Carreer track: how early to lay the ‘foundation’

There was recent news report that FIITJEE was planning to launch ‘foundation’ courses for IIT-JEE starting from VIth standard as the students need to hone their analyticl skills early for the IIT-JEE and also as the course will help them secure NTSE scolorships the exam for which is now held in class VIIIth. Being an NTSE scholar (at our times (back in 1992) the NTSE used to be held in class Xth), an IIT top 100  AIR holder and hailing from the city of Kota (famed for the coaching factories), I am bound to have some strong opinions on the matter.

Left brain thinking: Coaching and guidance necessary to learn and to compete?

Having gone through the grilling of the IIT-JEE first hand , I cannot but be grateful to the coaching institute or the distance caching services like the famed Agrawal classes during our times. wihtout them it is difficult ot imagine, how I could have succeeded in the exams. It doesn’t mean that others who do not take coaching are not successful at the JEE- but I would not have been one of them.  I had tried resisting the ‘coaching business’ by not joining any classroom coaching in class XIth (at our times caching happened only for class XIth, XIIth and for repeaters) , only to see myself slipping afr behid my other peers when it came to competing with them in test series etc ; and then joining in class XIIth and working doubly hard to overcome my disadvantage. that said, I have always had reservations about excessive coaching  and that too starting at an early age.  On teh other hand , I  myself became aware of and started using Brilliant Tutorials Target IIT courses when I was in IXth and perhaps that gave me a better advantage  when it came to beating my classmates in exams like NTSE and NSTSE (national science talent search exam). But that precisely is the point, these courses may give you an early advantage, but that is at the cost of exploring other domains.

Right brain doodling:  peer pressure, parental expectations and space for aptitude?

Perhaps being born in Kota, I was doomed to end up in IITs (not that I mind:-).  Till class VIIIth I used to fare pretty badly in class; and had no awareness of JEE . But slowly with target IIT and other exposures like looming NTSE and other exams, I became competitively focussed, slowly being shaped by peer pressure and parental expectations to ultimately become a software engineer form the prestigious IITs. It was not as if I hadn’t internalized the  ambitions myself- I had ; but in retrospect I might have paid more attention to an aptitude test I took in class Xth in which writing came out to be the most suitable professional inclination followed by Science and research; while engineering was not that high on the aptitude list. Today I feel like a trapped psychologist soul in an engineer’s body:-).  Perhaps, while it is important to come out on top, it is also importnat to know what heap you are standing on; if you would rather be on a different hill; so n=be it. My advice to young minds reading this- take time to explore your aptitudes- it will pay in the long run!

Whole brain fusings:  how early is early-balance between unstructured play and focused study.

Yet, in today’s world , if you want to be successful in any field you have to start early- you have to put your 10,000 hours of practice to gain domain expertise. But is childhood (and by VIth  standard to me at least images of childhood crop up)  the right age to start our 10,00 hours? are we even wise enough to know what we want to be in the future? Even if one is a child prodigy like Mozart, does it behoove to sacrifice exploring other domains via unstructured play and curiosity and instead focus early on very narrowly on a particular domain.  From what we know of psychology and critical developmental periods, by not exposing ourselves to some alternate realities (psychics and math are not the only realities) we may be severely limiting the full-round development of our children. Focus is important, but that should come with growing maturity and comfort with the role one has chosen to play in the world. We all know the confusion of teen years- it is due to exploration in terms of self-identity- if we fix the roles a priori- we are loosing on much of the good that comes out of that self-explorations and drifting with the wind.

Out-of-the-brain musings: Is the destination as much fun as the journey?

What about the actual IIT experience? Does it deliver on its hype?  Does it really equip you to deal with the real world out there and be a winner (supposing for a moment that being a winner is everything that counts) ? Is being in IIT as much fun as it was to learn about problem-solving and experience the beauty and mystery of laws of physics while preparing for it? There are no easy answers! From my own experience , IITs do provide you with a stimulating environment with fabulous peers and professors, apart from an enduring brand that you can cash on later in life. But paradoxically, they also broaden your minds and my interest in psychology and the turning point in my life happened while I read a popular book prescribed as a course book in a linguistics course to some other fellow wing mate (the book in question Anatomy of human Destructiveness by Eric Fromm). Thus, my turning to psychology highlights all that is good about IITs – stimulating colleagues and professors and inter-disciplinary focus and exposure.  there are many things bad about the IIT including its famed JEE that leads to immense pressure on students who are competing, but I am at my wits end and do not know how the quality of incoming students can be maintained, if not by restricting via tough competition.

Parting thoughts: Will lekhu ki alla belli ho?

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I remember seeing a serial called “Lekhu” (played by Mohan Gokhale) on DoorDarshan  which documented the problems and exploitations faced by a high talented child from a tribal/rural background. We normally delude ourselves that exams like IIT JEE are meritocratic and give equal opportunities for talent to be discovered. That unfortunately is not the case. An average person born in Kota (or a place that can afford sending their child to Kota for 3-4 years of study) stands a better chance of cracking the JEE, than a person born in tribal regions of Assam or poor house holds in Bihar.  Ultimately , unless we can ensure that talented Lekhus are allowed to explore their options and hone their talents, we will be just tuning our educational systems with the demands of the market and not necessarily allowing people to become socially productive and actualized in the true sense of the word.   But then perhaps, like the aim of therapy is not self-actualization, but ‘reduction of uncommon hysteria to common unhappiness’; similarly the aim of education is no longer to prepare the mind for the future societies and for more informed decision-making by the masses- it is just to keep the grease of the existing social order running and oiled and serve as a different kind of opium to the masses.

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