Saturday, 14 January 2017

Connecting more students with excellent teachers : What's coming in the way?

For quite some time there's been a heavy focus on selecting the "best possible students" in colleges. This is often through entrance exams of some sort: subject or aptitude. Apparently schools are into this too nowadays (even for kindergarten or 1st grade in instances?) which is really weird because if schools can't take the responsibility of educating children from scratch, who will? Innocent little kids running around and playing don't have to be tested before starting their education for heaven's sake! That actually seems cruel to me.

Then this idea of "fixed durations" for different education levels. 12 years for high school, 4 years for a bachelor's degree, 2 for master's. And if you go a little slow, you bad boy you...

I don't know. At least for me some subjects came easy (like math and physics) and some didn't (like biology and chemistry). Maybe there should have been provisions that allowed one to move along at different speeds in different subjects. I would've probably liked that better instead of somehow cramming and moving along in some of the subjects.

If I think about qualities based on which I would select students in my classes, I simply come up with this:

A sincere desire to learn, willingness to put in the required effort, patience to steadily move from benchmark to benchmark, humility, a sense of discipline and a firm commitment to use knowledge only for the good of society.

That's it. If these qualities are in place I see myself as being willing and committed to work with students from whatever level they might presently be at. If some students have a natural flair for some subjects, they'll likely move along faster. If not, we go slow, no problem. I would be fine either way if the right value system is in place.

(On the other hand if the right values have not set in in a student its better in my opinion that he or she spend some time in service and introspection till the mindset corrects itself before any advanced knowledge be given to them. Else there's every possibility that they will do more harm than good with it.)

There might be many such deserving students with a sincere desire to learn and a sound set of values in the country who perhaps don't get to connect with some of the better teachers because good academics seem to want to cluster in select elite institutes. At least as far as colleges and universities go I think this is partly because many (at least in India) have somehow managed to tangle themselves up with incorrect policies that perhaps discourage good teachers from joining them.

One issue is an imbalance between teaching responsibilities and the time available to pursue research and scholarship (something that most good academics want). I discuss this in this article: http://strike-a-pause.blogspot.in/2016/02/striking-balance-between-teaching-and.html.

Two other issues are economics and job security related. I don't think that needs to be elaborated on much.

Then there are things like making profs sign attendance registers. It gets worse: I know of places where profs are required to get permissions or sign out and in every time they step out of the department / institute. For such places: Good luck trying to absorb and retain quality faculty. No quality academic with a sense of self respect will agree to such stuff unless he or she is going through desperate times or is at your institute due to some personal reasons / obligations / commitments.

Last but not the least: Institutes need to work out their career progression requirements in accord with their ground realities. To be more specific: for most faculty members research progress and output depends fairly strongly on (a) lab infrastructure provided to them and (b) Masters and PhD students working with them. If an institute doesn't invest sufficiently in establishing research labs and/or does not have a well established post-graduate program (or is unable to attract quality post-graduate students) then this needs to be accounted for when making decisions on career progression. Prospective as well as present faculty members need to feel assured on this front.

If government as well as private institutions across the country start matching what they offer in terms of work conditions, salaries and job security with what elite institutes offer we might start seeing a wider spread of good academics thus making them accessible to a wider range of students.