The Indian education system is broken. A few startups want to fix it

Rote learning and abysmal teaching has led to an absence of critical thinking amongst Indian students, especially engineers. Now, a bunch of startups aims to change that
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
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It is extremely strange that a country that has produced an avalanche of engineers, many of whom have gone on to start some of the leading tech companies in the world, are CEOs of various multinationals, are heads of M&A divisions on Wall Street and have taken over many of the world's consulting firms can be accused of coming from an educational system that is fundamentally unsound.

And yet, that seems to be the case. A few years ago, the Economist highlighted a study done by Indian firm Aspiring Minds on a large number of Indian engineering graduates. The firm is run by brothers Himanshu and Varun Aggarwal who had previously collectively received engineering degrees from the temples of global engineering (the Indian Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). 

What the brothers unearthed was shocking at first, but perhaps not so surprising when you actually think about our educational experiences in India. Aspiring Minds essentially concluded that a large number of Indian engineering graduates are unemployable, with 95.8 percent of them not fit to work in a software product firm and only 17.8 percent employable by an IT Services company. These figures were apparently even more bleak than the 25 percent figure of employability presented by McKinsey around ten years ago. (Aspiring Minds' test was similar to the GRE and gauged students' analytical, verbal and quantitative skills). A recent study on current work force skills which I wrote about here pretty much said the same thing.

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Indians need to get out of relying on primarily a rote system of education

Many who have navigated the Indian education system as students, even at an elite level, will tell you that one of the evils of our system is the emphasis on rote learning. According to this piece, around 70 percent of Indian principals felt that  Indians weren't given enough opportunity to develop creative thinking abilities and that the existing system today was along the lines of the 'factory model' architected in the 18th and 19th centuries in order to feed the engine rooms of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, rote learning isn't all bad. As this article points out, "Without spellings, facts and rules… you're left floundering in a knowledge-free vacuum," and that "data leads to - proper, considered thought, rooted in knowledge and the logical jumps and inferences that naturally develop from the simple gift of knowing stuff." Indians are comfortable around numbers precisely because things like multiplication tables and assorted formulas were hammered into us at a very early age.

Even today, I know all of Newton's equations for motion. I may have eventually gone on to Trollope and Ginsberg and Amitava Ghosh, but thanks to mind-numbing repetition, I still can’t forget that s=ut+1/2 at^2, where 'a' is negative in the case of a falling body that plummets to earth at 9.8 m/s^2 under the earth's gravitational force. I’m not sure that in my case this would have been possible in the absence of the Indian system of rote. (Or ‘rat-ta’ as we like to call it.)

Off course, if only that were bolstered by a healthy degree of conceptual foundations, I may have enjoyed science instead of eventually analyzing the human condition while stopping by woods on a snowy evening. Instead, today, engineering is simply the means to an end for many Indians rather than an end in itself—and this is doubly dangerous in a cloud-computing, plug-and-play world where engineers are being commoditized and upstaged by vocational students and management graduates.

The inadequacies of the Indian system became apparent to me when I went from a high school (11th grade) in India that was a breeding ground for future IIT engineers and did my 12th grade in a public high school in Queens, New York (my mother was transferred there for work) where I enrolled in the Advanced Placement Calculus class. I had already studied a third of the course work in India but suddenly found a whole universe of practicality opened up to me when I realized, for the first time, that an Integration problem was really about calculating the area under a curvy line that could actually represent a garden or a pathway or a wall and not just some abstract concept that focused on getting the right answer. It was a revelation.

The problem with many of India's engineers (I am told by many who fit that category)—especially those enrolled at India’s best schools like the IITs of the world—is that they focus mainly on getting in. This usually means thousands of hours (and Rupees) spent on ‘tuition’ classes outside of school. Once in, there’s not much intellectual flexing.

The founder of one of India's leading indigenous consulting firms recently told me that he got a rude shock when he arrived in the US for a graduate degree in Management after a supposedly top notch Indian engineering education because he was simply unable, at least in the first few months, to cope with the style of conceptual, analytical thinking that was taking place. "We were all so used to being force-fed for years that when the feeding wasn’t there, we became paralysed," he said.

Indian engineers in the country have it worse because the absence of any liberal arts framework means that elite engineering students often have an elevated impression of themselves but tend to know little of the world around them upon graduation.

But it's not just engineers who find themselves in peril. This article written by an American who spent time at one of India’s elite colleges, St. Stephens, looks at how he found a profound lack of depth amongst the students there. At least engineers have some kind of foundation in Science whereas these 'Commerce' and 'Arts' graduates, on average, tend to have a foundation in, well, nothing. Which is why many Indians who do their undergraduate in India tend to repeat many of these years in the US.

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95.8 percent of Indian engineers are unfit to work at Indian software product firms according to Aspiring Minds

What's worse, Indians in general, post-graduation, have a serious lack of knowledge about their own history and culture. This was certainly the case with me when I was in high school. The upper strata of society tend to be the worst off. Having lived in Delhi for the last seven years, I have found that wealthy children from elite urban high schools and privileged boarding schools are in fact the ones that are the most underequipped with critical thinking or sophistication in formulating a world view compared to those coming out of the more ‘average’ institution. Perhaps, the womb of air-conditioned cars that ferry one back and forth and air-conditioned houses to shield you from the elements and half a dozen staff at home, not to mention ski vacations in Switzerland prevent any kind of realistic examination of life around you.

It is not that Indians are not smart. Anything but, people would argue. It is the education system that has failed them. The profusion of successful Indians in the world is despite the odds of a broken system and thanks to the vast population base that allows for attractive numbers. In reality the majority of Indian children, as Pratham, the country's foremost education NGO will tell you have a 2nd grade level of reading and proficiency in the 7th grade and only 1/3rd of students in the fifth grade can do simple division problems.

So, it must come as a tremendous source of relief for those wringing their hands at ruins of the educational system in India to read that social venture capital Lok Capital as well as seedfund Chennai Angels has invested close to US$1 million in Everest Edusys, a company that weans children away from rote learning to learning by doing. It plans on setting up science laboratories in schools across southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala where "students learn concepts such as force, motion, gravity through touch and feel and activity based tools," he said.
Everest Edusys’ flagship product Quest Explore Discover (QED) is a mobile interactive exhibit center that teaches students in K-12 science principles in a hands-on way through experiments and other activities. 

Apparently Everest has come up with tools that have been used at by over 20,000 children in 100 schools out of which 20 percent are government-run—a category that Everest wants to focus more on in the future by bringing the wonders of a science lab to their doorsteps. The idea is to spur critical thinking at a young age so students by using active learning methodologies. According to research, students using their system enjoyed a 47 percent improvement in their performance. Another outfit Flintbox wants to provide activity boxes on a monthly subscription basis for young children to get their conceptual and creative juices flowing at a young age.

Another innovative enterprise, Skyfi Labs, tries to tackle the problem a little higher up the chain by trying to transform 'textbook geniuses' into employable engineers by giving them something Indians don’t really get often (how many Indians do you know had to slave away at summer jobs or internships?)—such as access to practical, hands-on training, on- and offline.

The outfit has trained over 25,000 students from more than 150 colleges according to VCCircle by conducting two to three day courses in areas such as robotics, aeromodelling, web and mobile app development and civil engineering according. Apparently, a Skyfi Evaluation Engine takes a close look at the performance of each student and then feeds this to companies looking for capable recruits. 

A few more of these novel solutions and we just may have a shot at reaching our potential in what could be a deluge of graduate talent in the country. Till then, the rot will continue.

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