Webinar - What Should I Learn? | An Enhanced Summary

By KP Mohanan, Tara Mohanan, Lakshmi V and Bhushan Patwardhan

Webinar - What Should I Learn? | An Enhanced Summary

By KP Mohanan, Tara Mohanan, Lakshmi V and Bhushan Patwardhan

Someone who asks, “What should I learn?” is obviously the learner, the I in the question. As for the person who answers the question, we can imagine the following scenarios:

Scenario 1: The learner asks himself/herself, “What should I learn?”, thinks about it, and arrives at a decision.

Scenario 2: The learner asks someone else (his/her parents, other family members, teachers, experts, …) and they tell the learner what they think the learner should learn, and if parents, they make the decision on what the son/daughter should learn.

What follows is a write-up of a free-flowing fireside chat — a panel discussion. It is re-structured but broadly faithful to the actual conversation in this video

1.     The Panel Discussion: Structure and Time Stamp  

        1.1   The Challenges                                                           05:00–11:10       

        1.2   Education and the Future World                                11:10–23:30

        1.3   How do we Change the Existing System?                  23:30–31:10

        1.4   How do we Change the Existing System?                  31:10–42:20

        1.5   The Stakeholder Perspective                                       42:20–50:40

2.     A Structured Perspective on the Issues Discussed  

        2.1           The ‘What’ in the Question

        2.2           The ‘Why’ that ought to Follow as a Response to the Question 

        2.3           An Alternative Basis for Responding to the ‘Why’

        2.4           The Million Dollar Question for Education Providers

1. The Panel Discussion

1.1 The Challenges. (05:00-11:10)

Lakshmi: What, according to you are the top three challenges in education, to tell us where we are now, and where your vision of education is likely to take us?

Bhushan: The most important challenge is that of addressing the question of the purpose of education: WHY do we learn what we are expected to learn? This is not made clear to the learners. Considerable confusion on what to learn, how to learn, and for what purpose we are learning. Am I learning just to get jobs or to become educated? What is educatedness? We haven't addressed such questions with any clarity. Another challenge is this mad rush to be among the top, to IIT, IAS, and the like. In this race, the purpose of education is lost sight of.

Mohanan: “What would be the harm to humanity if we abolished all systems of education?” Answer: the human species will not be in a state of well-being that we expect to have. So the ultimate purpose of education, in the long run, ought to be the well-being of humanity. What do we want our children to learn to achieve that purpose? What should they be capable of doing, and what should they understand, in order to achieve that purpose? Would learning to solve linear equations, quadratic equations and differential equations achieve that purpose? So we must figure out what would be of value to learners ten years after they graduate. And that answer should be in terms of abilities and understanding that transcend disciplinary boundaries.

1.2 Education and the Future World (11:10-23:30)

Lakshmi: The world has been changing in unprecedented ways. And education has been trying to catch up, adding more and more volume to what learners are expected to learn. Is that one of the problems? Also, how are we looking at the spirit of education? What is the spirit, for instance, that comes from literary studies or geography, such as responsibility and civic sense? Have we lost the soul of education in the pursuit of exam results? Both the what and the how have been compromised.

Bhushan: Four quadrants of educational objectives:

(1) the academic quadrant that includes such things as general knowledge, transdisciplinary abilities and understanding, the questioning spirit, the scientific temper, independent thinking, reasoning ability, etc. not just information;

(2) the quadrant of emotional-ethical and spiritual values. emotional maturity, ethical values, simple living, selflessness, humility, truthfulness, dignity of labour, and so on;

(3) the quadrant of social sensibility: we need to know about our national culture and heritage, the tolerance for diversity, understanding the rural rights, the classless casteless, respect for rights and responsibilities. If our students do not understand the agony of our farmers committing suicide, the education that they receive from IITs is deeply flawed.

(4) Quality cutting across all of these. All this must be pursued holistically, not in silos.

Mohanan: Academic quadrant. Suppose a person who graduates in math becomes a dancer, a historian, a minister or a doctor, what can that person take away from mathematics that is of value to him/her? The details are irrelevant, but there is an aspect of mathematical thinking and reasoning that is of value to all. What can a person who graduated in history but is not a historian take away from history that is of value? What is important for every subject is what is of value outside that subject. But this is ignored in our education. Take rigorous reasoning that math exemplifies. Is logic taught as a foundation course in our system?

The second quadrant: the spiritual and ethical is what is valuable in all religions, the trans-religious. In the third quadrant, we should pay attention to not only national citizenry, but also global citizenry, which means we must abandon the us-and-them attitude towards others. The fourth quadrant: we are in the unfortunate path of increasing quantity without improving quality. We have not addressed the question, “What is ‘quality of education’?”

1.3 How do we Change the Existing System? (23:30-31:10)

Lakshmi: Looks like we have been focusing only on one of the four quadrants that Bhushan mentioned, the academic quadrant. Even within that quadrant, we don't seem to have looked at the quality of even that quadrant. Question: How do we create the change-makers in education?

Bhushan: Our educational system is still trapped in our colonial mentality, where the purpose of education was to get degrees to work as babus in a colony. Our legacy is that of the Gurukula system, led by the Paninis and the Carakas. And that legacy calls for liberating the students from the authority of the teachers and others. There are some good pointers on this in the new National Education Policy 2020, but we need to figure out how to implement those policy recommendations in terms of actual practice.

Mohanan: The first time I was educated in the Gurukula system was when I was a graduate student in MIT, where the teachers learned from the students, and where students challenged their teachers; and good students were defined as those who contributed to knowledge which often required them to show that their teachers were wrong. That education had the same culture of discussion and debate that our ancient Gurukula system had, including a body of knowledge called Tarkashastra that studied debating. That Gurukula system has dried up in our country.

1.4 How do we Change the Existing System? (31:10-42:20)

Lakshmi: Education is a complex system with multiple agents: students, early education teachers, primary school teachers, secondary school teachers, college teachers, principals, parents, Directors, Vice chancellors, and so on. Where in this system can we begin making a change?

Mohanan: To make a change, we need to do two things.

(i)  Avoid blame assignment. Instead of secondary school teachers blaming the primary school teachers and the parents, parents blaming the teachers, students blaming teachers, everyone should ask: Given all the constraints over which I have no control, what can I do within the system, even to make a small change towards meaningful education?

(ii) Recognise that education is a complex adaptive system, which means it is a dynamical system and an adaptive system. A complex adaptive system in an equilibrium state tends to resist change. If you try to change something, the system sees it as an obstacle, gets around that obstacle, and continues as before.

So our challenge is to find an anchor point for intervention such that if we change that, the system will go through a phase change and transform itself. That anchor point, I think, is the nature of assessment: the final exams and entrance tests. Currently, what is being tested is information recall without understanding, and mechanical application skills without thinking. If we shift what is assessed to deep and integrated understanding and higher-order thinking, students will strive to achieve those outcomes no matter what is taught in schools; coaching factories will find ways of helping students to do well in those questions; parents will support them; and teachers and school administration will be forced to shift.

Bhushan: If a new university had all the freedom in the world to change its Bachelor's program, what should it do?

(i)  Abandon the harmful divisions like math, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, and history. The overemphasis on the STEM subjects has done great harm.

(ii) Organise the entire curriculum on questions to investigate, instead of departments and schools. Devote the whole first year to transdisciplinary inquiry and transdisciplinary understanding. Devote the second year to compulsory multidisciplinary questions. And devote the third year to preparation for specialisation at the Master's level, for those students who want to pursue the Master's level programs. And finally, abandon these compartments like academic programs and skills programs. Every program requires both skills and capacities, both information and understanding.

And we should respect what students want. We talk about student-centric system, but our system is hardly student-centric. When a student goes to a college, the college gives them the options, and the syllabus for each option, which is decided by higher authorities. We don't stop there: we give them model questions and ready made answers. And we evaluate how effectively they reproduce our answers.

In his book A Case Against Education, Brian Caplan argues that the current system of education is a waste of time and money. The market does not pay the graduates for the skills and information they have acquired in their education programs, they pay you for certain predispositions that you have developed in the course of your self-education. Another book that I want to mention is 23 Things they Don't Tell you about Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, which argues that at least half the university education is wasted on the zero-sum game of sorting.

NEP 2020 has given very good directions for us to pursue, but to implement those pointers, we need to bring in a certain amount of disruption at anchor points, and there is no enthusiasm to engage in that disruption.

1.5 The Stakeholder Perspective (42:20: 50:40)

Lakshmi: How do we design a system that accommodates the interests of all the stakeholders? Take industry, for example. The needs of the industry are diverse and they keep changing. The graduates come with their predispositions that they have somehow managed to develop further. The industry wants them to use those developed potentials to adapt to the needs of the industry, that means that the graduates have to adapt their understanding and abilities to the needs of the industry. How can the education system help learners to meet that challenge after graduation?

Mohanan: An important attribute that all educated people ought to have is the ability to learn independently, on your own, without having to depend on teachers, without having to depend on ready-made courses. This is part of the higher-order cognitive ability that NEP 2020 talks about. Our system does not equip learners for independent self-directed learning for their life after graduation. It doesn't even help them to learn to read to acquire the information or knowledge that they want to acquire. And if an industry wants a graduate to learn some X, and if the employee is willing to learn X, then they should be able to learn X by drawing upon what they learned in their education program.

Bhushan: The system should prepare students to acquire information and knowledge from the internet, not to get more and more marks. Our students are much more technology-savvy than we are, but we must help them use that technology to find what they want to learn, distinguish between what is reliable and what is not reliable. We are still teaching them the old-fashioned way of transmitting information instead of capitalising on the technology skills of the new generation to guide them to learn what they want to learn. We should prepare them for learning outside the campus and outside the classroom, beyond campus placement.

2. A Structured Perspective on the Issues Discussed

2.1 The ‘What’ in the Question

The what in the question "What should I learn?" is typically framed in terms of the structures of institutionalised education: 

A)    Degree Program: e.g., BA, BSc/BS, BTech, BEng, BCom, LLB, MBBS, ...

B)    ‘Subjects’ within a Program: e.g., Having joined a BSc program, the learner needs to choose between Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Life Sciences …

C)    Courses within a degree program: e.g., A learner majoring in Life sciences may specialise in Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology, Developmental Biology, Evolutionary Biology ...

D)    Once the decision on (C) is made, the decisions are made by those who design the exam questions, those who write textbooks, and in the case of universities or autonomous colleges, by a department committee or the course instructor.

It would be interesting to represent A-D in terms of what has been called a Decision Tree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_tree). A Decision Tree is a DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directed_acyclic_graph). If we represent A-D as a DAG, the nodes of the graph are labelled in terms of A-D (labels of programs, subjects, courses, and the learning outcomes that an exam tests). The branches/arcs would be the options that the learner has to choose from.

2.2    The ‘Why’ that ought to Follow as a Response to the Question

When confronted with a given option in a Decision Tree for A-D, it would be useful and revealing to ask, “Why branch X, why not Y or Z?” e.g., Why BTech? Why not LLB, MBBS, BCom, BSc, BA...? Why physics? Why not math, chemistry, biology, ...? When we address the why question, it is important to be clear about the basis for engaging with that question:

The income that the learner may expect if (s)he chooses a given branch? (This is what students and their parents mean by ‘scope' when they ask “What is the scope of this program/subject?”)

The fulfillment that a learner may expect by pursuing a given branch?

The value for the learner's life after the program?

Providing manpower needed for the government (e.g., IPS vs IAS) or industry (e.g., IT industry vs. food industry vs. education industry)?

This is what we arrive at if we address the question, “What should I learn?” in terms of the DAG structure provided by Institutionalised Education.

2.3 An Alternative Basis for Responding to the ‘Why’

Suppose we take a different perspective, and make a Decision Tree in terms of information, understanding, abilities, and mindsets, liberating ourselves from the fossilised branches of institutionalised structures. Let us illustrate this with the sub-pursuit called geometry within the pursuit called mathematics, as taught in the departments of mathematics. Suppose a learner asks questions like the following:

a)    Why should I learn this theorem?

        e.g., Why should I learn the angle sum theorem (that the sum of angles in a triangle is 180 degrees); or the Pythagoras theorem (that in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the adjacent sides?

b)    Why should I learn this proof?

        e.g., Why should I learn the proof of the angle sum theorem/Pythagoras theorem?

c)     Why should I learn to ‘find’/compute/calculate/solve this?

        e.g., Why should I learn to solve linear/quadratic/differential equations? 

2.4 The Million Dollar Question for Education Providers

What would be a meaningful answer if we do not wish to say, “Because it is there in the syllabus/textbook/exams”? In other words,

How would we answer the learner's question in terms of expectations of the learner's value, or sense of fulfilment after the degree program? 

This question is what every learner, every parent, every teacher, every Head of Department, every Principal/Vice Chancellor/Director, every textbook writer, every exam question designer, every member of a Board, and every ‘educationist’ should ask. That question has not been asked in India. The only question that India's ‘educationists’ ask is:

Granted that 

the Decision Tree provided by our fossilised education system tells us that the learner should learn topic T (a decision that we do not wish to question), and 

we have never bothered to ask the question WHY those who have the power to make those decisions have made those decisions, 

HOW should we teach it? 

The WHY question is hardly ever answered in our educational discourse.

NEP 2020 hints at a way of responding to the why question in terms of the value of Foundational Learning Outcomes and the Higher Order Learning Outcomes (Higher Order Cognition Capacities). But if we pursue the line of thought sketched by NEP 2020, and work out its logical consequences to Curriculum Design (syllabus, textbooks, pedagogical strategies within and outside the classroom, assessment, policies, ...) the answers will be in direct conflict with what is enshrined in the fossilised Decision Tree.



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