What should be the objective of education today?

Hello Reader,
Hope you’re having a good day :)

We all tell ourselves a story about our lives. This narration very often is a little different from the holistic truth. It the what lets us be at ease with ourselves, our decisions and the society around us. Rohit, my friend is a 23-year-old mobile application developer at Infosys. This is what he tells himself.

I have always wanted to be an Computer Science engineer. I was good at Science & Maths and engineering was the obvious path. I made the decision to study engineering myself. I was interested in event management, but my dad told me it’s a blue collar job. And it took me a while, but now I agree with him. The education loan I took for this 4 year engineering (INR 12L) was the right investment. After I finish my 6 month training (?? 12 years school + 4 years engineering ??), I will earn INR 20,000 a month. It’s not much, but it is something. I will then pick up special skills from coaching institutes so that I become a manager. I will then get people to push code, rather than push code myself.

This is what I told Rohit
Rohit. I’m really happy that you have a positive outlook on life. You are doing so much better than thousands of engineers who sit and lament about the life that happened to them. I hate to break a bubble, but the decision to become an engineer was not your own. It was a function of the society you live in and the education system you have been a part of. It was because Indian media glorifies that one kid who got a 1.5 Cr package out of a batch of 1,000. They never tell you about the rest or the average. It was because of aggressive marketing by IITJEE coaching institutions that ensured FOMO hit your parents where it hurt most (future of their kids). It was because of an entire generation’s ignorance towards birth control measures, leading to cut-throat competition for all opportunities.

Before you judge me for being a pessimistic, depressed engineer, I must tell you I am a digital product designer and I love my job. Also, I don’t have a friend called Rohit. But, if you’re from India, you must have met several Rohits.

I want to question 2 aspects of the Indian Education System that baffle me:

1. Why do we teach skills that fail to prepare us for our lives?
2. Why don’t we appreciate individuality, and build on it?

Let’s talk about them one by one.

1. Why do we teach skills that fail to prepare us for our lives?

“In India, you figure out what you want to do after you do engineering.”
My personal network contains 90% of engineers. These are people from the so-called premier institutes of India. Less than 50% of them are pursuing a career in what they studied for 4 years.

Okay, so some kids are confused.
How about the ones who want to pursue a job in engineering? How are they faring?
It is well-accepted that the Indian education system emphasizes rote learning and competitive examinations over real problem-solving.

Hmm... So, at least those 6% of graduates who go to top 10 IT companies have it good.

Sadly NO.

An engineering graduate from BITS Pilani (did not want to be disclosed) got an on-campus placement of INR 31 Lakhs per annum at Oracle. He remembers having to learn app development from scratch at the training camp inside Oracle. His is not a solitary case. Good companies pick these kids out of premier colleges and pay them crazy salaries. They are picked not because they possess the required skills for the job, but because they have really fast learning curves.

And what makes this sadder is that this starts at the grassroots.

During my school/competitive examination phase, I remember mugging up hundreds of chemical reactions. I remember studying about mechanisms. I remember studying endless laws of physics, without bothering to understand how or where they get applied. All that were interesting things to learn. The problem is, I never ended up applying any of those in real life.

These are skills I believe are critical for everyone irrespective of what profession they are in :

In Indian schools, some of these skills come packaged under co-curricular activities. Only the best students have the privilege to learn these. The “mediocre” ones are only getting graded on chemistry, maths, and history.
If you want to pick up some of these other skills, you must learn it on your own. And the tireless hours of homework and examination preparation leave no time to explore.

2. Why don’t we appreciate individuality, and build upon it?

Imagine a 5th-grade Maths classroom. There is one kid who gets 28 on 30 every week. There is another kid who gets 6 on 30 every week. They both get the same training, the same homework and the same test next week. They get the same attention from the teacher. No, wait. The former gets positive attention. The latter gets negative attention. Does any of that help the kid who gets 6? My guess is no. It probably affects him emotionally, in a negative way.

Let’s teach a dolphin how to jump from one tree to another, like a monkey. Give him 5 points for each successful jump. Give him 0 for a failed one. If we keep doing this, one day the dolphin will successfully jump from one tree to another.

Why is education so generalized?
Biology tells us that all of us are different. The probability of finding someone with the same genetic composition as is close to 0.
Add on to that, the unique set of environments and experiences that have shapes us.
We behave differently when exposed to the same stimuli.
We look different and speak differently.
The intensity of us all feeling the same emotions is different.
We are attracted by different objects/ideas/people.
We come from different economic backgrounds and have different ambitions.

I have an evolutionary psychology perspective on this too.
This is a diagram by the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. It’s called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

This pyramid represents the number of people in our society that are fulfilling one or different types of needs through their actions. As you move up the pyramid, the number of people decreases. For an individual, these are not linear steps in a ladder. An individual is capable of moving through these, at will.

Let’s take the three most common professions from 1950–2000 and try to guess what needs were people working in these professions fulfilling? :
1. Businessmen — Basic needs.
2. Government services — Basic and psychological needs.
3. Social services — Basic and psychological needs.

Compare that to the ambitions of an average teenager today. You see aspirations like an entrepreneur, a social activist, a comedian, a musician, a gamer, a movie star, a model, a sportsperson, an artist…

Internet penetration is enabling more and more people to fulfill their self-actualization needs. An average youth today gets their inspiration from Instagram and their tutorials from Youtube.

Which is very much in line with evolutionary psychology. This is the way our society needs to move. And it is our duty, to enable our future generations to become the people they want to. There is this famous quote that comes to my mind.

Rising economic stability and security enables us to be artists now, it’s our education system that lets us down.

So, do I have a solution?

Nope.
But, I have a direction.

If you go by goal-driven design, you’d think the present system is designed empathizing with institutions.
1. Military — Uniforms, short haircuts, P.T. sessions, discipline, memorization and competing against each other.
2. Research — Exposing students depths of physics, chemistry, biology.
3. Premier educational institutes —Developing a competitive mindset from an early age. Testing rigorously on analytical skills like Maths & Physics.

India is one of the most remarkable cases of social gamification of an entire generation of students. And the media has had a very strong role to play in this.

I believe the solution lies in disrupting the grassroots education system, this time empathizing with humans too.
Can we design a system that focuses on health, wealth and happiness of all actors involved (students, teachers, parents)?

My utopian education system is:
1. Individualized — Based on the unique psychological profile of a student, his inclinations and economic background.
2. Progressive — Based on the student I was yesterday. Let students compete against what themselves.

Our new system has to be unique. It needs to grasp the local context and ambitions of the next global superpower. Maybe we can borrow some good things from some places that are doing things differently :

  1. Finnish education system — There is an emphasis on play time. Kids are not given any homework. Kids are made to work on problems together to inculcate interpersonal skills. Concepts are taught in a holistic way e.g. A 6th grader would learn about World War II from the perspective of :
    a. What happened politically?
    b. What art/literature was written during this period?
    c. What scientific discoveries were made? How were they applied? And more…
  2. Himalayan Institute of Alternatives — The education ensures that the local population learns concepts that fit the unorthodox physical terrain and lifestyle of the cold desert of Ladakh. Kids are taught tourism management, environmental conservation and more. There is an emphasis on scientific developments to aid the local population e.g. An ice stupa that can keep water hot in -40 degrees Celsius and does not run on electricity.

How can you, a reader, help?

If you’ve come so far, I’ll go with the assumption that you believe these problems exist.

You can help by doing these 2 things:

  1. I would love to hear your thoughts on :
    a. What things should kids be learning?
    b. What else is wrong with the education system?
    c. Where in the world are people doing good things we can borrow inspiration from?
  2. Help me ask these questions to the decision makers.
    Share this article with :
    a. Indian citizen frustrated with his own education.
    b. Indian parent interested in progressive education for his kid.
    c. Entrepreneurs doing something in edtech.
    d. Indian education ministry officials.

Oh, and if you liked the article, some claps would help too :)

You can reach me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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