Monday, August 24, 2009

A discussion with Vipul on education systems

After we watched the video of the discussion on education between Hillary Clinton and Aamir Khan on education, Vipul and I had this email discussion. As usual to most of our discussions (most of which are technical discussions in mathematics and some are of this kind) between us over the past 4 years of knowing each other it was highly multi-layered and non-linear, convoluted, cross-referenced and self-referenced and hence this is merely an attempt in releasing to the world an approximately linearized version of that discussion,

To get the obvious legal questions out of the way, when I put up the proposal of making these discussions public Vipul said

"You can feel free to put up the content in this email and previous emails online"

Hillary Clinton shows that she's good at acting. Aamir Khan comes out as a reasonably good politician, but he could do with some improvement. It's interesting to note how Bollywood actors are getting so Anglified in their accent. c'mon, the average issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is more substantive.

Aamir Khan very importantly mentions the importance of cooperative learning versus competitive learning.

This cliche about the importance of cooperative learning versus
competitive learning is like a hundred years old.

When the skill differential between educated and uneducated people
translates to a higher earnings differential, and seats in educational
institutions that train for those "high-skilled jobs" are limited,
competitive learning is a natural outcome. When there is a large
number of job opportunities that depend on education of different
sorts, this "competitive" aspect will reduce.

I agree that given the current scenario competitive learning is the natural outcome.
But I can't agree that competitive learning is the optimal situation.

It is of utmost importance to create job opportunities which harnesses different capabilities and hence will give an incentive to cooperative learning. But to start off the schools can encourage cooperative learing in hope for a better world.

Today the schools since kindergarten tell you day in and out only 1 thing "prepare for the rat race","compete". This destructive education is probably doing more damage to India than Mayawati's building statues or Lalu's scams.

(Especially in Kolkata and why I am apprehensive of getting my sister back to Kolkata's schools whereas the schools in Wardha encourage a more liberal attitude letting the students hone their personal skills)

Competitive learning is definitely is channelizing useful energies into useless activities.

{Like the average amount of time wasted per day in just travelling to the coaching institutes in the life of a normal high school student. I am sure, I could have spent my energies better in high school if I had better opportunities and more information regarding the opportunities and a more sensitive society around me. I used to be too fatigued to do any useful work, by the time I came back home at 8:30Pm having gone out of home at 9AM. 1 month after all my stupid entrance exams were over, I took to a self-training in mathematics for the ISI exam and that time I think I was most productive working on my own at home and not travelling anywhere. For one thing I was enjoying the process of solving challenging mathematical problems and learning advanced mathematics on my own and more importantly I was more focussed because I was doing only 1 subject mathematics day in and out. I learnt and did more useful science in that time than during all my 2 years before that travelling regularly across the ganga to go to those stupid coaching centers. {And I think it is completely because of mental comfort with the format of the exam and the comfortable self-training that I had done that helped me smoothly sail through the ISI exam and interview.}

Aamir also emphasizes on the importance of making teaching a lucrative profession and a socially enviable job and the most respected job. To create an environment where the best of minds want to become teachers. He clearly mentions the reverse scenario happenning in India where people uninterested in teaching but land up in this job because of failure in their wanted job.

Yeah, right. Why should the best of minds want to become teachers? Obviously teachers help society, but so do doctors, engineers, and even particle physicists. It isn't clear that the net benefit that a person generates for society through teaching is greater than through choosing one of the other professions. AK offers no comparison of the
benefits to society between teaching and any other profession.

Second, if learning is so valuable for children, schools should have no problems charging children much higher rates and paying their teachers enough for teaching to be as lucrative a profession as medicine or engineering. In fact, governments have maintained control over both the fees charged by institutions and salaries that teachers can draw, even at such "premier" institutes like the IITs.

I agree with the point that teacher's salaries across India is very low and it needs to be increased. The teaching salaries aren't competitive enough.

It is not just about salary. In India there is absolutely no incentive to learn or share knowledge, sadly even so in the research institutes. The society has to learn to value knowledge and its dispensers. A nation en route development has to first become a strong "knowledge society".

Increasing salaries may be one of the million steps required to achive the above social change.

But I can't agree that the fees across the colleges need to be increased.

Anyway, IITs charge their students quite a high fee which many students coming from various socio-economic backgrounds find hard to pay. And in myriad of colleges that I know there is so much of black-money around that it is apalling! The "cost" of seats in MD courses in some Indian medical colleges in the lucrative subjects like physiotherapy etc is near 20-30 crores! People pay the colleges in 10's of crores to secure a seat for their ward in these departments whereas the students in the merit list don't get the seats.

With so much of disproportionate amount of money floating around in the education system, I can't see a logic to support a further hike in the student fees.

On intuitive grounds I would agree that paying the employed people handsomely might lower the corruption but is there a study which shows that raising the student's fees will have any effect on the black-money floating in the education system?

On more basic grounds we should agree that many students in the IITs find already find it very difficult to pay the fees. I wonder whether this encourages people to go in for MBA after an IIT degree, so that they can "recover" the huge money spent in the entrance process and durng study at IIT!

Atleast I am aware of such thinking in the medical circuit. People who way 20crores for the seat in the medical college. invariably open up posh nursing homes in the big cities targetted at the elite and charge exorbitant rates completely inaccessible to even the upper middle class. These "doctors" are basically trying to recover the money spent in getting the medical degree.

Now the other doctors also want to "compete" with them and start moving into the bigger hospitals which pay more.

At the end of the day there are no doctors who cater to the lower sections of the socity.

Obviously the problem starts at the deeper level that the government is too busy helping AIIMS but hasn't made efforts to open equivalents of AIIMS in the remore corners of India.

One could make a more complicated argument involving social benefits not directly captured by the student ("positive externalities to society") but there isn't anything that special about teaching that generates such positive externalities. Everything does.

It would be foolish to expect that the "positive externalities to society" out of cultivation and sharing of knowledge will be obvious. Had it been so easy to see then 2 Indians 60 years after independence would not have to write these emails to each other!

I can conjecture that a huge positive externality exists but it definitely needs to be rigorously established to be convincing to the larger population.

And please don't say that the doctors and engineers and the MBA's and the IT sector people and the financial sector people are anyway contributing towards the aim of a knowledge society! They are not! Many of them ideally could have but are not. Most of them haven't probably learnt or created a single new concept in their field after their college and what they did in their college is also highly dubious given that we know/hear of the lackadaisical and the corrupt attitude taken even in the best institutes towards education.

Its actually sad that most potential contributors to knowledge and its sharing are NOT in the teaching profession but are in the above fields.

I am not saying that we can dispense with doctors and engineers and the MBA's and the IT sector people and the financial sector people, but we can probably do with a lesser number of them whereas we need to hugely multiply the reach and quality of education in India.

Hillary's mention of the famous research by Howard Gardner of Harvard University on the theory of multiple intelligences and modes of reception. Why the conventional education system is biased towards only 1 form of communication, an approach proven to be hugely ineffective by Howard's research.

Howard's research was pivotal in illuminating the importance of what in psychology is called "kinesthetic teaching"

You can read about it here:

The theory of multiple intelligences is _not_ a widely accepted
theory. For instance:

Smooth-talkers in politics have exploited this theory to somehow argue that different people are "differently abled" (rather than "less abled") and so people who "aren't good at academics" may be "good at
other activities". But the evidence for a number of totally _uncorrelated_ intelligences is non-existent.

It is very difficult to judge whether a person is really incapable in a given particular field or is this person actually grossly less abled in all fields.

This raises the controversial issue as to why should the government spend resources on mentally challenged people. What is the incentive? I had raised this topic once in my blog and I had gotten harsh responses privately and publcily. Ravitej had screamed at me for proposing such a thing!

I am aware of these criticisms. Especially of the lack of data regarding uncorreralated intelligence.

Analysis of standardized tests like GRE,SAT etc have repeatedly shown high degree of correlation (generally >0.6) across the various areas of testing.

Even in my personal experiences I have many times seen that the best students in school in the language subjects is also the same student who does best in mathematics. But not so probably with the sports and performing arts. There is lot of room for debate.

But definitely it is plausible that Ronaldinho is as intelligent with the football as Andrew Wiles is with number theory.

Variation in the manifestation of abilities is definitely completely ignored by the schooling system which is perpetually harping on a unidimensioanl set of skills but again that may be the result of a social pressure to produce employable people where opportunities are less.

She crucially mentioned the importance of bilingual teaching given the multi-ethnic reality of our modern world.
{For a reverse scenario, I am completely incapable of communicating anything non-trivial in my mother tongue . Though I have taken efforts to learn enough of my mother togue to read the best literary works in that language but to explain it to someone, I will have to shift to english. Even when I am teaching my sister, I very soon shift to english as a mode of communication!}

Bilingual has many pluses (and some minuses).

All this pandering to India ("best education in the world") with a straight face just highlights her political skills.

And all this talk about disparity and inequality! For God's sake! Carping about inequality makes it sounds like the better schools and the worse schools are to blame equally for the disparity.

I agree. Thats why I said "looking beyond the media glitz" :)

I don't agree with many of the statements you've made, but I don't have the time right now to air my views. Perhaps I will do so at a later stage. Let me just talk about one point.

You say that fees at the IITs are extraordinarily high and many people find it difficult to pay these fees. This is not true. The annual fees at IITs, if my estimates are correct, are less than what a typical IIT graduate can earn in one month (and what almost all IIT graduates can earn in two months) after graduation, even with a job in India.

Most people from upper middle-class backgrounds can pay these fees easily. But your concern about people from lower middle-class backgrounds and poorer backgrounds is valid. Which is why I suggest that people from lower middle class backgrounds, as well as historically disadvantaged/discriminated against groups be given a combination of tuition discounts and loans, while poor people and those from severely disadvantaged groups be given a tuition waiver. In fact, loan availability should not be a problem for people getting admission in the IITs because the IITs open up so many future educational opportunities.

It is ridiculous that the government subsidizes an IIT education to the tune of more than 60% for people coming from rich backgrounds.

Most private nonprofit institutions in the US, suhc as the University of Chicago, charge tuition rates that are 30-40 times those at the IITs (and 10 times those at the IITs even after adjusting for purchasing power parity). The U of C's annual tuition+compulsory fees come to around $42K. However, they offer complete tuition waivers to people whose parents earn less than $60K and substantial discounts to people earning between $60 K and $100 K. In addition, there are merit-based discounts. In addition, there is ready availability of loans. Despite what you might hear about the "burden of college debt"
in the media in the US, most people pay off their college deby comfortably over the next few years. This includes people who take up relatively low-paying jobs such as teaching and working for NGOs.

You talked of scholarships for the needy in IITs and accessibility of educational loans. I think it is a very subtle point and some of the realities of its implementation needs to be taken into account like

a) I have no objections to scholarships for the needy and its a great idea in parallel to what you said happens in UChicago but then what really happens in the IITs (as I hear from many of my acquaintances there) is that most of the scholarships in the IITs are merit based and hence most of the good students in the batch get them who are rarely ever the needy ones!

It will be politically incorrect to say so but I will stick my neck out so say this that most often the really economically needy ones are not the top performers in the class. It necessarily does not reflect a lack of ability but a lack of exposure and resourcefullness.

We have to ensure that the scholarships retain their meaning by being given to them who are in need of it.

If I take a hard look at it, then I think I was never in really need of the KVPY scholarship. In some sense the govt. wasted its money by giving it to me and that 2.5lakhs could have been better used by giving to one of those many children who can't go to school because of lack of money. At some level I feel guilty.

The part of KVPY that I really needed was that it gave me a ticket into India's best LASER labs and the summer program with Shiraz and the bangalore camp where I met you! The money part of it could have been better used instead of wasting on me.

I think the entire concept of meit based scholarship is non-sense. They will always be gotten by the top students of the big schools in the big cities who anyway don't need it.

Your arguments against black money in colleges confuses the issue of an increase in fees with black money. It is only natural that colleges that keep fees low for most people charge exorbitant fees from people with less merit and more willingness to pay. This is called "price discrimination" and it is often the most efficient way for colleges to make the most money that in turn allows them to provide substantially subsidized service to people with greater merit/need. Priec discrimination is common in the US in many private nonprofit institutions.

I have no opinion per se on the increase in fees in private for-profit colleges. They are only responding to a heavy increase in demand. The solution to the problem is to open new private institutions that compete with them. However, I do strongly feel that the government should allow the IITs to set higher tuition rates, provided that adequate provisions are made for low-income and discriminated-against sections.

Also, your belief that high college tuition forces people into taking jobs that are lucrative to the detriment of the national welfare gets the issue backward. Ricardo, a nineteenth century economist, said, "It is not that the price of corn is high because the rent is high; rather, the rent is high because the price of corn is high." It is not that engineers demand higher salaries because they paid more to get through engineering colleges; rather, it is that parents and students are willing to pay more to get through engineering colleges because of the prospect of higher salaries.

My opinion is that heavy government regulation of teaching institutions has been a major factor in limiting growth in the
education sector. Recently I read a fascinating book by James Tooley, a British person who came to study schooling in Hyderabad, describing the growth of private schools for the poor. Despite running completely as private for-profit schools, lacking any government subsidies, and having to deal with painful regulators, these private schools offered
a consistently superior education to poor children. You can read more of the research in the book "The Beautiful Tree" which is available from The Cato Store as a PDF ( Interestingly, these schools for the poor
_still_ manage to provide scholarships to the poorest of the poor, so the richer poor end up subsidizing the poorer poor. If private schools on top of a shop can do that, surely the IITs can do it too.

Your detestation of the value provided by doctors and engineers speaks of your affiliation with academia. Doctors provide valuable services to patients and get paid accordingly. Coaching institutes often do a better job at teaching stuff than schools. Engineers do a lot of valuable stuff too. It is not at all obvious whether India "needs" more or less of these people. I am rather amused that, sitting in TIFR, you are able to make these pronouncements.

About your opinion regarding the value added to the society by the doctors and engineers etc, I have one thing to say. Yours seems to be a text-book opinion written about an idealist society.

How many medical or engineering innovations have happened in India?
Why are all the equipments in the hospitals and most physics labs in India imported?
Why can't India make a single microchip?
Why can't India make a tera-hertz CRO which would revolutionize experimental physics research in India? (and thanks to US sanctions India can't buy it even)
Why can't India make indigenous equivalents of Intel Pentium processors?
(again US sanctions prohibit India from using them in its satellites which hugely hampers the efficiency of the Indian space missions)
Why can't India make a single cell-phone?
Why can't India even not make a single wireless data tranfer system?
(what is used in India in the cell-phones is far inferior in quality than what is used in Europe. Again due to US sanctions)
Why can't India make a single tera-hertz laser or a spin polarized STM which would revolutionize condensed matter research in India?
Why can't India get its sole synchrotron source at Indore working even after all these years? (India has to pay heavily to european labs to buy "time slots" in their machines)

I hold thousands of the engineers and doctors produced in India responsible for this situation. They have surely made good of themselves but with no foresight about the future of Indian science!

After all this I can't buy your argument that the engineers and doctors are adding a great value to the society! Many of them are working for MNC's with very little thought about how India's dependence on imported technology and crippling sanctions is harming work here.

Definitely some people of these professions are adding to the society but then again they are affecting locally without making any big difference to the national scenario!

It is interesting to note that you lambast the "competitive spirit". But at the same time you detest it when your batchmates "cooperate" to solve homework problems.

I knew you would retalliate about the competitive spirit thing regarding my objection to collaboration in the homeworks. This is again a 2 step reasoning which you missed.

I appreciate collaborative work but my objection was that the evaluation system works independently of the reality that there is collaboration!

You can't have the cake and eat it too!

If at the end of the day there is going to be a numerical evaluation then I am going to stick my neck out to say that I deserve 5 times more marks than them who also did the assignment with 5 people collaborating and I did it alone.

If the system really wants to encourage collaborative work then why not show the guts to get into a system of evaluation which Prof.Sanjeev Arora at Princeton University uses? I really appreciate his stand point about collaboration in homeworks and assignments in his couses

The problems lies somewhere else:

Very often when such problems arise, the prof is incapable of setting classy assignments where they can have the confidence of publicly encouraging collaboration like Prof.Sanjeev Arora does. The profs most often know that a collaborative work will locate the internet resources from where the solutions can be downloaded. As we are all aware in Indian colleges what happens in the garb of collaboration is not cooperative learning but mass copying and internet source locating.

As an instructor of the course, first you need to have a strong knowledge of the subject yourself to allow the merits of collaboration to bloom among your course students without the slip-side of it taking over.

When I become a prof, I plan to adopt Prof.Sanjeev Arora's model.