Image used for representation.
Image used for representation.

All rote and no learning makes jack a dull boy

He also indicated that to solve problems and overcome hurdles they would work in teams that had experts from various disciplines.

A few days ago, I had occasion to engage in a very interesting conversation with a retired space engineer who has spent most of his working life designing and working on some of the most fascinating space vehicles at NASA. He had taken his first degree in engineering from India. I was not surprised to hear that he had not needed or used more than about 10 per cent of his engineering knowledge from his first degree. He averred that for most of his work as a space scientist, he had to devise innovative and ingenious solutions for the various problems that needed to be sorted out to make things work.

He also indicated that to solve problems and overcome hurdles they would work in teams that had experts from various disciplines. The knowledge needed to solve their problems came from brainstorming sessions and from learning about things that they felt they would need. The point to be imbibed from the above is that, more often than not, our educational institutions teach too much about things that are not relevant or are not likely to be needed by students.

This is true of most educational programmes in most Indian universities and higher educational institutions. For instance, at the University of Delhi, there are—by a rough estimate—about 5,000 students at the undergraduate level studying mathematics for an honours degree. All are being taught some very technical and mostly advanced theoretical mathematics. The themes and topics that are prescribed would be really interesting and useful if the student were a potential Ramanujan i.e. if the student wanted to be a research mathematician, or at the very least, a teacher of mathematics. The tragedy is that almost 95 per cent of these students are not going to make use of the mathematics being taught to them except perhaps for things such as to clear competitive examinations.

I have not been able to figure out after all these years just how much of this rote learning of mathematics for competitive examinations helps make better civil servants of those who have been through tortuous and interminable hours of forced learning. In any case, the percentage of those who do make it through such examinations is negligible compared to the overwhelming numbers that do not succeed. And so, once again, we end up wondering about the need and use of such ‘learning’. This has been happening for decades. I used the example of mathematics purely to illustrate a situation that prevails in almost all our disciplines.

Some weeks back, I was speaking with a large number of undergraduates at a well-known regional university run by the government of the state where the university is located. These were bright and earnest freshmen and sophomores, but most of them confessed that they had entered the university aware and resigned to the fact that they would be ‘wasting’ the next three years of their lives.

They felt that getting a university degree was a sort of necessary evil. This is symptomatic of the fact that we are essentially taking away some very important and formative years from the lives of these students without giving them meaningful experiences in return. The one thing most of these students said was that they gained far more from interacting and rubbing shoulders with their peers than they did in the classrooms.

It is in this context that I see so much reason for optimism if we can implement the National Education Policy (NEP) in the right manner and spirit. Much of what I am decrying above can be taken care of if the NEP is put in place and practiced in the manner that it is intended.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

Posts on X: @DineshSinghEDU

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