Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rote Learning dumbs down Indians (Part I)

The last great invention or discovery made by Indians was zero.  After a spell of modicum greatness in the remote part of history where Indians contributed to mathematics, medicine, astronomy (don’t confuse this with astrology), we had a brief awakening movement in the first half of 20th century under British Empire when Indians earnestly took up European kind of education without feeling any remorse.  During this first half of the last century when British were still around, India produced some of the brilliant minds – CV Raman, Chandrasekhar, Rabindranath Tagore, and less known but most important of all, SN Bose (not your JC Bose).   After that brief awakening moment, we began to de-europeanize our education and started to Indianize it.  There began all the problems.

Before we could understand the true meaning of modern education, we started to demodernize it.  Going back to Indian methods meant learning by rote, repeating the arcane and tongue-twisting slokas forever and forever till you got the intonation right.  But did it mean you learnt anything? Not really.  This practice of learning by rote has been instilled into our education before we could really appreciate why we need to question or apply critical mind as a part of the process. 

What we got as a result is millions of robots who could just spew out tables up to 100, kids who answered quiz questions remembering completely irrelevant data and statistics like the exact date when Mt. Everest was scaled the first time, or the exact weight of a polar bear.   This rote learning has even helped Indian kids living in United States win Spelling Bee contests. And all through our school and college life, we revered and celebrated these memory machines.  What India was producing was all memory and no CPU. 

When I was growing up, we got marks only if we wrote word to word, sentence to sentence, exactly what was written in our text books.  Commas, apostrophes, and periods were also equally important.  Some students didn’t know the answer for a question unless you supplied them the first two words.  The minute you gave them these two words, they used these key words to search in their databases of brain memory and pull out entire two pages of text.  If for some reason you didn’t give them these two words they were lost. 

That’s exactly what happened in the recent tests on ‘reading, mathematical and scientific literacy’ conducted by OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for 15 year olds.  India ranked 72 amongst a list of 73 countries that participated, beating Kyrgyzstan.  [Two states of India were selected by India to represent India in these tests, one from South (Tamil Nadu) and one from North (Himachal Pradesh)]. 

This is what the Report says about Indian states.

Himachal Pradesh-India
The mean reading literacy score for Himachal Pradesh-India was 317. This was the lowest mean reading score observed in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+, along with that of Kyrgyzstan.
In Himachal Pradesh-India, 11% of students are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline level needed to participate effectively and productively in life. It follows that 89% of students in Himachal Pradesh-India are estimated to be below this baseline level.
Students in Himachal Pradesh-India attained a mean score of 338 on the PISA mathematical literacy scale,
statistically the same as those observed in Tamil Nadu-India and Kyrgyzstan. In Himachal Pradesh-India, 12% of students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways considered fundamental for their future development. In Himachal Pradesh-India, there was a statistically significant gender difference of 30 score points in mathematical literacy, favouring boys.
Himachal Pradesh-India’s students were estimated to have a mean score of 325 on the scientific literacy scale, which is below the means of all OECD countries. This was the lowest mean science score observed in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+, along with that of Kyrgyzstan. In Himachal Pradesh-India, 11% of students are proficient in science at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. In Himachal Pradesh-India, there was a statistically significant gender difference of 20 score points in scientific literacy, favouring boys.

The report is not very different for Tamil Nadu-India, the other participant.  

Reading Literacy
Here is the overall ranking in Reading Literacy of 15-year olds.

There have been some critics who criticized the methodology of tests.  This seems to be the common Indian tendency.  When we win, we celebrate.  When we lose, we rationalize why and how those tests are irrelevant to us.   We try to highlight our socio-economic-cultural-historic-religious background is somewhat different from the rest of the world, how special we are, because of our family values, great culture, etc – whether it is OECD ranking like here, or the ranking of cities based on quality of life or based on good manners.  Here, one author writes:

In my opinion, the uproar about the "data" stems from an unfortunate tendency we have as a people to let mere numbers tell the whole story about the Indian educational system, a majority of the time.

The Indian context is so complex, so multi-dimensional, that trying to understand its depth merely through a numbered tale is not just silly, but detrimental to our ability to work on fixing what's wrong.

However, the kind of knowledge and skills required to function as members of society has to depend on the context, that is, change from one place (or society) to another. To what extent can we obtain a holistic idea about the socio-economic backgrounds of students in surveys that take students and principals a mere "20-30 minutes to complete"?

I looked into some sample questions from the 2009 test, and a couple of examples make my point clear. One question revolves around dealing with the receipt of a warranty card for a camera (named Rolly Fotonex 250 Zoom) and a tripod. Now, in any statewide testing in India we are going to end up with a very large group of students who would have either never bought a camera themselves (especially by 15 years of age) or had their parents buy it for them. The idea of a "warranty" itself may be encountered for the first time in the test, disadvantaging such students. Another example I noted was a question in which students were asked to describe a particular story, labeling it a "folk tale," "travel story," or a "historical account." These are subjective labels, depending on different historical understanding of narrative categorizations or conventions. Another question posed questions about a library schedule of hours. Again, a vast majority of Indian students may never have encountered an institutionalized library of that sort.

The first question we have to ask is: If those excuses about lack of knowledge about warranties and libraries were applicable to Indians, how come the students from Peru, Albania, Indonesia, Mauritius, Colombia, Tunisia fare better?  Did the parents in Peru ordered camera by mail?  What undue advantage the kids of Indonesia and Colombia have over the kids of India?

Also, the author does a duplicitous move to quote examples which are thoroughly biased to make Indian reader agree with him.  Here are some of the samples from the actual tests which the readers should know, and then we should ask ourselves how the 15-year old kids growing up in China and Korea could rank amongst the top while the 15-year old kids of India rank the lowest.

Here is a sample test in Reading abilities:

Average is 85%, kids of Costa Rica are at 83%, but Himachal Pradesh-India kids are at 53%.   Even the kids from Mauritius scored better.  Here is another question.

It is clear that while the whole world is able to read ordinary text and make sense out of it, Indian kids are not able to grasp ordinary topics.

I can guess why why Indian kids did not do well in these tests.  They must have lost half the time in trying to figure out if the question is a part of or ‘out-of-syllabus’.  The other half, they must have made a random choice after praying to Goddess Saraswati, followed by Lord Hanuman, and even some small prayers to Rama and Krishna lest they get offended.  Some of them might have added their local deity and touched the amulet given to them by their grandmother to see if they will given the answer by some divine intervention.  

I also know how we can crack this test next time.  We start tutorial centers, and get all the questions papers from the last ten years, and make our kids mug up the answers hoping some of the questions get repeated. Voila! We will crack the PISA test the way we crack IIT-JEE and CAT.  And I am sure some Indian VC firm will even fund that tutorial. 


  1. Were the questions translated and given in local language?

  2. I wish we had information on what portion of these children studied in their mother tongue ( in each state ). What is your opinion on the issue of medium of education. Do you think it played a role?

  3. This is very good weapon for India bashers but sheer bullshit.

    This is the country where even educated people including learned professors incite hatred in the name of caste, religion and REGION.
    Then how can anybody expect 'INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS'?

  4. "During this first half of the last century when British were still around, India produced some of the brilliant minds – CV Raman, Chandrasekhar, Rabindranath Tagore, and less known but most important of all, SN Bose (not your JC Bose)."

    Tagore was not a product of public education. Second half of last century also produced a lot of brilliant Indian minds. Most of them do not live in India though. Amartya Sen, Hargobind Khorana, Salman Rushdie come to mind. Best writers in English are now Indians. Indians make into the short list of many international English literary prizes including Nobel. Same is the case with major sciences. Also, not sure education systems produce brilliant minds. Brilliant minds use the system to show off their talent. Ninety per cent of us are average, mediocre to begin with. Indian rote learners are contributing to the betterment of societies by participating as knowledge workers all over the world. You only need a handful of creative people to run the system. Example, Steve Jobs.

    You are right to caution about SN Bose. Websters dictionary under boson wrongly states it was named after Jagdish Chandra Bose!

  5. Hi Sujai,

    Excellent post, an additional point id like to add is that our state governments have a vested interest in keeping students downtrodden (and faithful voters), by controlling the medium of instruction.. I have expanded more in this post..

    The Education Divide: A call to arms

  6. Nice post. However, I have issues with the sentence "During this first half of the last century when British were still around, India produced some of the brilliant minds – CV Raman, Chandrasekhar, Rabindranath Tagore, and less known but most important of all, SN Bose (not your JC Bose)"

    Actually JC Bose was an experimental scientist widely acknowledged as far ahead of his time in semiconductor devices (he was awarded the first patent for any semiconductor device ever, in 1904). He was more of an experimental scientist (like Thomas Edison), and we Indians should definitely be proud of him. S N Bose, though more popular and having a class of particles named after him, did not do much other than derive the famous Bose-Einstein statistics, which too was more of a stroke of luck following an erroneous assumption on his part. He just lucked out.
    C.V. Raman was known to be arrogant and has been accused of not giving enough credit to Krishnan, his assistant, without whose work he would not have discovered his famous Raman effect. Chandrasekhar was far ahead and would have contributed a lot more had not Eddington ridiculed his findings.

  7. Regarding the question dealing with "warranty", I have to agree with the critic.. it is not widely used in India, we use "guarantee" instead. Even an illiterate villager would understand "1 year guarantee" but "warranty" has entered the Indian lexicon only recently. Perhaps the result would have been different if "guarantee" had been used instead in the test.

  8. Ledzius:
    I am not sure where the TOI author got the example on warranty. Amongst the examples given by PISA on their website, I found the examples which I listed above and they do not have cultural bias.

    Also, the tests on mathematics don't have cultural bias - at least not to me.


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