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Boarding up young minds

As the educational Sensex rises every year, and students score 100 in even English and social sciences, a question arises: are we dumbing down learning and is it time we de-schooled society? writes Kanti Bajpai

india Updated: Jun 04, 2006 03:33 IST

The young Indian mind is being Board-ed up.  The 12th standard Board examinations have almost become a national crisis.  Children most of all, but also their parents, relatives, friends, teachers, school administrations, the examining Boards themselves, and admitting colleges and universities are at the end of their tether.  Lest I am misunderstood, I say this as the head of a school that has produced excellent results, so no sour grapes here!

In making this broad judgment, I must confess to a sense of helplessness.  There are no villains in this story; or else we are all villains — colleges and universities, Boards, administrators, teachers, families, and students.  The problem is deeply structural.  No one wants the outcomes we are stuck with, yet, like in a Greek tragedy, we all seem to be doomed to play out our respective roles to no good end.

What is the problem?  With every passing year, the educational Sensex gets higher, and the health of higher education falls.  The Boards congratulate themselves on better results and, after a brief period of euphoria in which everyone savours the heady new percentages, educational reality sinks in.  Students who have scored in the high eighties and in the nineties are turned away from preferred courses and colleges, and colleges who have admitted the top-ranked students wake up to the fact that the students in their classrooms are not everything their marks suggest.

Why is the educational Sensex relentlessly on the rise?  First, there is the inexorable logic of supply and demand.  As India’s population grows, the number of college-bound students increases every year, outstripping the number of seats in the most prestigious colleges:  more students, the same number of seats (more or less), and rising cutoffs for admissions.  The reason we must be pessimistic is that demographic demand and educational supply show no signs of changing.  And here the government, universities and colleges, and entrepreneurs are to blame since it is they who determine how many institutions of higher learning we have.  But they are not the only ones to blame.  Students, their families, and the media have conspired to make aspiring young people feel like failures if they do not make it to the most famous institutions.

Secondly, conditioned partly by demography, the examination assessment system has become more mechanical with every passing year.  The Boards want to do the right thing:  consistency in marking, objectivity in assessment, clarity in setting questions and marking them, and so on.  They are concerned about accusations that papers are unfair.  They are desperate to avoid requests to re-check papers.  They also want to reassure students who are stressed out.  Yet the assessment system remains problematic.

What is wrong with the assessment system?  For one thing, the kinds of questions that are asked are so minute in their scope that unless a student knows the smallest detail she risks losing marks.  Even the social science and humanities paper are broken up into questions and sub-questions, often with corresponding maximum marks as low as two or five!  This encourages the most mindless approach to studying and a feverish obsession, at the same time, with marks.  Students come out of exams convulsed over a 2 or 5 mark question that they have got wrong and its impact on their overall scores.  With the margins for admissions being so fine — a very few marks one way or other could mean that you don't make the college cutoffs — there is a sickening rationality to this method of study and post-exam analysis.

It is not just the question papers though.  It is also how they are marked. The problem is not dishonesty in marking, as the conspiracy theorists constantly warn us about; indeed, quite the opposite.  It is the various Boards’ very laudable desire to ensure consistency, objectivity, and clarity in assessment.  Those who assess the papers increasingly must give marks for “substance” and “the correct answer” in the narrowest sense, with no credit for “style” and “depth”.

Take the humanities and social sciences.  English is an excellent example.  Year after year, schools with students who are brilliant English students find them doing less well than classmates who are quite ordinary or even mediocre.  Admitting colleges in Delhi have been forced to insist on an entrance test for those taking English Honours because they cannot rely on the Boards any longer.  Why do we have this topsy-turvy situation?  Quite simply because marking schemes have been so mechanically rendered and enforced that style (spelling, syntax, grammar, etc.) and depth of understanding, interpretation, and analysis scarcely play any role.

In short, we are encouraging a dumbing down of learning that is alarming.  The government and the Boards are conscious that we live in a society with profound inequalities.  Rote learning and a mechanical approach to writing and marking exams is one way of levelling out the educational playing field.  English in particular and the humanities more generally are affected by this approach because style and depth matter here more than in other fields of study.  These subjects cannot be allowed to become “elitist”, and so they must be regulated to ensure a levelling.

Contrary therefore to the triumphalist view of our educational system that we see glamourised by fame of our IITs, India's schools, colleges, and universities are in profound disarray.  The Boards are trying desperately to cope and manage, but their room for manoeuvre is small.  The government gives education very little attention except to interfere over admissions, fees, and reservations, and is doing nothing substantial to increase the number of higher education institutions.  The rest of us are not without fault:  we force our children into courses, colleges, and career paths that may not suit them, borne along uncritically by the desire to see every child become an investment banker, engineer, or doctor, as if there are no other worthy life choices.

We need a serious debate on education, one that goes way beyond reservations and the present turmoil.

(The writer is Headmaster, Doon School)