Monday, March 31, 2014
Mathematics in Higher Education in India: A Historical Perspective
I begin this journey of thought through the annals of Mathematical Education in India, with a quote by Swami Vivekananda, “... how many sciences had their origin in India? Mathematics began there. You are even today counting 1, 2, 3, etc. to zero, after Sanskrit figures, and you all know that algebra also originated in India.”
Mathematics is rooted deeply in the life and culture of people in the Indian subcontinent, attested by a long history of engagement with mathematics in art, craft, work and abstract disciplines of thought. This has also meant a tradition of socially embedded modes of education and learning in aspects of mathematics as well. The fact that India has the third largest higher education system in the world (after China and the USA) suggests that there is a great deal of mathematics around as well. This study provides a viewpoint on the vast and varied landscape of the subject, and offers an insight into not only the problems and potential of mathematics education in India but also how they are approached by scholars in the past years.
India is characterized by diversity and cultural riches, as well as prevalent poverty and social division, and this is reflected in mathematics education as well. Despite the tremendous challenges, also visible are a number of innovative initiatives, some small and some on a large scale. This study cannot hope to evaluate the effectiveness of such initiatives, rather it does point to them with a sense of hope towards the future.
According to India 2009 Reference Annual (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 2009), India has 20 universities run by the Central Government and 215 run by States. In addition there are 100 autonomous institutions deemed-to-be universities that do not get their funding directly from Governments. Nearly 16000 colleges are affiliated to these universities, among them 1800 exclusively for women.
India is also home to some institutions where world class research in mathematics is carried out. A strong group of Indian mathematicians have been contributing to the development of many areas of mathematics. The legendary genius Srinivasa Ramanujan has inspired generations of young Indians towards taking up mathematics as a calling. India boasts of institutions of technology and medicine that have been globally acclaimed for their standard of undergraduate education. These, and the boom in Information Technology industry (and its generation of jobs) in the last two decades, have led to a greater emphasis on mathematical training, and the nation seeks to expand a pool of scientifically equipped manpower. This creates a situation in India where higher education in mathematics forms a very sharp pyramid. A few elite institutions offer excellent opportunities for mathematics research and a small number for mathematics education as a part of technology or some instances, management studies. However, among the large number of universities and a vast number of affiliated colleges, which provide the bulk of higher level mathematics education, there is an overall rigidity in curriculum, pedagogy and modes of assessment that make mathematics education often ineffective. This affects the prospects of building a strong pool of mathematics teachers for the future.
Small innovative initiatives towards constructing a meaningful interactive pedagogy at the under graduate level give hope for solving this problem on a larger scale in the future. An important agenda for mathematics education in India is research in mathematics education. University departments, while undertaking research in education, by their typical structure, tend to attract largely people who are neither mathematically trained nor thus inclined. Further, the idea of research providing solutions to curricular conundrums or pedagogic trauma remains outside the framework of decision making in education. The system needs to build a way of actively pursuing research on several fronts towards well formulated questions and use the answers to influence policy. It should be noted here that India provides a large enough arena, with tremendous diversity, to even allow a self-contained universe for analysis and research, and international influences can only add to this richness.
The past four decades (beginning 1970s) have seen enormous changes in the field of education in India. Numerous organizations (governmental and non-governmental) have taken steps in response to or in reaction against the policies adopted by the government. Universalization of education and education for democracy have become the new agendas for the country which gives much importance for the growth of biological and physical sciences and technology.
As far as mathematics education concerned higher education has largely been a neglected area in India. Indira Gandhi National Open University made some efforts to collect data on a bridge programme (the Bachelors Preparatory Programme, BPP) that they had launched to allow access to the undergraduate degree programme for people who had no formal high school leaving certificate. Feedback collected over a 3-year period suggested the need for curricular revision so as to meet the needs of the students. When India manages to provide quality mathematics education for all, mathematics education as a discipline would have new insights and new formulations to work with has happened by way of improving teaching and learning of mathematics. But a lot more needs to be done. Impressions of researchers or teachers involved in developing alternative curriculum and carrying out the classroom interventions indicated significant improvements in children’s attitudes towards mathematics. They also indicated better understanding of the content but systematic studies are required to assess their actual impact on students’ learning. In the absence of strong empirical evidence and sound theoretical background, policy formulation becomes a difficult task. Teacher preparation continues to be the weakest link in our education system. The departments and colleges have not been able to come up with a good model of training teachers at both the pre-service and in-service levels. Simultaneously, efforts have to be made to develop capacities among teacher educators and administrators in the system. There are relatively few individuals who are contributing to innovation in mathematics education in this vast country. There is no systemic structure to support and strengthen such work. Although the list of contributors is not an exhaustive list and there are many others, including private support in the form of corporate social responsibility today, one needs to worry about quality of the various efforts made and critically look at the underlying philosophy. There is also no forum where different groups and individuals showcase their work and discuss issues relevant to mathematics education in the country. Similarly, assessment is another area which has not radically changed. This is also one area which needs serious rethinking and research. At present, the goal of mathematics education is to tell the story of mathematics in such a way so as to open up new vistas of thought and knowledge through a dynamic confluence of history, philosophy, and science, to get her with the mathematics that merges them together into a coherent living whole - a personalized story of human endeavor.
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