Learning semantics over syntax


Three weeks into my graduate program, I can assume that I’ve had adequate insight into the pedagogy of the European countries, after hearing many views and experiencing it firsthand through one of the apt pin-holes – Chalmers.

The emphasis as I have observed is clearly on semantics of learning, and not even a necessary bit of it is laid on syntax.

To readers from Europe, this post might seem as if I am stating the obvious. But, for people from my side of the world, especially from the sub-continent of India this would be a necessary comparison.

The Indian technical education system, that I can comment about, thanks to my experience there, has some of its core values of learning contorted. A fundamental mismatch prevails on aspects that are emphasised.
Regurgitating enormous facts & figures, solving template problems using standard formulas, competing for individual excellence is the concise model of technical education.

Although in attempting to defend the Indian education system, I might want to make an excuse about the scale, that we have to cater to a densely populated country; My excuse is rendered defunct with China accomplishing higher standards than India.

Without being generic, a few concrete aspects if discussed might throw some light on why I think are the issues.

The rapport

“Sweden is a flat society, and so shall it be in the University”, said my program director at Chalmers during the introductory session. The rapport that is built because students can approach their teachers on a common platform, without the bureaucratic gradient does a lot in firstly building a rapport between the students and teachers.

This some might argue is disrespecting the teachers, for instance, when students address them by their first names (yes, do not seem surprised, these are issues). On the contrary, respect is not about a power gradient that has to be installed by the system. Respect is admiration and valuing the contribution of another person, in this case your teacher.

As a consequence, learning seems more attainable by not placing the teachers on a pedestal that seems distant for students to reach. Rhetoric apart, it simply creates a conducive environment for learning is what I am claiming.

Team work

“Promote the team, and not yourself”, is one of the guidelines in a project I am working for a course. This again is directly how the real world is. Individual excellence alone does not good to the society. Only, when not one, but many excellent minds work together can any impact be caused in the society. This team-playing training must begin when learning.

In the Indian education system, not just in the technical education, but throughout schooling handful heroes are made out of students who excel in exams, and the others are made to feel mediocre.

Whereas, here at Chalmers, every course has consciously incorporated collaborative contribution as an important part of curriculum. This not only helps in team playing, but also opens up prospects of learning from peers, which as all would agree is more effective.

Teaching methodologies and Hands-on

Even the methodologies of teaching seem strikingly different. In both my courses, the teachers are laying almost no emphasis on ‘remembering’ a formula. One has to apply a concept, and not quote it from memory, and even the goal of teaching a topic is directly leading the lecture to an application.

The laborations and projects are not mere repetitions of what has been discussed in lectures, but these tasks complement learning. This is helpful, as students discover some of the ideas themselves, while the lectures have only given them an idea.

By urging students to take up hands-on work, understanding of ideas is taken to the next level. Every course again lays clear emphasis on practical work, rather than testing only theoretical ideas.

Exams & Evaluation

I am yet to face my first set of exams here. Nonetheless, I already have an idea as to what is it that I will be tested.

All exams allow students to carry formulas or even notes. This outright dismisses the burden of having to practise and register hundreds of formulas which otherwise is a cumbersome task, and I personally have suffered a lot because of this task of rote-learning.

My Probability teacher at Chalmers, in every opportunity makes it clear that he is interested in evaluating our probability understanding, and not the algebra or calculus. I can see that in evaluating exams the emphasis is laid on the thought process to the solution, and not necessarily the accuracy of the final result.

In conclusion, let me not project an entirely negative idea about the education system back at India. It is now on the road to improvement, and it has done decently in creating skilled labour that meets the demands in sectors like the Information & Technology. But the point is, the Indian system will still lag if they do not urgently seek inspiration from European models, and improvise the teaching models to best suit the Indian conditions.