Sunday, April 11, 2010

Irked by randomness

The title of this article is inspired by the famous book 'Fooled by Randomness' by Nassim Taleb. While his focus was on the effect of randomnesss on the world economics, my focus is on a topic about 'randomness' - probability and statistics. Why, generally speaking, is probability a thorn in our student life? Why does it send shivers down our spines - be it about living through the lectures over a period of 3-6 months or appearing for the final examination? After all, the subject is so fair. It teaches us that anything is possible. As an outcome of any experiment, it only attaches a number (probability) to its occurrence. Even impossible events have a number and so have possible events! So while the subject should actually make us feel great about life, as anything can be explained with this subject, it actually scares us. Let us find out why, if we can.

I was no different and I quite disliked the subject when I was a student. Unfortunately, for me, my academic path required that one or the other day I should face it head-on and put the fear or anxiety aside. My father was a master at mathematics (and also master of mathematics), my elder brother had done quite well in the subject in school. But as we all agree, pedigree is of no great relevance in a subject like this, where either one gets it or does not. More often than not it is the latter. They tried hard to get me initiated but I must admit I was an average student in the subject then.

During my doctoral days at IIT Bombay, I was teaching assistant to my guide Prof SC Sahasrabudhe, on a course titled communication theory but was really about probability. The importance of having learned, great men around can only have the final desirable effect -albeit a little late sometimes. It was more about the clarity that my father, and later my professors had on the subject that slowly started getting the fear out of me and consequently getting fundamentals in place to start enjoying the subject.

I have now graduated to a point where I have taught this course in a business school with its application to business decision making. This life cycle of being a student first, to becoming a teaching assistant, and then eventually a teacher has achieved two things, one that it ensured I remained exposed to the subject for many years than just 1 or 2. And secondly, destiny had it that I was to be with some celebrated names in this field and eventually picked up the pieces.

The experience as a teacher was most fulfilling though. It was vindication of my belief for long. The belief was that the subject is just not introduced and taught appropriately. It takes good teachers to get the topics right and it is quite obvious that there are fewer such teachers around and then it entirely depends upon one's luck if he/she stumbles upon one or more of such in our student days.

For a start, the introduction of concepts through the toss of a coin, throw of a die or drawing of one or more cards from a card deck as mentioned every time the subject is taught is monotonic. While they may be simple experiments (with finite and small sample space) to teach the concepts, they are also a quick put-off. I have realised that the student psychology works this way. They remain interested till these experiments are mentioned. Then most of them think probability is only this and they know it alright and dis-engagement with the subject starts taking shape, to an extent where they again fail to get the concepts till they appear for another advanced or similar course a year later and same cycle repeats. This cycle ensures that they remain fearful of the subject irrespective of the number of courses they take.

Let me tell you an example of introducing a similar concept in my class. I tried to explain binomial distribution through the example of two evenly matched tennis players, Federer and Nadal and worked out the probability of one of them winning the grand slam final in 3-sets, 4-sets and 5-sets. The results themselves were interesting enough but what was good to see was the connect this example had with the students rather than an experiment of tossing a coin 10 times!

So lets look at the larger picture and let me confine to India where the problems mentioned above have been noticed. India boasts of around 500 universities, and around 20,000 colleges. India's Human Resources Development minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, who has initiated revolutionary changes to the Indian education system, mentions that in next 12 years, India needs another 600 universities and another 35,000 colleges to meet the expected economic growth in double digits of GDP.

Obviously, the kind of colleges and universities required to create next wave of graduates in India will require them to be business savvy and adept at quantitative methods and analysis. What is bothering me is this. As it is today, there is a scarcity of good teachers who can introduce these concepts innovatively and with today's examples rather than yesterdays. In a decade from now, there will be more students starving for such good teachers, their number as a percentage of total number of teachers will dwindle further. This leads me to believe that for years to come, the X factor will remain in students' psyche and we will continue to have graduates passing out who are less skilled on this most important form of science that they will use most in their later lives.

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