Lists and To-Do’s

Aadisht messaged me with a list of things he wished was taught in schools and colleges (mostly school), and asked me to come up with a list of my own. Which I will, shortly, but I also wanted to talk in today’s post about a larger point about education in our country. Higher education especially, of course, because that is where I work right now.

OK, short rant coming up:

We spend far too much time in teaching, learning, submitting assignments and writing examinations in college, without actually doing anything. That dulls the mind, captures all of us in a mindless routine that is exhausting, and we end up wasting the most precious years of a student’s life. It’s actually worse than that, because it’s not a mindless routine, it’s a mindless race. You don’t just have to do a whole series of mindless things, you must be seen as being better at it then everybody else.

For example, you having attended classes ain’t enough. You must be seen as having attended more classes than everybody else. Ditto for marks. Ditto for participation in college fests. And on and on and on. But I’ll build on this rant on another day.

First the explanation about listening vs doing, then a potential cure, and then the list.


Consider the program that I am in charge of at the Gokhale Institute. We have about 6-7 courses on offer every semester, and the way the programme is structured, all are currently compulsory. If you assume that each course runs for 40 hours – which it does in non-covid years – we’re looking at around 250 hours of classroom teaching every year. A typical semester lasts for about four months, out of which you need to discount about three-four weeks for holidays, college fests, internal examinations and so on. So about three months (12 weeks) of classroom teaching, into which must be shoehorned 250 hours of teaching.

That is not too bad in terms of time per week, especially considering the fact that we have lectures on Saturday as well. There’s a separate argument to be made about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that the number of lectures per day averages out to be around 4.

More than the quantity though, it is the sameness of the day that worries me. All classes are the same. The professor talks, the students listen, and there’s some questions. Learning isn’t by doing, in other words, it is by listening.

There isn’t anything to do. Yes, there is the odd in class assignment, activity and what not – but honestly, most courses will involve at least 80% of the prof talking and students listening. And passive listening – my opinion – can only take you so far. In fact, back when I was a student, I didn’t do so well with passive listening. I still don’t do well with passive listening, which is why this last year has been so horrible for me. Attending a call with nothing to see or do except stare at circles that symbolize names is my ultimate nightmare – and I can’t for the life of imagine how students have been doing it day in and day out. (They haven’t, of course. Attendance rates have been plummeting in all courses across all colleges this past year, one way or the other. And that’s not such a bad thing, for a variety of reasons.)

But that’s the explanation part of this post: we focus far too much in our colleges in this country on listlessly listening, and there’s nothing to do.

Now for the (potential) cure.

These past few weeks, two of my BSc students worked with me on a paper that I and a colleague are writing on health in India. Forget the two students, my colleague and I have learnt more about microeconomics than we did in years of teaching the stuff. By extension, I cannot begin to imagine how much the students learnt about research, theory, its application, the nuances of theory and the benefit of working in groups.

Two other students worked with me on writing articles about the budget. Let me be clear, I did not foist this work upon them. Writing articles about the budget is a cottage industry that nobody ought to be a part of more than a couple of times – but if you’re doing it for the first two or three times, it can be a lot of fun. Again, in their case, I’m sure they learnt a lot more from doing the research to write these articles than they would have in class. The point I am making is that doing work when you have skin in the game teaches you far more than passive listening ever will.

There are other BSc students involved in building out workshops, launching podcasts, helping out with background research for tie-ups with other universities and a lot else besides. But the point behind all of them remains the same: my experiment this year is in trying to see if we can turn college inside out.

Throw students in at the deep end of the pool and ask them to do stuff. When they find out that in order to do stuff they need to know “x”, they now have an immediate, urgent desire to know “x”. And then there’s a point to attending classes that teach “x”!

So, in a not at all hypothetical example, a student is helping me write out a process document for the BSc programme. She has realized that building Gantt charts in Excel actually isn’t simple at all. What if she now attends an Excel session that teaches her about filters, tables and building out charts in Excel? As opposed to a semester in which she learns about Excel in the manner in which it would usually take place in a college. In which case is she going to be hungrier to learn?

We will teach you this, and this will turn out to be useful in life later, just you wait and see. (A)


Here’s what you have to do. Can’t do it because you don’t have the requisite skill? Cool, here’s the class on acquiring that skill. (B)

Colleges are all about approach A, and they need to be about approach B.

That’s the potential cure, and I’m trying to work on this approach in this semester.

It doesn’t scale, that’s the problem. At any rate, it hasn’t scaled so far. But I’ll keep you posted, and as always, suggestions welcome.

And with all of that said, my list:

  1. Disassemble and reassemble the following:
    1. The door to a classroom
    2. A switchboard in your classroom
    3. The clutchplate assembly on a bike
    4. Note that each of these are to be done with proper, capable supervision, and each being perhaps a three person job. While these are being done, conversations about typical pay, spare parts costs, typical expenses, commute, educational requirements, on the job training recommended. This point is applicable to everything else that follows on this list.
    5. Then have classes about division of labor, inequality, growth, specialization, pricing, sociology, calculus and statistics.
  2. Tend to the following:
    1. A kitchen garden plot in college.
    2. A butterfly garden plot in college
    3. A herb garden at home
    4. Develop and tend to (and that means everything, down to selling it yourself) a vermicomposting pit in college
    5. Then have classes about agriculture, resource management, pricing, government intervention, public economics, sociology, environment, urbanization and the history of the Indian economy.
  3. Learn double-entry bookkeeping and apply it for your own finances. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets.
    1. Then have classes about statistics, finance and accounting.
  4. Build and deploy an expense tracker, with a dashboard. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets
    1. You get the idea by now, surely.
  5. Publish in the public domain. Could be a video, a blogpost, a podcast, a photo-essay. But you don’t get to hide behind submissions to faculty only. All your submissions are mandatorily on public domain, viewable to everybody. Non-negotiable rule. Of course, by extension, this rule applies to faculty. All of our question papers and assignments to be put up for public scrutiny too!
  6. Write. Write every single day. You don’t get better at writing without writing every single day. Trust me.
  7. Ditto for reading.
  8. But also learn to take the odd day off every week, and do nothing. Including unlocking your phone. I’m a hypocrite, because I haven’t been able to do this even once in the last five years. I’m talking about not unlocking the phone, to be clear. I’ve taken plenty of days off.

What’s your list?

10 thoughts on “Lists and To-Do’s

  1. This is a bit too micro-managing, but learning skills as opposed to concepts is where micromanagement is important, and we were talking about skills, so here are my nitpicks and suggestions about Skill #3 and #4.

    First: Tally and GNUCash exist for Double Entry bookkeeping and using them is a skill in its own right. They’re better than Excel for recording finances, but the reports are kind of clunky – so exporting the data to Excel or Sheets and using that for the dashboard is a better idea.

    Next: throwing people into the deep end of double entry accounting with no theory whatsoever is a bad, bad idea. But one to two hours of the basics (and I don’t think this can be done as a video, it’s confusing when you first come to it and you need doubts clarified as you go along) and then starting in on GNUCash is important.

    Further: it took me fifteen years between my Intro to Accounting course and actually ledger-ising my personal finances. The hurdle wasn’t in knowing how to use the tool, it was that the tool brutally punishes you for making accounts up as you go along. Taking two days to actually work out what all your accounts (especially expenses) are, and then starting, is better than amending as you go along.

    Related: with assets, you don’t have that much of a choice – mostly the counterparty financial institution creates the account and you only need to list them down. The part where you’ll have to exercise judgement is expense account headings. i.e., you might spend 20,000 / mo at Amazon on a phone, clothes, and books. Now, is the expense account “Amazon”, or is it three different expense accounts: “Phone”, “Clothes”, and “Books”?

    For additional discussion: If you’re eating out at Vaishali and Roopali (lets assume this is a pre- or post-coronavirus world), then:
    1. Is there a single expense account for eating out?
    2. Are Vaishali and Roopali different accounts?
    3. Or do you not bother with Vaishali and Roopali as different headings, but record the transactions under different headings based on whether they were a) you grabbing a quick snack by yourself b) you were on a date c) you were treating friends for having successfully developed your personal finance book of accounts and having showcased it in your class?

    The answer, of course, is that it depends on what you want to track in your dashboard (and your dashboard will depend on what you want to change or control). The dashboard leads the data, not vice versa.

    Lastly, a caveat: I don’t know if a FYBSc student is going to have diverse liabilities (who’s going to issue them mortgages or credit cards?), sources of income, or assets (bank account yes, cash on hand yes, mutual funds and securities, hmm, maybe if they’re lucky). So while double entry and dashboarding your personal finances is a good habit, doing only your own finances may not be the best way to grasp accounting.

    • Never used GnuCash, but am very interested in learning. Build a session for us at GIPE?
      Re: dashboarding, excellent point, and one I’ll trouble you about in the months to come, because that’s one of the projects we’re working on here at GIPE. The BSc course has two courses on finance in the first year (Basic Financial Tools and Cost and Management Accounting) so this would be a good thing to start in the summer, I’m guessing.
      About your last point, well, they could help us keep track of the program’s finances! 🙂

      • I don’t think GnuCash needs a session in itself. It’s quite obvious to use* after the first couple of lectures of accounting and I assume one of the two lectures you mentioned will do that. Perhaps talk to the faculty of those about incorporating it.
        If you want to figure it out for yourself, I can screenshare anytime over zoom or meet; but there are youtube tutorials as well.

        *obvious to use unfortunately does not mean user-friendly though.

  2. On a more general note, I wasn’t talking so much about skills that should be taught at school (partially for the reasons you talked about – that the talking / listening / passing a test model of schools doesn’t mesh well with many of these skills); as that everybody should have these skills by the time they leave school – whether they got them from school, after school activities, parents or others, or self-teaching from youtube, reddit, and whatnot.

    • Yup, doesn’t matter from where, agreed. Doing it through college, if we can manage the scale, is probably the best place to do it if you want everybody to have a fair shot at acquiring these skills. And the other places you can get them from are complementary of course, not substitutes

  3. If you have the entrepreneurial energy [and financial risk-taking ability], you really should consider starting something of your own where you’re free to implement some of these ideas to their wildest, fullest extent. A traditional college is always going to stifle them in some way. Look up Stoa School as an example for a possible model.

    • Or Alt-MBA, or Write of Passage or The Art of Clear Writing – and yes, Stoa School is an excellent example too. Here’s the thing: if you think of the delivery of education as a spectrum, colleges lie at one end, and the examples we’re talking about lie at another.
      Colleges are entrenched because of their ability to signal way better than the noobs in the field, and noobs have an excellent chance of succeeding because, well, colleges suck.
      So if we have to change the system for the better, we need to work at getting the noobs be more acceptable – or at making colleges more awesome. There’s enough work happening in the former, and next to no work in the latter. Or that’s my thinking, at any rate.

      Happy to speak more about this anytime, if you’re interested 🙂

  4. Sir, I am surprised you note that attendance has been down across lectures with online lectures. Given the freedom online lectures allow a student, to be present in the lecture and be present in whatever else they want to do, I would think ‘attendance’ would be high (at least on paper).

    Your article has given me an idea to start every course/lecture with questions. Questions I may or may not have the answer to, but that the particular course/lecture would help answer. This has probably been tried and tested by many. So, if anyone reading this has any experience with this form of teaching/learning, do post here.

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