Taking stock of education: 2009-2016

by Ashish

I teach for a living, and have been doing so since 2009. I’ve dabbled in other things over these seven years, ranging from working as a consultant, joining an organization on a full time basis for about a year, trying to start my own business, working as a trainer and what not – but the one thing that has remained constant over these seven years has been the fact that I have taught every year, and in multiple colleges.

In that sense, and maybe for my age, my career choice has been a little unconventional. I work as a visiting faculty, which means that I am not affiliated to any one college. I teach several courses in economics, finance and statistics at several  colleges, each of which is at liberty to not call me back the following semester (as am I at liberty to not go back to a particular college the following semester). I’m grateful that most colleges have in fact chosen to call me back – but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point of this blog post is this: given that my teaching for the current semester is just about over, I’ve been thinking about how teaching has changed over the past seven years. Not just my particular style of teaching, although that has evolved, of course. I’m talking about trends that have manifested themselves over these seven years, and their implications for the field of education.

In other words, what was teaching like in 2009, what it is like today, and what it likely will be like (and, for that matter, should be like) in the years to come. The obvious disclaimer applies: this is but one man’s thinking, and one man’s opinion. All of what that entails should be kept in mind while reading what follows.

There are five broad trends that I think are easily discernible in the field of education over the time that I have been a part of it.

First, the use of technology has gone up really, really sharply over these seven years. This could be something as simple as projectors and computers becoming the go-to tools for most teachers, or could be the increasingly heavy usage of stuff such as podcasts or TED talks.

Second, textbooks have become pointless. They have always been a scam, of course, but its gone beyond that now. They’re static, unchanging, blinker-mentality-inducing wallet drainers, and the internet – that gloriously dynamic, impossibly rich, perennially beguiling temptress is the new textbook for every subject under the sun. Corollary: a syllabus is pointless. It  works as a compass at best, pointing out the probable direction you ought to take in a subject, but that’s about it.

Third, exams are pointless. They always were, but that last vestigial relevance they had to reality has also long gone AWOL. Why (and you’ll have to imagine me gritting my teeth and banging away furiously at the keyboard)… why should students write mini-epics using pen and paper in 2016? That, and a whole big caboodle of questions that come back to the same point – exams serve no real purpose.
Fourth, we still thinking of teaching as a process that tells students what we think they ought to know. Teaching today ought to be a process that tells students how they should find out for themselves. In other words, here’s the problem, here are the basics, and here is the internet. Now go play Sherlock, and figure out the answer. That’s how it should work. But it doesn’t, and we’re worse off for it. Corollary: teaching today should be about helping students frame problems. It shouldn’t be about telling students how to answer them.

Fifth, colleges as we know them today will not exist tomorrow. When I say tomorrow, I do not mean in the next 24 hours. I mean my daughter, currently all of 30 months, will not go to college the way her old man went to college. I don’t know exactly what will replace colleges, but I know their current avatar will transmogrify. College today is too expensive, too static and too dogmatic for it to survive the 21st century. And that’s a fact.

Each of these is a separate blog post in and of itself, of course – maybe more. And now that I have some time on my hands, I’m going to go ahead and write those blog posts. One idea at a time.