Concepts vs facts

A significant amount of discussion I had over the past week with multiple people had this general theme: “I wish I had better teachers when I was in school/college. I could’ve had a whole different outlook to the subjects I studied, and hated.”

This conversation usually ended with a note that our education system is faulty. The system is not efficient because the people who run the system are not efficient enough. Granted that this is a known fact, but such conversations don’t really lead anywhere fruitful because they don’t try to identify the problem at the root.

Disclaimer

Following data are instances of personal observations and they have no statistical proof or are not results of detailed surveys. They are simply my personal opinions. You have been warned. Carry on if you want. After this, I assume, you use the analytical faculties of your brain to interpret what you read.

Realizing the root cause

The problem, however, is not something evident, because to get to the root, one needs to have the idea of concepts. i.e,. Unless you can abstract the concepts from a set of facts, you cannot possibly explain them satisfactorily to a new set of learners. All the learners end up learning are those facts. They don’t learn the concepts, because the people teaching them don’t internalize the idea of teaching in terms of concepts.

It is easy to teach facts

You can teach a student the dates when the first battle of Plassey was fought, or when Vasco da Gama reached India, but not what are the historical reasons which influenced the British, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Portuguese to embark on a quest of world domination, and what were the reasons why the British Empire prevailed over the other colonialists.

But, if you try to teach concepts to a new learner, you need to be yourself aware of the why and not just the what and how. The problem is that teachers usually know the latter two and not the first and the most important reason required in teaching new ideas. The why is usually missed out, because they were not taught that themselves, and they did not bother to grok the root reason themselves. This applies to any method of enquiry, be it scientific or non-scientific.

Difference between concepts and facts

The main difference between concepts and facts lies in the level of abstraction. Facts are presented as-is. They do not have any level of inductive or deductive knowledge applied to them. A good example of fact can be, “When did Vasco da Gama reach India?” The quick answer is May 20, 1498 A.D. That is a fact. It is known because it has been recorded in the annals of history. We don’t need to derive it. It is a known fact.

A good example of concept, taking forward the same example, can be the theory of “colonialism and its impact in creating the new elite in the colonized countries”, e.g., the concept of “Bhadralok”. To explain that, the teacher needs to understand the cultural context of Bengal back in the colonized era, and the socio-economic-political situation of the rest of the Bengal populace in that period. Knowing that needs a broader set of understanding. And, to know that, one needs to have a clear idea of the different colonial apparatus that were used by the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese.

A concept is a derived, abstracted form of knowledge.

Knowing is not enough

To be a good enough teacher, a person needs to have 2 qualities: learn and explain. In our education we have three scenarios:

  1. the vast majority of teachers cannot learn and cannot explain. They are usually the sediments; they are the ones with the lowest academic qualifications who get into primary and montessori schools, mainly because they have no other options in career. No offence intended, but this is the majority scenario. There are of course some exceptions.
  2. some of the remaining set of teachers are good scholars but not good teachers. They are the ones who have multiple publications, are well-known scholars in their specialized fields, but they cannot teach. They may grok a concept well, but they lack the experience, skill and vocabulary to articulate their own concepts in verbal or written form for others to learn.
  3. the remaining, and these are the very, very, very rare set of teachers, who can learn and explain their concepts to new learners with ease. These are the not-so-prevalent species, and are usually restricted to the premier institutions in the country.

Why the IITs and IIMs shine?

However, this lends no reason to subscribe to the idea that the premier institutions in India, like the IITs and IIMs are successful because all of their faculties are excellent, and because all of them provide excellent infrastructure for students.

The fact is, majority of the faculties of these premier institutions do not contribute much to the majority growth of these organizations. Only a handful of the faculties do enough research which get media or government attention. These handful are usually the reason why the IIMs and IITs are as well-known as they are today.

Also, sometimes I doubt if these 98% of faculties could have themselves cracked the IITs and IIMs if they sat for the entrance examinations conducted today. Once again, no offence intended, this is a well-known fact among co-founders and people in positions of power today. It is easier to say the new generation is not-as-good, than to go through the stresses and efforts that the new generation puts in, in every facet of life.

Why does it matter?

In the end, it does not matter whether these newer generations understand the roots of the concepts or they just become pieces in the larger cogwheel where they are nothing more than manual labourers, irrespective of the professional field they represent.

What matters is whether they are willing to overcome these deficiencies of their teachers, and fend for themselves, making themselves essentially self-taught; not bothering the degrees and certificates they have. Rather, what matters is whether they try to learn in terms of concepts and teach the forthcoming generations about those thought processes.

So, you should call a spade, a spade. But you cannot distinguish a spade from non-spade objects unless you know for sure what the concept of spades consists of.