Of Parrots & Monkeys

David Wittenberg, Professor, Entrepreneurial Innovation, ISME & ISDI Based in Mumbai, the institute helps design oriented students understand the commercial aspects of the creative industry and arm them with industrial tools for a lucrative career in this market.

Indian higher education is improving. We will improve faster when we resolve to change the types of animals we want to train. I refer to myself as a compulsive teacher. I cannot spend ten minutes with a person without trying to teach him something. I have been teaching since I was 16 years old. I have taught a number of subjects to a variety of audiences in different forums in several countries. Along the way, I have learned a few things about what works and what does not.

Here in India, where I have chosen to spend the rest of my life, I have served as a guest lecturer, visiting professor, leader of faculty development programs, member of the academic advisory council, and, since last year, full-time professor at a business school. Again, I have seen things that are working well, as well as areas for improvement.

The change I have worked for most passionately is to quit educating parrots and monkeys. I have never seen an actual bird or ape in a classroom, but I have interacted with a lot of students who have been taught to behave like parrots and monkeys.

Parrots are famous for their remarkable ability to mimic human voices. If you say a phrase, a parrot can memorize the phrase and repeat it perfectly.

Monkeys can be trained to perform tricks and even jobs. The phrase, “monkey see, monkey do” explains the video clip of a coconut farmer who showed a baby monkey how to twist coconuts suspended on a frame until the strings broke and the coconuts fell. Later, the farmer sent the monkey to climb the coconut palms, and the animal performed the feat flawlessly, saving the farmer the expense of hiring human harvesters.

In India, students can achieve top marks by showing little more skill than a trained parrot or monkey. Students who can memorize what their teachers say and “parrot” it can score top marks. Students who can “ape” the problem-solving methods demonstrated by their teachers can clear their exams.

While a parrot like memory and ape like imitation are both useful, success in business and life usually depends on other abilities. In many situations, there is no right answer to memorize. When an unfamiliar problem arises, a manager cannot look up the correct approach to the problem in a textbook.
Our institutions of higher learning will produce better results when we demand more of students than mere recall of facts and repetition of problem solving steps. Instead of parrots and monkeys, we can – and we should - produce adult human beings with well developed powers of observation, analysis and synthesis, who can solve unfamiliar problems, who can create original material, and who can communicate with near professional clarity and fluency.

In my classes, I work toward this goal in two ways. First, I lecture as little as possible. Instead of “chalk and talk,” I sit quietly for a while as the students discuss and debate a point or grapple with a problem in small groups.I may show them a video clip or a movie and ask them to analyse what they have seen. Occasionally, I will project a PowerPoint slide and ask one of the students to come forward and explain it to the class.

Our institutions of higher learning will produce better results when we demand more of students than mere recall of facts and repetition of problem-solving steps

These techniques make the students the centre of the classroom. Student centred education means that the student, not the teacher, does the work. Students learn much better by doing than by listening, so I give them activities things to do rather than forcing them to listen to me lecture more than a few minutes at a time, and then, only when there is a key point that I need to introduce or explain to them.

Second, I do not administer exams. To assess my students, I make them apply our concepts to a real world situation. Term end assignments in my classes this academic year have included pitching an entrepreneurial business plan to an investor as on the TV show Shark Tank, developing and presenting a consultant’s report to a well-known company to recommend a business model innovation, preparing a marketing plan for a startup in the fashion industry, and evaluating how leadership emerged and was exercised during a student group project.

An exam could show only that a student has memorized my words. A project or essay allows the student to demonstrate how well she understands and can apply the material I have taught.

As of now, the system practically forces professors to teach traditionally. Rules and norms require testing the memories of students, not their ability to think, so instructors teach the syllabus by rote. Our large classes make it burdensome to assess student work product, so we administer multiple choice question tests that can be graded by machines. Our marking policies cannot accommodate group projects, so we default to individual exam papers.

Despite the barriers inherent in our system, and despite the inertia of long tradition, I remain optimistic that we will reform and improve the way we teach our students. PM Modi has called for innovative universities to show the way. Employers have begun to demand graduates who are not merely good at writing exams, but who can think and communicate like professionals.

Change may be slow and difficult, but each of us can contribute. A good place to start is to prepare our students to be capable young men and women rather than parrots and monkeys. We can reduce the time we spend lecturing and substitute classroom activities that enable our students to learn by doing. We can replace some of our exams with individual and group assignments that require students to generate the same kind of work product that will be required in the workplace.

Every change we make in this direction will be a service to our students, to our universities, and to our nation. At the same time, these changes will be a service to ourselves. Professors, who challenge their students to think, create and communicate like professionals may take pride justly in creating the mature graduates who will lead India to future glory.