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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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Are there no real alternatives?

THE SERIES of signs along the wide street go rushing past, one after the other echoing billboards across the city: they present a computer course as being the "only" alternative to Engineering and Medicine. The message hits you again and again, in newspaper advertisements, in conversations in high schools, among teachers in colleges. If you're not appearing for the engineering or medical entrance examinations, you are not doing anything worthwhile. And if you do not get into one of those, well, your only option is to do something with computers.

I am in the middle of a conversation with anxious parents of engineering hopefuls, discussing the merit of one coaching programme over another. I try to introduce the idea that this is not the only way to go. I receive cursory nods of acknowledgement, but I can see that no one is really convinced.

Despite the fact that our education landscape today is dominated by computer training institutes and coaching classes for the professional entrance examinations, I can still see hundreds of options around me that have nothing to do with any of these. This is not to deny the importance of these fields. The world needs plenty of engineers and doctors, no doubt, and IT is an important productivity tool in all fields. It's only to emphasise that the world needs many more kinds of people, and so there are many more options for students to think about. This column has for over three years been featuring many of these, and there are plenty left to talk about.

One of the reasons students get caught in this tunnel vision is that they have little exposure to the diversity of fields that one can enter. Lacking any clear direction, they tend to choose what seems the most secure in terms of getting a job. Students who fail to clear the entrance exams end up feeling as if they are second rate. The founder-director of one well-known tutorial centre says, "You cannot blame parents for wanting their children to get into engineering colleges--after all, it is one way of ensuring that they will have a secure future. In our country, economic security is guaranteed only in a few professional fields, and engineering is one of them.

"While the assurance of a steady job and the attendant economic security are partly why engineering (particularly) is the career of choice for the large majority, the other important reason is this lack of awareness of other fields. By the time they become aware of other options or discover what they really would like to do, youngsters have already had to make certain irreversible educational decisions. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, children are expected to choose subjects that will equip them to enter some fields, and exclude them from others. At this age, they can hardly be expected to understand the ramifications of those choices.

A few months ago I had written about how parents can help children develop a sense of the wide choices that are actually available. Schools too can do their bit to educate children about the different worlds of opportunity. In some schools in the United States, career awareness programmes are part of the school's activities right from kindergarten. Children are introduced to the wide variety of opportunities out there, and they also learn about many different fields from someone who has practical knowledge of the area.

This helps them understand a little better about what kinds of courses might lead them to different career paths. It's important to note that none of these programmes is prescriptive - they do not recommend one field over another.

As children grow older and reach middle school, they have a somewhat clearer idea of what they are good at and what they are interested in.

A career club in school can be a forum where they explore different areas and invite people to talk to them with a more specific focus in terms of how to prepare themselves--educationally--for different careers.

A few schools now have part time career counsellors who talk to students in senior classes about dovetailing their educational stream with their interests and career aspirations.

School counsellors and other teachers can help the children's decision-making process by infusing career information, self- interest activities, and illustrations of the relationship between work and education into daily instruction.

Career awareness programmes are not about pushing children to make decisions early in their lives.

They are about giving children the information that will help them make decisions later in life, decisions that need not be restricted to--or second-rated to--the only alternatives that the majority see on a day-to-day basis.


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