Thursday, September 1, 2011

Chennai's education system

Never the most vibrant of cities, Chennai still had a lot going for it - Marina beach, Carnatic season, Kollywood. But beyond all these, Chennai also had a sense of identity, a sense of being distinct. One of the underpinnings of this was the city's rich academic culture, and this played a huge role in maintaining that confidence and pride. Chennai has always placed a huge importance on academia and in excellence of any kind, and it is no surprise that benchmark for many 12-15 year olds were the 20-somethings who had a standing because they had done a BE or an MBBS in a good college.

And this is why it is important for the city that the educational institutions stay healthy and competitive. And this is why the City is going down the drain. I am not going to sit on the fence on this one, nor am I going to mince words or be politically correct. Political correctness be damned. If I can shout from a suitable rooftop, I would - The city's educational system is slowly going kaput. It just isn't working. And the funny thing is that most people in the city don't know this.

Good teachers are disappearing, students are clueless, and the general levels of application are abysmally low. Have no illusions, Chennai has fallen so far below the other big cities that we will soon lose sight of them.

The statistical evidence is strong. Chennai has come near the bottom in assessment tests conducted by agencies. In JEE, Chennai did not have a single student in the top 100 apparently, there was a similar poor performance in AIEEE. In AIEEE, a state rank of 3000-odd would have translated to an All India rank of more than 1.5 lakh. CAT, IAS, NLS, we have become poor across the board.

As a former analyst who made his living as a number-cruncher, I retain a healthy scepticism of presented data and am more comfortable with anecdotal evidence that I can trust. As someone currently employed in the education sector, I regularly interact with a lot of teachers. The anecdotal evidence is, if anything, even more depressing.

Teachers across the city are lamenting how student-quality has fallen. A teacher from PSBB told me - You guys worried about clearing JEE. With these kids, I am more worried about them getting decent marks in board exams. Teacher from SBOA: 1997 was the last decent batch that I saw (this in 2010). Even accounting for nostalgia playing a role in rose-tinting the past, it is very clear that standards have fallen dramatically over the past decade or so.

I handle different batches of students. I see three key distressing signs.

1. No clue about fundamentals: I am a bore when it comes to learning from first principles and I can be very pedantic when it comes to very basic things. Even accounting for this, I was shocked when the kids showed zero awareness (plus zero curiosity, which is somehow even more painful to take) of basic concepts. For instance, I have asked several batches of students why d/dx (sin x) was cos x. And not one of them could relate it to anything fundamental. 95% of students in Chennai are taught that d/dx (sin x) is cos x as if d/dx where a black box. They have no idea why this d/dx thing works or what it is supposed to mean logically. To them, it is just something that gives out results that they need to remember. Teaching calculus like this must be the most pointless exercise ever. It is far better to not know anything about calculus

2. Learning fatigue: The ability of students to take in concepts from very basics is p*ss poor. Most good students tire in 20 or so minutes.The average ones have attention spans comparable to 2-year olds. The students can take in formulae (plenty of that), the 'memory' component of their brain is fully functional. Someone has just tampered with the component called "application". Tell students the formula for finding the number of factors for 2^3 * 3^5 * 5^4, they will solve questions all day. After 30 minutes of practice, ask them for number of even factors of the 2^3 * 3^5 * 5^4 and they will stare at you as if you asked them to recite from the Gita. In their defence, if you gave them a formula for counting even factors, they would be happy to practice that as well. But the "application" component of the brain as gone AWOL. This leads to a fetish for shortcuts and more formulae - both distress signals.

3. Lack of ambition: When I was in school (1997) , we guys would want to participate in any contest at an all-India level just to see where we stood vis-a-vis students from Mumbai, Bangalore etc. The number of times I hear "JEE is an All-India exam and so too tough", "We should not look at AIEEE all India rank", "The competition in CAT is mad. We should not have to put up with this" is absurd.

The students positively quake in their boots at the very mention of competition at an All-India level. If this timidity brought with it some humility that would be half a victory. But for some reason, the city has been infested with this slugfest celebrating mediocrity. When the whole world is trying to imitate the competitive setting from India and China, there is our own Chennai that is running away from competition at a rapid clip. The heart bleeds.

Parents have lost the ability to say - "Roll with it. You were born in this country. This intensity will build character. Apply yourself and the fundamentals for a bright future can be built". We are becoming a city of wimps. Parents are mollycoddling their kids endlessly. We guys used to bicycle 7+ kms one way six days a week to attend coaching classes for JEE. Our parents felt bad about this, but not once did they make it sound like a big deal. I think overwhelming majority of parents these days are not willing to tell their kids to push themselves harder. Where are the tiger moms of Chennai?

Somebody had to say we are not that good these days. I am happy to be that guy. I realize that I have used to pretty provocative language. Please don't take offence to that and miss the point. The city is a horror show as far as education is concerned. The earlier we realize this, the better.

Will outline my hypotheses for the reasons for this in the next post. And suggestions for improving things in the subsequent post.


  1. Extremely distressing signals. From a more generic vantage point (bihari with parents in delhi, living in mumbai, etc.) - seems like what you describe is the case everywhere. Fundamentals are poor. Basics are not important. And d/dx is just one example amongst many.
    On a different note, my parents wanted me to do well (academically). These days, parents in Del/Mum want their kids to do well everywhere (swimming, guitar, dancing, sheila ki jawani, academics, badminton, tennis, squash and so on). I think the tiger moms and cold pragmatic elephantine dads have also lost their focus!

  2. I reckon that this is a good thing. relax guys - Less focus on academics - life is meant to be enjoyed. This coming from a state ranker for both std x and xii. non engineer but iimb. - i never learnt calculus and i pay the top marginal tax rate in australia.
    I was raised in chennai and left school in 1990. enjoy your teenage years.