If our world is connected, why is education so pigeonholed?

Feb 18, 2013 by

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

Imagine a light that flashes each time there is mail in your outdoor postal mailbox, while another switch transfers the mail indoors through a pipe. Perfect for the elderly, especially in treacherous weather.

Four years ago, I had an opportunity to attend an “Invention Convention” meant for school kids up to nine years, whose products were chosen from about 10 schools in rural Warren County in New Jersey, USA. The children came up with products that were practically applicable and answers to many of modern household and social American problems. What impressed me even more than design elements was the school kids’ preparation to explain, pitch, market and sell effectively.

The mail-switch product, fully functional, was one such on display there—designed by an 8-year-old, sparkling-eyed, shy little girl. Would it be a surprise if this young woman went on to do something innovative in her career? There were about 20 such products on display. The students’ ability to come up with complete solutions for their society reflected an ability to identify a need and think seamlessly between physics, social science, economics, and pure and practical common sense; to do this in their own way, independently, with some simple but effective guidance from teachers at the implementation stage.

Education-application synergy has been well-documented, yet it seems to largely elude the liberal arts. The fracture between subjects, and between those academic subjects and industries, is particularly ubiquitous and confusing when it comes to liberal arts, humanities and the social sciences. Our current systems often do not allow students to understand and use the interdisciplinary side of their professional world. Some of us educators have pontificated on the application of subjects to the dreaded ‘real world.’ The more daring among us have even attempted to point out what ought to have been the obvious: that the subjects we teach have a bearing on our life’s experiences. But very few educators have attempted to show how. Further, few, if any, have attempted to draw linkages between subjects or areas of study.

So how can educational institutions change the methods to make their students think independently and to question themselves? Simple: teach them how to seek answers. For this, independent and proactive learning is imperative, and one way is to allow interdisciplinary research projects that will help students apply those linkages.

Linking language and culture studies to employablity

Conventionally, languages and culture studies have been taught as purely academic disciplines, with few employment opportunities outside the sporadic jobs at government departments of culture and languages. The media industries do hire off humanities colleges but feel the need to retrain students toward business awareness, audience perception, knowledge of marketing, and such “downstream” skills. No longer is it enough to be merely creative experts—the ability to understand audiences and disseminate information with optimal effectiveness is best exemplified in blogs and the social media. With the explosive growth of the media, culture and languages have a large scope to consciously be dovetailed and insinuated into the communication industries, including the media and the segments servicing them, i.e., advertising, public relations and media research. Instead of having separate “creative” schools, the institutional (as opposed to individual) endeavor should be to integrate disciplines of writing, culture, media and communication studies. Extrapolate that to sociology, anthropology, history, etc, and you get an exponential growth in employability all around.

Employability of professional graduates: what’s the problem?

Higher education typically suffers from “little knowledge creation.” This was a conclusion reached at the 2006 seminar ‘Washington Symposium’ hosted by NAFSA. They probably stopped short of another obvious truth: lack of knowledge creation in our campuses is a major reason that “unemployability” persists.

Less than 25 percent of our country’s professional graduates are employable, says a Government of India research. As Michael Spence said in the 1970s — and Infosys’s Chief Mentor N. R. Narayanamurthy echoed more recently — educational institutes have merely become a captive space from where employers pick up inherently bright students. We have heard the rhetoric time and again from management gurus and industry experts on what category of Indian professional graduates are largely unemployable:

  • Employees who lack the ability to apply classroom education to professions. In particular, fresh graduates who lack the ability to analyze situations from a 360-degree approach.
  • Students from institutions typically restricted by lack of quality input and innovative teachers.
  • Graduates who do not know basics of their environment and their world and, in general, have neither developed a worldview nor can they analyze professional situations independently.
  • Graduates who do not have learnability — that supreme capability of problem-solving, to constantly ask fundamental (and original) questions and seek answers.

Unfortunately, the above list would include a majority of professional graduates and institutions in India. Individual talent will always continue to shine through but, systemically, educational training doesn’t prepare our graduates to solve problems in a practical world where they must apply more than just their field of study.

Surely the education system in India cannot look the other way while our industries (Infy itself, for example) are starting up their own training institutes to transform professional graduates into employable professional graduates?

And content isn’t really the problem, is it? Information is at our fingertips today — quite literally. It is the structure of learning, or pedagogical methodology, that’s dubious. It is in human nature to apply eclectic learning to real life, and our education system can easily put that inherent advantage to good use. All it takes is reengineering our thoughts about what education really is.

Why were some of us made to take a specific combination of subjects at college – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics or Biology at pre-university; then Physics, Chemistry, or Mathematics at the graduate level? Why not a mix of Physics, English Literature, and Geography? Is it because the makers of education policy wanted to make sure the degrees they were awarding were either a ‘B.Sc.’ or a ‘B.A.’ or a “B.Com”?

The easiest thing for students to understand would be linkages across disciplines in the professional world. “Interdisciplinary” indicates that our learning needs to be across disciplines, not just in one discipline, and linking disciplines along the way. The Harvard Business School, in its review seminar in November 2008, felt that its MBAs were increasingly becoming irrelevant in a globalizing world. The solution? Their MBA programs will become increasingly interdisciplinary in approach.

If each level of higher education provided the following to our budding managers, communicators, and techies alike, each of us would feel far more educated than we do today:

  • Provide input in a variety of general subjects — Geography, History, Statistics, Economics, and Psychology to name a few — but applied to the student’s major field of study. A refresher course is all that is required and, this time around, the subjects are linked to our chosen professions.[In a survey I conducted in late 2008, senior industry practitioners and hiring managers in India, USA and UK unanimously agreed that this approach would provide a more global world-view and make students more employable.]
  • Allow students to choose independent research projects across courses, allowing them to select only relevant classes. The successful completion of an interdisciplinary project is a sure way of making graduates think analytically and to break down academic walls.
  • Take the interdisciplinary approach, whereby curriculum experts and teachers collaborate to carefully ‘map’ the content of a subject on to the desired learning outcome.For example, in a management institute, that goal could be to produce an effective manager, equipped with a well-rounded world-view and sound judgment. A question we could be asking ourselves in designing such a course is, “Which portions of, say, Psychology, would be most relevant to a manager?”)


Why are we learning what we’re learning?

Input (and output) among a majority of our educational institutions has been largely tools-oriented. If you asked professional graduates why they should or ought to know what they know chances are they would draw a blank.

UNESCO’s International Commission on Education for the 21st Century states that education must be organized around four types of learning:

  • learning to know, that is acquiring the instruments of understanding;
  • learning to do, so as to be able to act creatively in one’s environment;
  • learning to live together, so as to participate and cooperate with other people in all human activities; and
  • learning to be, a progression toward sustainable existence.

The global marketplace is more demanding of broader skill-sets than before. The requirement set is solutions-driven: a combination of technological, professional, business, social, and life skills — and many more intangible concepts. No longer is it enough to “super-specialize” – there is more demand for multi-skilled multi-specialists and generalists, who can adapt to specific environments. While some of these skills may evolve over time, many of them need a fundamental change in the way academic institutions think.

To summarize

True integration of UNESCO’s four principles can only occur when learning is the acquisition of skills for employment and/or entrepreneurship. But learning cannot be as narrow or as super-focused on employment: it must make a student employable as a method to make him or her grasp the concepts in all their applications.

The integration and interaction of disciplines at once widens the boundaries and expects an employee to quickly learn to specialize. It is important to recognize that education is only a trigger to learn and often results in individuals understanding their own capabilities in a better way. Faculty training, periodic faculty meetings where faculty make presentations and help one another to understand why students must experience an interdisciplinary education, and a healthy interface with the industries will go a long way in addressing the still unrecognized problem.