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Chapter 21: Teaching and Learning

When someone wants to learn, nobody can stop him from doing it. We have the old
story of Eklavya who made a statue of his “guru” and practiced for years until h
e became an expert archer. Many stories of people sacrificing sleep and other pl
easures of life, and making it through school or college abound. On the other ha
nd, I feel that many parents throw good money on bad education for their childre
n because it is the current craze. The rate at which engineers who work in I.T.
companies are being mass-produced in India is not very funny. Very soon, arts an
d science colleges may shut down, at this rate.
Maybe a similar craze is driving everyone to do an MBA today. Many students are
just not best suited to do one, but they do it anyway. A large amount of effort
goes waste on both sides-students and faculty. And maybe an opportunity is lost-
by the student to do something he really likes, and may turn out to be really g
ood at.
At the school level, there is a great shortage of teachers- but ask any good stu
dent, and teaching would be the last career on his mind. The state government-ru
n university system is all but dead, with multiple levels of irredeemable atroci
ties- in faculty appointments, student admission policies, curriculum design and
so on. It may be impossible to do much about it except to write off the system
and start from scratch. At any rate, what must be immediately scrapped is the sy
stem of hundreds of colleges conducting common university exams. I am not sure w
ho thought of this idiotic idea (the British, long ago, I suspect), and it is so
outdated that the Neanderthal man would have difficulty identifying with it.
Whether a college is private or government run, it must be autonomous and judged
by only two criteria- the market, and a non-government run agency which gives i
t some sort of independent rating. Leave it to the students and society to kill
a bad institution. Why should somebody in Delhi take on this foolish responsibil
ity? Support the ones which do well on these ratings with incentives, which are
substantial, if you wish. Those who wish to get the incentives, may work towards
improving themselves.
Foreign universities (and students) should be allowed in freely, because they ar
e the best competition. Like it was good for industry, competition is good for e
ducation. Otherwise, we will be nowhere on the global stage. Large universities
with large funding can bring in research and infrastructure dollars and attract
the best minds (who now go abroad) to work in India.
A couple of words about some professors who impressed me and their teaching styl
es. Prof. S.K. Roy of IIMB had a technique that I have not seen many teachers us
e. Maybe it came from experience in doing theatrical plays. While explaining som
ething, he used to stop mid-sentence, and wait. After a brief wait, some student
would be tempted to complete the sentence. That was a unique way of getting stu
dent attention. Another technique he used was to speak in a low volume, delibera
tely. Again, students would strain to catch his words, and discipline would not
be an issue.
Most of us who took his Org. Behaviour class still remember the way he started t
eaching the subject. He described a story of two kids born on the same night to
mothers on neighbouring beds in a hospital. It was a Diwali night, with crackers
going off all around-according to his story. One kid is very fair, good looking
, cuddly and so on The other, dark, ugly, pock-marked. He built up the story unt
il the kids grew up, and described the impact their looks (and other people’s re
actions to them) had on their personality.
Experiential Learning was a course that Prof. Gopal Valecha taught us at IIMB. T
he first class was unique. There was no talking- it was banned. We had to watch,
touch, experience…in silence. We could use mime if we wanted to communicate. Th
e idea was to get in touch with our feelings, which mostly remain hidden or supp
ressed by excessive emphasis on the spoken word. The only other time I experienc
ed such a long silence again many years later was in a meeting where no one want
ed to take on some difficult job that had to be done—hence the silence. Talking
is a highly over-rated way to communicate, I am convinced, after that course.
Another course that was great in its conception was Effective Communication by P
rof Jagadish. Here, it was the things we did that made it unique. We had a 20 m
inute presentation to make on a topic of our choice. I did one on the Romantic P
oets- full of nice quotes from Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron. That was on
e of my most memorable presentations in my student life. Another came in the U.S
. when our group watched a James Bond movie and drew a project management chart
for his mission in the movie, and made a presentation of it for a project manage
ment course at Clemson.
The potential for innovation is tremendous. If only we innovate in teaching meth
ods, students are likely to learn a lot more. My daughter tells me that history
is the most interestingly taught subject in her junior college. I can still reco
llect the many boring classes that I had on the subject. So it is not the subjec
t, but the teacher who counts. Otherwise, the book is as good a source to cram t
he facts and figures from.
My theory is that we do not utilize the enthusiasm students have, and their ener
gy for doing creative and original things in India. Projects can be conceived to
make students do novel things. I have had students maintain diaries, submit 10-
15 downloaded articles each from the internet, collect new data through leg-work
, work on overnight computer assignments, make presentations, and write brand ne
w cases. And maybe I still have not tried a lot of things. I also view exams as
a great learning experience, in an autonomous system. Many of my exams were eith
er open book or objective type, or case-based. The purpose was to make the stude
nt think in the exam hall, even if they had not done so earlier in the course. M
ost of the exams we have typically test the student’s memory and the teacher’s p
atience- while correcting the papers. With today’s technology, it should be poss
ible to make most of the testing online, and with immediate feedback. The movie
starring Robin Williams, “Dead Poets’ Society”, makes a great case for innovatio
n in teaching. So does “Taare Zamin Par”, the recent movie about a dyslexic lear
ner, who needs to be taught differently.

(This is a part of my autobiography, My Experiments with Half-truths)