Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist (he won the Nobel Prize for economics) , in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, writes about a very interesting experience in designing a course he wanted introduce in high schools in Israel. Kahneman is currently the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the Princeton University in the United States. But he started his career in Israel.
As he writes “I convinced some officials at the Israeli Ministry of Education of the need for a curriculum to teach judgement and decision making in school. The team that I assembled to design the curriculum and write a textbook for it included several experienced teachers, some of my psychology students, and Seymour Fox, then dean of the Hebrew University’s School of Education, who was expert in curriculum development.”
The team used to meet every Friday afternoon. In a year’s time they managed to construct a detailed outline of the syllabus, write a few chapters and even run a few sample lessons in the classroom. At this point of time Kahneman thought of running a small exercise and asked the team he was working with, to write down the time they thought it would take to present a complete textbook to the Ministry of Education, which could then go ahead and introduce the course.
As a part of the exercise Kahneman asked Fox, who was an expert at curriculum development, what had his previous experience been like. How much time did the teams in previous cases take to complete, what they had set out to do, Kahneman specifically asked Fox. ““I cannot think of any group that finished in less than seven years…nor any that took more than ten,””replied Fox.
Now contrast this with what is happening at Delhi University, where Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh, is trying to introduce a four year course to replace the current three year one. As things stand as of now, the four year course is expected to be introduced in a few months time, when the next academic session of the university starts.
The work towards introducing a four year course started only in September last year and in December a proposal to that effect was passed. As an article in the Outlook magazine points out “At a hastily called emergency academic council meeting, held on a restricted holiday (December 24), the proposal for the overhaul was passed. The agenda papers of the meeting were made available to council members only two days before the meeting.”
The new academic session of the university starts in July, later this year. In six months time, between July and December, the Delhi University is trying to change the fundamental way it teaches, when it took at least seven years to introduce just a new course in the high schools of Israel.
Now that does not mean that India should also take seven to ten years to overhaul its education system, just because Israel used to do that. But the larger point is that changing the fundamental way of teaching in a central university cannot be done overnight, which is what Delhi University seems to be trying to do.
The first question that needs to be answered is that why is the change being made? Satish Despande, who teaches at the Delhi School of Economics told Outlook, “Not a single public document has been distributed for the rationale behind introducing the four-year course. So, all we are saying is, tell us why.”
The purported reason that seems to be coming out is that it will help those students who want to go to the United States for further studies. As Swapan Dasgupta wrote in a column in The Times of India yesterday “Shashi Tharoor proclaimed his support for the four-year degree course Delhi University is set to introduce from July. Tharoor’s logic was simple: the American 12 + 4 pattern has become the norm. “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.””
Tharoor passed out of St Stephens College in Delhi, and then went to do his PhD from the Tufts University in the United States. Given this, Tharoor’s concern for those students of Delhi university who go to the United States for further studies is understandable.
But what about the ‘lesser mortals’ who decide to stay back and carry on their education or work to make a living, in India? As Ramachandra Guha writes in a column in the Hindustan Times “The logic of converting an established three-year degree programme into one of four years has not been carefully examined. When all other public universities in India have a three-year programme, how can one university alone stand out? The argument that the change will help students get admission into American universities is extremely elitist, since that possibility is open to (at most) 1% of DU students.”
Even if one does not get into the specific reasons for this change, there are other practical issues that need to be addressed.
The new four year structure allows students to drop out at the end of two or three years. Where will these students stand? Will a student who completes three years at Delhi university be eligible for its Post Graduate courses?
As mentioned earlier, Delhi university is a central university, which attracts students from all across the Eastern and Northern India. So will students who complete three year courses from other universities all across India, be eligible for Post Graduate courses on offer at the Delhi university?
If yes, then shouldn’t that be the case with students who complete three years at Delhi university? And if that is the case then why have a four year course at all? These are practical questions which need to be answered for the benefit of students who plan to apply in the various colleges affiliated to Delhi university later this year.
Then there is the problem of how will others treat Delhi university students who drop out at the end of two or three years? Will these students be eligible for MBA/UPSC/PO/any other exam that requires a three year bachelors degree?
That’s the practical part of it. Now lets come to the learning part. A senior administrator of the Delhi university told The Telegraph “Students are not gaining adequate skills and fundamental knowledge on matters relevant to life. The four-year course aims to teach those subjects that are relevant for students for their career, personal conduct and good citizenry.” The question of course is why can’t that be done in three years instead of four? And if its not being done in three years time what is the guarantee that it will be done in four years time?
The way the university plans to go about doing is this is putting students through 11 basic courses in the first two years. As Jayati Ghosh writes in The Hindu “Regardless of their previous training or choice of subject, allstudents will be forced to take 11 foundation courses, which will occupy most of their time in the first two years. These include two courses on “Language, Literature and Creativity” (one in English and the other in Hindi or another Modern Indian Language), “Information Technology,” “Business, Entrepreneurship and Management,” “Governance and Citizenship,” “Psychology, Communication and Life Skills,” “Geographic and Socio-economic Diversity,” “Science and Life,” “History, Culture and Civilisation,” “Building Mathematical Ability” and “Environment and Public Health.”
While broadening the horizon of students is always a good idea, doing it in an unplanned way can have unpleasant consequences. There are multiple questions that crop up here. Who will teach these courses? Are the current lot of Delhi university equipped enough to teach these courses? The Delhi university currently has 4000 vacancies for teachers. So is it in a position to take on this extra burden? What about the text books for these courses?
Also what will be the level of these courses going to be? As Ghosh puts it “These courses will have to be pitched at a level that can be understood by anyone with a basic school qualification. So the course on, say, “Building Mathematical Ability,” must be comprehensible to a student who has not done Mathematics at the Plus Two level, which would make it too basic to retain the interest of students who have already done it in school.”
The multi-disciplinary course goes against the entire idea of the Indian education system where students are expected to pick up their broad specialisation at the 10+2 level.
There are too many questions which need to be answered before a four year course can be introduced. Introducing the course without answering these questions would amount to experimenting with lives of students. Something that should not be done.
Let me conclude this with a personal experience. My three year bachelors degree in mathematics from Ranchi University took me four years to complete. The university during those days was running a year late. Final year exams which should have happened in May-June 1998, finally happened in May-July 1999. In fact, we were told that we were lucky because in the late eighties and the early nineties it took even five and a half years to complete a three year bachelors degree from Ranchi University.
In the end it were students like me who lost precious time because the university system kept screwing up. If the Delhi university goes ahead with its four year programme in its current shape, it is the students who will have to pay for it.
PS: And who has come with the names for the new Delhi university degrees? The university will award an Associate Baccalaureate (after 2 years), a Baccalaureate (after 3 years), and a Baccalaureate with Honours (after 4 years). Can we at least have names for degrees which we can pronounce, the fascination of Delhi university and Dinesh Singh for French notwithstanding.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 6,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)