Dear Ministry of HRD, Do Lend Us An Ear

Posted on January 22, 2012 in Education

By Aravind Prasant:

Our education system is in turmoil. The past year alone has witnessed the introduction of a radical new grading policy in the CBSE board examinations, which, perhaps even more radically, were declared optional at around the same time.  Meanwhile, eight new IITs appeared out of nowhere, leading to vocal concerns about the diluting quality of the IITs. Recently, a meeting was held on the subject of major changes that seemed to be called for in the IIT-JEE, with proposals for a more subjective paper and a basic English proficiency requirement, among others.

The IITs have been under a lot of flak lately. IIT alumnus Jairam Ramesh’s controversial remark about the quality of research coming out of the educational powerhouses of our country and, more recently, the fact that not a single IIT places among the top 500 universities in the world according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2011 only serves to highlight one thing: we need to rethink.

We need to rethink on a whole new level, review our educational model, and we need to do it fast, as more and more Indians find fault with our secondary education system. The higher education system, meanwhile, is in an even more dismal state, as thousands of Indian students eagerly rush to pursue higher studies abroad, costing us a foreign exchange outflow running into $10 billion annually. To effectively tackle this quandary, we need to take a look at the very roots of discontent and address the issues many Indians have with our system, starting, most importantly, from primary school.

It is an oft-repeated statement, popularised by former Chair of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Indian Prime Minister, C. N. R. Rao, that India is said to have an examination system, not an education system. Our education system is designed from the ground up, primary school upwards, to teach students how to write exams. The inadequacies of this system cannot be stressed on enough, as is reflected in the performances of thousands of students who have gleefully bested the system. A couple of pen-and-paper examinations scattered through the year are easily tackled by various insincere methods, prime among which are last-minute cramming and cheating. This has inevitably led to the frightening grade inflation that saw the University of Delhi raise its cut-off to a numbing 100% this year. Clearly, these examinations fail utterly to assess what a student has actually learnt. If any student, irrespective of talent, can memorise a textbook and achieve ninety-odd scores on his final examinations, something is definitely wrong here.

The unreal emphasis placed on pure problem-solving skills too is a cause for worry. Today’s education system allows a student to be able to answer every question conceivable on Newton’s venerable laws of motion and yet be unable to identify quite what really makes a car move forward. Far worse, however, is the lamentable fact that not many students want to learn about it! The curiosity that doesn’t let a six-year old rest until he is satisfied with a reason why it is dark at night is somehow missing in a sixteen-year old who simply doesn’t find it worth his while to ponder how he could perhaps create a toilet flush system that uses water efficiently.

The question that naturally arises now is: what is the solution? While there is no remedy that will magically solve this multi-layered problem, there certainly are steps forward that can be taken with immediate effect.

The role of hands-on work and projects in primary school must be taken very seriously. From being dainty little exercises to satisfy the bare curriculum and a half-interested education inspector, project work and research need to become a powerful parallel stream alongside the core theory and principles learnt in class, as is done in the much-acclaimed Waldorf approach to schooling. The hands-on approach must integrate itself into the system, pushed by a reward and consequence mechanism. Much more –up to 50%– emphasis must be placed on practical evaluation. Superficial unit tests must be abandoned in favour of assessment on the basis of class work and projects. A model must be developed in which students choose their own topics for projects and do them themselves, turning to instructors only when in difficulty.

Of course, many sincere initiatives have been taken in this direction, most commendable of which are science fairs and competitions regularly organised by schools, as well as the INSPIRE programme and KVPY fellowships launched by the government. There remains, however, a world of difference between opportunities for the creatively inclined and interested, bright students and a system where every student is necessarily exposed to such a focus as an inherent part of his schooling. Doubtless, much care must be taken to not turn this into a cold, purely curricular exercise, and that would be a study unto itself.

There is also an urgent need to tackle huge, unmanageable classrooms where the only mode of teaching is a dry lecture. Large schools today have up to ten different sections each with about fifty students in a single class! This negatively impacts active students who have their enthusiasm suppressed, and only serves to keep uninterested students that way. Research shows that students learn best in small, focused classes of twenty or less in the form of an interactive discussion. This Socratic model of instruction has many merits, but it entails an immense task to implement it in a country of millions-strong children where an education itself is still a privilege. Undeniably, though, it needs to be done.

The question of breadth as against depth of study is another major issue that needs to be addressed. The path to take is one of compromise, effected successfully. But the compromise as it stands today is highly unsatisfactory in its focus on an intensive course of the sciences and a few scattered social sciences and negligence towards languages.  Unconventional courses are ignored entirely; a student who wants to learn about designing buildings or conducting surveys finds no easy path for him to take. It becomes a matter of determination for him to pursue it himself, where a little encouragement and opportunity may have worked wonders. The merits of a core curriculum are strong and must be taken seriously indeed. The case for a more elective-based system, too, is equally strong, as implemented in the popular IB system. It is an ongoing debate among pedagogs today. What is not debated is the fact that an elective system needs to play a bigger role than it does today, with many more opportunities for students to pursue fledgling interests.

These are just a few of a myriad of structural changes that can be suggested; arguably, though, these are some of the more important ones. These changes have been long called for, and as the question of education becomes an increasingly sensitive issue, the Ministry of HRD would do well to consider some of these suggestions.