Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cram Junkies

I am not familiar with a Korean cram school equivalent in India though the unscrupulous coaching centers come pretty close. That said, the cram school sounds like torture that even Indian kids don't go through and that is saying a lot. When the stakes are so incredibly high, often the end justifies the means - be it by cramming without understanding, analysis or reflection or by obtaining "valuable suggestions" from a leaked IIT entrance exam paper. The end as it turns out, is not the education itself but scoring a coveted seat in an elite university.

Irrespective of the means, fair (cramming) or foul(access to leaked questions), the aspirants to these institution have to work horrendously hard because everyone else in the fray has the same advantages that they have and the acceptance rates of the colleges in question are among the lowest in the world. It takes woefully little to get eliminated and have your life's course altered for ever - or at least that is how these kid are made to believe.

So after giving every ounce of themselves to the brutal system, and snagging the college admission, very few are left with any energy or enthusiasm for the education itself - the relentless pursuit of excellence ironically ends right at the point of entry. While the entrance exams are like sprints to the marathon of actual education and learning that will follow it, most are too exhausted to even remain in the running.

On the contrary, the average kids without the capacity or ambition to cram and slog their way into top-ranking colleges end up doing quite well where ever end up after being rejected by many if not all elite colleges. They actually learn something in college and are better prepared for the life that lays ahead. Most importantly, since they never depended on crutches like coaching centers to get them in, they go through their academic lives and after much more self-reliant and confident. Having learned to swim without a life-jacket and survived they are the ready for the treacherous waters that they must navigate outside the cocoon of college and university.

It is common to see bright and talented high-schoolers dissipate over four years into mediocrity at engineering school. They recover from the tortures of entrance exam preparations for the first year only to discover that the education for which they had nearly lost their lives and sanity was way over-rated. They slide into the trough of delusion and disinterest only to recover in the final year when they are getting ready to find a job.

The cram mode sets in once again. Interview and screening test questions are quarried, group discussion topics are foraged and final sememster dissertations
are bloated and polished with plagiarized material.After living in a daze for four years and not having acquired more than a smattering of understanding of the subjects that were taught in that period, these "meritorious" students scheme and scam their way into their first job and that probably sets the tone for the rest of their professional lives.

It is no wonder then that they are notoriously inept at managing time and priorities, applying a disciplined approach to learning anything new, putting together a coherent presentation, displaying a common sense approach to problem-solving, being able to grow with slowly acquired on the job experience. All their adult lives they have absorbed only when under tremendous pressure to do so. Therefore, the 12-14 hour working days (weekends often included) and the lack of creativity and innovation. Since there is nothing in the real world that remotely resembles a cram school or coaching shop, it often becomes necessary to simulate the vibe just to be able to survive.


oneandonly said...

Labeling the coaching centers in India as unscrupulous because one
of them was involved in a paper leak in 1997 is not a very good example
of your reasoning abilities.

Personally I would rather have all
of them eliminated but the thing is
despite the fact that they charge
an unscrupulous amount of money, they have democratized the admission process in most of the elite colleges of India.

Schooling facilities in different parts of India are hardly comparable and thus one way of looking at the coaching centers is that they help students in making up for their poor schooling in the

Of course, that is a biased perspective and the fact is that
even those with best of the schooling facilities come to those coaching centers, but they are
losing money due to their own stupidities.

oneandonly said...

though I would agree that education in the so called "elite" colleges is way over-rated but then you have to compare it with the options available in India.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Now, who will tell the likes of Tom Friedman and Bill Gates that Indian and Korean education is not education in the classical sense?

While the corporatists seem to want nothing more than a huge class of desperate and eager worker bees, they forget that what makes a democracy thrive is its citizenry, what makes a culture thrive is its creators, and what makes a society succeed is plenty of opportunities (to fail as well as succeed) and second chances.

Miguel said...

First of all, I still see India as a third world country and most of this countries are very controling of innovation and crativity. Also, not all countries want to be like the states!

Heartcrossings said...

oneandonly - I am assuming you are from India. If so, you must know that there has been anecdotal evidence of malpractice by coaching centers for the longest time. It has taken a while to get hard evidence of what many people have long suspected.

I am really surprised at your point about coaching centers supplementing poor schooling. The one thing coaching centers do not do is to build foundational concepts in the subject. The focus is 100% on the goal making the JEE or whatever other exam. Concepts don't count.

In all fairness, they would never get through the material if they had to actually "educate". None of them promise they will make a brilliant physicist or mathematician out of a kid.

The only promise is a seat in an elite school. The buck stops right there.

Anonymous - Thanks. The Indian system is exceptional at producing hard working drones with scant imagination.

This is not to say that there are no brilliant and creative people coming out of it - but I would argue that these are the kids who are so exceptional that even the Indian system cannot harm them - they would shine no matter where they are and what education they received.

Since India has a huge population, even a very very small percent of it being truly exceptional makes for large numbers.

Chances are that you will not see this type if your interaction has been limited to the legions of code-coolies in the western world.

Miguel - I would agree.

oneandonly said...

To keep things simple, I would
be very specific. Talking of IIT-JEE,
very few people in this world
can get through that exam, simply
by cramming the formulae and stuff,
since as you yourself agreed the material is too much. So, the
kids are learning the concepts somewhere...

Secondly, even if we agree that
coaching centers don't lay too
much emphasis on concepts, tell
me someone who does. Schools?
How many of them? Teachers who
wouldn't even show up in the
classes, so that their tuitions
can thrive. So coaching centers
are a natural extension for them
if you are so adamant about that.
One thing that makes them inferior to schools is lack of practicals,
but honestly, very few schools take
them seriously.

Thirdly, since they pay so well,
a lot of talented teachers are
actually teaching in them. Schools
just can't match them.

Fourthly, have you been to a coaching center? I guess not.
I have. I am not defending every
coaching center but there are
few that I know of. And they are
not as bad as you make them sound.
So, the same way I can't defend
every one of them, you are not
allowed to slander all of them as

Fifthly, just compare two years
idly spent at a school studying
Physics,chemistry,maths and one
year of complete focus at a coaching center. How different are

Finally, as I had said earlier I would rather have all of them uprooted, but the thing is they are only as bad
as other teaching institutions. May
be less.

oneandonly said...

Or, to just think of it, may
be we take the formal education
way too seriously. There is a guy
Sridhar Vembu, who gives almost
an year of training to the plain
vanila B.Com. and B.Sc. graduates,
and with their help has created
Zoho, the "official" competitor
to Google Docs.

Heartcrossings said...

oneandonly - As it turns out, I attended a so-called elite engineering college myself and did sign up at a coaching center right after 10th but stayed there only for a couple of months.

This man had the record of converting 70% or more of his class into successful entries to engineering schools so getting placed in his center was tough - you had to qualify his test.

I figured in two months that I would never have the concepts down but would have mastered problem solving techniques that would help me in the test.

I cared to learn more than I cared to test well so I left. Most of my batch in his class made it in and some with all India ranks within the top 100 in the IIT-JEE. That said, I think I know what and who I am talking about.

I've been in the belly of the beast myself along with a whole bunch of other kids who I grew up with. I have seen who failed and who was able to succeed and in my mind it defied logic.

Anonymous said...

So, a person by the name of Miguel says, "I still see India as a third
world country....Not all countries
want to be like States...".

I feel like blasting it right
away but I would save it for
another day. What really hurts
me is Heartcrossings's reply :
"Miguel - I would agree"

Now this person Heartcrossings,
was educated in one of the best
engineering colleges of India,
as she has said in the previous
comment, where education is subsidized just too heavily, in
the false hope that may be
these students would do some good
to their country. And what she
chooses to do instead is, sit
on the fence, in her case - in
United States, and agree to the
fact that India is indeed a third
world country. You know what,
you are the reason why India
is still a third world country.

Can anyone tell me how many
third world countries have
a democracy and a

"Right to Information Act"

And before you point out the caste
prejudices and such, tell me
how are the Blacks treated in your
beloved States? And the Muslims too?

Anonymous said...

Last anonymous,

I agree with you. How many third-world countries of India's size, diversity and magnitude of challenges can really call themselves democracies? Sure, India has huge problems, the biggest being an utterly self-serving political class. The ordinary Indian, however, is a hero, given the odds that he or she has to deal with and succeed in the face of. I'd rather live in pollution-and-garbage-infested Bangalore than Shanghai. My freedom is more precious to me than the golden bars of an economic miracle