Child-A seed or a weed?

This article was published in the April’2008 of the Education magazine Educare

Right education

Enforcing a standard system of education on children to whom it does not apply can be disastrous

On March 17, 2008, The Times of India reported that a total of 5,857 students committed suicide in the year 2006. According to national crime bureau statistics, of this 5,628 students were below the age of 30. In my previous article on the subject in March 2008, I was not aware of the statistics and one really wonders what the overall trend over the years has been. In the previous article, I had mentioned some small practical steps that the government has been taking to ease the exam tension. That apart, since a lot of competition is for admission in educational institutions, the government should seriously contemplate inviting foreign universities or whatever it takes to increase the number of educational institutions. In the same NCRB statistics, it is given that farming related suicides in 2006 were 17,060. If the government can waive Rs 60,000 Cr for farmers in the recent union budget even if it represented vote bank politics, they can surely do something for the students.

The previous article ended with how the education system does not cater to the kinesthetic learner or people who prefer to learn through a more hands on approach. An article on boosting brain power in the Readers Digest divided learners into several IQ groups — the bottom five per cent with a risk of not functioning in society, the next 20 per cent ‘slow learners’; the middle 50 per cent hands-on types who learn better on the job than in the classroom; the next 20 per cent potential leaders. The last category was of the successful five per cent that were the best brains or thinkers. It seems that in spotting the last two categories or the cream, the education system converts the dream of the rest into a nightmare.

As stated above, many people prefer learning by doing or application and to have a standard education system for different kinds of learning or assessing styles is fundamentally wrong. That apart, in practical life, it is application alone that matters and the education system should be more application oriented instead of testing knowledge and memory, which, in any case is a little out of place in the internet era. In an India Today article a few years ago, professor Yash Pal, eminent scientist and chairman of the Steering Committee for Curricular Reform, said, “Technology has provided the means of recording and retrieving information at will. It is stupid for us to want students to do that. We must make exams in such a way that it does not bank on memory but emphasises thinking capability and understanding.” That depends a lot on the individual learning style of the student apart from aptitude.

Bill Gates puts it very profoundly in his book, Business at the speed of thought: “Technology makes it easier to scale classes to age and ability and individualise learning. About fifty major theories attempt to characterise individual learning styles. All people have different levels of aptitude and different personalities and life experiences that may motivate or demotivate them to learn. PCs can help change the learning experience from the traditional approach, a teacher instructing in front of the class room to a more hands-on approach that takes advantage of the natural curiosity of all ages.” Though Gates is talking more in the context of how the PC and the internet can be used to enhance learning , his emphasis on a more hands on approach or an approach that makes learning easier and interesting for different types of children is clearly evident.

Our education system seems to stick to traditional methods of teaching and assessing, which is perhaps in their own interest. George Bernard Shaw said: “Those who can, teach, else they do”. Steve Nordby improved upon that quote by saying: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach. Those who can’t teach train teachers. Those who can’t train teachers write teacher training textbooks.” In some ways, it seems that teaching is more geared to fulfil the needs of the teacher to teach rather than customising what is taught to the learning style of the students.

Here, the role of kith and kin of the students also have a role to play. I had on one occasion discussed student suicides with one of Delhi’s top nuero-psychiatrists who had pamphlets in his reception on how to spot a potential suicide from a variety of reasons. Where students are concerned, he said, “The problem in India is that everybody considers themselves an expert on all sorts of issues. When the person concerned himself has a lot of problem determining his own potential, where is the need for everyone to give an opinion?” People have tendencies to make comparisons with others and offer judgments like ‘excuses’ or ‘attitude problem’, which maybe far from the truth, which may have more to do with the individuality of the person concerned.

Recently, I completed a one week ‘Training the Trainer’ programme from the Indian society for training and development. While I was contemplating joining the programme, I asked the programme director, Major General Dhir, the difference between the one-week programme and an eighteen-month diploma on the same subject. He promptly replied, “In the diploma, the focus is more on the subject and the knowledge. In the one week course, the focus is more on the individual and skills.” In other words, the workshop was more application oriented. I could not help wondering whether or not what Major General Dhir said was the bane of the education system. We are required to answer a questionnaire referring to notes and outside books, write a dissertation followed by a video recording of six hours of training. This may not suit all subjects but is a far more practical method of assessment. Testing memory puts unnecessary stress on the students and does not really test their potential. Therefore, it is a loss both ways. Training is clearly a more hands-on approach than teaching and probably suits a lot of students.

I have myself come across several people, who, though not qualified MBAs have better functional talent. Here is an example of one such hands-on learner, Suvir Behl, a shares trader and investor who did very well in practical life despite not doing that well academically. In his own words: “After completing my graduation in 1998, I completed a course at National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in the year 2000, after which I tried for a couple of jobs in the garments sector, but they did not appeal to me. Since my maternal grandfather had been a very good and successful investor, the stock markets had always been a fascination. I started in the stock markets in a small way in 2001, by investing small sums of money both for me and my immediate family. Initially, there were times when I lost money but they were more in the nature of teething troubles and learning experiences. In my view, the failures are as instrumental for consistent long term success as knowledge or intelligence. I started reading extensively about the markets and the various companies I invested in. I learnt a lot and consider myself reasonably successful today. From the seed capital with which I started , my portfolio has multiplied several times, and my clientele is improving quantitatively and qualitatively every year.”

He added: “Though never short of confidence, I was an average student throughout school and college. I feel that to be successful in life, deep interest and knowledge about one’s profession which comes by experience and basic practical in intelligence is more important than degrees. In my own case, though I never attended any formal course in the stock market, the broad reading fuelled by my natural interest queered the pitch for success.”

I must add here that following Suvir’s footsteps is not recommended. The stockmarket has also proved to be extremely dangerous for certain other youngsters. The broker confirmed that Suvir was a good investor and a success as a trader which is more an exception than the rule.. Trading psychology itself advocates that one should discover one’s niche and style instead of blindly acquiring knowledge. I found Suvir equally if not more resourceful than some of other well known and more qualified traders.

In my previous article, I mentioned about my friend AK, who got several double promotions and went on to establish businesses of his own. In my last meeting with him, he mentioned that in his engineering college, one of his friends, RG was the topper but in real life he invited AK to join his company as finance was not his cup of tea and AK had better all round practical intelligence. AK also mentioned that a few months back a relatively less qualified but street smart businessman could prove to be a tough competitor but qualifications can make a very good first impression. However, if degrees are not backed by performance, they can flatter to deceive. There is another friend of ours who is a chartered accountant by qualification but does not seem to be doing well either in that profession or the businesses that he has tried so far.

In recent times, two men who have done really well in real life without commensurate educational achievements are Sunil Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Telecom and Naresh Goyal, chairman of Jet Airways. Amitabh Bachchan and Kishore Kumar had no real formal training in their respective fields but both were outstanding successes in their chosen professions. In a recent book Dhirubhaiism, the author, AG Krishnamurthy states: “Dhirubhai could see skills in us we never knew we had.” The author further states that in following Dhirubhai’s philosophy, as chairman of Mudra advertising , he went to talented newcomers instead of tried and tested superstars and reaped rich dividends. It is ultimately functional and practical talent that matters more in the real world than anything else.

In a recent book Be Inspired, the author, a Sydney-based Indian, Amber Ahuja has given each of the above in detail in the form of worksheet skills and abilities assessment directions. Giving Indian examples, the same book also states at four give different places how critical it is to identify one’s career correctly early in life for long term success. That need not be necessarily reflected in one’s qualifications. Morgan and Banks have also stated that niche individuals or those who are good at few things should even be more particular about choosing the right career. What happens to those who are not able to do so?

I had written my first article on career misfits in life. Though I had titled it ‘The essence of true education’, the editor after finding the content too strong, changed it to “Don’t settle for less than a calling”. Thereafter, I have regularly come across 2-3 US-based websites every year, which talk of frustration in the wrong career even, if, in some cases it pays off well. One website I came across last week is UK centric and is called . Some of the terms used in this website like switch doctors, switch surgeries apart from giving ‘inspiring real life stories’ also reflect the magnitude of the problem. Several career coaches or switch doctors have written several articles on the subject. Some of them are drastic career switches from what they were earlier doing or qualified.

One of the links from this site leads to escape-club the objective of which reads something like this: “Are you a successful professional, but bored or unhappy with your work? Do you want to be more fulfilled and feel that your work actually has an impact? We believe that you can ‘escape’ to work that is meaningful, and want to help you a identify what is the work that would bring you more fulfilment and overall happiness, create an action plan to help you get the work.” It really reminds me of the movie The great escape. In one cover story of Fortune magazine, one executive was quoted as saying, “You get to the top of the ladder and find that maybe it’s leaning against the wrong building.”. This clearly shows that just being well qualified and reaching the top does not lead to the kind of personal fulfilment that should normally be the end result of by product of success. There is plenty of evidence to show that in the long run, people look more for meaningful work than mere monetary reward. Reminds one of the interesting saying “Work is what you do to make the money to do what you really want to do.”

One has to be able to identify one’s true calling as early as possible. IIM Lucknow professor, Debashish Chatterjee in his book Break free states that to identify one’s true talent, one has to go back to one’s school days and determine what activity they enjoyed the most during leisure, to find out whether one could carry out this activity for a long period of time and determine whether or not this activity made you truly happy. Professor Chatterjee’s views are in congruence with what many American psychologists have to say on the subject. The teacher’s role should be geared more towards this when a child is more in the seed form rather than blindly stuffing knowledge.

One wonders if the biblical parable of the sower and the seed can be applied to different kinds of individuals in terms of their learning styles and how a standard education system can be redundant. In the parable it is said that some seeds scattered by the farmer fell on the wayside and were devoured by the birds; some fell on stony places where they could not build sufficient root and withered when the sun shone; some fell among thorns, which grew up and choked them but some fell on good ground where they grew and bore fruit. A child is like a seed and this is what can happen to the seed if it falls in the wrong place in terms of a wrong career and of the wrong learning style that has been vividly described above. Once again, the words of Wipro chairman Azim Premji come to mind. Imagine a school, which sees children as seeds to be nurtured — here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child. This is very different from the current view, which sees the child as clay to be moulded where the teachers and parents are potters deciding what shape the clay should take.” Enforcing a standard education system on children to whom it does not apply is bound to have disastrous results. There is an old Chinese saying, “Give a seed to a potter and you shall have a bonsai.”

From the suicide statistics, it almost seems that instead of a seed, a child is treated like a weed in our society. About 2,500 years ago, Socrates said that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. According to Prof Chatterjee, the difference between a candle and a flame is the difference between a resource and a source. A resource reduces when shared and a source gets augmented when shared. A candle is a good source but is burnt out. On the other hand , a flame can alight a million other flames, which is what can happen in the long run when a seed is given the right kind of environment.


2 Responses

  1. Not that I’m totally impressed, but this is more than I expected for when I stumpled upon a link on SU telling that the info is quite decent. Thanks.

  2. :-; that seems to be a great topic, i really love it ,*,

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