On Schooling

Usually I’m quick to defend the school where I studied between 1986 and 1998. I made lots of good friends there and generally had a good time. Of late, however, in discussions on schooling, I find myself mention teachers from that school who I considered particularly horrible, mostly for their method of teaching.

Yesterday I was chatting with a classmate from this school who now works in the education sector, and she happened to mention that she considered her schooling to be mostly “a waste” and that she didn’t learn too much there. And I quickly concurred with her, saying all that I had learnt was at home, and school didn’t teach me much. So what explains my love for the school even though they might not have done a great teaching job?

From 1998 to 2000, I went to another school, where again they didn’t teach much, and instead assumed all of us went to JEE factories which would teach us anyway. What made things bad there, though, was that they didn’t treat us well. That school had a strict disciplinary code which was enforced more in letter than in spirit. Teachers there had a habit of loading us with homework, calling us for Saturday classes and having surprise tests. The problem with School 2 was that not only did they not teach well, but they also made life miserable in several other ways. The only redeeming factor for that school was the truckload of interesting people I got to meet during my two years there.

So what explains my love for School 1 despite the fact that they didn’t do a great job of teaching? The fact that they treated us well, and left us alone. The uniform wasn’t very strictly enforced, as long as you wore blue and grey. The school had an explicit “no homework” policy. Exams happened only according to schedule and there were few assignments. Even in class 10, we had three “periods” a week dedicated to “games” where we played volleyball or basketball rather than wasting our time in “PT”. Teachers were mostly very friendly and the atmosphere on the whole was collaborative and not so competitive.

My friend might think she “wasted” her 10 years in the school because she didn’t learn much there, but I argue that it was better than her going to another school where she wouldn’t be treated as well and where her life wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

Common kids versus coaching factories

Given that I can consider it as my “specialist subject” I continue to comment on entrance exams. Glanced through an article about changes in medical entrance exams today in the newspaper, which talked about “eliminating negative marking”, and also talked about having a common entrance exams for all colleges (didn’t read in enough detail to figure out the details).

Now, when you have a broad-based entrance exam which is supposed to cater to people of varying backgrounds, there is a need to keep it simple. There is a need to announce a “syllabus”, and stick to it. And to pre-announce a format which will allow students to prepare adequately for the exam. The problem with this, however, is that it plays right into the hands of coaching factories, whose influence the examiners want to try and reduce. Given a syllabus and a format, it becomes easier to cram for an exam without understanding fundamentals, and this is what coaching schools want.

When the format of the examination is unknown, it becomes harder to “prepare for the exam”, and all one can do is to “prepare the concepts”. In theory, a random examination format allows the examiner to examine concepts better, and doesn’t give unfair advantage to people who go to coaching factories.

That makes me wonder if the attempt to make heavily-coached entrance exams “easier” (this applies to IIT admissions also) can be explained with a baptists-and-bootleggers argument. The baptists in this case are the inclusionists, who want to keep entrance exam papers simple and reasonably deterministic so that “common kids” are not disadvantaged. The bootleggers are the coaching factories, since a deterministic exam will make it easier to coach and thus increase their demand.

For the same reasons, the move to using board exam scores for IIT admissions is daft. Board exams are inherently designed to make people pass, which means they have a defined syllabus and a deterministic format. Use of that for something as competitive as IIT admissions is only going to play into the hands of coaching factories.

JEE Results

Exactly ten years ago, they used to give a sum total of 3400 ranks for IIT-JEE. Typically, to get an engineering branch at one of the “big 5” IITs you needed to be in the early 2000s or better. Back then, there were ~40 people from Bangalore who made it to the merit list (I’ve forgotten the exact numbers but if I remember right, at least 30 people from Bangalore JOINED some IIT or the other). About 1.2% of all successful candidates back then were from Karnataka (for IIT/JEE purposes Bangalore = Karnataka since there are no other centres in the state).

JEE results for this year came out yesterday. Most of the second page of today’s The New Indian Express is spent in giving footage to people from Bangalore who got a rank. This year, they gave out 13,100 ranks, of which 58 were from Bangalore – 0.5% of all successful candidates. And you have the New Indian Express which puts the headline “City Students crack IIT by the dozen”. Yeah, five dozen out of thirteen kilopeople is worse than three dozen out of three kilopeople. But anyway…

Back in my days, there was one decently established factory and a couple of fledgling factories in Bangalore. The established factory (a small scale industry by national standards) had 100 students, of which over 30 got ranks in the JEE (and about 20 actually joined IIT). Today the same factory has some 500 students. And surely not more than 58 of its students could have cleared the JEE! And then there are several other factories in the city. Don’t know if any of them have done significantly well.

Madness. Sheer madness. I had written about this before.

Postscript: I must admit there is a small bit of hotteuri (stomach burn) at the amount of footage toppers get nowadays. Back then, it was an advertisement by the coaching factory in all major English dailies in the city, and little else.

Postscript2: This post might sound like one old thatha sitting in his armchair and ranting. It is meant to be that way.

Wasting Youth

Nowadays everyone seems to be preparing for JEE. It is almost as if it is a logical progression to join some JEE coaching factory once you are done with 10th standard. Yeah, the numbers were quite large in my time (~10 yrs back) itself. But they are humongous now, and it is not funny.

Yeah, awareness about IIT and people feeling good about themselves and wanting to go study at India’s best undergraduate institutions is great. It is brilliant. Fantastic. What is not so great, brilliant and fantastic is that tens of thousands of youth are wasting two years of their prime youth trying to mug for an entrance exam in which they stand little chance of doing well.

I just hope I’m not sounding condescending here, but it intrigues me that so many people who have very little chances of making it through the JEE slog so much for it. I think it is due toe the unhealthy equilibrium that has been reached with respect to the exam, which makes everyone waste so much time. Let me explain.

So over the years the JEE has got the reputation of being a “tough” exam. And over the years, maybe due to the way papers are structured or the way factories train people, people have figured out that hard work and extra hours of preparation helps. I could get into studsandfighters mode here but in line with my promise let me try and explain without invoking the framework. And you need to remember that the JEE uses “relative grading” – how well you have done is dependent on how badly others have done.

So if everyone has put in that much extra hard work, you are likely to lose out by not putting in that extra work. And so you increase your effort. And so does everyone else. Yeah this is a single iteration game but still looking at the competition and peer pressure eveyone is forced to raise their effort. Everyone is forced to, to quote the Director of my JEE factory, “work up to human limit”.

Yeah, a few hundred people every year manage to “crack” the system and get through without putting in that much effort. But then their numbers are small compared to the number of people who get admitted, so people who get through based on sheer hard work do tend to get noticed more, and spur other aspirants to work even harder. And so forth.

Yes, there is a problem with a system. Something is not right when a large proportion of youth in the country is wasting away two years of prime youth in preparing for some entrance exam. It is easy to see the fundamental problem – shortage of “really good quality” engineering colleges (I argue that this mad fight for IIT seats shows the gap between IITs and the next level of engineering colleges – at least in terms of public perception). But considering that as given I wonder what we could change. I wonder what we could do in order to save our youth.

As an aside, one thing I’ve noticed about several JEE aspirants is that they don’t give up. I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing – to carry on with the mad fight even if you know that your chances of making it are remote. Yeah I’m sure there is peer pressure and status issues with respect to giving up. But then I suppose I would have a lot more respect for someone who would give up and enjoy life rather than continue the mad fight knowing fully well that his chances are remote.

Looking back, I do regret wasting those two years in mad JEE mugging. Ok I must admit I did have my share of fun back then but still looking back I would have definitely preferred to have not worked so hard back then. And of course I count myself lucky that I got through the JEE and my hard work in those two years wasn’t in vain.