When Shreyas Sudhaman, 22, the 2014 ICSE topper, went abroad for his undergraduate education in chemical engineering at Cockrell School of Engineering, University of Texas, Austin, he realised that school hadn’t quite equipped him with some key skills.
“I was much more suited to textbook problems than out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “When I had to do my first-year engineering project with a team, I failed to clearly communicate my ideas for the project… Report and essay writing were much harder for me than for my American classmates who are trained to organise information and present it in a clear manner.”
Years after their high school graduation, like Sudhaman, most of the 86 national Board toppers, tracked down by The Indian Express as part of a four-month investigation, say that while their marks and ranks may have given them a head start, looking back, they now see crucial gaps in their school curriculum and in the way they were taught.
Many of them downplay their Board exam ranks, but almost all of them said their school education didn’t quite prepare them for what lay ahead.
Pushpraj Shukla, 37, the 1999 ICSE topper who is currently Partner Director of Data Science at Microsoft in San Francisco, says more attention in schools to public speaking and debating could go a long way. “Let the whole class participate in public speaking; not just a few select students. These skills are bigger differentiators in careers than some of the other ones that schools focus on,” said Shukla, who moved to the US in 2005 after his Computer Science BTech from IIT-Kanpur.
Many toppers say they wish someone in school had briefed them better on options available post-school, loan programmes, and helped them with choice of colleges and careers — in the absence of which, many of them ended up majoring in conventional disciplines before discovering their real interest.
Janvi Thosani, 26, has a BCom degree from Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, and is now a Chartered Accountant. “CA was mostly choice by elimination because I didn’t want to do medicine or engineering. I wish I knew doing economics was an option,” she said.
Looking back, she also wished she knew more about undergraduate options outside of her hometown, Mumbai.
“My parents too did their education in Mumbai, so they weren’t aware of options outside. In school, we were only told about engineering colleges in and around. Had I known how much better Delhi colleges were, I would have prepared accordingly,” said the ICSE national topper of 2010.
Minister of Education Ramesh Pokhriyal says the new National Education Policy (NEP) “exactly does what these toppers need — a better ecosystem in India”.
“The NEP 2020 aims to discourage rote learning, promotes creative thinking, at the same time imparting 21st Century skills to these toppers,” Pokhriyal said in an email response to The Indian Express.
Gerry Arathoon, Chief Executive and Secretary of CISCE — the Board whose curriculum 62 of the 86 toppers featured in this series followed in school – too says the new NEP is a “unique opportunity” to usher in changes and reforms in school education. “If our past toppers feel their education was lacking in exposure to other professions or in teaching social-emotional skills, we will look at all their suggestions and use the opportunity presented by the NEP to make changes,” he told The Indian Express.
Shashi Tharoor, Congress leader and Minister of State for Human Resource Development (as the Ministry of Education was called until recently) in the previous UPA government, says such a change is long due. “I have been arguing for some time that our schools must not teach kids what to think, but how to think. Encourage them to think creatively and ‘out of the box’. Allow them to ask not just ‘why’ but ‘why not’? The 21st century needs people with well-formed minds, not just well-filled ones,” he said.
Many of the toppers also spoke about the need to update curriculum and change the way content is delivered to students.
Research scientist Karuna Ganesh, 37, acknowledges that her school life prepared her to “work hard, and to be focused and goal-oriented”, but the curriculum that she worked hard to “rote learn” in the late nineties was mostly irrelevant to modern science.
“I remember memorising the names of parts of different subtypes of seeds, flowers etc., but we failed to learn the basic principles of modern Biology that actually explain how all life works. The fundamental concepts of DNA, RNA and protein, for example, were entirely absent from our school curriculum. I first learned about principles of how cells and organisms work once I went to school in the US,” said Ganesh, who topped the ICSE exam in 1999, and is now physician-scientist at Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.
Sixteen years after Ganesh cleared her Class 10, the experience that Sougato Chowdhury, 21, who topped the Class 10 ICSE exam in 2015, had in school wasn’t any different. “The essence of science is thinking critically, asking questions and testing out possible answers. This was never promoted. We were not even given a glimpse of modern research, some of which is easily explained, yet interesting and pertinent,” he said.
Anika Agrawal, 23, the 2013 ICSE topper who is studying MS in Marine Biology at Texas A&M University, said, “I don’t remember a single thing I learned in Class 10 because it was all short-term memorisation. We should have been taught to reason out and not mug up.”
The toppers also have a word of advice for the batch of 2021: Board exam, at the end of the day, is just an exam.
Arkya Chatterjee, 24, who topped the Class 12 ISC Board exam in 2015 and is currently enrolled as a PhD student at MIT, comes up with a football analogy to explain the relevance of Board exams.
“The final standings depend on how well you play all the different games; no one game is more important than the other. Likewise, no single exam has the ability to determine exactly where you end up or how well you do in life. But the first game of the league is always special; a good start serves as an indicator of the team’s preparation for the rest of the league. So your board exam is like this first game of the league. It’s not like the champions always win their first game, but most teams that end up performing well in the league start with a good first game.”
Like Chatterjee, more than half of the toppers, as this investigation found, are overseas today, most of them in the US. That, in itself, isn’t as much a problem as it is a pointer, say experts.
“At IIT, we are aware of this problem (of students going abroad to study further and then settling down there) and this is something that the government and we are trying to address with the Prime Minister’s fellowship,” said IIT-Delhi Director V Ramgopal Rao. “I feel we should encourage bright students to study abroad by funding them through fellowships and then bring them back to work here. While they will benefit through the export, the country will in turn benefit from their return. China has been doing this for a while, where it sends many students abroad for research and advanced degrees and foots the bill. This way, (foreign) universities are also keen to take in such students and the country can benefit from the experience they have gained abroad,” he said.
For Manish Sisodia, Education Minister in the Delhi government that’s credited with bringing in reforms to change the face of public education in the Capital, the high number migrating overseas is a reminder of the challenge to retain talent.
“We need to bring a new ecosystem that not only values talent but also compensates it competitively. We cannot stop anyone from leaving the country, but what we can do is create adequate opportunities here,” said Sisodia. “That apart, I also feel the selection process in our higher education institutions is orthodox and outdated. It doesn’t recognise potential or talent. It needs to change and be in line with what some of the best institutions in the world are doing.”
Minister Pokhriyal said the government is already working to retain talent. “A committee constituted under the UGC chairman regarding ‘Stay in India’ has recently submitted its report. This report mainly deals with stemming the tide of students who want to study abroad. Now the situation has changed and world-class institutions are in India,” he said.