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Monday, November 6, 2017

How can schools better prepare students for college life

Last week, I attended the 23rd Annual Conference of Sahodaya School Complexes. This is a conference where principals and other senior administrators come together to learn and exchange best practices. About 1000 of them from all over the country landed at Madurai for the 2-day event. These are only from private schools.

I was invited to address the gathering on the topic which is the title of this blog. The question was that when faculty members like me see students in the first year, do they get this feeling that schools could have done something more. What is that something more.

The topic was a bit of challenge for two reasons. One, most of the students that I have seen in various colleges where I have taught, have not always come through the formal education system but through a "shadow" education system of coaching. So may the issues that I notice are not because of schools but because of coaching. I wouldn't really know. And two, even if I know, is it fair on my part to demand more from schools without knowing their constraints. But once I had accepted the invitation, there was no looking back.

So I did the next best thing. I asked my daughter (who is a first year college student)  to do some brain storming with her friends and tell me what do they think of their shortcomings which they now believe should have been taken care of during the school years. And I asked a few faculty colleagues to think of their interaction with first year students and give me their thoughts. So this address was a bunch of ideas that I collected from others.

Before I say what students should have learnt at school, let us first consider what is the primary difference between school life and college life in India. The most important difference is that  colleges tend to treat students as adults, expect them to take several decisions independently, and be responsible for their actions and inactions, while in school, Indian students tend to remain dependent on their parents for everything. So colleges would have elective courses, the attendance in a class could be optional, how much money they can spend on what is their responsibility, and so on. While in school life, mothers would typically be responsible for waking them up, fathers would drop them at school or coaching, and both will keep an eagle eye on the use of facebook and whatsapp by the student at least till all the entrance exams have been taken. Basically the transition from adolescent to a young adult should have started at the age of 15, but in India it is supposed to happen on the 18th birthday magically.

Since students in school life have hardly been asked to take any decisions, they are extremely poor in decision making, even figuring out where to begin, what are the important parameters, how to collect data, etc. And this shows even before college admissions. They have no clue on how to decide which program in which college would meet their requirements, and finally end up following the herd, and last years' closing ranks become the only guidelines for most of them.

In college life, time management will play an extremely important role in learning. The students' schedule is no longer being dictated by parents (well, in some cases, it unfortunately continues). Students will have to prioritize and decide how much time to spend on which activity. Those without any experience in taking decisions will probably waste a whole lot of time on things that they will later regret.

What can schools do about this. Well, at the very least, have different styles of exams. Instead of mostly testing on recall (important for board exams), could they encourage students to analyse information, consider pros and cons, and then provide a reasoned answer. This will also ensure that learning is at higher levels (in terms of Bloom's taxonomy). But I will leave it to schools to really think about how to prepare them better for an independent life involving lots of decisions.

The other major issue which every single person that I talked to pointed out is communication. All four aspects of communication - reading, writing, speaking and listening. Communication is, of course, extremely important in one's career, in any career, but poor communication would seriously hamper learning in college. There is a lot more of self learning in college, and for doing that, you must have good communication skills. With poor communication, you would be shy of not just asking questions from your instructors and teaching assistants, but even your class fellows. (And there is enough evidence to show that you learn less from lectures and more from discussions with your peers.) The quality of your submissions, and the quality of your presentations will all suffer. And one thing that schools should find a way to do is to ask students to read a lot of books right from early classes. And given that one has to keep learning new things throughout the career, reading is a very critical skill that they must pick up early on. Remember, no education program can prepare you for future jobs. We can't predict what jobs will be there even 20 years from now, and the working life is 50 years. So learning to learn is the most important skill to become future-proof and that requires a habit of reading.

In my discipline, Computer Science, programming is one of the most basic skills. And one cannot write a program if one cannot write a coherent paragraph/essay. Try doing this: Write a set of instructions in your mother tongue on how to compute factorial of N. The instructions should be so clear and unambiguous that a class 2 student who has just learnt multiplication should be able to compute. A large number of students aren't able to do this. They, of course, can compute N! but don't know how to explain the algorithm. That is a communication issue.

The next thing that students should learn in schools is the concept of plagiarism. When they write anything in school, there can be no shame about using material from multiple sources. It should be perfectly fine to put lines in quote and say that this line is from such and such source. Why would teachers not insist on stating attributions and having a bibliography at the end of the report. No one is really expecting a school student to advance science and write something that s/he has discovered. They are writing up existing knowledge in their own words, and it should be fine to use a few sentences from existing sources and give proper credit to those sources. Once they come to colleges, the teachers are, in general, more demanding of proper credit, and students get into unnecessary trouble.

Another shortcoming is conduct of laboratory experiments. Many students have not done lab experiments in their science courses but the lab assistant or a teacher has just shown them an experiment. This not only kills curiosity, but also they lack confidence that they can do things on their own. And they show lack of interest in doing lab experiments in college and lab reports are perhaps the most commonly copied documents on campuses.

Given that I exclusively meet only science students in the first year, I see a lack of appreciation for non-science subjects among them. While all engineering colleges have some humanities and social science subjects in the curriculum, students look at them as useless or at best, courses to get easy grades. In today's world, an appreciation of society and individuals is extremely important for all careers. And given that students are required to do all courses till 10th class, teachers must be able to explain the importance of all these subjects, and while students may not study those subjects in 11th and 12th and may not even do extra readings because of board exam and competitive entrance exams, they should come to college with an open mind on such subjects.

At the end, schools should take everything I say with a pinch of salt, since as I said in the beginning, I do not claim to understand the constraints of schools. I have tried to keep only those points in this which I thought would be practically possible to focus more in schools, but I could be wrong about it for some suggestions.


Kartik said...

After going through a traditional Indian engineering college education and then transitioning to Brown University for my master's, I had to similarly evaluate how many skills I did not have when I was going through college the first time around and if somehow I did I could have made much better use of my time in college. I wrote that retrospective here:

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Kartik, thanks for sharing the link to your blog. That is very well written and related to this blog.

Butool abbas said...

Very well put. And I admire the brainstorming outcomes of the students involved. This is exactly what we are working at in Thinkzim.. Building creative confidence and learning collaboratively emphasizing on communication and innovation. Building a structured learning format for it based on workshops done in the past. Would be happy if we can take this ahead with the Sahodayalay Schools too.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Butool, Sahodaya is basically a group of private schools affiliated to CBSE in a region. So there is Delhi Sahodaya, which means all CBSE affiliated private schools in Delhi and nearby. Madurai Sahodaya is similarly all CBSE affiliated private schools near Madurai (well, within 100+ KM radius). So, to do anything with Sahodaya essentially means that you are doing that with CBSE. Of course, you can approach individual Sahodayas, and if you know the leadership, they can inform all their constituents (schools in their region).

Himanshu Ranjan said...

Dear Professor,

There are two points or rather questions which I would like to put up:

--> Quantity versus quality issue: If one takes a random sample of a hundred students studying in class IX and X in India - chances are some of them will drop out, some of them will not cope up with the huge difference between syllabus of forthcoming class XI and class XII. They have never been counselled and join the rat race to join an engineering/medical college. How many quality engineering and medical seats are there given the disproportionate number of aspirants as well as issues of reservation? Is there any mechanism/model which can ensure quality on a scale, segregate and counsel them at an early stage of school?

--> Employability and R & D issue: This may come as a surprise, but even the placements figure at premier institutes don't touch 100 percent. How are colleges preparing students for entrepreneurship and quality research, given the quality of faculty and traditional mindset needs a drastic upheaval?

Unknown said...

The formula for N! is an integral, and cannot be explained to class 2 student under normal circumstances.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Unknown, there is a difference between explaining what is N! and just asking someone to follow a set of instructions without necessarily understanding them. Can someone in 12th class explain to a young student how he has computed N! in such simple steps that the young student can follow without understanding.