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:

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.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A possible way to address the Teacher : Student ratio issue

The problem of getting the Teacher : Student ratio right in institutes in India has been getting a lot of attention. I think the problem partly stems from a misunderstanding we've allowed to persist: which is that one necessarily needs to have a PhD in order to be able to teach undergraduate courses. I don't think this is true at all. Being granted a Masters degree in a certain discipline should mean that one has attained a certain level of Mastery in the subject. And if that is true I don't see why some of the better Masters degree holders wouldn't be able to teach an undergraduate course or two.
In fact there used to be an option in IITs whereby a deserving Masters degree holder could join as a lecturer and pursue a PhD alongside. I emphasize "deserving" because quality can certainly not be compromised.
I think we need to look at bringing that option back, say as five year contractual lectureships during which time one teaches one undergraduate course a semester alongside pursuing their dissertation research. By all means we test / interview people rigorously before offering a lectureship. Additionally we can require that the lecturer clear his PhD coursework with a sufficiently high grade point average / marks percentage and the PhD qualifiers first. This can serve as an additional quality check. But if someone is good enough why lose out by putting a constraint on ourselves that we wont absorb someone as a teacher unless he or she has a PhD?
This also has advantages from the lecturers' point of view. For one they would earn a salary higher than the stipend they would get otherwise. Secondly, a lot of learning and deeper understanding happens when one teaches. This would be invaluable in terms of contributing to the intellectual growth that is expected during one's PhD.
I think everyone: administrators, faculty members and students need to sort this misunderstanding out and start thinking along the lines of what benchmarks ought to be in place to be able to absorb lecturers and start making the teacher : student ratios in our institutes better.