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September 13, 2019 Friday 11:04:22 AM IST

Art of Learning

Cover Story

NTA chairmanship is only decoratory. There is no particular policy to be made. NTA is conducting a large number of examinations. TCS won the quotation to conduct the examinations. They (TCS) have the largest number of computerised seats (for conducting the examinations) in India for examinations such as NEET, UGC, GMAT, CMAT, JEE, and entrance exams for courses in Architecture, Pharmacy, Agriculture, etc. They provide the hardware and security support. They do a fairly transparent job.

NTA is modelled on the lines of the ETF (Education Testing Facility) in the US. It (the structure) was done before I joined it. 

Assessment in higher education; creativity; rote learning

Creativity can’t be tested. People pretend to test it.


The other statement people generally make is that rote learning is wrong.

Rote learning is necessary; it is good. You must think. I mean, if you mug up and don’t think, it is useless. Rote learning is important because you are diversifying your mind. If you think, you will connect them. Connecting diverse facts is also a very important part of learning. Just like Newton connecting the falling of an apple mathematically.

In religion, you are taught all slokas in rote learning method. in religion, it is done at a young age,  before logic gets in the way, before the kids start to argue that ‘this is not useful to me’ and so on. You teach it and they learn by rote. It is in the back of the child’s mind. Later on, when the child grows up,  the slokas come back to him. At that time, one may see some more truth.

In education, condemning anything completely is wrong. If you are an academic, confessing your ignorance is the starting point for any improvement. Industry (representatives) may not confess their ignorance. Because if one confesses, his competitor will say he is ignorant.


But education is not one-upmanship. What you don’t know, you must confess. What you ought to know and you don’t know, you have to read and come back.Students would also respect you for that.

There are things that you don’t know actually.I think Russel made this analogy. To know is like the volume of a sphere. What you don’t know is thesurface of the sphere. The surface area is a measure of your ignorance. When your knowledge increases, what you don’t know also increases.

The idea is that I am not competing with anybody; I am not competing with the student. I simply go to the class and say what I enjoyed in the subject.

Once, a teacher of Fluid Mechanics at IIT Kanpur told his departmental head that he was unable to cover the subject, the latter told him, “you are not expected to cover, but uncover a part of it”.  That is, the teacher has to explainpart of the subject that he enjoyed.As for the rest, the students will read anyway, because they have to write exam.


Aurobindo had said, ‘Nothing can be taught, you can only be a facilitator of learning’.

In that sense, the entire area of teaching is sharing what you enjoyed. If you enjoy something, you will never forget it.

Old style of assessment

In Nalanda, 20-25 teachers used to sit around one person who was being interviewed.  They asked all kinds of questions.


In every organisation, after 25-30 years, the prevailing system fails.

Every society gets what it deserves, depending on what it values. We pay lip service to education, but we don’t value education.  We value education only insofar as it gets you a job. We don’t value education for its own value.

We have the patronage of learning by kings.  Only the Indian kings patronised learning much more than the kings in the West; the latter were always fighting wars.  In the long run, it was not what you knew, but how much you knew that mattered.

The story of Pukazhenthi and Ottakoothar of the Chola period is relevant.  The latter was much greater scholar than the former.  When they had a debate, Pukazhenthi could not answer many questions. Consequently, Pukazhenthi goes out and almost on the brink of committing suicide, but the king’s daughter runs up to him; she opens the door and says, ‘you are the winner; you said with feeling in whatever you said;  you were speaking from your heart’. That was more important. The point is that what Pukazhenthi knew was beautiful; he believed in what he said.


Assessments could be intrinsically faulty.  The person who is assessing must be far superior to others.

Prospects and problems of assessments

I am putting up with the present assessment system because I don’t know a better method.  Because you are talking of evaluating 13-15 lakh students.  How will you ever do it?  They do it in batches - by setting up question papers in batches which are supposedly equivalent.

On the other hand, what is the accuracy of the assessment? (It is never absolute). But you report the results to the 8th decimal point.


Statistically, it is alright, but several intelligent students may be out of it. Srinivasa Ramanujan, renowned mathematician, wouldn’t have made it, if he were subjected to it.  This is true of any education that standardises and generalises. At the same time, I don’t have a solution. We have reached a situation where the population is high.  And, you need a degree to get a job.

The number of people competing for the degree is very high. The number of people who want to get marks in order to get a job is very high.

We have not created enough number of seats as the number of aspirants.  For example, in the case  of IITs, we stopped after opening 5 IITs initially. Nehru was starting one every year. After his death, the concept too seemed to have faded away.  Then we were sleeping for 30 years.  In 1995, we woke up and got one more IIT at Gorakhpur. That was followed by a few more.

On an analysis of IIT JEE results on an earlier occasion, I found that only 1.2 lakh students wrote the examinations at that time.  Out of that, we found that 15,000 were very good, beyond which there was a drop in the quality.  We should have given admission to all the 15,000.  But we had only 5,000 seats.  When we selected 5000 out of this 15,000, by applying cut-off marks, we were doing injustice to a large number of students.  They were not bad, but they were made worse by such a small margin brought in probably by our error in judgement in applying the cut-off marks. But we had no choice.  So, I told the then union Minister Murli Manohar Joshi that we need three times the number of IITs because these 15,000 are good enough for an IIT kind of education.


IIT education differs in two things.  All the engineering subjects are more science-based.  Secondly, there is a lot of problem-solving. By putting brainy students together, you make the students outshine each other.  That helps.

On entrance exams

Earlier, your parents did not compare you with other children. All that have come now.

The parents have become very competitive; if the children are left to themselves, they will come to terms. They know who is clever; they know who is not clever, but get more marks though parents do not know that. In order to please parents, the students need more marks. He is not doing it for himself; he is not doing it to know more about the subject.That has become a tragedy.


The mistake is that you want everything to be learnt within four years (in professional courses);

With regard to IIT entrance, we don’t conduct a selection exam.  We are conducting an elimination examination because I can’t think clearly, with one lakh students (to be dealt with).  I have got only 5000 seats, or, say now 10,000 seats. For each seat, if there are two or three candidates, I can manage.

So, we make the test harder and harder. That is why coaching classes are thriving. These are social evils.  It is not the question of any particular individual being wrong.

On language, Gurukula system


The fact is that literature has developed in English much wider than regional languages over the past 1000 years.

I don’t think we had a better system in the Gurukula system. In the monastic system, they selected students on the basis of character. We have the old story; I think it is ascribed to Buddha:The king goes to the learned man; he says, I want to be taught. Then, the Guru says, ‘Please go and come back when I am gone’.  The king gets doubtful. ‘How will I be taught after his death?’. Then he thinks about it and realises that ‘I’ means the ego. He comes back to the Guru and asks him, ‘May I learn at your feet?’ The Guru says,‘Sit down’. The idea is you need humility before trying to acquire the power of knowledge.

We had this concept of character.But again, we made a mistake in its practice. Although a person has no (laudable) character, his son may be selected.

On caste system


Everything comes hereditary. Caste is bad. The caste is ascribedaccording to the profession they practise.

Even in the West, they have a caste system. It is ‘varnashrama’, based on the colour of the skin. For example, in the US, the white Anglo Saxon protestant is at the top. Next comes the north Europeans, who have a translucent skin. Then comes the opaque skinned Europeans, followed by Latin Americans, Indians andBlacks.  This is purely based on the colour of the skin.

But If you take the big cities, caste system disappears.  It’s a mix of people there.

Idea of forming a virtual IIT


What I wanted was a virtual IIT.  In India, a virtual IIT will be eventually successful.   I can admit 20,000 in a virtual university every year. That is the scale on which you do things whereas in a brick and mortar university, 1000 is the maximum you can admit.

Now, the question is whether there aresimilar models abroad. No, other countries don’t need it. Other countries have expanded. US has about 150 universities; of them, 50 are good universities.

I proposed the virtual university concept.  When I proposed it, the plan was to conduct 600 courses.  Virtual university is not an open university.  Open university admits anybody and everybody, but virtual university admits students on the basis of an entrance examination.  The fraction that passes out in an open university is 5 or 10 per cent.  That kind of dilution will dilute standards. It doesn’t happen at a virtual university; it is robust and competitive.

In fact, I spoke to 5 big IT companies; all of them agreed that they would do the administration of the virtual university.  That is, they will handle the applications and all that.  The MHRD entrusted the project to IIT Kanpur, but after three years, they rejected the proposal. It is nowhere now.  About 3years ago, they called me and said we will revive it, but I said, ‘please go and find a younger fellow to set it up’.


Facets of leadership

The chancellorship of Oxford was given to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon. It was an absurd thing to do. He did well in war.  That doesn’t mean he will be good in education.  He called all the faculty and addressed them.  When he came out, the Press asked him, ‘how did it go?’  He said, ‘I told the boys what to do; they said they will think about it’.  Even thinking about it is a concession.  He was not successful!

 You can’t have an educational institution where the top man hands down the decision. By and large, things should be independent.  When the students come, they have new ideas. You must give them minimum requirements.  The students come up with very good ideas.

Job scenario; being creative


The job scenario is going to change. But we can’t imagine how it will change.There is going to be replacement by machines, but the machines will have to be run by intelligent people.

There will be a set of people who will be very intelligent and very knowledgeable. Then, there will be a set of workers who will follow the instructions.  Ultimately, to supervise machines, you need people.  You will have people who understands how the machine works.

When the science is fully understood, it becomes programmable. When the science is not fully understood, you can’t have a programme.

Whether creativity can be done by machines is a pertinent question. It depends on what you mean by creativity.


For example, there are machines that play chess beautifully.  Even rational intelligence, you have to create the number of choices.  It may be easier for the computer, but there will still be a human being to fox the computer. 

But I think you have to use creativity carefully. Now people call everything creative.  If you use the left hand, they say it is creative. That kind of trivial creativity is there. A lot of trivial creativity makes money.  Take the online taxi business for example.  It is only a catching of taxi; but they are making a huge amount of money. It is a clever method, but it can never be one of scientific interest. There is no science in it.

Optimisation is fundamentally not a creative thing. Optimisation is simply understanding all the factors, putting them together.

Youngsters tend to think that money is the solution for all sorts of problems. However clever you are, if all your cleverness is wasted in finding out how to make money, that stains the whole objective.


Universityis about finding unity among diversity.  I need a few things with which I can essentially understand the whole world.  From that understanding, applications will follow and from applications, money will follow.

Startup culture

Research has become very expensive.  Fundamentally, all research is expensive. You have to spend a huge amount of money to explore and, suddenly you find something which gives a huge benefit. If you don’t get benefit, it is a problem. So, universities are keen on doing something for the industry.

When you want commercial success, the technical idea is the core. It is very important though it is a small fraction of the whole thing. There are so many other things that have to fall in place; if you are not clever at those things, you will fail. I think startupphenomenon is over- rated.  What happens now is that a large number of middle-income families have enough money to support the children even after education.  For 5 or 10 years, many parents let the childrentry their luck.  And, 98 per cent of startups fail.


Two percent of startups are successful, and they make much money; they make much noise too. The success rate is the same even in the West. It is a combination of various things - when you introduced the idea; how you went to the market and so on - that led to success. The universities should appreciate what they are worth, but should not go out of the way to praise someone just because he or she has a successful startup. You should have a long-term view; otherwise, you are not only giving a wrong impression, you are not true to yourself. 

 

Applied research; German model

Research is an important factor in universities. You can’t do research with apremeditated mind to help the industry.  Then, what you are doing is project work.  Research as such is very expensive. You need instruments. Applied research also goes back to fundamentals. In those universities that find solutions to industry, it is more like an empirical fitting.


 I don’t think the German model is suitable for India. The first thingyou need to apply that model is a well- developed industry. Such a model has to come after the industry is developed.  There are very few industries which can do research jointly with the university. The fraction of industry that has research capability is hardly 5 per cent. They must have research facility and they must interact with the varsity.

As for the Germans, they work differently. They have basically compartmentalised minds.  I call this interfacial engineering. Usually, every problem doesn’t come into the same discipline.  A person may approach us with a problem that needs chemical, metallurgy and mechanical engineering - all three solutions.  We are not able to meet all the problems at the interface.

Clear communication is required at the interface. In the US universities, clarity of expressionhappens in a better way. The universities there have a long standing. The problems that we face here now have already been addressed long back there. The universities there have been existing for 500 years.  We have started universities 50-60 years ago. 

The Draft New Education Policy; creative environment


It is too long. Secondly, it does not emphasisecreativity.  Innovation and creativity are basicallythings that come only from university.  All the best ideas have come from the university.  In the US, sometimes they come from research labs. Those research labs are practically like the universities.   

Creative people are rare.You have to leave them alone; you don’t disturb them. You give them a good job and don’t ask them silly questions. They will work on their own. And they will work when they please. That kind of brains are very rare.  They need not be accommodated in the policy.  They will come up regardless of the policy.

I am talking about the next level of creativity where you have the innovation which is what creates intellectual property.

Discovery and invention do not create money. They may lead to money later.  What makes money is innovation. If discovery and invention lead to money-making, then it is called innovation.


innovation is usually not even about new concepts; it is the new way of using old concepts.  That is what innovation is about.  That is where undergraduates will really excel.  How do you encourage it?  You can’t approach people and ask them to innovate.  You have to have an environment to facilitate innovation; it should be a meeting of unlike minds.  We don’t get unlike minds;often, we get like minds.  To get unlike minds, you need the professor, the undergraduate and the industry.

( As told to R.Ramabhadran Pillai and Dr.VarghesePantalookaran ).


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