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In new India, More Guides than gurus

For generations, the professor was the unquestioned god and guru of the Indian classroom, able to hold forth for hours with no one daring to ask a question or confess they hadn't understood a concept.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2010 23:16 IST

For generations, the professor was the unquestioned god and guru of the Indian classroom, able to hold forth for hours with no one daring to ask a question or confess they hadn't understood a concept. Students would kneel and touch the teacher's feet whenever they met as a sign of unfaltering respect.

Such a level of hero worship didn't always create the best atmosphere for learning, and even senior professors admit that students often fell asleep during lectures.

When the students went off to work in India's fast-growing high-tech industry, they were often too intimidated to offer ideas. This was especially true for graduates of thousands of new rural colleges, where memorising facts was stressed more than developing critical thinking skills.

But some of India's top technology companies are trying to revolutionise teaching at these newer colleges, which opened during the IT boom of the past decade, and to better prepare one of the world's largest workforces. The companies want professors to step out of the role of grandstanding gurus and become mentors who encourage students to be more creative and self-assured.

The programmes mark an important shift for this nation of 1.2 billion, where the higher-education system has started to change as India aspires to become a global superpower and an economic rival to China.

The shift is also a sign of a more egalitarian India, where low-caste students from modest economic backgrounds not only are able to rise into the middle classes but also can act with more confidence in the classroom and workplace in this traditionally hierarchal society.

At the same time, the Internet provides a sea of information to anyone with computer access, allowing young Indians to learn without the help of the all-knowing neighbourhood guru.

"It's the end of the guru. It had to happen for a new, more global India," said Nargarjuna S, general manager of Mission 10X, a teacher training program recently launched by Wipro, India's third-largest information technology company. "There's so much aspiration in our lower and middle classes. We want to harness that talent. These teachers, if they are trained well, could be teaching our future CEOs."

Here in Neemrana, amid mustard fields, dusty cattle farms and ancient forts, young professors at St. Margaret Engineering College are learning how to be more dynamic. They are participating in a free workshop offered by Wipro, which has reached 10,000 computer science and engineering professors at campuses across the country and hopes to train 25,000 more in the next three years.

Training teachers to be less guru and more guide illustrates the clash of cultures underway in a new India, education experts and economists say. The corporate world wants to maximise the country's vast potential, but old methods of learning and cultural traditions make those changes difficult.

Few areas have been as slow to change as education, with its rote learning methods and outdated curriculum that is often years behind India's IT industry.

Many IT companies, such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, have set up their own schools on corporate campuses to retrain graduates. But Wipro's program and others like it target college professors.

"Indian teaching is very orthodox and outdated," said Vivek Anand, who heads St. Margaret, a rural school three hours north of New Delhi nestled beneath the rugged hills of Rajasthan.

The school opened 10 years ago, attracting the sons and daughters of farmers and labourers who aspired to work in multinational call centres and IT centres.

"The way we teach now is stuck in the past," Anand said. "It doesn't feel connected with what's happening in the outside world."

The global economic recession motivated him to call Wipro.

"Before the recession, 100 percent of our students were getting jobs. After that, it was only 30 percent," Anand said. "We thought there must be a way to improve our students instead of just waiting for the market to improve."

The programs also give corporate India a way to leapfrog the government, which has been slow to change outdated teaching methods.

"We are not just creating soldiers who are happy to take orders," said Aditya Sharma, a Wipro teacher trainer. "India's IT industry is based on innovation. That style of thinking is what we want to build for India to be competitive across the world."

Teaching teachers to change may be difficult. But it has been even harder to persuade Indian students to be more curious and questioning.

Vinita Dhondiyal, an associate professor of communications at an engineering school in Bhopal, said she realised the depths of the "guru syndrome" after she held a month-long English-language course for middle-age union leaders.

"When they didn't do their homework, they would plead with me to beat them. Beat them! Imagine!" said Dhondiyal, an expert on Indian teaching styles who completed the Wipro training. "In India, all our lives, teachers tell the students to shut up. But then to get a job in corporate India, they need to be outgoing, confident. It's changing. But total democratising of the Indian classroom takes time."

In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post.

First Published: Dec 25, 2010 23:13 IST