Friday, May 27, 2011

Kotage Industry?

The Indian Express carried an editorial "The 10,000 hour rule" (Friday, May 27, 2011) about the Indian Institutes of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) and the throbbing, humming coaching industry in Kota, Rajasthan.

I write this as a person who was once "world-class" (whatever that means) but is now mediocre. That is, I am a computer science graduate from an IIT (26 years ago) and now teach at one (for the last 17 years).

For the IIT system, the enormous mind space that the IITs and the JEE occupy in the consciousness and aspirations of children (and their parents) across the country is good news, for it ensures that the brightest minds aspire to study at these institutions. What we do with these bright minds is a matter currently being hotly debated (but is certainly a matter of great concern to the more thoughtful of my colleagues).

The editorial is correct in stating that there are several heart-warming stories about children from small towns making good on their dreams of getting into an IIT. They have been able to prove themselves at the national level by excelling in an exam that has (so far) avoided being compromised by the worst that ails the country. (I am not however stating that the JEE is a terrific, infallible examination.) Indeed, one of the strengths of the IITs (perhaps due to the entrance test) is that they are remarkably egalitarian, and have been successful in bringing together a very diverse (by almost all social measures) set of students. Further, the institutes are able to treat all their students as equals, and have been instrumental in admitting people who may have had several social disadvantages into an elite, without falling prey to the follies of elitism.

However, this obsession with getting into an IIT comes with a fair share of curses. Some of them have serious social implications which need addressing, but I do not discuss here the despair that afflicts those who do not make the cut in the IIT-JEE.

Let us look instead at what this obsession does to the IITs and the JEE itself. To cater to the large number of aspirants, the examination has become one with Multiple Choice Questions, a format mistakenly called "objective". What such an examination cannot measure is a deep understanding of concepts and how to apply them creatively; nor can it test students on formal proofs and rigorous mathematical/scientific communication. It tends to favour formulaic questions, for which there can be coaching. And this is the real bane of our education systems. Coaching students to "crack an exam" has become a substitute for teaching and learning. It is perhaps worthwhile being reminded that one cannot get coached for creativity, innovation and the generation of knowledge (or even what is described by that abominable phrase "intellectual property"), since these aspects of life do not come with "cheat codes" that can be perfected. And these are precisely the capabilities we expect of the products of our top educational institutions. I'm tempted to guess that the alumni who have made the IITs proud would have gotten in, excelled and gone on to excel in their professions without any coaching.

The Kota phenomenon, where 50,000 students migrate there for two or more years, often with one or both parents, may be sociologically interesting, but is at the expense of the school system. Have the editorial writers of The Indian Express closely looked at what transpires at schools in that city? Moreover, this kind of intense coaching severely distorts the lives of these young people, robbing them of their adolescent years, and of other facets of life. Students who spend 10-12 hours a day, sinking in Rs 200,000-300,000 on tuitions turn out to be not well rounded, not well read, rather sedentary and with poor social skills and graces. They have been brainwashed into a phony notion of their excellence based on a one-time performance in an examination which they have "gamed", not by virtue of their innate abilities and creativity at solving problems. Some years ago, when the issue of caste-based quotas came up, I was not sure whether Quota posed any harder challenges to our pedagogical methods and standards than the Kota phenomenon did.

I have not conducted a scientific study on this matter, and my information is informal and anecdotal, gleaned from conversations with students. Of the approximately 100 computer science majors at IIT Delhi whom I teach in each batch (all drawn from the top 0.1 percent of JEE aspirants) relatively few are from Kota; moreover, if one considers those who have performed extremely well up till their senior year ("the A grade students"), those from Kota form a negligible number. This is perhaps not very surprising, since a good computer scientist requires abstraction and analytic abilities as well as the capacity to synthesize, and moreover should be able to work with rigorous formalisms and express himself or herself in precise formal language. I am not sure the so-called objective entrance examination for which students have been coached correlates well with these abilities.

May I also remind the editorial writers that the "10,000 hour rule", articulated in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and to which the title of the editorial alludes, is a necessary condition for genius, not a sufficient one? Indeed, when teaching Logic, I find that this distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions, which was so obvious to my class some years back, is increasingly difficult to convey to this class of hyper-coached supposed geniuses. Perhaps there is a simple explanation --- Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule applies to obsessive practice at something constructive, not "cracking exams".