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It is elementary

To improve our education system, we need to encourage students to think critically all the way from school through higher education, writes Priyamvada Natarajan.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2012 00:51 IST

A lot of ink has been spilt on what ails the urban Indian educational system from schools to universities. Focusing on urban schools where teachers and students show up and facilities exist, we are still questioning how we teach and what we teach. The primary complaint seems to be that in the early years we are overloading students with schoolwork. Well, compared to South Korea, we clearly are not, but compared to Finland, we definitely are. Note that in international educational rankings both Finland and South Korea anchor the top, the US holds the 14th spot; but India is not in the top 35!

At the university level, we are enamoured with the so-called liberal education model offered by elite American colleges and would like to replicate them. In fact, many such educational establishments have opened satellite campuses here and many more are poised to do so. However, for these for-profit outfits, there is an ever-present possibility that they will fold and leave if they do not meet their margins like Michigan State University did in Abu Dhabi. Regulation of foreign educational institutions in the proposed Bill in Parliament will ensure stability and quality of the institutions that partner and/or open shop independently in India.

Meanwhile, surely, we can figure out how to transform our educational system in a sustainable fashion from within. All of this behoves us to examine thoughtfully what we are missing here at the school level and at the university level. Along with the lamentation of over-burdening children in school and the onerous size of their school bags, there is the mounting pressure on getting into universities post-secondary education. There has been animated discussion of how students in urban Indian high schools are now applying to elite colleges in the US in droves as it is less competitive than, say, getting into St. Stephen's College in Delhi. This outflow is inevitable as there is an emerging robust class of wealthy Indians who can now afford to pay for an elite American college education. There will always be a pipeline of kids from such families who will leave the country. For the majority of bright kids, this is, however, not an option. So how do we cater to them and keep them interested in whatever it is that they choose to do?

I think we need to intervene early, perhaps even in elementary school or middle school, regardless, we need to radically rethink what an education is for, all the way from school level to higher education. A disclosure: I am one of those people who did move to the US for undergraduate education on a scholarship. I left India for two reasons: I was addicted to learning by doing and wanted to be in a place where I could do research as an undergraduate, and I had broad interests and wanted to pursue philosophy, creative writing and history formally as part of my undergraduate education along with physics and mathematics. There was no option at that time in India for any of these wants.

Once I tracked into a BSc in physics honours course for example, I would at most be exposed to a smattering of mathematics and possibly a bit of chemistry - definitely not philosophy or history. What I craved was the process of learning by figuring things out outside the classroom setting. It is this process that fosters critical thinking. We need to provide unstructured learning time and opportunities throughout the schooling years and beyond. What is missing in our school and university system is the fostering of critical thinking. Critical thinking derives from more active learning, questioning and thinking as we learn and from unstructured learning experiences. Our system is too skewed towards formal education; for example in mathematics our system teaches us equations without giving us a feel for what they mean and why they are relevant.

At the college level, a more flexible understanding of undergraduate education is what is needed. One in which students can mix and match courses with a major concentration in a chosen subject and there is enough flexibility to pick and choose electives to provide a broad base so that a history major is required to learn quantitative reasoning and a math major reads the major books. With a little bit of rethinking and revamping we can do this ourselves in our own way. We do not need to learn this from anywhere else. Permeability in curricula to devote time to learn, digest, think, challenge and be challenged is what is sorely needed. This requires a radical attitude shift.

Historically, research activities have been the remit of centres that lie outside the undergraduate teaching institutions, namely colleges and universities. The re-integration of research and teaching activities needs to be actively pursued. In setting up the Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISERs), the Government of India has redressed this balance although only in the sciences. In these institutes, research is part and parcel of the undergraduate science curriculum and every student gets a taste of it. However, there is no such analog for the humanities. The research component needs to be introduced into the humanities and social sciences curriculum as well. Rather than set up discipline specific institutes, it would be more prudent to transform existing college and university education by introducing a research component to all curricula.

The issue of the lack of breadth in an undergraduate education is yet to be properly addressed. Both initiatives will likely need extension of the current three-year degree courses to four-year degree programmes.

The vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Dinesh Singh, has recently initiated an ambitious plan for July 2013 that should enable a crossing of institutional barriers offering unprecedented course choices in Delhi for undergraduates to register among JNU, IIT, Jamia and DU. If this experiment succeeds, this pilot programme can sow the seeds to a bold and much- needed restructuring of higher education in India. If we aspire to becoming a knowledge economy and innovation powerhouse, we need to radically rethink what we mean by an education.

(Priyamvada Natarajan is professor, department of Astronomy & Physics, Yale University. The views expressed by the author are personal.)