Thursday, January 17, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- II

A couple of students who were going to write their Board exams told me that their teacher told them that they should write matter relevant to the question at the beginning and the end and they can write any story they want inbetween in order to make the answer lengthy! It seems that the person correcting the paper will only read the beginning and end of the answer. All that needs to be ensured is that the answer is long. One doesn't expect all teachers to be like Sanderson of Oundle but at least one doesn't expect such an advice. The general idea among students seems to be that  to get more marks one should make the answers as long as possible. What is actually written seems to be less important. There seems to be more emphasis on form rather than content.

Students seem to be encouraged to learn some formula to some problem rather than think about the process. For eg.,  for finding out the area of a pathway, the students were not told the general approach of subtracting the area of the inner shape from the area of the outer shape. Instead students had to learn one formula for a rectangular  pathway and another for a circular pathway which was also the approach followed in the textbook. They didn't know that the same logic was used for deriving both formulas. Using generalisations seems to be out of fashion. While discussing misconceptions about mathematics, John Allen Paulos writes in A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper:
Probably the most harmful misconception is that mathematics is essentially a matter of computation. Believing this is roughly equivalent to believing that writing essays is the same as typing them. Or, to vary the analogy, imagine the interest in literature that would be engendered if every English class focused exclusively on punctuation.
There also seems to be the fear that one has to write exactly what the teacher has dictated else it will marked wrong.  In his textbook, one student had written the answer '8 min.' for the question 'What is the speed of light?' and  for the next question, 'How long does it take for light from the sun to reach the earth?', he had written the answer '300,0000 km/s'. It was obvious that the teacher had dictated the correct answers but the boy had written them the wrong way around. I told him to correct the error but he was reluctant saying that the teacher would mark him wrong if he wrote a different answer. It should have been obvious from the units that the answers were looking weird. I managed to make him change the the answers but I am quite sure that if the questions came for the exam, he would have written his original incorrect answers.  Bertrand Russell said:
Passive acceptance of the teacher's wisdom is easy to most boys and girls. It involves no effort of independent thought, and seems rational because the teacher knows more than his pupils; it is moreover the way to win the favour of the teacher unless he is a very exceptional man. Yet the habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life. It causes man to seek and to accept a leader, and to accept as a leader whoever is established in that position.
In this video, Noam Chomsky outlines two approaches to education: one which emphasises critical thinking and gaining knowledge or one that is used for indoctrination and ensuring conformity. I think  that the education  system as currently structured leans more towards the latter approach. For instance, take educational loans. Making them freely available sounds a good idea but I think there are issues.

People will flock to the highest paid jobs initially, If it is thought that they can easily switch to a job more to their liking after they paid back their loans, it is easier said than done. By that time, they would have got used to their lifestyles, they may have a family of their own  which reduces risk-taking ability and there will be considerable peer and family pressure against taking a lower paying job in a lower position which will be hard to ignore. It is hard to know how to address this problem but I think the bigger problem is that the-powers -that-be don't think that it is a problem.

Some months ago there was An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes written by an employer which drew varied reactions. I can't comment on all the points since I have been out of the loop for a while but the following comment could be true in a large number of cases:
You are also unduly impressed by titles and perceived hierarchy. While there is a strong cultural bias of deference and subservience to titles in India, it is as much your responsibility as it is ours to challenge this view.
This is not an easy problem to solve since deference to authority is ingrained in everyone since childhood. The educational system just perpetuates the system justification bias and many end up making choices like Vera in Chekhov's short story, At Home.In this video, where Alain de Button talks about Socrates, he says that there are many similarities between humans and sheep. This tendency is accentuated by the increasing debt burden students have to bear which makes it important for them to hold on to their jobs.

PS:I was shocked by this account of how nerds are treated in many US schools as also by this post.

PPS: This cartoon reminded me of 'arbit c.p.' (arbitrary class participation) at IIMA.

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