of the knowlegde of parallel lines, circles, triangles, spheres, cylinders and cones? (Digression - I also believe that an understanding of mathematics and logic through set theory is actually the most essential of all basic intellectual infrastrutures. This claim shall be justified in the promised post on propositional logic). I doubt if anyone has ever been able to justify this particular choice of the level of granularity for essential education. Does arithmetic include or exclude the concept of exponentiation and compounding? Is it truly not essential to know and understand a baisc minimum level of science, history and geography? 3Rs is, in my opinion, a convenient rationalization - what it says is a truism and what it doesn't say is truly important. A soundbyte is not an argument.

Lastly, we move to the social and the philosophical. What is the purpose of education and an education sytem, especially at a level as fundamental as school? The problem with trying to define a 'comparative advantage' for students at the school level become clear when we see that we often lament the lack of a liberal arts education for our engineers in India. Essentially, what we are saying is that tangibly and intangibly, it pays off to be well rounded in life. Of course, one cannot be a generalist throughout one's life and needs to start focusing after a particular time. If 18 is seen as the normally accepted age of adulthood, 18 seems to be about right for taking such a decision. If we encourage our children to specialize in school, Mr Rajadhyaksha's daughter may just be happier, but given the current trends in the country, I foresee a much larger cross section of parents pushing their children to concentrate only on physics, chemistry and mathematics right from the age of 10 (or whatever is the age that Mr Rajadhyaksha feels is right to begin specializing). This system will end up producing scores of JEE stud, intellectual dwarf type students who were never given the chance to realise their actual aptitudes and interests because the system encouraged specialization and market demand started ruling their lives much before it does now.

Inspite of the arguments presented in the article being wrong or underdeveloped on almost all counts, why is it that one still feels that Mr Rajadhyaksha's daughter should not have to worry about flunking her arts exam? The problem is the fact that school is unable to think beyond the control mechanism of pass/fail to encourage interest and competence in art. The problem is the school's presumption that it will be able to judge artistic performance through a limited time examination. The problem is not the concept, but the failure to look beyond conventional pedagogy. All this indicates design inertia. Inertia of design is not a flaw of philosophy.


Niranjan said...

Dear Ritwik,

Came to your blog via the comments section of Nitin's Acorn blog... and read your comments on my column. Thanks for such a detailed analysis --- not that I agree with you on every point, but that is the whole point of debate isn't it? Look forward to staying in touch.


zen babu said...

Dear Niranjan,

Oh my dear god! I'm quite speechless. I apologise for the tone of the article, disagreement on content notwithstanding.

And yes, look forward to staying in touch.

Robert Frust said...

I just made your profile views 1,111.
I liked the analysis, though I started strong and lost focus and understanding midway. I especially liked the point about the need for developing the ability to visualize in kids in addition to the 3Rs. Look forward to discussing it...

PS: "Zen babu"?

Niranjan said...

Dear Ritwik,

Promise to try read your blog as much as possible. And if you ever feel like writing a comment piece/book review for a mainstream newspaper, don't hestitate to get in touch.


zen babu said...


I think the loss and focus and understanding is also partly my mistake - I write a little too long. And yes, visual abilities are paramount. We need more imagination.

For the 'Zen babu', you may want to check this out -

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