Modern medicine is quite amazing. We sometimes take for granted its ability to diagnose between hundreds of illnesses quite specifically and accurately. I recently came across a small device called a pulse oximeter. When worn on a finger, it displays your pulse rate and the extent to which your blood is absorbing oxygen. According to Wikipedia. ‘the device passes two wavelengths of light through the body part to a photodetector. It measures the changing absorbance at each of the wavelengths’, allowing it to determine oxygen saturation levels.



Light Treatment being attempted as a cure for tuberculosis in London Hospital during WW1 – medicine has progressed at an amazing pace in the last 80 years or so as it has become more research-based


But medicine was not always so effective. Let us rewind just about 80 years. Speaking at a TED conference in 2012, Atul Gawande, top Indian-origin surgeon famous for his book ‘Checklist Manifesto’, describes what it was like to be a medical intern at the Boston City Hospital in the pre-penicillin year of 1937. It was a time – Gawande says – when medicine was cheap and very ineffective. If you were in a hospital it was going to do you good only because it offered you some warmth, some food, shelter, and maybe the caring attention of a nurse. Doctors and medicine made no difference at all.

The doctor would try to figure out whether you might have one of the diagnoses for which he could do something. And there were a few. If you had early signs of paralysis and doctor figured out that this was from syphilis, he could give this nice concoction of mercury and arsenic… as long as he didn’t overdose and kill you. Beyond these sorts of things, a medical doctor didn’t have a lot that they could do!

Two inventions changed this state of affairs – one was penicillin (antibiotics) and the other was anaesthesia, which allowed doctors to perform surgery. There has been no looking back for medicine… within a few generations, today, over 4,000 medical and surgical procedures have been discovered. Doctors today are licensed to prescribe 6,000 distinct drugs. And new devices like the pulse oximeter keep getting invented regularly.

What does this example from medicine tell us about education? A lot, if we think about it carefully. Our schools and the education we offer are actually a lot like medicine was in the 1930’s! How effective are our schools, really? Consider the following:

  • Research shows that – most learning effects actually come from family or resources
  • A teacher has few real tools, teaching techniques or methods at his or her disposal – the methods used tend to be simplistic (‘practice this more’) and the same for all students and difficulties!
  • Schools help due to social interaction and instilling some discipline, but with regard to learning, benefits are unclear
  • Rarely are teachers identifying the learning gaps or difficulties of individual children and working on them – rather it is mass instruction at a standardized pace.

Indeed, though it seems difficult to accept, many things suggest that in spite of some superficial changes, education is in many ways today where medicine was decades ago. We do not really have a Science of Learning – something that we train our teachers on and teachers use to systematically determine where children are struggling and what help they need individually. Can we – will we – as a society over the next few years and decades, build this new Science of Learning that will help us understand how each child learns and help them in that process? I believe the answer is yes.


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By Sridhar Rajagopalan
Managing Director: Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd

Sridhar Rajagopalan

Sridhar Rajagopalan

President & Chief Learning Officer at Educational Initiatives
Sridhar Rajagopalan is a co-founder of Educational Initiatives and its President and Chief Learning Officer.
Sridhar Rajagopalan