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India Learning, The Indian Way

Vikram singh

Feb 24, 2005
The sometimes uncanny ability of many Indian students, both at home and overseas, to excel in mathematics, science, literature and geography has won the admiration of many in the western world.
Robert Compton, an American entrepreneur and filmmaker had always assumed that India’s education standards were poor. He was so impressed by students’ superior learning habits on visiting here though that he decided to do the documentary, “2 million minutes” to demonstrate the urgent need for U.S. schools to mimic the teaching techniques of countries like India and China.
Across the pond, British education officers have also remarked on how their students need to learn from India. Back from a recent trip to India, British Universities Minister David Willets announced his interest in sending British students to India for studies, especially in subjects like math, science and IT.
For many, this adulation for a widely-criticized education system seems bizarre. After all, doesn’t India boast of astronomical primary school drop-out rates? Doesn’t much of rural India struggle with high illiteracy rates? Isn’t the country infamous for using a system of rote-learning? Who can ignore the country’s crumbling education infrastructure or lack of teaching standards?
So, what is everyone really harping about?
Perhaps the success of some of India’s students lies not as much within the formal underfunded education system but in an inherent culture of learning; not in schools and colleges as much as in everyday interactions and perceptions.
It has long been advocated that in classrooms in the West, Indian students tend to be more hard-working than their non-Indian classmates when it comes to academics. A key reason for this is the inculcation of study habits in students from a very early age and a societal perception that children need to put their studies before all other aspects of their daily lives. Indeed, no other reason will get you excused from a family wedding in India than to say that you have an important class or a test coming up.
Students in India are taught to deal with the pressure of examinations and to compete with their classmates for better grades well before those in the West. There is also a great emphasis to use any available free time to revise class-notes, practice math problems or attend private tuitions rather than watching Friends or playing cricket. Compton states in his film how an average U.S. student spends 900 hours in the classroom and 1,500 hours in front of the television in their four-years of high school.
From my own experience studying in India and later in the U.S., I found a marked difference in how Indian students use their school holidays to learn a new language, attend coaching classes or practice handwriting instead of attending football games, visiting relatives or working in the local supermarket. This means they put in more hours for their math, science or geography studies. Is it really a wonder that they tend to score better in these subject areas?
Another cog in the wheel is India’s culture of constant supervision and guidance of students by their parents and teachers, even to the point of micromanagement of daily schedules and long-term goals. Parents are involved in a student’s academic work, tuition classes, university planning and career counselling, not just in primary school but well into college. In the West, where students are given a greater deal of independence to map their own interests or choose a college, such a system would be considered too stifling. In India, however, it is as commonplace as bargaining in the local bazaar or drinking tea with milk.
The result of this is Indian students are led by their mentors to follow a predetermined path from a very early age, almost like horses with blinkers on. While students in the West are discovering where their “true interests” lie and are experimenting with different subjects; Indian students are steaming ahead in calculus and biology on a course chartered out long ago by their parents or teachers.
Finally, it is imperative to appreciate the role India’s poverty and population play in stoking a culture of learning in the country. The U.S. National Center on Education and Economy reported in 2006 that only 10% of India’s potential college students actually attend college for reasons such as poverty and high opportunity costs. It’s better to earn money farming than attend college for four years, some would say. This figure may have increased slightly since then but the point remains: There is too little to go around for everyone.
The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2002 placed IIM Ahmadabad, a premier business school, as the toughest school to get into with 70,000 students fighting for 200 seats.
In a system where India’s limited colleges have the luxury of selecting only the cream of the crop from thousands of applicants by setting up incredibly stringent selection procedures—especially in math and science—students have to train hard to succeed.
To the likes of President Barack Obama, who insists that America’s economic and political longevity are inextricably linked to the performance of America’s schools, India’s culture of learning offers some valuable lessons.
By pushing students to utilize free time more productively, by fostering a culture of mentorship and collective decision-making and by setting up stringent guidelines for college admissions, the West can emulate India’s success.

Whether or not their concerted efforts to develop a culture of learning that comes naturally to many Indians is something that remains to be seen. Perhaps it will provide us all some learning opportunities?




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