How to break students away from the IIT-IIM chain?

Or how to motivate kids to study basic sciences and humanities.

You know how it is.

This question often comes up in conversation among teachers and school leaders. And it is particularly pertinent for schools located in urban areas where school students throng to coaching centres by the thousands.

Plenty has been written about the perils of following this beaten path of becoming a doctor or an engineer. Yet there has been little change in the scenario.

Despite efforts to the contrary, why aren’t students opting to study the basic sciences and humanities? Well, there are a few things that need to be recognised here –

  1. The social and economic forces pushing this agenda are quite powerful, especially in comparison to what a school teacher can do
  2. It is, at the end of the day, an individual choice, no matter how influenced it might be

Should we just give up then? Not at all! These are just important caveats that need to be recognised so that we are not unreasonably disappointed by reality.

So what can a school teacher really do to motivate her students to study basic sciences1 and build a career out of it? Plenty of things! But we need a dose of human psychology before we discuss them.

We are humans (well, most of us). It is simple but not always obvious but…

We only follow someone’s advice if we trust and respect them.

Think of all the people who have advised you in your life. The more knowledgeable adults from your childhood, the mentors of your adulthood, and the celebrities and influencers from everywhere in between.

A logically laid out argument has little convincing power if it is not backed by trust and respect. Often these arguments are backed by authority but remember what Plato said – “Nothing taught by force stays in the soul."

Kindness goes a long way.

If you want students to respect basic sciences, you have to show them that people who follow basic sciences are worth respecting. Showcasing the ✨wonders of science✨ is only going to work as a motivator for those who are either already awestruck by science or have a predisposition towards investigating causality. It’s preaching to the choir. The atheists won’t care no matter how sweet the hymn.

Prof. Walter Lewin’s lectures on physics at MIT are the gold standard when it comes to teaching introductory physics. But it’s not his explanations or dotted lines that lure students in. It is his personality. His antics. The glimmer in his eyes. His overflowing love for showing uninterested students the wonders of the natural world.

Think of your favourite teacher from school or university – what makes them your favourite? They probably had great pedagogical technique but I am sure it was their personality, their kindness or their warmth that really hooked you in.

So how can you as a teacher ‘brainwash’ your students towards the sciences and humanities? Here are five techniques –

1. Be kind to your students

Embrace the pedagogy of kindness and be a role model for them. If they trust you and respect you, your words are going to have far more impact on them than otherwise. A multi-billion dollar industry is trying to convince them that the IIT+IIM way is the sureshot way to success. Their parents agree. If you are going to convince them otherwise, you better be likable.

2. Organise talks by people in science

Not just scientists, get literally anyone who has a bachelor’s or master’s degree in science to talk about their career and illustrate how their education in the basic sciences helped them get there. Get them to talk about their life. You need them to be storytellers and not scientists!

3. Deconstruct the myth that IIT = success

Yes, IITians do great things but the world is much larger than that. Not getting into an IIT is not the end of the world. There are many roads to success. There are hundreds of thousands of university graduates produced in India each year and only a few thousand of them graduate from IITs and IIMs.

4. Run a book club discussing life stories of science and scientists

I highly recommend ‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee and ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo for this. When I was little my mom would get these short biographies of famous scientists published by Navneet Publication Ltd. Though I cannot recall the exact content of those books now I can tell you that the attribute that sets a good biographical story apart from the rest is that it humanises the central figure. Instead of painting the scientist as a patron saint of humanity, the humble origins and roadblocks of their life need to be brought to forefront. This makes their tales seem achievable. Otherwise it’s far too easy to dismiss them as “geniuses”. Genius is largely just consistent effort.

5. Bridge the gap between arts and science

The world needs generalists. Demonstrate to your students how science benefits from the arts and vice versa. There’s tons of content available on this on YouTube. There’s a reason Einstein played the violin and Feynman the bongo drums. Same reason why Da Vinci was both a painter and an anatomist.

Lastly, and most importantly, create a respectful space for following the scientific method. More than studying science it is important to internalise the scientific method because that’s going to help out a lot more than any knowledge of science will. You’d rather raise an accountant with a sound understanding of logic and reason than an alleged scientist who engages in casteist slurs.

What do you reckon? I’d love to hear your views. Write me an email!

What is the ‘IIT-IIM chain’?

Think of it as the road a young adult in India is supposed to take to have a ‘successful career’. It goes like this –

  1. Score well in Class 10 exams so you can get the science stream
  2. Don’t go to school and instead learn how to crack the IIT entrance exam at a coaching centre of your choice
  3. Join an IIT and feel proud of yourself for two years
  4. In your third year prepare and score in the 99+ percentile in the entrance exam for IIM
  5. Join an IIM and feel proud for the rest of your life because now your career is set

The IIT-IIM tag is supposed to add brand value to your otherwise lackluster personality and character. And reasonably so, the original IITs and IIMs are magnificent institutions that have contributed immensely to human progress. Lately, not so much.

Keep up with the Pedagoguey!

Check out @pedagoguey on Instagram – that is where I post bite-sized versions of these blog posts, because sometimes reading a tweet thread is all you have the energy for.

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  1. For the sake of brevity I am shortening to sciences but I mean this for both sciences and humanities ↩︎