Tuesday, 31 March 2009

We have a catch 22 situation in our higher education. Yes, we want to change the way testing of learning outcome, but who will correct those test papers? Most of the teaching staff of all our colleges have been taught to recite "In a large tank, the well-powdered ore is taken..." verbatim. Even those of us who deplore this form of teaching have been testing the students with the standard questions expecting the standard answers. We have to, unless we are able to take a 20% or 30% pass results in the university exams. Those of you familiar with our colleges will understand what I mean.

About the quoted words, its something I will never forget.

At school, the day we went for our final ISC exam we were given a chocolate each and told "Keep your wits sbout you" by our Principal . I enjoyed the exams (really). It was the same feeling as I get now when I get the morning paper to do the sudoku... a challenge that I enjoyed meeting and met very well , if I may boast.

Then I went to this college (full of university rankers) . Here, Inorganic Chemistry was taught by this prof who would teach exactly as if he was reciting the textbook, but never brought a single piece of paper to the class. The next day, he would ask us to tell him what was taught in the previous class. I could never remember and would try to pretend I didnt exist.

The froth flotation method was recited by him one day and the next day sure enough, the "class topper" recited it verbatim "In a large tank, the well-powdered ore is taken...." I was thunderstruck. How could she remember it ? I never forgot this sentence ...it's been 37 years!! But I dont remember anything else from what I was taught in college.

At school I was going to be this brilliant chemist, doing some unspecified but earth-shaking research in Chemistry (I loved it). At college, I hated all forms of chemistry with equal fervour. It was soooooo boring.

It took me a while to start liking it again.

That's why, when one student said "Oh wow" when I had explained something in their syllabus, it made me feel really happy.

Saturday, 28 March 2009


The IAS has started an initiative to encourage women to take up science as a career. With the internet, and grants to women who take a career break, it should make life easier. In addition, GOOD daycare for children and maybe even for geriartics would go a long way.
In the previous generation, women did have it tough. After 4 hours of housework, you head to the workplace in a crowded bus. Then worked for 7 hours and commuted back home to do some more housework.
So early on I knew I could not do much dedicated research. I thought I would take a break and then get back to it. But with no good daycare, the break extended to about 10 years ...long enough for the kids to grow up enough to be left alone safely for a couple of hours daily.
Then I looked at a research paper. Yikes!! when did they start writing Chemistry in Greek? Well, so no more research... So I got into teaching. After 10 years, even textbooks looked a bit Greekish, but not too bad. Soon I began to enjoy teaching. Teaching is more rewarding than research except the one odd eureka moment that comes our way during years of research.
Now they popularise the internet!!! Couldn't they have done it 10 years earlier?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

who goes to college?

When I see some of the boys and girls who go to various colleges, I wonder why they are there. It is obvious that they are not interested. They do not wish to learn whatever is taught to them. They just want the degree. They do not attend classes, give fake medical certificates and just a week before the exams, buy themselves a guide book, memorise a few answers and pass the exams. Why should they waste time and money doing this? I seriously believe a BSc or BA is for those who wish to learn something. But societal compulsions makes it imperative for everyone to get a degree. To enable such students to pass, our exams are also tailored to this mode of "study".
So I suggest, in every subject, there should be two question papers. One catering to the guide book types and another that questions in depth knowledge of the subject. You get your degree by passing anyone, but if you pass the second option, you get an honours degree. The honours degree should have stringent attendance requirements, lab requirements, and the questions should test the analytical abilities, language skill and general awareness of the student.

Another alternative is to bring technical education (like ITI and polytechnics) into the mainstream. You can get a BSc in electrical works or a BA in office management. A BSc in horticulture can set you up as a high end garden landscaping consultant and a BSc in wood technology can setup a carpentery and interior design company. This reduces the pressure on everyone to "do" science. They get a BSc degree anyway. The BSc science programs will then cater to students who want to study Physics/ Chemistry/ Biochemistry etc. Then we can make the science courses truly rigorous.
Until this pressure of everyone needing to get a BSc is reduced, there is no hope for undergraduate science education in India.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

people in this village

I have temporarily taken up residence in a village in the hills. Tamil nadu has good roads to all these hill villages---maybe a few exceptions in the remoter parts of the district. Good roads means really that--- smooth ---no potholes at all!!!
The schools in these villages are much better than the ones in the urban areas. They are all run well, students are inside the class rooms, fairly quiet, and listening to what the teacher has to say. The schools have good buildings, a playground where they play football/hockey after school.The children are all polite... in fact, all the people here are polite...a great contrast to Chennai where autodrivers and bus conducters are abusive as a default option.
The school children here have a better life than their urban counterparts because nowadays, urban schools are not into education....they are now just tution centres for the school final exam or for the entrance exams.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

schools thirty years ago

I have studied in 4 different schools in the 1960's. I enjoyed going to three of these schools and hated going to the fourth one. But even this hated school was far better than some of the schools I see nowadays. We had a recess when we ate lunch with friends, played hopscotch or tag or whatever the popular game of the week was, we quarelled with friends, or just ran around in the huge playground collecting fallen tamarind pods , dodging the cheels (kites) that tried to snatch our lunch. We studied everything with equal fervour....history, geography, maths, science, English, Hindi and even a bit of Sanskrit. we had weekly games period, music period, art period in our timetables.