Sunday, July 12, 2009

Our World is Connected. Why isn’t Education? – Part 2

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

“Few colleges today seem to know how learning will happen on campuses,” my dear friend and colleague, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, had asserted last Sunday in Part 1 of his loud-thinking on the inter-disciplinary approach to education.

Shashi went on to ask, “So how can educational institutions in India change their educational methodology to make our students think independently and constantly ask themselves questions?”

“Simple,” said Shashi, “Teach our students 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.”


Shashi is grateful for the informed response to his piece on my blog, “The comments were so pertinent that I was compelled to respond, each time. The response speaks volumes of the quality of your readers, and their ability to think along with their writers. Clearly, you have been building an important niche here.

“I view the whole corpus of responses to my piece as a sort of a synecdoche for the kind of participative education, I’ve been clamouring for. Participative education involves:

- thinking through the content,
- relating it to the reader’s own life experiences,
- sharing the response based on an amalgamation of those experiences,
- the knowledge earned from the piece and
- critical thinking that we are all endowed with.

This process of participative education invaluably adds to our overall body of knowledge."

To all those who commented on Part 1, thank you so much. To all those who read the piece and had an opinions but did not comment, I urge you to write a few lines, now that you have the entire article in front of you. Part 2 of his piece follows:


Our World is Connected. Why isn’t Education? – Part 2

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah *

Our world does not have walls.

For a change, let education mime life.

Why were some of us made to take a specific combination of subjects at college – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics or Biology at pre-university; then Physics, Chemistry or Mathematics at the graduate level?

Why not a mix of Physics, English Literature and Geography? Is it because the makers of education policy wanted to make sure the degrees they were awarding were either a ‘B.Sc.’ or a ‘B.A.’ or a “B.Com”?


The easiest thing for students to understand would be linkages across disciplines in the professional world. “Interdisciplinary” indicates that our learning needs to be across disciplines, not just in one discipline, and linking disciplines along the way.

The Harvard Business School, in its review seminar in November 2008, felt that its MBAs were increasingly becoming irrelevant in a globalizing world. The solution? Their MBA programs will become increasingly interdisciplinary in approach.

If each level of higher education provided the following to our budding managers, communicators and, even, techies, each of us would feel far more educated than we do today:

- Provide input in a variety of general subjects – Geography, History, Statistics, Economics, Psychology, to name a few – but convert that input in an applied way; applied to the student’s major field of study. All it takes is a refresher course of what we already learnt at school. But this time around, the subjects are linked to the profession that we have chosen.

In a survey I conducted in late 2008, senior industry practitioners and hiring managers in India, USA and UK unanimously agreed that this approach would provide a more global world-view and make students more employable.

- Allow students to choose independent research projects. Then allow them to choose which subjects would be most useful to their project. They could then choose which classes to take. The successful completion of an interdisciplinary project is a sure way of making graduates think analytically and to break down academic walls.

- Take the interdisciplinary approach, whereby curriculum experts and teachers collaborate to carefully ‘map’ the content of a subject on to the desired learning outcome.

(For example, in a management institute, that goal could be to produce an effective manager, equipped with a well-rounded world-view and sound judgment. A question we could be asking ourselves in designing such a course is, “Which portions of, say, Psychology, would be most relevant to a manager?”)


Why are we learning what we’re learning? This is the trickiest question, of them all.

Why was I doing all that burette-pipette color-change stuff in the school lab? Why did I need to know the laws of probability? Did I ever question why I needed to know that Akbar died in 1605, while I didn’t know what his contribution was to our modern society?

The answer is: we don’t know. Input (and output) among a majority of our educational institutions has been largely tools-oriented. If you asked professional graduates why they should or ought to know what they know, a large percentage would draw a blank.

The global marketplace is more demanding of broader skill-sets than before. The requirement set is solutions-driven: a combination of technological, professional, business, social and life skills – and much more that is intangible.

No longer is it enough to “super-specialize” – there is more demand for multi-skilled multi-specialists and generalists, who can adapt to specific environments. While some of these skills may evolve over time, many of them need a fundamental change in the way academic institutions think.


Unesco’s four noble principles of learning

UNESCO’s International Commission on Education for the 21st Century states that education must be organized around four types of learning:
– learning to know, that is acquiring the instruments of understanding;
– learning to do, so as to be able to act creatively in one’s environment;
– learning to live together, so as to participate and cooperate with other people in all human activities; and
– learning to be, a progression toward sustainable existence.

The true integration of these four principles can only occur when learning is the acquisition of skills for employment and/or entrepreneurship.


Right now, our system does not allow students to understand and use the interdisciplinary nature of their professional world. Some of us educators have pontificated on the application of subjects to the dreaded ‘real world’.

Some of the more daring ones among us have even attempted to point out what ought to have been the obvious: that the subjects we teach have a bearing on our life’s experiences.

But very few educators have attempted to show how. Further, few, if any, have attempted to draw linkages between subjects, or areas of study.

The integration and interaction of disciplines at once widens the boundaries, but expects an employee to quickly learn to specialize. It is important to recognize that education is only a trigger to learn, and often results in individuals understanding their own capabilities in a better way.


* Shashidhar Nanjundaiah was the Founding Director of the Pune-based Indira School of Communication (ISC) in 2004. For the first time in India, ISC modestly attempted an interdisciplinary approach. He was also the Director of the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication, Pune, and the Managing Editor of The Indian Express (North American Editions), New York.

Shashi 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.

You may also write directly to Shashi at: OR

To all my dear readers who took the care and trouble to comment on Part 1: we thank you so much. To all who read the piece and had an opinion, but did not comment: we urge you to write this time, now that you have the entire article in front of you.

Please comment now, before you proceed to read the rest of my blog for this Sunday.


Gauri Gharpure said...

thanks for advocating this remarkable approach in the context of indian education. interdisciplinary choices are quite common abroad, a cousin first studied economics and after that, took up medicine. i could never imagine such a thing happening in india.
my question is, at what stage in the indian context do you intend to introduce this concept. the system is so rigid that many students miss out on interesting future prospects due to the PCB or PCM selection forced upon them just after class X. Science students have long lost touch with subjects like economics, history or pol science when they enter college. the same sense of loss may occur to arts or commerce students with varied academic interests. in that sense, for the interdisciplinary approach to flourish, the entire education system, from kg to class XII would have to first become a lot more flexible and undergo radical changes. is that a practical possibility in a given time frame?

veersen said...

Dear Joe sir and Mr Shashi, thanks for being 'spark plugs'. Always wondered why we branded subjects as Arts, Science and Commerce. Agree with you on 'interdisciplinary education'.
I can't help but recall our first lecture of Algebra in standard X (St Xavier's, Kolhapur), back in 1996. Ours was to be the first batch of the new syllabus. Already weighed down by the fear of maths, students were nervous that the principal (Fr Joseph Palliparam) himself would be teaching the subject. That day, the first thing Father Palli did was to write a sentence on the blackboard. It was "I think, therefore I am" - René Descartes. He went on to tell us what it meant (not many of us understood the real meaning). He also told us the biography this French scholar besides enlightening us on how to pronounce 'Descartes'.
Back then we wondered why hadn't we started on with Algebra. Years later, even after my graduation, it dawned on me that Father wanted us to think first. It also meant maths need not be just maths. Unsurprisingly, his teaching helped boys in getting over their fear of mathematics and not a single casualty was reported in the so-called board exams that year.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Excellent point indeed--and one that continues to bother me. In very rare cases can one solution be a panacea, and this one's no exception.

That said, the schooling system is rigid by and large in India, yet at least students end up learning a variety of subjects. Also, schoolkids normally require a more prescriptive approach. It is the pre-university and undergraduate levels that sorely need a more flexible approach.

The interdisciplinary method not only ensures a breadth of subject choices, but also that through research-based projects, students can focus on and analyse ISSUES that transcend individual subjects--not vice versa as is being practised now.

Lastly, I maintain that education reform is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process. It will only work when faculty and students are all on the same page and understand pedagogical communication as it should be.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Mr. Veersen, I am sure your Rev Palli is himself a lucky man to be remembered as someone who made you think independently--a mental tickling that probably changed the way you function.

My fear is, your experience may have changed drastically at college... Do correct me if I am wrong--I'd be glad if I am :)

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Gauri,

Like Veersen, let us see if my own story (I have never referred to it anywhere so far on my blog or told it to my students in class), helps to answer your radical question.

I was always good at languages. My first teacher, my mother, told me that she had recognised my hidden talent for story-telling early when I was 4-5 years old.

The finest of my school-teachers, Mrs. Philomena D'Souza (nee Valladares), in the 7th standard at St Stanislaus, Bandra, Mumbai, nurtured my flair for languages, especially English.

When I finished school in 1967 and, by Jesuit default, went to St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, my vocational counseller told me I had scored 95 percentile that year in both the Science or Arts streams. On the toss of a coin (can you believe it?), he told me to take Science. No one asked me nor did I ask myself what I liked or wanted to do.

One's marks are no indication of the ability to decide correctly, even when it is about one's own life or work.

I completed my B.Sc. in Chemistry in 1971. When I got married in 1982 and thought about taking up a career that might last me a lifetime, I did finally ask myself, "What do I like? What do I want?" One clear answer was writing. And so, journalism. (Another weak voice said teaching.)

The problem in my case was acute: as a "topper" I was by default "nudged" into Science. Most students are lucky: they do not become toppers and, hence, are allowed to do what they want. The saddest cases, in my opinion, are when bossy parents decide the jobs their children should do as well as the persons they should marry.

Gauri, the inter-disciplinary approach is a flexible way of looking at life and the world: allowing people to do what they are good at and are passionate about.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Princess said...

Mr Nanjundaiah, my daughter did the IB. She found it a little difficult initially, having been boxed into the CBSE system for 10 years prior to that. I think the PYP and MYP follow a wonderful interdisciplinary approach.So does the Liberal Arts program which she did in the States.
I wonder why we think it so necessary to cut off our students from other disciplines so early on in my case, it happened in the 9th std and I have wished often that I had a better base of math and science. I think Indian education requires a thorough revamping.

Something I have used in my classrooms and found useful to motivate students is the KWLH- What do you already KNOW, WHAT do you want to learn, What have you LEARNED and HOW can you learn more.
I have found that either students already know a lot about the subject or dont know enough, so starting at the level mentioned in the text, without first checking with them, tends to be demotivating. The second part of mapping where their interest lies, can help generate a love for the subject. It helps them question and understand why they are studying it and what particular part interests them. It usually is easy then to hold their attention and even get them involved enough to want to learn more....basically go beyond the textbook.
I think as teachers most of us forget that even kids are looking for the WIIFM (What’s in it for me) and when that is not addressed they tend to lose their enthusiasm.

Thank you for a very introspective article. I am hoping that under Kapil Sibal there will some change in the way education is looked at in India. Perhaps there could be some kind of ‘think tank’ where educators from across the country who are doing revolutionary work, could contribute. Let the benefits spread across the country. :)

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

I just noticed a couple of errors at the start of my article. Please read it as:

"Why were some of us made to take a specific combination of subjects at college – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics AND Biology at pre-university; then Physics, Chemistry AND Mathematics at the graduate level?"

The "OR" instead of the "AND" changes what I wanted to say--that certain combinations of subjects are prescribed to us with a certain convenient end in mind.

I take full responsibility for the errors: Joe had sent me the edited article for review and this one slipped me.


Sushant Kulkarni said...

Thanks Joe sir and Mr. Shashi. I understand that ideas you have put forward, need policy changes of huge magnitude and attitudinal changes of great extent.
But even on the personal level one can start educating oneself with interdisciplinary perspective. I was lucky to have a family background in which I was given freedom to do whatever I want and had a big treasure of books. Lessons of a broad spectrum approach can even begin at home.
There is no doubt that an education system with such approach would be 'the greatest resource' (as EF Schumacher calls it in in 'Small in Beautiful') for better life.

Ilidio said...

Please excuse me if what I have to say does not relate directly to the subject. But I thought this would be a good space to get Joe's and your attention to what my school (St Stanislaus, Bandra) is doing some hard thinking upon. The trend today is for parents who can afford to put their children into schools adopting the ICSE or CBSE or IB system. Mine being a SSC school (it was Joe's too for a few years), more and more middle and upper middle class parents have stopped admitting their boys to this school. This has defeated one of the basic principles of the school which is to be a place where boys from all sorts of backgrounds learn to socialy intermingle. The school has started a sort of think-tank to draw up a vision for the school and chart the way forward towards fulfilling the vision. Anyone interested to be a part of the think tank?

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Princess: A think tank is a fabulous idea. In practice, this blog's respondents already constitute one at an informal level. I'd be happy to be a part of it. The think tank will eventually work its way upstairs and communicate the concepts to policymakers. As you surely know, such think tanks are common and revered in the West, such as the Higher Education Policy Institute in England.

And muchas gracias for sharing the school perspective -- an area of expertise I cannot myself claim, aside from having been a victim myself. To my mind the biggest problem with our school education is precisely what you've pointed out--that kids of 16 are made to make career choices (so guess who on their behalf makes them really).

Please read the following study:
Although dated, the Urbana-Champagne experiment is important for the Indian educator (albeit--alas--it naively presumes that five years are enough to turn around a deeply embedded system and psychological makeup). It is also an important allegory for what education should be recognized as: an investment for which a student seeks returns.

Mr. Kulkarni: Thanks again. I would be elated if our entire education system from school up transforms itself, whereby schoolkids are allowed the choice to continue to explore their fields of inquiry before committing themselves to one, whereby a classroom at the higher ed level is a platform for sharing insights and creating new bodies of knowledge, and where meaningful academic exploration fortifies the analytical part of a student's brain. I truly wish Joe's blog will be one of the important platforms to build our campaign on, and further spread it.

But change need not wait until that happens. An experiment has already happened at the Indira School--but such experiments must be sustained by those who deeply understand this concept and can implement it.

For example, can a few teachers start a small change? When formulating their syllabi, rather than teach subjects in a vacuum, they could explain to the student WHY it is important for them to learn that subject--and then provide constant linkages between that subject and others. (eg., How does Statistics connect with advertising? How about History with journalism?)

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Ilidio: I would love to be a part of any think tank that can accomplish desirable change. The school sounds very progressive in its ideas, and supports the fact that a few schools are trying to make the difference. I can't see too many colleges or postgrad institutions doing so.

veersen said...

Dear Shashi, you are indeed right :). My experience did change drastically at college. We did wonder (as you rightly asked in your post) "Why are we learning what we’re learning?" Unfortunately, we couldn't find a specific answer to this. And like Joe Sir told in his experience on being nudged into science, we too found ourselves at a point of no return during graduation. My friends and me managed to earn a degree without much getting into our heads. We ended up having degrees in subjects we were not interested in. I am sure all of us can do something about interdisciplinary education.

feddabonn said...

stumbled on this link, and thought it was quite relevant to this discussion!

feddabonn said...

...and this!

ok, ok, i'll stop now :)

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Feddabonn, Thanks a lot for those interesting links. Buber's (and other thinkers'--such as Kant and Burbules) existential thought is one of the interpretations of dialogue in education--and well practised in Europe and America.

But here is the dampener: As a guest columnist (a Boston University Education prof) in The Hindu pointed out, "What happens eventually to all the experimental schools? Where are they?" The essence of his argument that unless we "mainstream" innovation, it won't survive in the big bad world. That is why, he maintains, public institutions have a much better chance of transforming themselves into centres of excellence.

I hope he is wrong on that one. :)

Veersen, Would love to be in touch and discuss the interdisciplinary concept more.

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

I will be speaking at an international conference on management education technology in Bangalore July 29-30 ( Those of you in the region may consider attending--the conference sounds important--but there is a fee. At this event, I will be building on the concept of “education as communication” as a workable basis for innovative academic methodology. My paper introduces the concept of “bidimensional (two-way symmetrical) communication” as an ultimately desired goal in academic input. Using the example of interdisciplinary studies, it substantiates the case for how new approaches in pedagogy will help our professional graduates be globally competitive.

I'd be happy to share my paper once it is presented.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Many a times I feel this acute sense of loss for not being able to pursue psychology and english literature because I also wanted to study sciences. I had to make a tough choice and I still keep trying to fill that void by counselling friends and reading classic novels.
Only if I could afford to be a student again! :)

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah said...

Thanks, Lilmorethanamommy (although I am sure you're a lot more than that), and everyone else for your comments. Your responses have been truly encouraging as well as thought-provoking, and has also served as a second round of informal research for my own institute-to-be. This is the kind of interaction I wish we could have in our classrooms. The only challenge now is to "mainstream" our ideas and not remain an "alternative".

Thank you very much, Joe, for this opportunity.

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