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A Student’s Midlife Crisis

Some days ago, our mentor shared excerpts from the 1989 Hollywood movie “Dead Poets Society” involving unorthodox school teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) and his student Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). The conversation, which traces a teacher’s well-intentioned guidance of his pupil leading to the latter’s suicide, was analyzed for coaching efficacy by two reputed coaches. The result of the post mortem was obvious: The teacher wasn’t coaching. He was pushing the pupil into what he thought to be right!

Having seen the original and its shoddy Malayalam remake (Life is Beautiful), the first thought that came to my mind was the teacher’s highly intrusive behavior. “I’m the experienced one around here and therefore my words more likely  to be correct than yours,” seems to be his perspective. As coaches, we face such dilemmas in real life where we tend to move  between coaching, mentoring and counseling rather seamlessly.

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While it is true that most students and many coaching clients might inadvertently seek advice in the garb of coaching, what raised by hackles is the negative impact of such an enterprise on education. Do schools really impart knowledge or have they morphed into institutions that train  kids to score high grades? Most of us are familiar with suggestions like: ‘Read this Guide / Helpbook and you will get good grades’ or ‘Attend these coaching classes and you’ll clear the competitive examination.’

Welcome to the modern day student’s Midlife crisis!

Students have stopped being receivers of data and processors of knowledge and have unwittingly become customers of ill-trained coaches (at coaching institutions) who train them on scoring higher grades, seldom bothering about their ability to process this knowledge. What’s more, these coaches stereotype their students’ idea of success to merely scoring higher grades.

In the past, Corporate India has voiced concerns over the quality of graduates. Now N.R. Narayana Murthy has hit the nail on the head. He states bluntly that 80% of students at IITs (India’s premier tech educator) are of poor quality. (Read the article here)

I was drawn to Murthy’s reason for the quality drop. “Thanks to coaching classes today, the quality of students entering the IITs has gone lower and lower… coaching classes teach aspirants a limited set of problems, out of which a few are asked in the examinations,” he says while suggesting a new method of evaluating and selecting students for the IITs.

The similarity between Keatings and the modern-day coaches struck m. I realized that these coaching academics were twice as dangerous as the educator in the movie. While Keating only created an emotional turmoil in Neil’s mind, his modern day avatars were completely destroying the student’s thinking faculty. With a bit of help from parents and peer pressure, these teachers had managed to raise a fear of examinations in their minds. They’d narrowed down the student’s role in education.

Does this mean we are  creating a generation who can only obey orders? A generation that has mastered ‘Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V’ and flounder at the smallest challenge? How can we coach these modern day Keatings?

Postscript: Another example of ‘focused learning’ can be seen at any of the thousands of Driving Schools across India. The instructors are paid to coach wannabe drivers on using the steering, accelerator, clutch and brakes of a car. There is no mention of driving rules or road etiquette. Not surprising! Given that the sole aim of the driving school is to get the aspiring driver a license… Being a good driver is optional! The result: Chaos on the Roads!!!

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  • Dreamer

    Chetan Bhagat has hit back at Narayana Murthy saying he has no business to comment upon IITians as Infosys is only a body shop. Let the argument continue. Aspiring middle class in the country has taken a serious deviation for disaster in defining their roles for themselves (read, through their wards/offisprings). As a result, obtaining a seat in one of the premier technical institutes or business schools has become the primary objective in one’s life. The biggest casualty here is Respect for KNOWLEDGE. Bansals Academy or FIITJEEE or Akash Institute does not enroll students to equip their students to be the best scholars by helping them enroll into premier institutes. Nor do students enroll themselves in the coaching institutes aspire to amass more knowledge in their chosen areas of interest. IIT seat means, campus interview, guaranteed placement, better salary package, better market evaluation, better prospects of alliances into more influential families and much more…. I used to know a gold medalist in statistics who declined his MTech seat both at Kanpur and Kharagpur as he felt there was no substitute to the aeronatutical engineering faculty at IIT Madras. Juxtaposed to this, I also know of a young man whose family went around brandishing their son’s CV till they got him married to an well established industrial family – all because the boy graduated from IIT and IIM and worked in McKinsey and company. It is time we brought knowledge back to the revered pedastal. Success, will surely follow.

    • Raj Narayan

      Actually, we need to define education and knowledge clearly. We are mistaking the former for the latter. The former is a process of skill development with a purpose while the latter is a process of discovery. It is only through renewed focus on our ability to discover knowledge that we can bring it back to the pedestal. Repeated questioning is what such discovery engages us in. Unfortunately, our current education system runs contrary to this essential process to the development of the mind. 

  • Mohan Narayanswamy

    And what about mechanics of the car my friend. In case of a breakdown most people don’t even know the basics to check what could be wrong. Same thumb rule applies to education. Unfortunately it’s all about numbers. No one bothers about learning. That’s how we are taught in this country. It’s all about getting high scores and the system still continues. Come with me to Dehradun and visit our school one day my friend. Will show you how these kids are taught to learn. Cheers.

    • Raj Narayan

      I would love to make that trip. It may interest you to know that I am currently working on creating programs that can unlock the potential of teachers through subtle tweaks of their teaching methods. I guess my interest in coaching as well as the total lack of faith in our existing teaching methods is what’s driving me towards this experiment. Learning is all about questioning and discovery – two aspects that our education system seems to abhor as naturally as nature abhors a vacuum.