In a recent article, Economist pictured a lot of parents climbing over walls of an exam hall to help their kids to pass the 10th grade exam. Given below is an excerpt from the article which surprised me.
An education system that favors elitism over basic schooling is in part to blame. The OECD found that the top 5% of 15-year-olds in two Indian states performed as well as average rich-country children in reading, mathematics and science. But the rest were far behind. And there are shortcomings even in higher education. Technology firms complain that graduate recruits are not up to scratch. Only a quarter with technical degrees are considered employable, according to one industry body. – Economist
What surprised me is that only 25% of the graduates are employable in the technology industry. The remaining 75% are not employable in spite of having a degree certificate. How’s that possible? I was able to answer this question by looking at my own experience. In 12th grade, I scored 97% in chemistry. From the marks scored one can conclude that I should be proficient in chemistry. But the fact is that I never knew how to read a periodic table. I realized my ignorance when I took a 20 hour chemistry course at Stanford last year. In 20 hours, I learnt more chemistry than what I learnt during my high school days. Why is that?
The reason is very simple. In high school my focus was to score high marks and at Stanford I signed up for the course to learn. The difference between scoring and learning is same as the difference between price and intrinsic value. Those who don’t understand are sure to fail both in education and investing. This difference was beautifully explained by the nobel laureate, Richard Feynman. When Feynman was visiting Brazil, he had an opportunity to attend a lecture in an engineering school. What he observed in the lecture summarized the difference between scoring and learning.
The lecture went like this, translated into English: Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration.” The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.
I didn’t see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge–nothing!
After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes–what do you do with them?”
“Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.”
“What will the exam be like?”
“Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized. – Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
As Buffett tells, games are won by players who focus on the playing field and not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. Similarly if we want to improve the quality of students coming out of college, we should change the incentives to make them focus on learning instead of scoring. Until that happens we will produce graduates who can recite Third Symposium word by word without knowing that Plato is taking about truth and beauty.
Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek–even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?”–and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrr-up”–he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek. But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty! – Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!