REFLECTIONS ON LIFE AND EDUCATION - ARTICLES

PERSPECTIVES IN ENGINEERING EDUCATION

Devdas Menon

Text of an invited keynote paper at a Short-term course on Engineering Education, held at REC Calicut in December 2000

INTRODUCTION

Most of us are inclined to believing that there is something special about 'engineering education' that makes it different from (and perhaps superior to) other fields of education. This is largely a myth, and prevents us from viewing education in its proper overall perspective. Fundamentally, engineering education is not different from other education, whether related to pure sciences, medicine or even humanities. The emphasis should be on 'education'. This article, addressed primarily to engineering college teachers, attempts to focus on this overall perspective, which appears to have got lost in modern technical education.

Teachers teach, and thereby students learn, in general, in bits and pieces. Understanding each bit in itself is no trivial matter (depending largely on the competence of the teacher). As for the 'whole', it is but scarcely perceived in the pursuit of the parts. The teacher, as a course instructor, has a challenging task in emphasising the relative importance of the various parts, in integrating these parts, and in relating theory with practice. A greater challenge lies in relating and integrating the contents of a specific course with other courses in the engineering curriculum, and possibly with other disciplines as well. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the teacher arises from the recognition that education means much more than course instruction, and that being a good human being is no less important than being a good engineer.

To what extent the teacher seeks to respond to the above challenges depends entirely on the teacher's perspective. We generally assume that our mandate is limited to course instruction. Even if this were to be true, not many succeed in living up to this limited mandate. We often may succeed in covering the syllabus, but not quite in 'uncovering' it. For, in the attempt to 'uncover' the syllabus, we discover at times that we ourselves are in need of improved clarity of understanding, and that the students do not have the pre-requisite background in terms of concepts. We are therefore required to explore and navigate, not only within the confines of the prescribed syllabus, but also beyond its domain. In this creative process, we are bound to enter uncharted waters, and although this can be daunting, it offers the delight of discovery and breaks the monotony of the set pattern of teaching (which we are well accustomed to). Thus, no matter how many times a teacher is required to teach a particular course, there will be always something new to discover both in the subject and in the students, and the classroom interaction can be an educational experience not only for the students but also for the teacher. The wider the teacher's perspective, the more meaningful will this education be.

THE MEANING OF PERSPECTIVE IN EDUCATION

It is desirable that as engineering teachers, we attempt to perceive the 'whole' in education. This should enable us to see things in the proper perspective. The word 'perspective' means (in the present context) 'a way of judging the relative importance of things'. If this judgement is blurred or the perspective limited (as is usually the case), then the emphasis on the 'things' to be learnt gets misplaced. Consequently, the students are not enabled to discriminate between 'fundamental' knowledge (which constitutes the essence) and 'secondary' knowledge (general information and applications based on the essence). The need to have this discrimination becomes all the more important in the present context of the so-called 'knowledge explosion'. The sense of discrimination is particularly relevant in the prevailing job scenario, which finds the majority of our engineering graduates migrating from core engineering to software and management.

What students need to succeed in their careers, apparently, is not increased quantity of information, but increased quality of knowledge, coupled with analytical skills, decision-making abilities and communication skills. The engineering curriculum should therefore be viewed as a means for achieving these ends. This would be a desirable perspective for us teachers to have. But even this perspective would be restrictive, as it omits a vital component in education.

THE MISSING PERSPECTIVE IN MODERN EDUCATION

Knowledge and skills alone do not suffice. The third vital component in education, well-known in pedagogical theory (and conspicuous by its absence in pedagogical practice) is 'attitudes'. It is the total neglect of this vital component in our education system that is responsible for many of the ills in society.

The more 'educated' and 'successful' we become, the more conceited, self-centred, materialistic, pretentious and dishonest we also seem to become. This is the irony underlying our modern education system. And the tragedy lies in the fact that we all blame this on the 'system'. As teachers (especially teachers of engineering), we do not perceive that we constitute a major component of this system, and must therefore share some of the blame. The loss in status of the teaching community may be directly attributed to this. Yet, we conveniently ignore this problem, even at the highest policy making levels.

PERSPECTIVE AND RESPONSIBILITY

Widening our window of perception (or, expanding our perspective), we see what really needs to be done: not to be done by others (in the 'system'), but by us as individual teachers. We respond to this increased awareness, by exploring and experimenting, in our own individual and creative ways. The ability to respond effectively to a challenging situation is the original meaning of the word 'responsibility'. We need to take some responsibility for the condition of the student and for the direction he or she is heading, and we should take absolute responsibility for our own behaviour and actions.

Thus, perspective in education, for a teacher, is intimately related to responsibility. The larger the perspective, the greater the responsibility, which also means the greater our ability to respond to our perspective. It should be intuitively obvious to us that we cannot expect our students to have high quality education, unless we ourselves put into practice, in our own lives, such education. We cannot expect students to have clarity in perception as well as character, if we ourselves lack that clarity and character, but have pretensions to both. Improving our insight in knowledge (technical or otherwise) and improving our character are lifelong tasks. The former is something that we should naturally enjoy doing as academicians, while the latter is related to our 'samskaras' (for want of a better word).

MODERN TRENDS: A PARADIGM SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE?

Following the trends in the Western world, technical education experts and policy makers in India, now herald a changing perspective in education. There is a call for a 'paradigm shift' in the role of the teacher: "from merely teaching to motivating and facilitating students to learn". In view of the booming 'knowledge explosion', and advancements in the 'means and techniques of acquiring knowledge', it is felt that the traditional lecture-based method of teaching students in a classroom is becoming obsolete. The modern age is one of 'web-based learning' and 'distance education', where education can be made accessible to all, and where there is no teacher, but plenty of learning resource materials. Even in the conventional classroom setting, the teacher is to realise that he or she is but one among many alternative resources, which include virtual libraries, video films, compact discs and slide projections.

The paradigm shift, in summary, is from teacher-centred instruction to student-centred learning.

One wonders, in the Indian context, whether this really signals any fundamental change in perspective. Has not engineering education for the vast majority of our students (in increasingly proliferating institutions) always been, in a sense, student-centred, or rather, examination-centred? To address this question, we need to shift our perspective from the 'ideal' of the policy planner to the ground reality that is not very flattering.

BITTER TRUTHS OF A NARROW PERSPECTIVE

Many of us, who have been taking courses at the post-graduate level in institutions such as the IITs, have often wondered as to how B.Tech. students with mediocre calibre make it to the top in their respective colleges, and also in the GATE exam. Some of the toppers in GATE reveal that they have achieved success through sheer hard work and self-study. Had they been exposed to good teaching, surely they would have performed even better, and in the bargain, would have a much deeper understanding of the subjects.

Our students are quick to realise that 'success' in engineering education lies essentially in beating the examination system, with or without the help of the teacher. Success is measured in terms of marks scored, and the clever student is one who anticipates questions correctly and gives the right answers. In recognition of this, a large number of examination-oriented textbooks have come into being, and enjoy immense popularity, both with students and teachers. There may be good textbooks available, with emphasis on the learning of fundamental concepts, but students do not generally have the time (nor the inclination) to study these books. Teachers too often have little exposure beyond the 'cookbook' textbooks. Question paper setters in various Universities also find it very convenient to pick questions (often verbatim) from such books.

It is a bitter truth, but we must face it. For the majority of us in this country, the perspective of education is indeed very narrow. The 'successful' amongst us are those who have tasted the joy of scoring high marks, not necessarily the joy of learning and gaining insights. Learning is frequently reduced to an exercise in remembrance, a short-term retention of information and the application of standard problem-solving techniques for the sole purpose of answering predictable questions in examinations. Those who succeed in this exercise may end up as teachers, soon after acquiring their degrees with distinction. Unless the new teachers, with the above background, reorient their perspective and devote their energies towards relearning the right way (and unlearning the wrong way), the situation in education can only be expected to get worse.

The basic premise made in the paradigm shift, that our course instruction is 'teacher-centred', is a far cry from reality. Our students know that they have to fend for themselves, and in this respect, their learning has been largely 'student-centred'. More accurately, it has been, and continues to be 'examination-centred'. If, the examination questions were to be more probing in nature, and more imaginative, testing depth of understanding rather than memory, things could perhaps be a lot different. But we have few people who have the capability and the willingness to devote the energy to set such questions. Besides, one can well anticipate all kinds of problems, with complaints not only from students, but also from teachers.

Admittedly, learning of some sort does take place even in the prevailing bleak scenario. However, it is qualitatively deficient, and leaves much to be desired. Any student who has had the fortune of being exposed to a master-teacher will immediately know the enormity of the difference. For the rest, it is the story of the proverbial 'frog in the well'. These are rather unflattering remarks to make of our country, proud as we are in being producers of the largest technical manpower in the world. The emphasis seems to be on quantity, rather than on quality.

Our real problem in engineering education is not only examination-oriented instruction, but also sub-standard teaching. Bad teachers do considerable damage. Students complain of how they have lost interest in a basic subject (and thereby, in all the subsequent related courses) because of the poor, indifferent (and, in some cases, offensive) manner in which it was taught. Students complain of how they have stopped asking questions, after receiving indifferent or intimidating responses from their teachers.

In the light of the above, the concept of 'student-centred learning' is no doubt desirable, but the emphasis should be on in-depth learning. It matters little, whether the student learns from a teacher, a textbook, a video film or a web-based source, provided the student really learns. This is possible only if the resources for learning (including the teacher) are of high quality. Asking our present teachers to change their roles from 'merely teaching' (which probably means teaching badly) to 'motivating and facilitating students to learn' is like placing the cart before the horse. For indeed, is not the expected outcome of good teaching precisely this: 'motivating and facilitating students to learn'?

In order to motivate and inspire students and enable them to have a broad perspective, the teacher must in the first place be motivated and inspired and have such a perspective. Herein lies the root of our problems.

THE MASTER-TEACHER: A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL PERSPECTIVE

"The bad teacher complains.
The good teacher explains.
The master-teacher inspires."
-Anonymous

In his fascinating treatise on modern physics, ("The Dancing Wu Li Masters"), Gary Zukav makes a very perceptive remark: "The master does not teach, but the student learns". With this student-centred concept of teaching in mind, he adds: "A master teaches essence. When the essence is perceived, he teaches what is necessary to expand the perception". Elsewhere in the book, Zukav comments that the teaching style of the master is like dancing. As the master 'dances', the student cannot help but respond by also dancing, with the delight of understanding...

There are many dimensions underlying the broad perspective of the master-teacher. An attempt is made here to identify and describe these dimensions that are integrated in the master-teacher's holistic vision.

1. The Academic Outlook

There is a quest for knowledge and gaining deep insight, particularly in (but not restricted to) one's chosen field of interest. Ironically, as one gets to learn more and more, one also gets to discover that what one really knows (in terms of depth of understanding and breadth of knowledge) is less and less! This discovery not only serves to bring much-needed humility in the academic's perspective, but also serves to stimulate further learning.

There is inherent excitement, challenge and a sense of fulfilment in this process of life-long learning. The academic's ability to perceive any aspect of knowledge from different angles of vision (perspective) empowers him (or her) with the potential to be a great teacher. With growing clarity in perspective (ranging from the ant's eye-view to the bird's eye-view), the teaching style also evolves and becomes exciting. Much of this excitement and joy of learning cannot help but spill over to students and colleagues, provided the academic is able to communicate effectively. An institution is said to have a rich academic culture, if the atmosphere is continually charged with this energy, reverberating with academic discussion, not only within classrooms and seminar halls, but also in the corridors, staff rooms, canteens, hostels and lawns. Master-teachers should ideally constitute the fountainhead of such culture.

2. The Scientific Temperament

The scientific approach to a problem (any problem) is based on the question "Why?". In contrast, the unscientific approach is often based on the question "How?". While the emphasis in the case of the latter approach is on how to solve the problem, the emphasis in the former is on questioning the very roots of the problem. The scientific mind devotes considerable time and energy in understanding the nature of the problem, rather than in rushing towards its solution, for there is much to gain from this understanding. In contrast, the unquestioning mind spends time and energy in looking for ready-made available solutions (ideally, worked-out examples in textbooks) for problems of a similar nature. Serious errors may arise on account of application of solution methods that may not be applicable to the problem under consideration. And, when confronted with an entirely new problem, one is often left groping in the dark, because one lacks the scientific training in rationally analysing and solving problems.

The scientific temperament loves to deal with the mystery of the unknown; dealing with the known is hardly exciting. There is a habitual tendency to question, and to unravel the mystery by systematised analysis, experimentation, and derivation from first principles. The solution to the 'mystery' (i.e., the prediction of the behaviour of a complex system) lies in discovering the hidden fundamental laws that govern the system. This often requires mathematical modelling (especially in the engineering sciences) and expressing the laws succinctly in terms of concise mathematical equations. The good scientist-engineer is one who has a deep insight into the physical interpretation of the mathematical equations, and is sensitive to the underlying assumptions and limitations. For, a proper perspective of any knowledge requires an understanding of the boundaries of that knowledge.

Clearly, teaching with a scientific temperament is qualitatively and significantly different from the kind of 'bad teaching' described earlier. The emphasis here lies on appreciating the 'mystery' in the problem, unravelling the mystery by discovering and deriving the hidden laws, understanding their limitations, and finally applying these laws or techniques to solving engineering problems (not just routine textbook problems, but challenging real or imaginary problems that may be open-ended).

3. Research and Consultancy

Academic outlook and scientific temperament naturally lead to an aptitude for research. Anyone endowed with these qualities cannot help but be engaged in research activity of some kind or other (in an informal sense). In teaching, there are many opportunities for doing this on a formal basis through project guidance, especially at the post-graduate and PhD levels (to the extent such facilities exist in the institution). In the field of engineering, it is generally applied research (R & D) to specific industry-related problems that are relevant. Avenues for sponsorship and funding of such projects are increasingly available, and utilised by research-minded teachers. The outcomes of all such research activities acquire value when they get published in good journals of repute. There is also considerable scope for solving industry-related problems through consultancy assignments.

Taking up non-routine R & D and consultancy projects can be extremely challenging and exciting. More important, the experiences gained through interactions with the industry enable the teacher to relate theory with practice. Thus, from the student's perspective, the teaching has the potential to become more exciting, meaningful and inspiring.

4. The Art of Teaching

From a student's viewpoint, the academic and other accomplishments of a teacher are of little value, unless they can be effectively communicated to the student. Good academic-researcher-consultants are relatively rare, but good communicators are equally rare in teaching. The effectiveness of the teacher is directly related to the extent these attributes co-exist in the teacher. An excellent communicator with poor academic background is as undesirable (actually, more undesirable) than an excellent academic with poor communication skills. The joint probability of having both attributes in full measure is rather low, which explains why master-teachers constitute a relatively rare species. Nevertheless, institutions should aim to recruit teachers who have elements of both attributes (with more emphasis on academics), and should arrange for appropriate training. However, it takes much more than mere training to become a master-teacher; the 'raw material' must be of high calibre.

The most common communication problem with teachers is their inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend that communication is a two-way process involving an interaction, rather than a monologue. One does not give a lecture to the walls in a classroom, but to living beings that respond. The success of the whole exercise lies in the students being able to understand, on a one-to-one basis, exactly what the teacher has in mind. The articulation of one's ideas (thoughts) into appropriate expressions (words, non-verbal actions) is an art in itself (the art of 'self-communication'). This can be done in many creative ways, and the choice of the right expression involves an aesthetic sense. If this can be done only in one or two ways, then this is usually a clear symptom of a lack of clarity in the perception of the very idea to be expressed. This situation is commonly encountered when a teacher is only able to repeat (often verbatim) what is given in a textbook, using the same terminology (rightly called 'jargon'). Students also pick up this jargon, and many engineers end up using technical terms liberally, with little fundamental comprehension. (This is reminiscent of the legendary story called "The Emperor's new clothes".) The tragedy of not knowing is compounded by not knowing that one does not know.

If we accept English as the medium of communication in teaching, then it is absolutely necessary for the teacher to acquire the necessary skills, in terms of grammar, vocabulary and choice of words (diction), and to a less extent, pronunciation. Most of our teachers and students are wanting in these skills. While some realise their shortcomings in this respect, others blunder forth in blissful ignorance. Once this importance is realised, the teacher should take the initiative to do the needful (in terms of self-improvement). The institution should ideally provide for such training, not only for students, but, separately, for teachers. A good teacher should be able to express his (or her) ideas in many different ways, using simple words and avoiding jargon. This may be considered to be an absolute minimum requirement of good teaching. In contrast to the master-teacher who succeeds in rendering even the most difficult concepts simple and easy to understand, the bad teacher unfortunately often ends up in complicating even the most simple concepts.

The art of teaching is not very different from the art of story-telling. The master-teacher is a master story-teller. Like the good grandmother who engages effortlessly little children with her spell-binding fairly tales and their morals, so the master-teacher casts a spell over a more mature audience. For this exercise, no doubt, much planning is required, in terms of the depth of the story and the sequence in which the various parts of the story need to be unveiled, in keeping with the level of the students. As a gifted speaker and creative thinker, the master knows intuitively, while the class is in progress, how to modify the story and introduce sub-plots to the main theme, in order to facilitate improved understanding. While the master 'dances' (to borrow Gary Zukav's idea), the eyes remain focussed on the students, keenly observing their responses. The master understands instinctively whether the students understand or not, and thereby takes steps (metaphorically and physically) to present to them alternative ways (including the use of analogies) of seeing the 'essence'. The master builds up a rapport with the students, questions their understanding, and encourages them to question his in turn. Digressions are accepted as a necessary part of learning, but the master-teacher never loses grip on the main theme. Every question is treated with respect, for the master realises that much can be learnt by going into the root of the question and finding the answers there. The master also realises that, for proper comprehension of any difficult topic, the student must necessarily pass through the tunnel of confusion before perceiving the light at the end of it.

Occasionally, the master-teacher is confronted with a question that he himself cannot fully answer. He is ready to confess this, and in fact is delighted at being confronted with the limitation of his own understanding. Relentlessly pursuing this question, the master sooner or later comes up with the answer, and conveys it to the students. The absence of academic pretensions particularly endears the master-teacher to the students, many of whom are quick to realise their great fortune at being exposed to such a person, from whom they have much to learn in many respects. They religiously attend classes (not for the sake of 'attendance', as in most other cases) and find their attention lifted automatically to incredibly high levels. They are inspired to study further, and especially to do (on their own, rather than copy from others) the challenging assignments given by the master.

The master-teacher, in turn, has admiration for the bright students and compassion (not contempt) for the weak ones. He is fair in his evaluation of their performance, and is troubled by his inability to improve the weak students beyond a point. Yet, the master-teacher accepts gracefully the inherent inequalities in Nature, and realises that the true meaning of success lies in every person's ability to achieve the best that is possible.

In sharp contrast to the 'bad teacher', the master-teacher does not complain. The master-teacher never demands respect; he commands it.

5. The Extra-Mural Outlook

The term 'extra-mural' here refers to the mental space beyond the walls one is normally confined in. The extra-mural outlook adds a higher dimension to the perspective of an accomplished teacher. Looking beyond the limited perspective of science and technology, one can get exposed to wonderful landscapes that are aesthetically appealing and are rich in meaning. This exposure arouses certain essential sensibilities, in addition to providing knowledge. In particular, it is desirable for the scientist-engineer to gain an appreciation of literature, fine arts, psychology, philosophy and the social sciences. After all, knowledge is essentially one, and indeed was perceived as such in ancient times, both in the East (India, China) and in the West (Greece). Specialisation into narrow domains has the inherent shortcoming of denying the perspective of the whole. Indeed, the whole can barely be seen by anyone. The master-teacher realises that excessive indulgence in any one specialisation will result in a warped perspective, unless there is a 'balance' introduced. Indeed, life is larger than engineering, and there is certainly much more to education than engineering.

The presence of an extra-mural outlook in a master-teacher adds a special flavour to teaching. It is a subtle flavour, and the students who experience it find it tremendously meaningful and uplifting.

6. Self-Realisation

The 'missing perspective' discussed at length earlier is bound to be acutely felt by the master-teacher. The apparent all-round gross neglect of human values is a clear symptom of a serious moral epidemic in our present 'civilisation', and we are all responsible for this. While mankind seems to have made considerable material progress, thanks to science and technology, we also seem to have regressed considerably in terms of something that is more valuable. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, used to refer to this something as the "health of the soul", which he considered to be more important than the health of the body. Socrates was a master-teacher, and many of his 'rishi' counterparts in India and China shared the same opinion several thousand years ago. Many of us today click our tongues and nod in agreement, but we do little more than pay lip service.

As the master-teacher looks around, he perceives that despite high erudition and other accomplishments, academic colleagues in most institutions seem to be as vulnerable to common human failings as anybody else. We are just as egotistic, selfish, money-minded, greedy, envious and petty-minded. Despite our pretensions to be otherwise, we are also consumed by the prevailing materialistic world-view, and care little for the welfare of the poor and the hungry. Higher education does not seem to have made any difference to all this, except perhaps in a negative sense. Those who have minimal or no education seem to be relatively more honest and pure, and less deceitful than the highly educated us. They depend largely on physical labour rather than mental effort for their livelihood, but in the bargain get extremely low incomes, compared to the salaries that we get for the use of our brains (considered more superior than the brawn). And yet we teachers complain no end at our meagre salaries. Many of us senior professors with several decades of distinguished service are appalled to see our fresh graduates (with absolutely no experience) draw much higher salaries than us. It may be too late (and unbecoming) for us to join the IT bandwagon, but we see to it that our children are on the fast track, drawing mind-boggling salaries, preferably in U.S. dollars. And if, unfortunately, they do not succeed, but our colleagues' children do, we feel wretched with envy...

The master-teacher (whom we shall now model in the image of our ancestral master-teachers) quietly observes all this, and comes to the simple conclusion that goodness and so-called education seem to be independent of each other. It is also clear that when educators themselves are wanting in human values, it is hardly fair to demand that the students be any different. As the master-teacher turns his gaze inwards, he realises that if any fundamental correction needs to be done, it must begin with oneself. With increasing perception, another simple old truth is discovered: the key to enduring happiness lies in being content with what one has, not in getting trapped in an endless pursuit of having and consuming more and more. The master discovers the hollowness in the popular notion of 'success', which is associated with wealth, fame and power. According to this concept, the honest labourer can never achieve success and find a worthy place in society. The master observes and admires the native goodness in uneducated man, and becomes aware of many subtle truths: that this goodness is precious, and more so because the man is not even conscious of the greatness in his goodness. And so it is with little children and all natural things that are free from consciously cultivated refinement (or education). The contamination in the essential purity arises from the notion of the ego, which grows and grows, and hangs heavy on the shoulders of the successful man (including the accomplished academician).

Thus, the master quietly explores, gains fresh insights and discovers higher planes of consciousness, in which lie concealed the essential unifying truths underlying all religions. The master realises, without a semblance of doubt, that the highest level of human evolution lies in returning to the original state of uncontaminated innocence. If education is perceived as the inculcation of knowledge and skills, as well as development of character, its culmination lies in discovering clarity and simplicity in understanding, and the final awakening to a sublime state of being that is marked by simplicity, peace and harmony.

Human values in education can rarely succeed by preaching "You should do this; you should not do that", especially when the preacher cannot practice. True success can emerge only from an inner realisation, which calls for inspiration. The master-teacher is a source of such inspiration, not only for students, but also for all other persons the master comes in contact with. As for less accomplished teachers, the important lesson to learn is that charity begins at home. True education (in the fullest sense) is a life-long enterprise, and teachers who take to it earnestly will contribute most effectively.

CLOSURE

This article has touched on many basic issues pertaining to education. The teacher-reader may well question the relevance of some of these to 'engineering education'. Indeed, the very purpose of this article is to provoke such questioning. It is hoped that the questions will linger in the mind of the reader and stimulate introspection, but it is possible that the teacher-reader may choose to be cynical and to dismiss these issues as being irrelevant, impractical or idealistic.

As the psychologist Erich Fromm puts it (in his book called "Escape from Freedom"), we all have this wonderful freedom to choose to do as we really ought to, guided by our conscience and our creativity. We also have the choice to escape from that freedom. This choice is intimately related to our perspective and sense of responsibility. In the case of the teaching community, it not only affects us as individuals, but far more significantly, it governs the competence and attitudes of generations of students, and thus, the character and destiny of our nation.

LIST OF ARTICLES

Engineering Education: Training to Produce Technicians or Scientists?

Perspectives in Engineering Education

We are the hollow men ...

Travel Light and Be Free!

Am I Making Spiritual Progress?

The Big Tree and the Blade of Grass

Trans-personal Growth

Mind Control

Evolution and Enlightenment

Exploring "Self-Awareness" with the Youth