[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

India’s Education System – What to make out of it?

Friday, April 15th, 2011

There is a group of journalist who blast India’s education system as horrendous while another group hails it as the next best thing for other educators to learn from!

Here is what a recent WSJ article titled “India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire” has this to say:

Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

Don’t lose heart just yet. A 2008 NYTimes artcile titled “Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools” has this to say:

Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.

What the heck is an average reader to make out of this?

Mass-produced graduates..

I am not any expert in India’s education, but for my personal interest in the subject and the credential as a product of India’s education system having spent about one half of my life in the classrooms of an average sub-urban public school and corridors of a private engineering college.

My take is India’s education system produces exactly the kind of graduates it is designed to “mass produce”. Since our schools (factories) and classes (production lines) are dealing with minds (of teachers and students) instead of machines, what results is simply a spectrum of output quality – many good ones, some bad ones and rest fall somewhere in between. Given the factory model with prescribed academic syllabus, I do not think any school or any teacher can mint 100% great pupils year after year – even with 100% great teachers.

By the way, did the WSJ article’s author and the HR executives referenced in it all jump straight from heaven? I mean seriously? They all must have went through the same damned Indian educational system and now that they are at the top of the food chain, they are looking down and blaming it?

Don’t mistake my angst for denial. Heck, even the much-adorned American education system is begging for change! So, indeed the Indian education needs wholesale, transformational changes! But that’s not an excuse to write-off the system altogether. Which is why I think both the articles above are somewhat ill-conceived and poorly positioned without context.

An quote by Paul Tosto summarizes my thought perfectly:

Hand-wringing over education seems to be a national pastime…The other guy always seems to be smarter. The other country always has better ideas. Our kids will end up chumps in the global economy unless we do what those guys do, etc.

The WSJ article reflects a narrow authorship and refers to the NASSCOM Assessment of Competence (NAC) employability tests that have been developed the BPO and the IT industry! While those two industries have been a boon for India, by no means they represent rest of India’s economy. Moreover, it is not as if only IITs and IIMs produce the stellar students. The growth engine of India is primarily fueled by the good load of students produced by the average schools and colleges in the last 20-30 years.

A while ago Fortune magazine chronicled the training facility of Infosys in Mysore, India.

..after the job offer, comes the real test: eight hours a day at Mysore studying lines of Java code, attending team-building workshops, and learning to differentiate the do’s of global workplace etiquette from the don’ts.

The sad truth is India’s colleges are not designed to impart employable skills. They exist to provide theoretical knowledge minting “raw” graduates with unparalleled uniformity. Like it or not, every employer has to mold, train and coach them to some extent to make them employable! A talented kid emerging out of India’s system of education is a by-product of that kid’s own commitment to learning, her parents commitment for positive support, the effect of indulgences from societal & peer pressures, and last, likely the least, the formal educational system she was part of.

Ultimately, the problem with India’s education sector is one of a systemic immaturity and solution has to be multi-pronged:

  1. Enrollment at the primary / secondary levels must improve.
  2. Parents and family members must play an active engage in a kid’s off-school learning.
  3. Learning curricula must aim to produce well-rounded graduates retaining certain level of individual character and innate uniqueness. Education must balance art, creativity, music, sports, thinking skills, behavioral, inter-personal skills besides the science, math and language.
  4. Government must privatize the primary / secondary educational services. Not only will that meet the growing population’s demand but will also stabilize quality.
  5. Most importantly, career development programs must start at the middle schools.
    Career development programs should expose the students to wide-range of post-secondary educational opportunties.
  6. Society at large, including corporations and formal/informal industries must actively partner with schools and universities to set right expectations on what’s needed from students after graduation.

It is all easier to list than getting it done. We have decades to go before we can convincingly enroll, educate, graduate and employ India’s younger generation. Until then, start thinking about how we must shift the paradigm and redefine education as we always knew it.

I want to live for a million years

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Yury Liftshits (what a unique name?) has compiled a comprehensive list of online resources that are transforming education today.[via Mashable]

100+ Online Resources That Are Transforming Education

While Internet is still not pervasive in many parts of the world, it will, sooner than later. The online resources listed on the article above are paving the foundation for what appears to be a tectonic shift in the way learning will happen in the future. This GOOD Magazine (I highly recommend) article posits that in future we will know everything we wish to know. I am questioning when was the last time we wanted to know something and couldn’t find googling it. Probably rare. So internet and explosion of every imaginable content, has brought any learning to just a few clicks away.  If curiosity is your game, internet is your arena, go hit some home runs everyday.

Technology is transforming education as we know it.

Undoubtedly, Apple has been spearheading this revolution with iPhone and iPad. It seems there is no end what we can do with these two.  Thanks to Yury Liftshits again, I saw the YouTube demo of this innovative and practically valuable translation app called WordLens [check the demo here]. On a personal note, our neighbor vouches for iPad, after they have seem tremendous progress with her autistic child’s skill development.

Tablet and App Explosion!

With what’s possible through the digital revolution that is unveiling, I am super excited about the prospects for future. There is so much to learn. So much to do. For the goodness of fellow children of Mother Earth.

I am ready to live a million years.

Knowledge Park – Humble Beginnings @ Coimbatore

Monday, November 15th, 2010

It has been my wish for a few years now to open up a children’s library in Coimbatore around where I grew up. Having been exposed to how young children in the US grow up reading from a young age, I recognized the need to close that gap with children in India. While there are public libraries and even libraries at many schools, most children in India are not into reading, leave alone, using a library regularly. I had been wanting to do my part to close that gap in whatever ways I could.

Children at Inaguration of Library

When my parents visited US this past summer, I had proposed the idea of doing something about this and they immediately agreed to shepherd the project, host it in our house in Kavundampalayam in Coimbatore. I promised to help with getting the necessary stuff to them. I had introduced my parents to the local library here in bridgewater and their mindset expanded significantly after seeing what’s available for public here. After a couple of months of planning – the most critical of which is to find the right set of books at a price that we can afford (of course, personal money so far). I shopped around New Jersey for 100+ children’s books (used books is a great start!) and my father-in-law donated a box full of books from his well-kept library. Harini’s recent trip to India was timely to carry 30 lbs of books from US to India. With pains from family members in shipping and transporting books from US to Chennai to Coimbatore, and some planning and marketing by my mother to children around the area, we were finally set to make our wish a reality.

Makeshift Nameboard

On November 14th, on the eve of Children’s day, the library was inaugurated – under the name of “Knowledge Park”. My brother and his wife had incidentally made it from Dubai to be part of this humble beginnings. About 30 or so children from the neighborhood, along with their parents, showed up to start using the free service. I am told that children, in the age group 4 to 15, were excited to instantly read some of the comic books and young adult story books that caught their imagination – likely attracted by the title and cover graphic!. The kids assured my mom to continue to read from the library every day. Most of the children are from middle or lower-middle class with little or no access to books outside of school curriculum and hence their parents were thankful and appreciative of our efforts.

Thanks to family members and some friends, what was a simply a wish for a while is now beginning to take shape. Though it is tiny in scale (and that’s all two lonely elders in their 60s can manage and service)- my extended wishes for it to sustain its mission, grow in value, expand into more books in English and Tamil, and into other value-added stuff such videos, games etc, as we take baby steps in making this a meaningful venture.

My hope is that we have introduced at least a few kids to the habit of reading at a young age (who otherwise would grow up largely ignorant, naive and unaware) that will make them grow up to be better citizens of India.

Let’s (not) go with the flow

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Stumbled [via LazyGeek] upon this music video made by a budding filmmaker from Chennai. I liked it because it cuts across the core problem that I care about. I have written about this before on different occasion [Make this world a better place, Will Idiots revive India?, Thoughts on Education]. The society, schools, and parents in India aren’t doing much to help young children understand and pursue different careers. That is exactly the premise that I would like tackle through the use of every tool and technique we have at our disposal today.

Two days ago, I spent over an hour via Skype talking to about 15 children from the outskirts of Coimbatore, all within the age group of 9-14. As I ask everyone of them, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”, many of them said they want to be a doctor (surprised?) and few said astronaut and few others didn’t know what to say. These are all very smart, articulate kids who can talk about a lot of topics, but have low level of awareness in terms of future career options beyond doctor, engineer, lawyer, scientist and may one or two more.

In my mind, this is a unaddressed space that will have terrible effect (many jobs will go unfilled while these kids grow up only to have unsatisfactory careers in IT or BPO call centers when they could have been a film director or landscape architect or marine biologist or journalist or what not?) but at the same time, this is a great opportunity for folks like you and me to shape their awareness. If we can find ways to provide educational services to these kids, they will sure grow up to be superstars in whatever they are passionate about and skilled in. We just need to open up their minds to it and spread the seeds when they are young.

On a lighter note, the video is titled Lets go with the flow from the perspective of letting the children go with whatever aspirations and desires they have. I titled this post as Le’ts (not) go with the flow from the perspective that most kids are “simply going with the flow of everyone else” by picking doctors, or computer programmer or lawyer or auditor or such namesake careers. By not going with the flow, there is so much else to do in this world, to user their naturals skills, to live a happier life and make a difference to the society!

About a minute into the video…

What’s up cheeenu? What do you want to do?

Engineer ah? Doctor ah? What do you want to be?

Economist ? Biologist ? Rocket Scientist ? Feminist !

Awesome! Just that Feminist part I am not sure what he meant.

One way to make this world a better place

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

The other day I stumbled upon Daily Endeavor and EndeavorPrep. It posted a question “why so few people thrive in life while other’s don’t”. They arrived at an answer that “too fewer people discover what they want to do”. Is it really easy to discover what you want to do? Is it something that someone can help us discover?

If you are one of those lucky ones who knew early in your life exactly what you want to do and is now successful doing it, read no further. What I say here is not for you but for the rest of the unlucky world.

I do not think its easy to discover what you want to do in life. I do think it is possible but it requires a lot of soul searching and reflection. The world around has tuned us to believe and follow the “norm”. We are required to “go with the flow”. If we do certain things because that’s what we want to do, we might get chastised for “swimming against the tide”. [Jonathan Livingston Seagul, ]

How late is too late to discover what you want to do? What if I am 35, with a masters in chemistry with a job running research programs for a leading pharma and suddenly I “discover” what I want to do is to be a fighter pilot? I know many would argue that one is never too late to pursue whatever they want to do, but realistically speaking the earlier you discover the better off you are and the world will likely and greatly benefit from your discovery of our your own passion.

On the other hand, some think it might be too early to attribute a passion or pick a career for kids, when they haven’t had enough opportunities to explore every thing in the world.

Between these two ends is where most youngsters get side-tracked and simply pursue whatever they can get their hands at or whatever parents suggest.


Which brings us to an issue that is close to my heart, How can we – the grown up you and I who realize and acknowledge this gap – help younger kids (say 5th to 8th grade) to be more informed and ultimately make better decisions about what they want to do in life – careerwise or otherwise?

I believe we can and should. The world of “work” is getting complicated as economies evolve from industrial to service to knowledge to creative. To make choices about what type of jobs and careers to pursue is painstaking hard so most youngster skip it outright. To expect someone coming out of high school to figure all this out is akin to dropping them in the middle of amazon jungle and expecting them to make their way back.

Career guidance programs in schools as well as government-sponsored career exploration websites seem somewhat incomplete, though certainly very useful. The labor department classification of jobs and careers is no good either. Today, a position described as “Business Analyst” likely has a few hundred variations to it depending on the industry or company or department. Job roles and job titles are invented on the fly many leading to no correlation between the actual work and the meaning the title implies. Ultimately, no one can figure all this out.

So sites such as Daily Endeavor (treat it as sort of Wikipedia for careers) are trying to directly address this need by cataloging and documenting 21st century job roles and what it means to be on these jobs. Others are trying to cater to this need through books, video [check The Futures Channel] and cable and online series – check PBS Design Squad, . The hope is to that the younger generation and mid-career changers will have more clarity to match their natural skills and passions to what jobs and careers to pursue.

I strongly believe every child and every individual has certain innate potential to be good or even great, in some things, using which they would make this world a better place. Majority of us never get a chance to know what this potential is – we just float like a leaf in the river and get by life doing whatever we can. Some realize it too late to impact the world with their greatness, even if they get to excel in their passion. Very few realize it and make the best out of it.


The best bet is to provide a conducive environment as early as possible so a 10-year old kid can independently and consciously recognize and realize his or her innate potential. It will require a holistic ecosystem of products (books, DVDs), services (online video, interviews, offline guidance, school support, parental support), tools (assessments, tests, coaching), organizations (placement services, scholarships, financing, job searches) and many passionate people to make it happen. Daily Endeavor and EndeavorPrep are definitely step in right direction. But we need more and I have come to realize that is what I wanted to do in my life. In my view, the developing countries need such services more than ever. Without such early intervention and nurtured guidance, they will end up with millions of computer programmers or hundreds of thousands of half-baked doctors, engineers and lawyers whose tomb might read “I had no idea what I wanted to do with life – so here I am”

PS: As I was writing this, it reminded me of Richard Bach’s Illusions. The hardback edition comes with a handwritten story of creatures who clung tightly to the bottom of a river. When one of them decides to let go, he is thrown over others into the deep waters. He goes off saying something like, “The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

Firing the hungry spirit of rural children

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

My next article for ThinkChangeIndia is available here. This time I had the opportunity to speak to another Ashoka Fellow, Ramji Raghavan, who runs the Agastya Foundation in India. He has started an organization that directly serves rural children’s creative needs. Among other things, Agastya operates mobile science museums, an innovative idea, since the core problem is the reach. Agastya takes the science museums to the children in rural schools, instead of expecting them to visit them. You can read more in the article and through their website.

Abdul Kalam speech

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

I recommend everyone to spend a few minutes and read Dr.Abdul Kalam’s address to the India on the eve of Jan 26th 2005, Republic Day.

India is an extremely complicated and idiosyncratic society intertwined with every conceivable aspect of past and modern civilizations. Yet, the Country stands gloriously challenging every dismissal. At the turn of the past millenium(1000AD), India was one amongst the developed and civilized of the societies (Egyptians and Chinese were equally civilized). The west was, for all practical purposes, barbaric. Perhaps, 2000 AD marks the beginning of another transformation. It may not be by 2020, may not even be by 2050, but it will be sooner than much later. India, along with China, is staging a turn-around and thanks to 1000 years of “western renaissance”, Mother Earth has seen enough fun on one half of the globe; Its time for the other half to have a smile, to start with.

Kalam suggests ( rather being a President, he should be able to effect what he suggests, isnt it? ) The education system should build entrepreneurial and vocational capacities in students. …impart the spirit that “we can do it”.. I add that (I have said this before and I will keep saying/doing it) our education system and our traditions must also impart risk taking, creativity and innovation.

Creativity & Education in India

Sunday, April 18th, 2004

Shortly after I moved to US from India, I was deeply struck by the importance given to creativity and innovation, especially in schools and universities. I soon realized how much I have missed and lacked. Cultivating creativity, promoting innovation, and encouraging risk-taking, especially among children and youth, has been totally lacking in India. It is one of the major factors in India�s inability to be a �leader� in any field (except perhaps spirituality) and has left her so far to be a �follower�(or �copycat� in brutal terms). This issue will be one of the focal points of my future. I would like to create a media production firm, specializing in products and services, that encourage creativity, innovation. This might seem like a simple idea, unappealing to many in US, but having spent the better part of my life in India, I know that anything outside of Science-Math-English is largely neglected concept both by students as well as parents, teachers and the society as a whole. Also this initiative is not something new, there is already lot of developments happening in these areas through media and entertainment services. But the problem can only be solved bottom up, to build a future society blended with creativity and innovation. And thats a long way to go, before we reep the fruits.

This is excert from an essay I had written for my NYU MBA app.