Not So Clever Country

We Indians take pride in our mathematical ability and are not shy broadcasting it…The question is, are we really as good as we think we are? The results of the International Mathematical Olympiad or IMO ( an annual competition for high school students) show otherwise…

India’s rank in the last 10 Olympiads:

2009: 28          2004:14

2008: 31          2003: 15

2007: 25          2002:  9

2006: 35          2001:  7

2005: 36          2000: 14

[Link]

China’s rank in the last 10 Olympiads:

2009: 1          2004:  1

2008: 1          2003:  2

2007: 2          2002:  1

2006: 1          2001:  1

2005: 1          2000:  1

[Link]

If you look at the entire list, you will notice that we have been routinely coming behind smaller countries like Iran, Mongolia, Serbia and Turkey…China, Russia, USA, North Korea and South Korea usually rank in the top 5…

Whilst the Mathematical Olympiad may not be a true indicator of talent or overall intelligence, it does show the rot in our education system, which is based on rote learning rather than analytical thinking…Indian children are not stupid, they are just pragmatic…Their focus (and the focus of many teachers) is to maximize marks rather than learn…This attitude needs to change if we are to succeed as a nation…If children don’t learn how mathematics relates to the rest of the world and how to approach problems from different angles using mathematics as a tool rather than just concentrating on getting the math right, then we are doomed…Educationists should remember that new technologies can only go where mathematicss has been been before…For example, engineering of today is based on mathematics developed more than 30 years ago whilst the mathematics being developed today will power engineering 30 years in the future…

Why are the Chinese doing better than the Indians at the IMO?

In Chinese society mathematical skills are considered a barometer of a persons’ overall intelligence…Mathematics is also the foundation for the modern sciences, whose progress has been given priority over liberal arts (I don’t agree with this) by China’s government and educational authorities…Like in India, there is a lot of competition in China to get into good educational institutions and good educational institutions give great importance to mathematical skills…As a result, a majority of primary school and middle school students in big cities take after school Mathematics Olympiad (MO) courses (MO questions require analytical thinking) to improve their chances of getting into the university and course of their choice…

Does MO education work? It seems it does…Not only has it helped Chinese students win more gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) than students from any other participating country, but it has also helped a great many to gain admission at top universities in China…It seems that mathematical skills, reasoning and creative thinking can be cultivated through intensive training and hard work… If you look at the results tables on the IMO website, you will notice that every year this competition is dominated by students from Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan – societies that place high value on science and technology and see mathematics as the foundation of science, and use similar training methods to teach mathematics as China does…

As I mentioned earlier, the Math Olympiad is not an indicator of intelligence but given that both cultures embrace intellectual challenge, Chinese educationists and policy makers must be doing something right which has resulted in their students’ excellent showing at the IMO year after year…The Chinese first participated in the IMO in 1985 when they ranked 32nd., but since then they’ve moved up and up…India, on the other hand, first participated in 1989 when they ranked 25th. and have remained more or less mediocre since then (except for 4 years when they ranked in the top 10)…It’s not as if the Chinese have suddenly become more intelligent, it’s just that their method of education has become better…They seem to be more proactive unlike India where the course structure and material never changes…If our ‘top’ children chronically underachieve, then our dream of being a superpower will have to wait…

We are not as clever as we think we are because we don’t see the present or the future, just the past…We are not as clever as we think we are because we don’t see the rot in our system…

Edited to add:

Abhishek made a comment that the reason Indians don’t fare well in competitions like the Math Olympiads is because we concentrate more on getting into the IITs…This is probably true but doesn’t this show that our education system focuses only on mastering theoretical knowledge that helps in getting jobs and not on conceptual and innovative thinking? Getting into IIT is so ingrained in our culture that everything else is overlooked…IITs exist because of JEE and not because of research…The facilities are just not available because of a lack of funds and government interest…IIT ranks high in the world when it comes to BTech but this ranking falls drastically when it comes to post graduate education…Indians do well in foreign universities because they can take advantage of first class facilities funded by foreign donors…

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25 thoughts on “Not So Clever Country

  1. Loved the last line and the article itself. Interestingly I have also attacked the Indian mindset in my latest post, albeit from a different angle. There really is so much to change. Hopefully the new changes in the education system might just achieve this. We are slowly and steadily veering towards it. But there is a lot of rebellion there too. Though the school is placing the onus on the student to opt to write the board exams, I believe schools are using their power to force parents to comply with the board exams. I wonder how it will all work out.

    Nice post.

    The state boards should also do away with class 10 board exams…

    My nephew, who will be taking his CBSE class 10 exams in March, is not happy with the grading system…He would prefer to know his exact marks…

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  2. I agree very strongly Sraboney. And you will be glad to know that amongst the changes that Kapil Sibal has recommended in the CBSE curriculum we have tenth boards as optional and another aptitude test that can be taken any time ( a little like SAT) between classes XI or after passing out of class XII – this is just a general idea, I only heard him in an interview and was glad to hear about these reforms.

    About our marks oriented education – there was this girl I know, who took Sanskrit as a subject in CBSE because she could hope to score 100/100, no interest in the language, no concern about the wasted opportunity to learn something she really had an aptitude or interest in … 😦

    IHM, most children take Sanskrit to score high marks…My nephew had also taken it for that reason and so had his friends…

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  3. By the way one of the arguments I am given in favour of our education system is how well we do outside India!!

    There are some positives in our system like we are taught to calculate things without the help of a calculator…As a result, we are able to do simple arithmetic not only mentally but faster…Having studied both in India and abroad, there’s not doubt that the standard in India is higher, but the question is are we really learning? Do we remember things?

    Special effort by the govt. is needed in research because without it, we will not become a superpower…

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  4. Interesting post, Sraboney. Not sure if the Chinese system is more holistic than ours in any way – I believe they too lay excessive information on acads to the detriment of everything else. At least in maths and science, however, I guess they are beating us hollow. Remember reading recently about the significantly larger number of “science” post-grads and doctorates from China, which of course will impact what research both countries do 10-15 years from now.

    Our government should increase research opportunities as well – no point scoring high marks and then leaving the country because of the lack of research opportunities…Of all the Indian Nobel Laureates, how many won for their work in India? None…

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  5. What’s with this sudden mathematics fixation?

    🙂 While cleaning our book shelf, I found a lot of books on Maths and Stats…There were many which explained theorems in an easy way, which even I could understand and appreciate and this piqued my interest…

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  6. I’m not sure this is the right conclusion to draw. Meaning that while it’s true that Indian children focus on marks alone, it’s equally true that the Chinese government focuses on competitions like these!

    It’s possible that China simply has an aggressive policy regarding its showings in international events to raise its prestige. They have to show the world that they’re the best – a bit of insecurity perhaps.

    It’s not dissimilar to how the Germans wanted to show that the “Aryan race” was superior to everything and therefore took special care to ensure that the world saw them in a good light.

    My guess is that if the Chinese government wasn’t so involved in projecting an image, their rankings would reflect reality. The Chinese are No. 1 because only they care to be seen as such as a matter of national pride.

    This is just a theory btw. I could be wrong of course.

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  7. I think it has to do with the logic. We treat Mathematics also like language and instead of setting up the basics we teach the subject very similar to how we teach language. Whereas Chinese still are or going back to basic logic behind Mathematics and once children get that it becomes easy as they grow up.

    I said so because I teach my daughter the same way. Before giving her numbers, I taught her basic mathematics in day to day life when she was still a toddler. That has sharpened her brain..at least that’s what I feel. Now any numbers and she can quickly give results.

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  8. Mathematics olympiads are not so popular here as say preparation for JEE, which requires similar analytical and out of box thinking and relies more on conceptual learning rather than rote learning. We have an exceptionally large no. of coaching institutes for the same but none for Maths olympiad. Maybe that explains the average performance.
    Since JEE coaching class attendees learn to think conceptually and analytically, they should have the ability to crack all kinds of age appropriate math questions not just the ones set by the IITs…
    As for China, it approaches every international event with unmatched zeal and aggression. Everything for China is about national prestige and forum for showing superiority.
    Why isn’t it the same for India? Why don’t we approach problems and events with unmatched zeal and aggression? Why don’t we have the same sense of nationhood?

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    • I just read that Kapil Sibal is trying to change the admission criteria for IITs…He wants the institute to give more weightage to Class 12 marks…Currently, the minimum percentage required is 60 – he wants this to be increased to 80-85%…Good idea…One exam shouldn’t decide a person’s future…But won’t this stress students even more esp. since the idea is to destress them?

      Also, don’t JEE coaching classes only help students to master question papers and recognize patterns? It’s all about cracking the exam and not about raw intelligence…Also, IITs themselves are top notch theory teaching shops not top notch teaching and research centres like Cal Tech and MIT…From what I’ve read, even the questions set by IIT for the JEE are copied or derived from foreign texts…How many of the theorems on which these questions are based were invented by Indians? Are IITs doing any cutting edge research? Why haven’t they produced many innovative scientists and engineers? As I’ve mentioned earlier, very little importance is given to research in our country and this needs to change if we are to progress

      You are probably right when you say China concentrates on competitions…Look how well they are doing in sporting competitions these days…

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  9. Fascinating! I totally agree with your conclusion..

    ‘We are not as clever as we think we are because we don’t see the present or the future, just the past…We are not as clever as we think we are because we don’t see the rot in our system…’ – Yes, we certainly want to look at just the past. Our system is purely based on scoring marks in exams instead of understanding subjects – be it Maths or History..

    Yes, and that’s why we don’t have many out-of-the box thinkers in our country…Innovative people leave for greener pastures because of the lack of research opportunities in India…What a shame!

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  10. “We are not as clever as we think we are because we don’t see the present or the future, just the past…”

    Bones, I think you are totally wrong about this on all counts. We are clever, we are already a superpower, and we gave the world the concept of zero. 😉

    And, as we all know, all Chinese achievements are false. It’s all propaganda. Our way is the best.

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian

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  11. ‘Since JEE coaching class attendees learn to think conceptually and analytically, they should have the ability to crack all kinds of age appropriate math questions not just the ones set by the IITs…’

    True. But the fact is the standards of questions in Maths Olympiad are much higher than those in JEE. One requires much more deep analytical skills to crack those. The questions set for ISI (Indian Statistical Institute) are I think of somewhat denser complexity and can be compared to the regional/national mathematics Olympiads, but then again ISI is not as glamorous as IIT’s.

    Why isn’t it the same for India? Why don’t we approach problems and events with unmatched zeal and aggression? Why don’t we have the same sense of nationhood?

    Haha…we can’t have the same sense of nationhood because India is a democracy unlike China. Nationhood is something we strongly feel only when we watch ‘Rang de Basanti’ or ‘Lage raho munnabhai’. I don’t know what incentives/dis-incentives China is giving their students for cracking Mathematics Olympiad…monetary aids or I will incarcerate your father or both, who knows? That’s the unfortunate part…Our politicians only want power and money – education, research etc. don’t enter their thinking because they are not vote getting issues…

    I just read that Kapil Sibal is trying to change the admission criteria for IITs…He wants the institute to give more weightage to Class 12 marks…Currently, the minimum percentage required is 60 – he wants this to be increased to 80-85%…Good idea…One exam shouldn’t decide a person’s future…But won’t this stress students even more esp. since the idea is to destress them?

    I don’t know about others but it sure does put me in stress because 85% would have made me ineligible for IIT’s. I think 60% is more than enough and moreover Class 12 marks don’t require much analytical thinking and one can score high marks just by rote learning.

    Also, IITs themselves are top notch theory teaching shops not top notch teaching and research centres like Cal Tech and MIT…From what I’ve read, even the questions set by IIT for the JEE are copied or derived from foreign texts…How many of the theorems on which these questions are based were invented by Indians? Are IITs doing any cutting edge research? Why haven’t they produced many innovative scientists and engineers? As I’ve mentioned earlier, very little importance is given to research in our country and this needs to change if we are to progress…

    I think funds are a big problem plus the intelligent ones with research minded attitude (although they are very very less in no.) head towards foreign universities. A majority and I’ll say about 90% go into management studies. Reason – better pay and peer-pressure. Very less actually remain even in core sector jobs.
    Since IITs are funded by tax rupees, they should make their students sign a contract that will force them to work (at least for a few years) in engineering in India i.e give back to society…

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    • i think it is unjust to tax very poor or middle class iitans who can get into a system by pure merit. they only have a resume and their credentials to build on and not connections.

      and you will be surprised many give back a 1000 times more.- no exaggerations.

      and what the government spends on iits is miniscule comparing to the expenses and the security of the gandhi family.

      where else will you see kids in rubber chappals and 4 t-shirts who do not boast about who their father is and who is connected to whom, but get right down to maths and science and enjoy what they do. ( well, everybody do not get the branch they want )

      iits are a boon to the poor, middle class intellengensia – don’t you think. every penny saved goes to the next family member being educated.

      may be you should google dakshana – an organization that is trying to bring rural kids who do not have the advantage of a coaching class to try to get into the engineering colleges.

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      • I agree that many in IIT are needy and probably the first in their family to get an education…Do IIT graduates from poor families stay on in engineering or like their peers move on to more lucrative sectors? I just think that since public money is funding these institutes for the betterment of India, all students should remain in the engineering sector in India at least for a couple of years…Like the plan for doctors from govt. medical colleges being required to work in rural areas for a year or two…

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        • Education helps one to sharpen their analytical and problem solving skills – that is what is emphasised. and education can always be transfered. – i am sure you will agree with me on that.

          – there is this guy from iit delhi i guess who is now a venture capitalist , because he was layed of from his engineering jobs in the US not once, but thrice. One has moved into film making after years of work because he did not enjoy his engineering work any more after putting in 20 years of work. One is in medical school – after an MS in cornell in electrical engineering since he was not getting jobs and so he decided to switch.

          why shouldn’t they move to lucrative careers ? engineeering is a lucrative career in india, not in the US. It is like telling somebody who is capable at manythings that they shouldn’t do it because the taxpayers have paide their fees. — now that just doesn’t sound right ? does it ?

          Robert Anson Heinlein said…
          “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

          Specialization is for insects.”

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  12. Not a clever country for the following reasons –

    a) We do not ask questions
    b) We follow wrong answers
    c) We hate to take decisions
    4) We fail to take actions
    5) We believe in pedigree
    6) We hate to be held responsible
    7) We do not want accountability.
    8) we do not know what planning is
    9) We do not have a vision
    10 ) We do not believe in ourselves
    11) we look back instead of looking forward.
    12) we want to xerox everything from the parliamentary system to the education system to the plumbing system
    13) we ridicule people who have faith in themselves and who think out of the box
    14) our political will is : zilch on a scale from 1 to 10

    Not because of indias ” xx” rank in the maths olympiads.

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    • I must say that no one can argue with that analysis. Not many people in the world will be happy being such underachievers!
      Not many people will be happy being such underachievers but we Indians are 😦 Why are we so content with mediocrity?

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  13. I agree with you that “the Math Olympiad is not an indicator of intelligence ” and I also tend to agree a bit with Abhishek who said that we are interested in other things. If Indians want to win this maths olympiad they will! We need coaching classes. 😀

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  14. Very informative! I don’t think that success/not in the maths Olympiad is necessarily an indicator of mathematical ability.

    I agree, though, that our education system needs an overhaul. I liked Anrosh’s points.:)

    Like

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