How to Escape Education’s Death Valley by the Great Sir Ken Robinson

I’m not one for celebrating “days”, but I’ll happily admit being thankful that this video is scheduled for the 5th of September!

There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

Yes, that’s not exactly what he said, but I’m going with the definition we all “know”. And I’m going to repurpose that popular definition for going on a rant about classroom teaching.

Supply does not create its own demand.

That is, the supply of education in the classroom does not create the demand for education in the classroom.

Do you have a memory of staring out the classroom window, having given up on waiting for time to move faster? My congratulations to you if you have never once experienced this emotion across school and college, because it was my only emotion in almost all classes I ever attended. And boredom of an excruciating nature was my only emotion because all classes were tremendously boring.

Some were instructive. Some teachers/professors really knew their stuff. Two professors, who I am lucky enough to still have as mentors, were the best professors I have ever had. But even they didn’t think it was their responsibility to inspire the class to learn more. A Walter Lewin type moment in a class that I attended? It has happened not more than one or two times across over two decades of sitting in classrooms.

And this is, even today, something that enrages me.

David Perell’s latest essay is the inspiration for this rant:

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany.
Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.

How do I teach my eight year old daughter to sum up the first n numbers? By asking her to memorize {(n*[n+1])/2} or by telling her Gauss’s story? Do I teach her Marathi and Hindi by asking her to read her textbook, or by introducing to her the shared civilizational wonder that is etymology?

Should I teach my students about how to think about macroeconomics by writing down equations and defining GDP, or should I begin with Gapminder? Should I draw the 2×2 matrix to explain the prisoner’s dilemma, or do I show students Golden Balls on YouTube? Should I tell students what monetary policy is, or do I ask them to play the Fed Chairman game? Should I tell them about demand and supply, or should I introduce to them the wonder that is

Should students be taught about mass, velocity, friction, acceleration, arcs and circles, or should they be shown this video? How to motivate students at the start of a semester on statistics? Talk about the spice trade, and talk about brewing tea! I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here.

You see, in each of these cases, you don’t have to teach students the underlying concepts. To be clear, you can, and you should. But my point is you don’t have to – they’ll have developed the thirst to figure it out by themselves, because, you see, they can’t help it. Their curiosity has been piqued, or as David Perell puts it, they’ve been inspired.

And that, really, ought to be your job as a teacher or professor. To get students to go “Whoaaaaaa!”

Get that to happen, and then good luck trying to finish the class on time. I teach undergraduates and beyond, and I’m not suggesting that one should stop at inspiring students as a teacher. Papers will have to be read, books will have to be recommended, essays will have to be written – all of that is necessary, and absolutely should happen.

But each of these things are much more likely to be done (and willingly) if only you light the spark first. Reading Mishkin after you’ve played the Fed Chairman game isn’t a chore, it is a joy. Why, even Fudenberg Tirole stands a chance of being somewhat palatable if students have been first exposed to Games Indians Play, The Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.

Every student who leaves college bored to death because of how stultifying classrooms are is a damning indictment of my tribe. We’ve failed to do right by them, and by extension have failed to do right by society.

What is wrong with higher education? A lot!

But David touched upon a raw nerve where I am concerned – the worst thing about those of us working in academia is that we fail to ask ourselves every single day a very important question: how can I inspire young people to want to learn more? Everything else is a distraction, this ought to be the mission.

Arjun Narayan asked Tyler Cowen this question recently:

You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

Substitute the word “enthusiasm” for “capital”, substitute “students” for “a person or institution” and you have my own personal mission in life. And I promise you, it is my mission because I am very much scratching my own itch.

We should all, at the margin, be learning better.

And the earlier we start, the better society will be.

Can Undergraduates Be Taught To Think Like Economists?

The title of today’s blogpost has been copied, word for word, from a blogpost I had linked to earlier (the fifth link in this post).

It’s been about two and a half years since I read that post. I would still like to believe that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong, and that you can too teach undergraduates to think like economists. But well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

A common goal for principles of economics courses is to teach students to “think like economists.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that high-sounding goal. It seems like a lot to accomplish in a semester or two.

Both Tim Taylor and Deirdre McCloskey (whose essay I excerpt from below) aren’t saying that you can’t teach economics to undergraduates. You most certainly can, and you don’t need to run a fancy-pants model to ascertain this. What they are saying, however, is that it is one thing to teach them the principles of economics. It is quite another to teach them to apply these principles in their lives, at all times.

Bower thinks that we can teach economics to undergraduates. I disagree. I have concluded reluctantly, after ruminating on it for a long me, that we can’t. We can teach about economics, which is a good thing. The undergraduate program in English literature teaches about literature, not how to do it. No one complains, or should. The undergraduate program in art history teaches about painting, not how to do it. I claim the case of economics is similar. Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it…. (Emphasis added)

It is one thing to teach opportunity costs. And most students we’ve taught will tell you the definition. The “good” students will tell you three different definitions, from three different textbooks, and maybe cite a couple of academic papers that ruminate about what the definition means. Well, great. Do these students apply the concept of opportunity costs in their daily lives? Do they ask themselves if this (whatever this may be) is the best use of their time, and what are they giving up in order to do this?

Does winning matter more than learning? Does winning matter more than doing? If you end up defeating somebody else – a person, a team, a tribe, a party or a nation – what do you gain? And to go back to the previous paragraph, was it but a Pyrrhic victory?

Consider this hypothetical:

Let’s say there’s two teams in some corporate environment somewhere. And for whatever reason, these teams don’t get along well together. Both sides believe that they’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, and we’ve reached Mark Twain territory.

Are they going to go to their manager(s) and ask them to resolve this issue? Sure, it may seem like a good idea initially. But said managers, I can assure you, have things to do. Deliverables to, well, deliver. Teams to manage. Projects to initiate. Other people to manage. And so the manager(s) might listen to both teams long list of complaints once, perhaps twice.

But eventually the price mechanism will come to the party. The more the two teams spend time on this, rather than on work, the more expensive the situation becomes for the enterprise. Because a commodity that is limited (time) is being spent on non-productive work (productive, in this case, can be thought of as remunerative).

Since the whole point of the firm’s existence is to maximize revenue, this will not be tolerated for too long. The manager(s) will eventually say one of the following:

  1. Figure it out yourselves, but get the work done, for that’s what matters. Or else.
  2. Let’s reallocate, forcibly, both teams on to other projects. This will usually be accompanied with a mental note to themselves that truly important projects in the future should not be given to these team members. For obvious reasons.
  3. Or let’s shut down the project, because the point of a firm is to do the work that earns one the money. Start something new, with a new set of people.
  4. Now, since the team members are old enough to know that eventually pts 1 to 3 will occur, they usually swallow their differences and get the work done. Sure, bitching about the other team will happen in bars and pubs in the evening, and sure the other team won’t be called home for dinner anytime soon. But in the workplace, professionalism will win out, due to the price mechanism. In more explicit terms, they will get the work done because they know that otherwise they will be fired.

The reason all of this will happen is because these team members will have families, responsibilities, loans to pay off. The money they will lose out on by losing their jobs is far too important, and the threat of losing out on their income forces them to behave professionally.

The opportunity cost argument comes into play. Playing politics may be good for your ego, but it ain’t good for your wallet. But that lesson comes with age, it doesn’t come from attending principles of economics classes.

A nineteen-year old has intimations of immortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for those tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. You can teach a nineteen-year old all the math he can grasp, all the history he can read, all the Latin he can stand. But you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be, say twenty-five, or better, forty-five. …

Adults don’t necessarily grasp the argument that the opportunity cost of politics is work. But they understand the rules of the game called life. They do understand that the opportunity cost of politics is an increase in the probability of losing their wages. And so they still practice politics, but more covertly. Not, in other words, an ideal situation if the system is trying to optimize work, but hey, better than overt politics.

How to get students to understand that the opportunity cost of politics is learning? That the opportunity cost of politics is not getting fun projects done? That the opportunity cost of resolving arguments, or adjudicating who said what to whom and when is not being able to start other fun learning based projects? There’s no price mechanism at play, there’s illusions of immortality (they don’t get that time is limited), they don’t have the responsibility of putting food on the table (they come from a socialized economy called a family), and they haven’t experienced the tragedies of adult life.

To them, winning a political argument against the other side is the best use of their time.

Principles of economics, if taught well, and if learnt well, should in theory help you understand that the opportunity cost of politics is work. Philosophy should in theory teach you that good work is better than bad politics.

I’ll say this much: I was convinced that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong when she said that you couldn’t have undergraduates do economics, even if we taught them economics.


I hope.

Professor Nigam’s Twitter Thread on the AIU

Professor Nigam is the registrar at NLSIU, and he was kind enough to read my series of posts on the Almost Ideal University. What’s more, he took the time to respond with a very thoughtful series of tweets, as a part of his excellent series that is freely available on Twitter. I don’t know if he has a name for it, I think of it as the “My Dear Law Students” series.

If you are a student of law, the series ought to be mandatory reading. If you are a student of writing, the series ought to be mandatory reading. I’m quite serious, please do read all of them!

In this post, I’m going to cite some of his tweets, and add my two penn’orth.

And nor will students of economics be able to demonstrate real world potential unless assisted by real economists. You learn best when taught by folks with skin in the game. In my Almost Ideal University, you can’t become a teacher without having worked in the field first. And that’s a non-negotiable requirement.

Yes, of course there are problems with this. Why will folks want to leave a corporate job? Won’t the pay be lesser in academia? Why would firms be ok with having folks just “go away” for six months to teach? All great questions, and valid ones. But that’s exactly what we need to figure out if we’re going to ever get around to building out the AIU.

These problems arise, of course, only because I am in complete agreement with Professor Nigam when he says that you need people with skin in the game.

And I’d much rather solve these (much harder) problems than solve the problem of how to make three hour long in-class theoretical exams more relevant.

The equitable access problem is a real one, and I’ll state upfront that I do not really know how to solve it. Technology can help to an extent, but the AIU won’t be equitable to begin with. Yes, replicability, if it works out, will help. But it won’t ever be a perfectly equitable system. My sole defense is that the system I seek to replace is, if anything, even more inequitable.

Not, I hasten to add, that this should mean that we stop worrying about equitable access in the case of the AIU!

And regarding the second tweet in this section, yes, bureaucracy is inevitable. But if gamified well, there is a chance that the system (again, while not being perfect) will be better than the status quo.

My point is this: if we can get students to view assignments as something to work on cooperatively rather than combatively, the need to monitor is that much lesser. Of course, the need to mentor is that much higher, but isn’t that the point of education in the first place?

But yes, those of us in academia will need to figure out how to make this happen, and as Professor Nigam has pointed out, that with the help of working professionals.

There’s a great deal of detailing to be worked out here, and apprenticeships, mentorships and professionals in residence on campus will all have a role to play. Again: a hard problem to solve, but attempting to solve for this is a worthy mission as an academician.

I wish I could do a better job of writing more clearly, and the fault is mine over here. In my AIU, the onus isn’t on the student to attend. The onus is on the professor to make the class interesting enough to attend. The student is always free to not attend, but the professor should be good enough to make the student feel regret at not being present in class. Specifically:

  1. The professor should have the ability to not just explain a particular student’s doubt, but also in the process enrich everybody else’s understanding of that issue.
  2. The professor (or their assistant, perhaps) should allow the most non-intuitive doubts to filter up in class. That is, study groups, whether offline or on (say) Discord servers will allow the students themselves to resolve the relatively easier doubts. Those that prove resilient will be handled by the professor. Will it work perfectly right from the get-go? Of course not. Is it worth trying? I vote yes – but of course, as they say, your mileage may vary.
  3. So, no, not a diminishing role for physical classroom instruction at all. Au contraire, a role of paramount importance for the physical classroom, for synthesis will happen there. And perhaps can only happen there, but that takes us into deep waters for a blogpost. And on a related note, the more you agree with me over here, the more you should worry about inequities across the entire system. For obviously, physical classroom sessions can’t scale.

A rare area of disagreement for me in this Twitter thread, for I do have a lot of confidence in the motivational levels of undergraduates. Not all undergraduates, I should be clear. As with everything else in life, so also with motivational levels of undergrads: there will be a distribution. Some will be very motivated, and will remain so no matter how bad college is. At the other end of the distribution, some will remain very unmotivated, no matter what how good college is.

But that being said, it is true that I prefer to award the benefit of the doubt to the student. This is in good humor, Professor Nigam, and please do forgive me my impertinence, but innocent until proven guilty! Or in this case (and is it the same thing?) motivated until proven otherwise. 🙂

But quite honestly, and I’m no longer joking around, I very strongly believe that the enthusiasm to learn is systematically sucked out of a student with every passing year in academia. The more years you spend in the system, the more likely it is that you will want to not learn. This is not a universal law, but in my experience, it has been a fairly accurate heuristic.

Will there be students who will abuse the system I propose? Absolutely. That is the nature of a distribution.

Do more students suffer today for being made to mandatorily sit through classes that just aren’t good enough? Absolutely, and I would rather avoid this than the former.

Completely agreed!

I could get into one of my classes, as a hypothetical, a retired bureaucrat who has impeccable knowledge of how the Union Budget takes shape over the course of the financial year in India. This hypothetical bureaucrat has forgotten more about the budgetary process than any of us will ever know. Unfortunately, watching paint dry is more entertaining than listening to this person speak.

We’ve all met folks like these: really, really good experts, but really, really bad communicators. And that’s fine! Their job wasn’t to be good communicators. It then becomes my job as the teacher in that class to make it more interesting. Maybe I interview the bureaucrat, rather than have him speak? Maybe I record the interview and play snippets? Maybe I speak offline with him, and then conduct I class based on that conversation?

But yes, we absolutely need great teachers to make the subjects accessible and enjoyable.

It’s a great question, and I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. As I said in my first post on the AIU:

I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.

That is, the economist in me is saying that students from poor or underprivileged families will need more intensive training and help, educating them in the AIU will be more expensive. But that still doesn’t explain the how of it. Sure, it’ll cost more, but for doing what, exactly, and how?

There are some potential answers (bridge programs, extra assignments, more mentorships) but I’m hazy on the details right now.

Would I be correct in saying, however, that if we don’t solve this problem within the university itself, the student will face an ever tougher challenge out of it? That is, an underprivileged student who doesn’t get the kind of education we are speaking about right now will find it even more difficult to succeed out in the real world – is that a reasonable hypothesis? And if yes, then it becomes even more imperative to ensure that we work towards ensuring that these students get the kind of learning that we are speaking about?

Food for thought, for sure, and I’ll be feeding at this trough for a while. 🙂

Thank you, to Professor Nigam, for an excellent set of thought-provoking questions!

And a request to all of you – please help by letting me know what makes sense, and what doesn’t when it comes to the Almost Ideal University.

A Question for Lant Pritchett

This interview went viral (well, about as viral as interviews of economists can be) recently. And it was this excerpt that made the rounds:

India never changed its mind about having a selection system rather than an education system. A selection system is where you put all children in a classroom, but provide a poor or indifferent environment for learning, and see what happens. The students that learn in that environment must be brilliant. As for those who do not learn, teachers will say they must be the type of children who cannot learn. India took that option because they expected that 2-3% of the population would be an educated elite, and that would be good enough. And so, they committed themselves to selection rather than education. Things will only change once they fundamentally change their ideas, which they are hopefully in the process of doing now.

Tyler Cowen chose a different bit of the same question to excerpt:

Ann Bernstein: From your knowledge of India and Indonesia, what are the core causes of their lack of educational progress? These are places with highly qualified civil servants and, at least in India’s case, a democratic government. How do you see this problem? How do we get out of this trap?
Lant Pritchett: I’m head of this very large research project called RISE and we’re spending millions of dollars to find out the answer to that question. One of the countries where education improvements have been dramatic is Vietnam. At a tiny fraction of the spending in most countries – including South Africa – Vietnam is achieving OECD levels of learning. When we asked our Vietnam team why the country has produced this amazing success, they told us: ‘because they wanted it’.
On one level, that seems silly; on another level, it is the key. Unless, as a society, you agree on a set of achievable objectives and actually act in a way that reveals that you really want those objectives, you cannot achieve anything.

Me, I’m dying to ask Lant Pritchett a question, and I really wish it was asked in that interview:

What made the Vietnamese want educational progress?

I finished yesterday’s post by asking what needs to change in terms of societal incentives for my Almost Ideal University to have even a chance at existing. Same question, except it seems to not be a theoretical one in Vietnam’s case – and so I’m dying to know: what made the Vietnamese want educational progress?

More generally, what makes any society want educational progress?

I sometimes worry that I have found such a good hammer that the whole world looks like a nail, but please tell me how my answer is wrong: a society that agrees that life is a non-zero sum game is a society that will want educational progress.

Status driven societies, for example. If which college you go to matters more than what you learn in that college, you live in what these days is called a status driven society. And since, by definition, there are only so many “top” colleges in a given geographic area, there are only so many seats to go around. Those that get in have “won”, at the expense of everybody else who has “lost”. And the incentive for the college in question is to not increase the number of seats, for that would drive down its status.

I wonder if that conclusion is as befuddling for everybody else as it is for me? The best college in town should not admit more students because that very act will ensure that it is no longer going to be thought of as the best college in town. We have successfully Groucho Marxed the education sector in India.1 He meant it as a joke, we think it to be a great way to dispense quality education.

(Scaling up will have a negative impact on quality, especially when it comes to education. Therefore replicability rather than scale. That is, there is an argument to be made that the “top” colleges admit more folks than they do right now. But their bigger responsibility is to help other colleges become better, in my opinion.)

It’s the whole college as a bundle problem all over again: when you spend the time and money getting educated from a top college, you’re hoping, as a student, to get at least two things (there’s a third, but that’s not relevant right now):

  1. A great education
  2. The license to say, “… from XYZ” in addition to whatever your educational qualification is. XYZ could be Harvard, could be IIT, could be Fergusson College in Pune. But hey, only so many additional people get to say that every year. Status!

Parents want to be able to say that their kid went to a great college. Kids want to go to a great college. Companies want to recruit from great colleges. Professors want to work in great colleges.

And in a zero sum world (or status driven societies, if you prefer), there can, by definition, only be so many “great” colleges.

Go back to a part of the excerpt from Lant Pritchett’s interview at the top of this post:

And so, they committed themselves to selection rather than education.

Yes, indeed we did. And my contention is that we did so because we prioritized status over education. LinkedIn over Coursera, in my framing.

And that, unfortunately, leads us to a chicken and egg problem. Because the only way to change priorities at a societal level is through… education.

So, three conclusions, and before that, one problem.

The problem: if what I’ve said here makes sense, we have a really, really big battle up ahead of us. How to use a broken education system to nudge society towards a better education system that isn’t broken is a hard thing to think about – and I would therefore love to understand how I might be wrong. Please tell me!

The three conclusions:

  1. Depending on only the education system to provide higher education isn’t a great idea (“But then what else?” is a question I do not have an answer to at the moment).
  2. I need to read more about education in Vietnam
  3. Teaching more people that life is best thought of as a non-zero sum game is a great mission to have in life. No?

  1. Not just in India, of course. But given where I am, and given who I am, I will naturally focus much more on India[]

And What Will *They* Do?

NYT Cooking taught me how to make cake this past year. Ranveer Brar taught me how to make palak paneer. Sahil taught me how to make a bacon bomb. Kenji Alt-Lopez taught me how to make pizza. Smita Deo taught me how to make mutton. Krish Ashok opened up entire worlds of possibilities. I can go on and on.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I didn’t make all of the dishes up there, but I did make some, and I think they turned out fairly well. You should try my butter chicken sometime. But the point is, I upped my cooking game a fair bit during these pandemic times. Most of us did, I think.

And one of the major reasons we became better is because we all carry around some of the best instructors in our pocket, and that for free. Your culinary school is in your pocket, as is your theatre, your sound studio, your music room, your karaoke bar, your art museum and your sports arena.

So why not your classroom?

Watching Chapter 3 of the series on Linear Algebra from 3Blue1Brown was a life-changing experience for me (and I’m not exaggerating), because I finally understood the visual intuition behind linear transformations. Ditto with Bayes Theorem. As I often tell my students in classes on behavioral finance, it is one thing to read a paper written by Fama by attempting to check out a book from the college library. It is quite another to sit and listen to Fama talk with Thaler. Or listen to Dani Rodrik talk to Tyler Cowen. Or just stroll into a “room” where some of the most interesting folks in the world are chatting with each other, as Clubhouse and it’s clones have made possible.

YouTube (and just YouTube alone, forget everything else) has taught more, across all dimensions, to most students in the past eighteen months than most universities could have managed in twice the time. That’s rhetoric, not data, but I really do think we’ll be quibbling about the magnitude, not the direction if we argue about that estimate.

Learning has had its dynamo moment.

So whenever the pandemic recedes, those of us in academia need to address questions that will (and should) increasingly be asked by students. Why the classroom? Why mandatory attendance? Why only these notes and not those videos? Can I honestly do a better job than this when it comes to teaching the Solow model? Is SC Gupta really better than Seeing Theory?

Without the internet, the cheapest and the most efficient way to deliver learning to a student was via the classroom. If I am, say, to teach a course on the Indian economy post 1991, then I can put together a bunch of slides and deliver them in a classroom where students listen to what I have to say, debate and discuss the topics I bring up in class, and then go ahead and read more stuff on their own.

With the internet, the cheapest and most efficient way to conduct the same class is to come up with a reading/viewing/listening list, and spend the class discussing the doubts and questions that students may have. This can happen in a class or online. Those who don’t have any doubts, or don’t want their doubts resolved by me are free to not attend.

But can I go one better? Can I ask the author of Half Lion to came talk with our students? Can the folks who worked on come and speak to us about why (and how) they developed the website? Can the author of the paper that highlighted how being rich and “good” was a trend that Bollywood started to become popular after Hum Aapke Hai Kaun be invited for a talk? James Crabtree to talk about inequality in India? Or maybe Stanley Pignal? Mihir Sharma, to talk about Restart? Bibek Debroy or Ashley Trellis, maybe, to talk about what else needs to be done now? Vijay Joshi? TN Ninan? Arvind Panagariya? Arvind Subramanian? Samanth Subramanian to talk about the tanker mafia in Bangalore (and indeed, elsewhere in the country)? Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar? Gilles Verniers? Cristophe Jaffrelot? Nitin Pai?

This might seem like name dropping, but it isn’t. I haven’t met, in real life, even one of the people I have mentioned above. Nor is that list anywhere close to being comprehensive. But imagine a world in which students in my class are tasked with reading the works of these people, and they then go and reach out to these experts, asking for a talk. It is quite likely that some, maybe all, of these people will say no. But the students will have that conversation, they’ll learn the art of making the ask, and they’ll learn the art of asking for alternatives. They’ll network with some of the best people in the business. And if either the person, or the suggested alternative says yes, the student (or that group of students) is responsible for moderating that discussion. They are responsible for taking notes, creating a summary, preparing a reading list and sending all of this to the guest speaker at the end of the session. That is their assignment, and it counts as being done if all of this happens. And the “semester end” examination is a reflective essay on what they learnt through all of these guest lectures: the organization of these lectures, and what they learnt from it.

I could finish the entire semester without having “taught” a class. But there would be a lot of mentoring, networking, discussion and planning in this entire semester. My role as a teacher for this course is to be the guy who decides on the broad contours of the course, facilitates introductions, figures out Plan B’s if the original choice of speakers doesn’t work out, and overall, act as a mentor for the course.

Without the internet, I had to substitute for all this. With the internet, I complement all this. I put this altogether, on the fly, during the semester, and make sure that all of it comes together by the end. The work will actually be more, much more, than regular old teaching – but this would be, in my eyes, a significant improvement.

You don’t provide a negative incentive to have students attend class. You reward them with incredible networks for having attended class. You don’t teach a class. You harness the power of the internet to conduct a class. You don’t check if students have learnt enough by having them write an exam. You make sure that students earn the right to learn from the best, by having them read and digest the works of the best in the business. Will you learn more by mugging up notes the night before the exam, or will you learn more when you know that you have to personally speak with the author of a book, and request them to come speak to your class about it?

Teachers in my Almost Ideal University will mentor students, and help them build out their networks by connecting them with the best in the business. The learning is the process, the network is the outcome. All talks to be recorded and put up for consumption by everybody in the world. Ditto for the documentation. And the challenge in the next semester is to improve upon the one that went by.

Who exactly are these professors, though, the ones who mentor the students in these courses? Full time employees? Well, sure, in some cases. But imagine a 36 year old manager in some analytics firm who is given six months off by her firm to come and teach Introductory Statistics at a university. Imagine the kind of folks she could invite for talks at her classes. Imagine the case studies she could build. Imagine the kind of problems she could speak to students about.

I could go and teach principle of economics at a law university for one semester. A former secretary of health and could come and teach a course on public health. Maybe a PhD student of, say, Professor Ashok Gulati could conduct a course in agri-business marketing. None of us need physically be on campus! This last year and a half has taught us that this work happens just as easily remotely. We just happen to be in charge, that’s all. And sure, if you can be present physically, even better!

It’s been three essays and counting in this series, but I think we need at least one more before we can call it a day. What are the societal incentives that we need to change or chip away at before my Almost Ideal University has even a chance at existing, let alone succeeding? That’s the topic of tomorrow’s essay.

But What Will We Do?

All that is well and good: a high quality, low scale, not very cheap university that gives away it’s plans and implementation details for free. But what would students and faculty in such a university, well, do?

There are two ways to answer this question.

First, work out what they do in most universities today, reach a conclusion about whether what they do is desirable, and if not, work out what needs to change and in what order.

Second, start with an idealized worldview of what they should do, while ignoring all constraints, and ask if that idealized worldview is realizable. If the answer is no, figure out what’s stopping you, and therefore work out what needs to change and in what order.

I prefer the first approach1, and that’s the approach I’ll be using in this essay.

So what do students in a university do today? They learn, they show that they’ve learnt, and they form networks. College is a bundle.

Let’s begin with the one in the middle: showing that they’ve learnt. I’d want to chip away at that first.

How do students today show that they’ve learnt? They write examinations. These are supposed to be a proxy to show how much you’ve learnt, and how much you’re able to apply of whatever you’ve learnt. Is my understanding of why examinations exist correct? I’m genuinely asking.

And the reason I am asking is because I am extremely sceptical of the ability of examinations to do either.

That leaves us with two potential answers: change the examination system for the better. Or replace it with something else that has the potential to be better, and a guarantee of not being worse. At the very least, experimentation is called for.

My personal preference will be for a student to do, not for a student to show that she has learnt. That is, examinations need to be replaced with projects. These projects can’t be submissions as you and I understand them today. Not half-assed stuff that a team “works” on – let’s be honest, that’s code for nobody works on it. This is a project that sits on its own individual website, and that forever. That project is the student’s CV. It contains everything about the journey that led up to the creation and shipping of that project.

I’ll use an example from the field in which I teach, which is economics. What I am about to say should also apply to most of the other subjects in the humanities, and perhaps less so in, say, STEM fields.

Most students of economics acquire a degree to usually do one of three things: teach, research or work in a corporate job.

So your only “examination” comes at the end of your third year degree, where you ship a project based upon one of these three areas.

  • If you are learning economics in order to be a teacher, you have to teach a class, and document that entire class on your website. And when I say class, I mean at least a twenty hour course. Subject? Your choice. Students? You have to recruit them. Will this class be for free? No, you have to convince your students to pay a fee that is not trifling. How many students? At least ten, not more than thirty. But your degree is awarded for having taught this class, and is based on the feedback from that class.
    Designing the syllabus for that class, coming up with the reading material, arranging for guest speakers, hiring your TA’s from among your juniors, coming up with assignments, evaluating these assignments, handouts – the whole shebang. Do the work, teach your students, and then say that you have graduated from the course.
    And the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is teach, then we should have taught you how to teach – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to teach students who are willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to do research, then you have to work on and publish a report on a topic of your choice. Come up with a topic in your second year, refine it, apply for a grant for it, prepare a plan for how you will work towards it, hire out your team, design your questionnaire, collect your data, clean the data, do the analysis, reach your conclusion and submit the report and the presentation to the funding agency, and on your website.
    Again, the entire three year journey leads up to this moment. If what you want to do is research, then we should have taught you how to do research – and what skills you need to pick up in order to be able to do research for an agency that is willing to pay you for your expertise.
  • If you are learning economics in order to work in a firm or start a business of your own, then, well, you have to do these things to get the degree. You have to convince a firm to hire you for an entire semester, or you have to spend an entire semester building out a team, pitching for funding, and get a product to market in order to be awarded a degree.

Long story short, you are evaluated for what you have done, not for what you have submitted for internal review and assessment.

My Almost Ideal University would have no examinations, but only a specific end-goal. Do the work, and if you’ve done it well enough, you’re awarded the degree. There’s no first place, no last place, no grades, no marks, nothing. If your work is good enough, we say that you are good enough to go out and start doing more of what you just finished doing.

Will this system have problems in terms of implementation. It’s a guarantee. Can I pick flaws in the design that I have put up? A dozen.

But does it have a fighting chance of being, at least along some dimensions, better than the status quo? Even if you happen to disagree, I think it to be a question worthy of further discussion. So especially if you disagree, please, do tell me why! 🙂

So that’s what the students will do. What will “faculty” do in my Almost Ideal University? We’ll talk about it tomorrow!

  1. why is a blogpost in its own right[]

The Almost Ideal University, Part I

Tyler Cowen recently wrote about “his” university:

If you were to design a university from scratch, what might it look like? The idea isn’t necessarily to have a model for other schools to follow, but rather an experiment. Assume that various legal, contractual and accreditation constraints do not stand in your way.

In this post, which may well end up being a fairly lengthy one, I will outline what “my” university will look like. This is a place I would want to work at, would want to be involved in the administration of, and would want many (but not all) students to study at. That’s what I mean by “my university”.

First things first: my idea is to have a model for other schools to follow. There are many interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like, but the problem with almost all of them is that they don’t scale. And the ones that do scale aren’t interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like. You want to be at the sweet spot between the two extremes.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. You don’t just want to be at the sweet spot between these two dimensions, but you also want to have optimality along two other dimensions: affordability and replicability.

My ideal university, in other words, should optimize for a sweet spot that acknowledges the trade-offs between quality, scale, affordability and replicability.

All students who are in this university should get education of high quality at a price that is reasonable for the kind of education they are getting. All models of dispensing education in this university should be documented and freely available in the public domain.

When I say:

  • All students: I’m talking about scale. No student should be turned away because they were not able to solve x questions in y minutes on a particular day in the year. That’s how entrance examinations work, and the reason we need entrance examinations is because we can’t scale well enough. Patting ourselves on the back for getting the “best” students is our way of disguising the fact that we are unable to provide quality education to many more students.
  • High quality: I’m talking about quality. It is difficult to define and dangerous to measure, but you know it when you see it. Quality is not A+ on the NAAC, because nobody who has been through a NAAC process can put their hand on their heart and say that it is a good way to measure quality. Neither is quality the number of students who score more than x% in an examination, because ditto.
    Here’s a definition of quality that I am comfortable with: are you, at the end of your education, able to readily apply concepts you have learnt in order to be productive in your workplace?
    If you want to be educated in order to be a professor, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to teach right away? If you want to be educated in order to be a data analyst, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to work on a project right away? And so on, but that’s the point of a quality education – can you put what you claim to have learnt to good use?
    More: if your job requires you to acquire a skill we didn’t equip you with, did we teach you how to teach yourself? A quality education isn’t just about learning, it also ought to be about learning how to learn.
    Each of us has our own way of learning, of course. Some do better by listening, some by reading, some by visualization, some by introspection. A student who graduates from a university must have the ability to understand what she lacks in terms of skill sets, and have the ability to equip herself with that skill by using resources online.
    That’s quality.
  • A price that is reasonable: Tyler Cowen urges us to not worry about constraints, and I think I understand where he is coming from when he makes the request. Figure out the best you can build, and we’ll solve the constraints as we go along. But at least in India, one of the reasons higher education is in such a mess is precisely because we haven’t used the price mechanism effectively enough. Of the four, this dimension is perhaps the trickiest to think about.
    I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
    It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.
    Cross-subsidization? Vouchers from the government? Income sharing agreements? My personal preference would be for the last of these, but I’ll happily admit to being uncertain about what the correct answer is.
  • Replicability: The last sentence in my statement above is about replicability. It doesn’t matter if your approach works or not, where replicability is concerned. Funding/regulatory approval for your university ought to be contingent on it being easily replicable. Your methods, your ideas and your processes must be open source. Why? Because an educated populace is the whole point of education! At a system-wide level, the opportunity cost of protecting the trade secret of an well-run educational institution is simply too high.
    Documenting the ideas, their implementation, the challenges encountered during implementation, the refinement, the impact evaluation and the evolution of the university – and that on an ongoing basis, needs to happen. And this should be publicly available, for reasons stated above.
    And it isn’t even that big a risk, because the secret to a well run university isn’t the ideas for it – it lies in their implementation, and therefore in human capital. Spread the knowledge of how to build good universities far and wide!

Now, about the trade-offs between these four dimensions. No university, anywhere in the world, can optimize all four (scale, quality, affordability and replicability) at the same time. The first two alone will inevitably involve trade-offs.

What would my ideal university optimize for, and what would I be ok sacrificing, at the margin?

The SQAR framework

I will sacrifice scale at the altar of quality, and I will also sacrifice affordability at the altar of quality. Quality and replicability are non-negotiable in my worldview.

Why sacrifice scale?

Because if I have to choose between scale and quality, I’ll choose quality every day of the week. A job well done is preferable to lots of jobs not-so-well done. Lot of jobs really well done is great in theory, but it tends to not work out in practice, and especially so when it comes to education.

Why sacrifice affordability?

Because if I define quality as the ability to apply what you’ve learnt, a graduate from my university stands a better than even chance of being productive, and therefore employable. And that means a better than even chance of income sharing agreements working out in practice. And so yes, education in my university may not be cheap, but you can always pay later, out of your future income streams. And my university has skin in the game too! No income stream, no income sharing, and my university has taught you for free. We have taught you badly, since you aren’t able to generate income, and so we don’t deserve to be paid. That’s it.

What might students actually do in my university, and how will it actually work? I’ll get to this in Monday’s post.

Ways to Learn Outside of College

Outside of college doesn’t necessarily mean not enrolling in college. It means complementing whatever it is that you’re learning in college.

  1. Listen in on Twitter. I’ll use economics as an example, but I’m sure this applies to practically any subject. Listening in means quite literally listening in to people in the field having a debate about, well practically anything. #EconTwitter is a useful way to get started. This tweet, for example, was fourth or fifth in the “Top” section at the time of writing this blogpost.
  2. Learn what lists on Twitter are, and either follow lists made by others, or start creating your own. This list, for example, is of folks on Twitter who have been guests on The Seen And The Unseen (TSATU).
  3. We’ll resume our regular programming from the next point onwards, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, listen to The Seen And The Unseen. Multi-hour episodes, well over two hundred of them. Each of them with guests who are experts in the real, meaningful sense of the term. Each backed with impeccable research by Amit Varma. All for free. What a time to be alive.
  4. Following topics on Twitter is often more useful than following people on Twitter, although as always, TALISMAN.
  5. Why not read about each Nobel Prize in economics, say at the rate of one a week? Here’s the complete list of Nobel Prize winners. Here’s the 2020 prize winners page. If you are an undergraduate student, focus on the popular science version. If you are a Master’s student, read the more arcane version. Of course, nothing prevents you from reading both, no matter what level of economics you are comfortable with. 🙂 An idea that I have been toying with for a year: a podcast about the winners, created in the style of this podcast. This also ought to be done for all of India’s Prime Ministers, but that is a whole separate story.
  6. Blogs! There are far too many blogs on economics out there, all of them unbelievably excellent. Some are directly about economics, some are tangentially about economics, some aren’t about economics at all, and those are the very best kind. Read more blogs! Here’s how I read blogs, if that helps.
  7. YouTube. 3Blue1Brown, Veritasium, Kurzgesagt, Sky Sports Masterclasses on Cricket (yes, seriously), and so, so, so many more! One of my targets for the coming months is to curate my YouTube feed the way I have curated my Twitter feed. Suggestions are always welcome!
  8. Podcasts.
    Amit Varma responded on Twitter recently to a question put up by Peter Griffin. The question was this. Amit’s reply was this.
    Alas, this applies to me. My podcast listening has gone down due to the pandemic. One, because I have not been in a frame of mind to listen for extended periods of these past eighteen months. Two, because my listening was usually while driving. But still, podcasts. My top three are (or used to be): Conversations With Tyler, EconTalk and TSATU.
    (And one day, so help me god, I will write a blog post about WordPress’ new editor. Why can one not embed a tweet in a numbered list in the 21st year of the 21st century?! And they call this a modern editor! Bah.)

Questions about Veritasium (as just one example), and how that might possibly relate to economics might arise in some reader’s minds. Two responses: don’t compartmentalize learning. Ask, for example, about the economics of producing videos such as these. Second, learning about other subjects (interdisciplinary learning in fancypants English) is helpful in many, many different ways. Ditto with Sky Sports Cricket Masterclasses. Learn about training like an athlete, and then watch Adam Gilchrist talk about training with his dad. (The first couple of minutes, that’s all).

The larger point about the list is this: there really is no excuse left to not learn a little bit more about any subject. Learning can (and should) be a lifelong affair. And the role of college, especially in the humanities, is to help foster that environment of learning, and to act as guides for young folks just about to embark on their (lifelong) journey of learning.

Or, to put it even more succinctly, we need to have classrooms act as complements to online learning, not as a substitute for it. And that needs to happen today, not some vague day in the future.

Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen, Part II

We pick up from where we left off yesterday:

My partner Alex Rampell says that competition between an incumbent and a software-driven startup is “a race, where the startup is trying to get distribution before the incumbent gets innovation”.

Please listen to that podcast episode about Dominos thinking of itself as a tech company that happens to deliver pizzas. From another episode from that same podcast, this gem of an appropriate example:

In February 2013, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told “GQ,” “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

As time passes, I am increasingly skeptical that most incumbents can adapt. The culture shift is just too hard. Great software people tend to not want to work at an incumbent where the culture is not optimized to them, where they are not in charge. It is proving easier in many cases to just start a new company than try to retrofit an incumbent. I used to think time would ameliorate this, as the world adapts to software, but the pattern seems to be intensifying.

I hope he is wrong, for my sake, and for the sake of my alma mater, which is where I have chosen to work. But, um, I increasingly fear that he’s (surprise, surprise) right. Introducing technology has been hard in my workplace, but the fault lies with the culture of the workplace, not with the technology.

But as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the regulatory capture and the cultural conformity of the higher education space in India means that most students (and their parents, or should it be the other way around) still prefer a “top” college.

A good test for how seriously an incumbent is taking software is the percent of the top 100 executives and managers with computer science degrees. For a typical tech startup, the answer might be 50-70%. For a typical incumbent, the answer may be more like 5-7%. This is a huge gap in software knowledge and skill, and you see it play out every day across many industries.

Incumbents in higher education in India – the percentage of folks with computer science degrees? Let’s move on.

First, COVID is the ultimate cover for restructuring — what my friend and former CFO Peter Currie used to call “shake and bake”. It’s an opportunity for every CEO to do all the things he/she may have wanted to do in the past to increase efficiency and effectiveness — from fundamental headcount resizing and reorganization, to changing geographic footprint, to exiting stale lines of business — but couldn’t because they would cause too much disruption. The disruption is happening anyway, so you might as well do everything you’ve always wanted to do now

75% minimum attendance, or else we reserve the right to say that you haven’t learnt enough to write the semester end examination. All classes in offline mode, only. Rote memorization tests in examination halls, with no textbooks/supplementary materials allowed. Laptops/tables/smartphones may not be used in class.

Here’s my question to those of us who work in higher education in India. Do we expect all these things to come back once the pandemic is behind us, or are we having thoughtful discussions about how the post-covid higher education field will look in India?

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).
When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?
Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?
In other words, in the post-pandemic world…
How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

And finally, Marc Andreessen’s response to Noah’s question about what advice he (Marc) would have for a young 23 year old American:

Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.
Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

The last sentence in that excerpt is another way of saying that the world is a non-zero sum game.

And I couldn’t agree more!