The Problem of Mathematics Education in India

This coming from someone who has had his entire education in India and loves the subject may sound a bit alarming. But this is how I find it. Please note that it is just a personal opinion formed based on the random incoherent surveys conducted over the years and discussions within close groups of friends, always–well… almost always–when they were drunk or stoned.

If you ask, majority of the pre-college going students–in their Senior Secondary years, just prior to the college, that is–in India will tell you that they like mathematics. A big chunk of that number belongs to what the Economists call “the great Indian middle class”. Well, that is true from one perspective. They like mathematics because studying pre-college mathematics is a must in India to get into Engineering. Engineering for the Indian middle-class is “a big thing”. You get the picture.

But if you ask me, the other perspective, the way mathematics is taught in most Indian pre-college institutions can never make it a likable subject. Most of you must have seen the Mathematics textbooks in your school days. And then in college days. And then in your kids’ school/pre-college days… I request you to give it another look and then decide if you or your kid can really like it or not. The way the books are written and the way the subject is taught is to program a human-being. You open a book, you’ll see  text that is nothing but a collection of symbols, and algorithms that are to be read and run on a machine. There is hardly any description of the historical importance and the original author’s insight, his fight and vision in reaching the result. The student never feels the sense of discovery the discoverer might have sensed when his/her thought came into the form called “Theorem”.

To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of  antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.

The best mathematics books in terms of developing a student’s liking and insight into the subject are never taught when they are needed the most. I have been very fortunate in that regard that when interest in mathematics started waning, I had access to those. But, in India, such books have been inaccessible to most of the students studying mathematics. It is way past the time when those books should have been made the part of curriculum.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. –Plutarch

But then, a set curriculum ruins the whole purpose of the book for what it is written for, because most teachers at that level never studied those books themselves.

Sometimes, I tend to think that the books at that level, at present, are written by some computer programmers in order to program a child just like a computer is programmed. And we are very good at getting programmed! Due to socio-economic factors mentioned previously, our entire future depends on how well we were programmed. For example, most of the Indian students, at least those who studied a little mathematics at the pre-college level, are good at finding anti-derivatives (which is taught in the name of `Integration’) of some functions. Very few have insight on what really `Integration’ is. They can find surface areas of arcane surfaces and areas under most complex of the curves brooding on the x-y plane using crammed formulae, but they can hardly ever tell you why they needed it or that it is called Riemann Integral. Infinity is another number for them to “produce results” of the questions posed in the exams. They are never taught the profound thought in imaging it in simpler terms. Infinity for them is nothing but some number “out of bounds”–just like a computer–used in simplifying calculations. In short, what we are producing in India in the name of mathematical talent is “human calculating devices.” It is no wonder that India produces so many “skilled” workers in the IT industry.

One of the major forces behind a successful mathematician is his/her teacher who is expected to develop the insight of the subject. The problem with teachers and schools in India, again, is influenced by the changing paradigms in socio-economic scenario. A parent, now-a-days wants the ward to “excel” every aspect of life, be it arts, sports, science, any damn thing. The race of producing sub-standard know-it-all machines has never been so invigorated. The present day teenager is the center of its parents’ hopes. They want it to achieve everything what they could achieve and what they could not, and even more. They want it to get a high-paying position in some multinational, right from the day the kid has entered the school. To heck with the interests or aesthetics! To heck with appreciating ideas. In this rat-race, a teacher is left behind with his values. What should (s)he do? Produce more rats to participate in the race in which no one rat wins the cheese, but several end up biting a little piece and left unsatisfied.

I have observed many examples: kids and teenagers who wanted to study mathematics–or something else for that matter–for their lives, but there will was crushed by the might of the ambition of the great Indian middle-class to reach the top… the economic top.

Probably that’s why we see many brilliant students in India, but not many achieving the heights what Russians, French and Germans do. Probably that’s why a Fields Medal has eluded India despite it being the mother of mathematical thought and its thousands of years’ history of mathematics.

But that is changing. Or, at least I hope that is changing…

EDIT (Friday, May 29 2009): More discussions reveal more problems. Another major problem is the language. You know what I mean!

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16 thoughts on “The Problem of Mathematics Education in India”

  1. Dear AG,
    Your latest write-up reminds me of the fantastic chemistry-history books I used to purchase from the Russian Book Fare during the 1989-1996.. called Raduga publishers maong others.. well I am sure u must be knowing abt them as well… The world never actually ceases to condemn the socialist/communist ideology & associated human rights abuse in the erstwhile USSR.. but there were many of their practices which stood out.. like d amount of effort & research the soviet federation devoted in curriculam-book building exercises…
    Not only were were lucidly written, but also very well researched with associated graphics/pictures.. They were a treat for the young mind.. with colourful printing & world class binding.. I used to enjoy the smell & the feel of my newly purchased books 🙂
    Those books has stopped AG 😦 ..It sunk along with the Soviet Federation.. I particualry am very fond of a 400 page colour-print chemictry book for starters.. It has devoted a separate chapter for every metal,. Its in hindi, named “Kahani Dhatuyun Ki”.
    I wish I had access to their old publications somehow… 😦

    Your blog is superb AG. Keep it up man.. Why don’t u start writing a book?
    WR
    Nilay

  2. This was your first post that I read and was nodding all along while reading it, I agree with everything except the last line, things aren’t changing and won’t change for some time to come. However the kids are getting ‘sharper’.

    Seems like an interesting blog, will check up the rest of it soon.

  3. If your studying out of India one thing you should is study Mathematics books (text books), at the same time your school work because the studies is a lot harder. Which is what I am doing, so later I can take the SAT or ACT when i grow up more and it will not be a problem. I am living in Shanghai, China and study in a international school the Maths here is so much easier. Im doing this also because I am Indian.

  4. Wow, great insight. I am in India an I fully agree with your points.

    I wouldn’t argue and I seek your help. I am working as a software engineer and I played my college and school years not paying deep attention to maths. But I had love for math and thats why I score decent grades in exams with less efforts.

    I work out math problems from high school text books whenever I find myself not programming software.

    Would you recommend some good books (not the kind of books that will make me a machine) which has good insights into maths … if you know any. You said above that you have got access to them .. so if you tell them I can buy and read them.

    I also thought of attending some part time math courses here in India (delhi – my current place) i would like your views on that.

    Again, thanks for the article – i can show it to my little bro who is in high school now. He can develop deep interest in math too just like me 🙂 🙂 you can mail me if you like – i have left my email address along with this comment lucky.developer@gmail.com

  5. I have my last exam at school level in mathematics on 3 days. Since I live in internet (and feed on foreign textbooks) I touched my school textbooks for the first time last week. And in one week I reached the conclusion that maths education in india is extremely bad (and i was searching for a word to substitute that extremely bad, that’s how i reached this post) at least 3 times.

    And my 7th grader brother just came to ask me what tranlsation was (he participated in a math olympiad for kids) because he couldn’t select it from diagrams showing rotation and reflection along with translation. (i searched google and found it ws a part of 3rd grade curriculum elsewhere)

    Indian maths education is concentrating on the wrong thing.

  6. I’m always searching on-line for articles which will help me. Seeking forward to a different wonderful blog. Good luck to the author! all the most effective!

  7. Good post. I had been looking at this site i’m impressed! Useful info particularly the previous aspect 🙂 I attend to this kind of information a lot. I wanted this particular info for a very long time. Thanks and all the best !.

  8. Being a mathematician I fully understand your predicament, unfortunately it’s the same story in Pakistan, where only those people study maths or physics who can’t make into engineering and that’s why maths has just become a subject for those who wants to be maths teacher, but in EU or US it’s totally opposite, only that studies maths who’s not only extra-ordinary in maths but also in it’s applications & that’s the reason why mathematicians paid more than others for example quants in IB.

  9. True!
    Another observation is that there’s a fear among students, of problems that gets them to think, be it Physics, or Math or Chemistry. The text books give formulae and don’t bother to explain how one arrives at it.

    The examinations are even worse! While I know some kids that love to solve newer problems in their examinations, most students choose to solve problems they have solved earlier, for fear of getting lower marks / grades.

    I am reminded of a story that Feynman narrates in his “Surely you’re joking Mr.Feynman” where a Physics textbook contained experimental numbers that were actually cooked up. And people played with buzz words without actually knowing what it is and why. That’s the state we are in, today.

  10. TIME Primary 2012, is first national level conference exclusively for primary (K-5) level math teachers and educators, at IIT Bombay from 8-10 December 2012.

    TIME primary 2012 is a modest effort to fill the much needed gap of creating a platform where math teachers, math educators, technology providers and technology users in math education, at primary level, could come together and discuss the various aspects of math education. This also gives math teachers to discuss and exchange their ideas and innovations with each other .

    Free pre-registration is available at http://bit.ly/Timeprimary

  11. Hey there, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your website in Firefox, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, excellent blog!

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