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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Coaching Classes - A prisoner's dilemma this

Seeing full page advertisements of various coaching classes in newspapers reminds me of game theory and how in a classic prisoner’s dilemma, players with no collusion (tacit or otherwise) end up in way below optimal equilibrium.

The way this coaching class business works is this, advertisements are released driving home the point of how crucial even a single point is in this competitive world. Poor parents, have no option to opt in to these classes as they see their neighbors’ doing the same. They can’t be seen to be the one’s who don’t invest for their child’s future. The fact of the matter is that when everyone around you is going into these classes, a given parent has no option as his child is the one left behind then.

However, the irony is that it is not the absolute level of points scored that makes the difference but the relative level. Given that number of seats available in a given college is fixed, if the average points scored by the students increases, that makes no difference to the possibility of a student getting admission. What matters is where he lies relative to other applicants. Thus if all the students go to coaching classes for increasing their score, it makes no difference as long as the relative ranking does not alter, however if only some of them go to these coaching classes then the relative ranking changes (assuming of course that coaching classes and marks are at least slightly positively correlated) and thus a given particular parent has to enroll his/her child into a coaching class – a classic case of prisoner’s dilemma

Now you may wonder why I am singling out coaching classes. Surely this logic applies to schools also and to quite simply students studying. If all students collude and decide not to study at all, then things become quite different.

Let me clarify, I am not against coaching classes. But I am someone who believes that incremental thinking/approach taken to far leads to ridiculous situations like the one with coaching classes. Imagine a child of class X or class XII. He spends the better part of 12-14 hrs of a day in school/college, coaching classes etc. Then he further has to take practice tests. So, on an average he is doing nothing but study for 15-16 hrs a day and he is 15-16 years old! And on top of that at the end of the day, this does not put him in any greater advantage than when all the students were spending only half amount of the time. There are far better and important things for a child of that age to do than read text books, take notes and write exams. What a waste of youth this, what a waste...

However we cannot do anything about this. Every incremental hour a child spends in a coaching class can be justified and it increases his/her chances of success (success not in life but in getting admission to a better college/university). However when we compare the situation we find we are in today with what the ideal situation should or can be, we can see how far we have come and how little good all this is doing to our youth.

What’s the solution? Well, there ain’t one. May be if we have plenty of very good colleges/universities we could control the problem slightly, but I doubt it. Regulation through legislative action or otherwise would do no good and in fact raise public outcry against the action. All I can say is that I am extremely happy to not to have found my selves in that situation when I was of that age. The credit certainly goes to my parents as well, who did not want to push me into that rat race (whether by design or accident is immaterial). And I am not in too bad a position professionally to think that I lost something by not being in the top colleges!

That’s it for now….

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