Sunday, July 5, 2009

Our World is Connected. Why isn’t Education? – Part 1

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Not just film-stars and cricketers, but journalists, editors and directors of educational institutions are greedy to become celebrities. Soon, there are no engrossing movies, no great cricket matches, no facts in our newspapers, no editorials inspiring us to thought and action and no "drawing forth" of young minds.

On the 9th of June, I met again with Shashi Nanjundaiah in Pune. Some of you are his students, when he was a director at SIMC and then a founding director of the Indira School of Communication in 2004 in Pune. Others may have taught at the places he gave direction to.

I admire him. Shashi is different. He is not a celebrity. Shashi is committed to excellence in the quality of education.

Like some of my editor friends who can still write and inspire their readers to action, but unlike some cricketers who spend less time on the field but more seconds on the TV screen endorsing brands, Shashi thinks deeply and acts.

We sat with coffee and idlis at Wadeshwar Restaurant on F.C. Road, catching up with the waters that passed under Lakdi Pul. Soon the minutes passed into hours. What was it that swallowed our time? When we finished our academic conversation, I asked Shashi to write, for my blog, a piece about the inter-disciplinary approach in education, that gripped his mind. Here it is:


Our World is Connected. Why isn’t Education? – Part 1

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah *

Can you imagine a switch that lights up each time there is mail in your outdoor postal mailbox, and another switch transfers the mail indoors through a pipe? Suitable for the elderly, especially in treacherous weather. Too American? Well, that’s because it is.

Recently, I had an opportunity to attend an "Invention Convention" for school children up to nine years, whose products were chosen from about 10 schools in rural Warren County in New Jersey, USA — certainly not known for scientific geniuses.

The children came up with products that were practical, and provided practical answers to some household and social problems of modern American life. What impressed me even more than the design elements was the preparation of the school children to explain, pitch, market and sell effectively.

The mail-switch product, fully functional, was one such on display there — designed by an 8-year-old, sparkling-eyed, shy young woman of Indian origin. (Would it surprise us, if this young woman went on to do something innovative in her career?) There were 20 such products on display.

The ability of the students to come up with complete solutions, suitable for their local community, reflected their ability to identify a need, engage with their local environment and think seamlessly between physics, the social sciences, economics, design, as well as theory and common sense. They did so, in their own way, independently, and with some simple but effective guidance from their teachers.

Are our professional graduates employable?

Higher education in India typically suffers from "little creation of knowledge". This was a conclusion reached at a 2006 seminar called Washington Symposium NAFSA: Association of International Educators. They probably stopped short of another obvious fact: the lack of knowledge creation in our campuses is a major reason that many of our professional graduates may not be "employable".

Less than 25 percent of our country’s professional graduates are employable, says a Government of India research. As Michael Spence said in the 1970s, and Infosys's Chief Mentor N. R. Narayanamurthy echoed more recently, educational institutes have merely become a captive space, from where employers pick up inherently bright students.


We have heard the rhetoric from management gurus and industry experts about the category of Indian professional graduates, who are largely unemployable:

- Employees who lack the ability to apply classroom education to the professions. In particular, fresh graduates who lack the ability to analyze situations from an all-round or 360-degree approach.

- Students from institutions, typically restricted by lack of quality input and innovative teachers.

- Graduates who do not know the basic facts about their environment and their world and, in general, have neither developed a world-view nor can they independently analyze professional situations.

- Graduates who do not have the ability or attitude to learn — that supreme capability of problem-solving, to constantly ask fundamental (and original) questions and to seek out innovative answers.


Unfortunately, the above list would include a majority of professional graduates and institutions in India. Individual talent will always continue to shine through, despite the system. But systemically, educational training in India does not prepare our graduates to solve problems in a practical world, where they must apply their field of study, as well as put their worldviews and life skills to test.

Surely, the education system in India and we cannot look the other way, while our industries (Infy itself, for example) are starting their own training institutes to transform professional graduates into employable professional graduates?

And it's not content that’s the problem, is it? Information is at our fingertips today — literally. It is the structure of learning, or pedagogy, that's dubious. Few colleges today seem to know how learning will happen on campuses.

So how can educational institutions in India change their educational methodology to make our students think independently and constantly ask themselves questions?

Simple: teach them how to ask questions and how to seek out answers. To achieve this aim, independent and proactive learning is imperative. One way is to allow interdisciplinary research projects that will help students apply those linkages.

(To be continued. Part 2 will appear Sunday, 12 July.)

* Shashidhar Nanjundaiah was the Founding Director of the Pune-based Indira School of Communication (ISC), which modestly attempted an interdisciplinary approach, for the first time in India. He was also the Director of the Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication (SIMC), Pune, and the Managing Editor of The Indian Express (North American Editions), New York. He now consults for educational institutions and is building an international college of interdisciplinary studies in India.

For more insight on the interdisciplinary approach, visit an interview dated 21 October 2008 with the author in "Higher Education Management" founded by Keith Hampson, PhD. To read the full interview, click here.

Email: He is also on Facebook.

Before you proceed with the rest of my blog below, Shashi and I would be grateful for your comments on his paper.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
feddabonn said...

very interesting article by sashi. i quite strongly agree with his emphasis on learning to ask questions. i think if we start rebelling and ask questions (even where we are not supposed to) we will begin to see change.

on a tangent, have you read neil postman's 'teaching as a subversive activity'? strongly recommend-looks at an approach to teaching that relies entirely on questions asked by the students.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Thanks for the impetus. I've meant to read Postman--now I will.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to read your views Mr. Nanjundaiah, but at the risk of sounding a bit impretinent and maybe out of place may I add my two pence' worth?
I have had the fortune (?) of studying in India and Germany (where I am presently perusing a masters in culture studies) and have had an opportunity to compare (at least at skin deep level) the difference between the two systems.
While I would not lay laurels at the German education system's edifice (it is as bureacracy laden as ours), I must confess that there is a huge scope here to what could possibly lead to a 'questioning mind'. And the credit for this goes to the way the faculty/staff/teachers interact with the students. Nothing is a given here and the teacher puts herself up for question by/from students. There is no gospel truth which comes out the professor that eager students lap up. Issues like racism for example are tackled headlong with the professor stating at the onset that 'I maybe a racist in some ways I am not aware of'.
What I try to state here (at the cost of verbosity, and my apologise for that) is the democracry (for want of a better term) which exists in the classroom. One can openly disagree with the teacher even critique a teacher so long as one can fruitfully argue his/her points through. I do hope we are able to (if we have not already) somehow introduce this culture in our system...demystify the teaching position a wee bit maybe...and of course encourage question(s)... even the wrong ones...I do have my reservations about the laurels that our culture lays on intelligence...whatever that may mean...

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. There is nothing impertinent about your comments. Instilling the questioning attitude in students is in most part a teacher's responsibility. In a lot of ways, the setting in the classroom itself will start to make a difference, as we found out at Indira (where we used around-the-table format for many of our classes). But the real change we need is attitudinal. This can't be a revolutionary process because both teachers and students need to prepare themselves for such a setting. This will take several batches, even decades (not counting exceptions). The education system needs understand and foster individualities, rather than using the same yardstick. Many institutions resort to uniformities to avoid internal criticism (or for convenience, of course). Finally, as you would have realized in Germany, democracy of learning must always function in a accepted and agreed framework.

Princess said...

Mr. Nanjundaiah an interesting read.
I was part of the Wipro Applying Thought In Schools Project in Mumbai and during the course of my reskilling in-service teachers, I realised that we had our backs to the wall trying to change their mind sets and introduce pedagogy which seemed totally alien to them after they had been teaching for a few years.Quite a few teachers sadly believe that what was good for them when growing up, is good enough for the next generation. Few understand that the world is hurtling ahead at an amazing pace and children who come out of school with high percentages, but very little learning cannot cope in an increasingly competitive world. Our teacher training institutions require a serious overhaul and attitudes of the teacher have to change from- no longer being the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side.
How many teachers even know what HOTS is or how to use it in the classroom to open up minds? Or use Bloom's taxonomy..though they have studied it during their B.Ed.There are a few out there who are making a difference...the sorrowful part is that the numbers are too small.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

The sadder part, though, is that the exceptional teacher is also exceptional because of their inherent thinking, not because (could even be in spite of) their training.
Although it may be initially stereotyped as "alternative", innovation in faculty training is badly needed. Trainers, along with researchers who can quantify the learning curve, will be in great demand in the near future when the education sector will ride the wave.
Thanks a lot for sharing your comments and thoughts.

jeeja said...

Extremely interesting & thot provoking article expressed in d most simple language..
We surely give more importance to IQ n not EQ level of a traineee..
Each institute wants to lap d cream..Prominence is not given to thoughts, expressions, criticism n questions, but ONLY to grades..This starts right from our pre-school level to beyond PG...
Our trainees should be encouraged to think,ask questions, express their thots but at d same time v trainers too, should accept questions, new ideas n critcism more openly..
Change will happen only when WE START it..
Looking forward to d sencond part..

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Jeeja, the cream of your comment was in the second last line :) We can pontificate all we want, but some of us need to vow to put our thoughts into action.
Our Indira experiment was more or less successful in getting faculty excited about the novel idea of a "two-way communication" (or sharing) method of learning, and many of our students to learn in continuously evaluated, interdisciplinary way. But there is lingering reluctance among many students to proactively adopt newer methods--simply because they have the option of NOT going through the grill and yet earning their degree.
Education, not the degree, needs to gain importance among students--and faculty, and unless we trigger as many parts of their brains as we can to discover themselves, education is not complete.
This is why our "tagline" at the Indira School of Communication was "Discover what you can do with yourself..and be surprised."

jeeja said...

Sir I do agree with ur reply to my comment..
Tho very few teachers/trainers think on your line...Coming from old school of thots many find it difficult to accept questions, ideas n criticism from the students..
ISC did exceptionally well in d first two years......... It was mainly due to this progressive idea implemented by you..Faculty as well as trainees had taken well to this.
As u rightly say, when everything s served on platter since day one in school, student get used to ready made stuff...Dey r not ready to walk n work d extra mile..
I know its a two way process n we all need to work on it...Lets get started:-)

Sushant Kulkarni said...

First, I would like to thank Mr. Shashidhar Nanjundaiah for the 'statement of the problem' that our educational system is facing. And I am eagerly waiting for the second part of the article.
Here is something I would like to say. As we emphasise upon interdisciplinary courses, we must simultaneously work on strengthening individual disciplines. Along with employable it is creativity and productivity which fathers and mothers of education system need to think about.
I have no doubt that your coming post will definitely have something about his in it.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Thank you for the thoughtful response. There is no doubt the existing subjects need fortification and in-depth understanding of these subjects. Your idea requires a separate genre of thinking and a lot to think about. Within the confines of this article, though, a part of the solution to provide such reinforcement of academic fields would be to adopt the research method--there is not enough of it in the social sciences and humanities. As the article suggests, even such research should not constrict itself to stay within the subject-boundaries that we academics have created for convenience. In that sense, we need a redefinition of creativity.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Feddabonn, Anonymous, Princess, Jeeja, Sushant,

I thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.

I had requested Shashi to write about the interdisciplinary approach, because I felt he had something special to say for the future of education in India, during these rapidly changing times.

Through participation and interaction, we can contribute to build a lasting future.

Warm regards,
- Joe.