Imagine someone asking you, “What is a pen?’ or “What is a book?” and you are expected to tell the answer immediately. You are sure to be taken aback and will have to summon your utmost language skills to compose a definition. Probably you would give it up and say simply what these objects are used for. Pen is for writing, book reading. But of course there may be somewhere definitions of these giving their conceptual meaning. They would be probably be made of several words or sentences and could be even so abstract as to be quite remote from what they express. Those who cannot come up with a definition of something instantly are not necessarily without the knowledge of the thing. Yet in our main stream academia and job selection interviews it is this kind of definitions that are asked quite often from students and candidates.
When I appeared for an admission interview in a prestigious engg. institution in Tamil Nadu, The Guindy Engg. College, Chennai (Now Anna University) the professorial interview board threw at me questions such as: What is a road? What is a screw driver? What is bridge? Certainly I know what is a road but how to define it? I described their uses but he pointed out that he wanted definitions. I must have already joined civil or mechanical engineering and by-hearted those definitions to have passed that interview.
Later on while in my pre-final engg. Course – in one of the twelve engg. Colleges that were there at that time, (now there are more than 400 engg. Colleges!) in Tamil Nadu, – my seniors staged a skit where an engg. graduate is stumped by similar questions at a job interview. What is an induction motor? I think the candidate in the play replied something like: When I switch it on it runs Vrmmmmm! The audience, needless to say, were in splits.
I guess if you ask for conceptual definitions to even the best civil, mechanical or electrical engineer in the world he or she too is likely to grope for words to define or offer their own concept. The reason is the question tests a faculty of the mind that has little to do with technical knowledge or skill. It tests a linguistic ability which even linguistic experts would be challenged to meet.
This ridiculous way of testing student engineers and technicians seem to be dawning on the mass consciousness and getting the laugh it deserves. A scene in a popular movie called “Three idiots” (Hindi, 2010 – Recently remade and released to full houses in Tamil as well) goes like this:
Professor: What is a machine?
Student (protagonist of the movie): Machines save labour for men and do their work.
Professor: If you write this answer you will get zero marks. Anybody else?
Another student parrots a long definition that he obviously mugged up.
When the first student argues his point further the professor gets annoyed and orders him to get out of the class. Student exits but immediately returns to take something he had forgotten.
Professor: What is it?
The student is actually a genius of sorts. He launches into a long definition of what a book is and the professor is at a loss to understand what he is defining. He asks impatiently what the student means.
Student: The book.
Professor: Then why don’t you say it simply.
Student: Sorry sir, I thought you don’t like simple explanations.
The professor goes speechless and the class bursts out laughing.
The point is, this type of questioning only serves to establish a false superiority of the questioner and does not find really if the student has the knowledge of something. That opens an interesting field for exploration: How to know really if the student has acquired the knowledge. The following text from Mother’s Agenda is a delightful criticism of the conventional assessment processes that at best produce parrot like students who might satisfactorily answer the professors, inspectors and interviewers. (The Mother’s words all, except the italicised line.)
“One of the teachers has already answered me, “It’s impossible to know the students’ progress unless tests are taken.” To this I didn’t exactly reply what I thought, but I thought: of course, if the teacher is an idiot, he can’t judge the students’ progress unless he makes them take tests, but if he is an intelligent man with a psychic sense, there are a thousand ways to find out if a student has understood.
So they’ve had their meeting.
But in the technical field, it’s more difficult to judge progress.
Ah, yes, that’s what they base themselves on. But it makes no difference! Two of the teachers of technology have shown how, in the purely technical field, it was possible to judge without the need for exams. No, you see, I know, I did my studies there, in France, there were lots of exams and I know how it is. I attended (I was young at the time, but that makes no difference), I attended exams like the ones taken for certificates, I saw the pupils who were there, I saw how they answered…. It’s one of my very concrete experiences: the ones that pass are NOT AT ALL the more intelligent ones! Never. They are the ones that repeat parrot fashion. They repeat very nicely. They have no understanding of what they say.”